September 13th, 2010
01:18 PM ET

Review: My trip to al-Qaeda

Editor's Note: CNN's Chris Ford takes a look at a new film about Lawrence Wright.

Author and journalist Lawrence Wright, pictured above, is the subject of a new film, “My Trip to al-Qaeda,” now playing on CNN’s sister network HBO.

Wright’s film tells a brief history of al Qaeda and how its leaders became who they are, citing their imprisonment, torture, humiliation and their general hatred of the West. It also chronicles the United States’ military engagement in the Muslim world after 9/11. He draws on his own extensive experience interviewing, studying, and interacting with both Islamic terrorists and the general population of the Muslim world. Wright gathered much of the information for the film while writing the Looming Tower, a book that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2007.

The film itself is compelling and surprisingly personal, delving deeply into Wright’s emotions and thoughts as he interacted with and pondered Islamic terrorism.

“Who am I when I’m talking to al Qaeda?” he wonders.

This personal style is anomalous to the many news reports and documentaries concerning Islamic terror that are often told from either candid or decidedly partisan points of view. Wright has explored his emotional landscape in this documentary, especially as the narration is largely from his stage play.

While many might balk at Wright’s intention of opening a dialogue of such an expansive topic with a film that’s partly autobiographical, Wright’s sincerity in his look back at his interaction with Islamic terror is real.

He recalls watching the news on 9/11 and being struck by the “infuriating perfection to the spectacle. It was like a movie.”

For him, it actually was a movie.

One of the most poignant parts of his story is the account of his guilt over an attack on a Planet Hollywood restaurant in Cape Town, South Africa after the release of the 1998 film "The Siege," a film he co-wrote about fictional Islamic terror attacks in New York. The film was the most rented film after 9/11, which Wright points out made him the “first profiteer in the War on Terror.”

The distinctive element of this film is its human component. Wright examines the human emotion involved in terror and those affected by it. Among the film’s most memorable lines is when he explains, “Muslims know that if al Qaeda comes to power, they will be the first to suffer.”

Wright highlights an important distinction among many Muslim extremists. While the majority of Muslims and indeed people prefer life over death, many Muslim extremists are the opposite.

They love death, Wright explains.

During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, a group of mujahedeen were camped in an open field in stark white tents. When a journalist remarked to them how they’d easily be seen and killed, they replied, “We came to die. We love death.”

At a time in the United States when religious tension is on the rise, Wright echoes former President George W. Bush in his sentiments about the struggle against Islamic terror.

“I suppose to me the biggest misconception is that these are Islamic extremists, these are not mainstream Muslims and with all the heated rhetoric that’s flying around in this country and others about Islam, one would get to thinking pretty soon that it’s Islam that is at war with America, which is not at all true,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “The real truth of this is al Qaeda is at war with Islam and we’re getting the spillover.”

The film, due to its subject matter, does contain some graphic images and language, but it is a stark reminder of the consequences of misunderstanding between cultures and it stresses the need for reconciliation and peace. “We must understand the human dimensions of terror,” implores Wright.

“My Trip to al-Qaeda” is a worthwhile watch for anyone interested in America’s relationship with Islamic terror and in a personal account of one man’s firsthand experience with it.

Anyone interested in a recap of the recent history of Islamic terror and America’s reaction to it can join Lawrence Wright and take a look back at the past to see how the United States as a nation has gotten to where it is today.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: 9/11 • Culture & Science • Islam

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Wistrol depot 50 mg

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    December 4, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  2. GSA

    I think I saw Iron Nick kicking tinyprofs butt, it's okay though, tinyprof will just sit there and take it and will be so enlightened afterwards, lol, JK.
    Buddhism is no different than the other religions, it has been ultra-violent, narrow-minded and all the while hid under the false pretense of non-violence and peace and love, just like Ghandi.
    If you think setting yourself on fire will get anything solved in this world then I will hand you the gasoline and matches.

