Terror plot: Yemen makes movie to fight jihad
By Shashank Bengali, McClatchy Newspapers Shashank Bengali, Mcclatchy Newspapers – Mon Nov 17, 4:09 pm ET
SANAA, Yemen — Deep in Yemen's restive desert, terrorists target a family of European tourists. While the country mourns the deadly attack, an elite government force storms the killers' mountain hideout and brings them down in a hail of artillery.
Ripped from the headlines — and punched up with some nifty military heroics — this is the plot of "A Losing Bet," a new film financed by the government of Yemen that aims to educate a terror-scarred nation about the consequences of jihad.
The government of Yemen — the poorest country in the Arab world and a notorious breeding ground for Islamic extremists — says it has to improvise to fight terrorists.
Its record isn't great.
In September, a car bomb attack outside the U.S. Embassy here killed 19, and since 2006, when 23 high-profile terrorism suspects escaped from a maximum-security prison, attacks on tourists, oil facilities and government security installations have been on the rise.
"The film is part of the government's effort to show the people of Yemen the negative impact of terrorism — on the economy, on tourism, on their standard of living," said Yemen's foreign minister, Abu Bakr al Kirbi . "Hopefully, it will be watched by other countries. We need to enlighten people."
Produced for about $200,000 — expensive by local standards — the film revolves around an array of loosely connected characters: a jihadist who returns home in the hope of reuniting with his family; a university graduate who resists the pull of extremism; a jobless young man who falls prey to a charismatic al Qaida recruiter; and two girls, a Yemeni and a European tourist, whose friendship nearly ends when the visiting girl's family comes under attack.
It's undoubtedly slick, and audiences seem to love it, but critics say the film has little hope of reaching into the disaffected communities most vulnerable to terrorist ideology. Yemen has a fast-growing population, 40 percent unemployment, an economy teetering from shrinking oil supplies and tribal and religious leaders who command more authority than the government — a mixture of ills more potent than any film, critics argue.
"It's propaganda," said Murad Zafir , a former government official who now works for a nonprofit institute in Sanaa , the capital. "It's a fancy, well-funded film that some well-educated people can see, but it can't compare to the messages going out on the radio and in certain mosques."
Producers hope to air the film on Yemeni television and release it on DVD, but since premiering to a VIP crowd at Sanaa's five-star Movenpick Hotel in August, it's played only at colleges and cultural centers in major cities.
A free screening last month in a Sanaa University auditorium drew a standing-room-only crowd that found comfort in the film's broad predictability. The students giggled when jobless men were portrayed as comically lazy, snickered when bushy-bearded militants lectured dogmatically about jihad and applauded enthusiastically when Yemeni intelligence got its men in the end.
The writer-director, Fahdel al Olofi, said the story came to him after seven Spanish tourists and their two Yemeni guides were killed in a suicide bombing at a temple in Marib, east of Sanaa , in July 2007 .
Al Olofi, a producer of documentary television series, had never done a film before, but when he approached Interior Ministry officials with the idea, they were eager to help. In a surprising departure for a secretive government that tends to view the media as a nuisance, officials loaned al Olofi a military helicopter for the climactic scene and sent security experts to consult on jihadist ideology and recruiting tactics.
Mona al Asbahi , an actress who Yemenis recognize from popular TV serials and who plays a woman abandoned by her jihadist husband, said: "I would have done the movie for free. Everyone in Yemen has someone who has been affected by terrorism."
The film's release comes as some experts warn that a new, more dangerous generation of al Qaida -inspired militants could be gaining power in Yemen .
For years, Yemeni officials favored a softer approach to Qaida and other radical groups, releasing some militants while enrolling others in Islamic re-education programs, in exchange for pledges not to carry out attacks on Yemeni soil. But experts say that those agreements angered younger Yemeni extremists, including many who went to fight U.S. forces in Iraq .
Following a government raid in August that killed Hamza al Quyati , a leading al Qaida operative, an extremist group calling itself the Soldiers' Brigade of Yemen vowed to retaliate. Some experts say that foretold the U.S. Embassy bombing five weeks later, a sign that al Qaida in Yemen wasn't crippled by the death of a key figure.
Gregory Johnsen , an independent expert on Yemen , said the attack illustrated the weaknesses of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's strategy to co-opt Islamic militants.
"Saleh just has a difficult time ruling this country, so he has to play different factions against one another," Johnsen said. "There are so many different problems that Yemen has to deal with, and they don't have the resources to deal with them."
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