    September 14, 2010 at 12:27 pm |
  3. tinyprof

    As a Buddhist and pacifist, I will only accept a total disavowal of violence. I haven't seen that. What I have seen is a lot of talking around the issue, and statements that can be interpreted variously. It's not enough. If you believe that God will punish you for having compassion for others, then your religion is not one of peace after all. If Islam is a religion of peace unless one becomes angry, impatient, insulted, disturbed, jealous, defensive, etc., and if these emotions arise in an instant, then no peace can come of it. Strong faith is not so easily riled. Pride and anger are illusions and they lead to a host of other vices that cause human beings to behave as animals. Detachment from these emotions brings inner peace first–and no need to follow commandments that allow for violence. Compassion and forgiveness eliminate the desire for revenge and destroy the delusion of honor besmirched. That is the challenge of all the Abrahamic religions, and it is what makes the message of Jesus of Nazareth so important. The commandments permitting violence may be what they are, but with forgiveness and compassion there is no need to invoke them. Unless, of course, one makes excuses in order to follow one's desires and hang the responsibility on God. That is no good.

    September 13, 2010 at 10:27 pm |
    • Iron Nick

      I could tell you why I'm a pacifist, but then I'd have to kiII you...

      September 14, 2010 at 6:50 am |
  4. Miranda

    Building an Islamic center near or on Ground Zero is like building a German cultural center in place of a concentration camp. It is wrong and most likely hurt more people around the area than bring people. AND you can't argue the point saying not all the Islamic faith was involved because I can assure you not all of Germany was involved in WWII .

    September 13, 2010 at 9:13 pm |
  5. Mark from Middle River

    Sigh ....., maybe we should just call this the Islamic belief blog.

    Or the 90% Muslim topics board.

    September 13, 2010 at 6:34 pm |
  6. John H


    September 13, 2010 at 4:12 pm |
  7. Reality

    For Mr. Wright and for new members as a reminder since many forget:

    An update (or how we are spending or how we have spent the USA taxpayers’ money to eliminate global terror, horror and aggression)

    -Operation Iraqi Freedom- The 24/7 Sunni-Shiite centuries-old blood feud currently being carried out in Iraq, US Troops killed in action, 3,481 and 924 died in non-combat, 97,172 – 106,047 Iraqi civilians killed as of 8/10/2010 mostly due the Shiite and Sunni suicide bombers.

    – Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan: US troops 1,116 killed in action, 902 killed in non-combat situations as of 08/10/2010. Over 40,000 Afghan civilians killed due to the dark-age, koranic-driven Taliban acts of horror,

    – Sa-dd-am, his sons and major he-nchmen have been deleted. Sa-dd-am's bravado about WMD was one of his major mistakes. Kuwait was saved.

    – Iran is being been contained. (beside containing the Sunni-Shiite civil war in Baghdad, that is the main reason we are in Iraq. And yes, essential oil continues to flow from the region.)

    – Libya has become almost civil. Recently Libya agreed to pay $1.5 billion to the victims of their terrorist activities. Apparently this new reality from an Islamic country has upset OBL and his “cra-zies” as they have thre-atened Libya. OBL sure is a di-sgrace to the world especially the Moslem world!!! Or is he???

    – North Korea is still u-ncivil but is contained.

    – Northern Ireland is finally at peace.

    – The Jews and Palestinians are being separated by walls. Hopefully the walls will follow the 1948 UN accords. Unfortunately the Annapolis Peace Conference was not successful. And unfortunately the recent events in Gaza has put this situation back to “squ-are one”. And this significant stupidity is driven by the mythical foundations of both religions!!!

    – Bin La-d-en has been cornered under a rock in Western Pakistan since 9/11.

    – Fa-na–tical Islam has basically been contained to the Middle East but a wall between India and Pakistan would be a plus for world peace. Ditto for a wall between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    – Timothy McVeigh was exe-cuted. Terry Nichols will follow soon.

    – Eric Ru-dolph is spending three life terms in pri-son with no par-ole.

    – Jim Jones, David Koresh, Kaczynski, the "nuns" from Rwanda, and the KKK were all dealt with and either eliminated themselves or are being punished.

    – Islamic Sudan, Dar-fur and So-malia are still terror hot spots.

    – The terror and tor-ture of Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo and Kuwait were ended by the proper application of the military forces of the USA and her freedom-loving friends. Ra-dovan Karadzic was finally captured on 7/23/08 and is charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the law of war – charges related to the 1992-1995 civil war that followed Bosnia-Herzegovina's secession from Yugoslavia.

    – And of course the bloody terror brought about the Ja-panese, Na-zis and Co-mmunists was with great difficulty eliminated by the good guys.

    September 13, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
  8. abeliever

    The real truth of this is al Qaeda is at war with Islam and we’re getting the spillover- that sums up the whole debate. very well researched and unbiased article.

    September 13, 2010 at 3:28 pm |
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.