Filmmaker Succeeds Where the U.S. Government Has Failed?

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Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Publicity Stunts, You Decide

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden, slashfilm.comThe Height of Movie Hype, Starring bin Laden
by Mike Nizza
New York Times Blog
December 5, 2007

The internet rumor mill won’t turn for just anything, and one of its latest products has several qualifications to its credit:

  • A name-brand documentary film-maker, Morgan Spurlock, is the protagonist.
  • Osama bin Laden is the subject of his next film.
  • A suspiciously high level of secrecy at a screening.
  • A grandiose quote from his cinematographer may be read as promising the impossible: “We’ve definitely got the Holy Grail.”
  • Add that up and post to a few well-read movie blogs, and out comes a slew of headlines titled “Did Morgan Spurlock Find Osama bin Laden?”

    On its face, it’s unbelievable. Why would an American filmmaker succeed where the United States government has failed? Then again, why not? John Miller of ABC News interviewed Al Qaeda’s chief in 1998.

    Time to take a deep breath and examine the elements of the rumor. Richard Adams of Britain’s Guardian newspaper explains why both are “pretty flimsy:”

    Signing non-disclosure agreements for preview screenings is not uncommon. And the quote by Marracino dates back to a July piece in Variety, which makes the context less exciting:

    “We’ve definitely got the Holy Grail,” avers Spurlock’s New York-based director of photography on the project, Daniel Marracino. “Visually, this film is just going to be gorgeous.”

    What remains is something less extraordinary: An ambitious director with a movie in need of hype as it heads to the Sundance film festival in January.

    While we’re on the subject of finding Mr. bin Laden, it seems worth including an excellent description of where intelligence officials believe he is hiding, from a 2004 New Yorker article by Seymour Hersh:

    “We’ve got to get Osama bin Laden, and we know where he is,” the former senior intelligence official said. Osama bin Laden is “communicating through sigint”—talking on satellite telephones and the like—“and his wings have been clipped. He’s in his own Alamo in northern Pakistan. It’s a natural progress—whittling down alternative locations and then targeting him. This is not, in theory, a ‘Let’s go and hope’ kind of thing. They’ve seen what they think is him.” But the former official added that there were reasons to be cautious about such reports, especially given that bin Laden hasn’t been seen for so long. Bin Laden would stand out because of his height; he is six feet five. But the target area is adjacent to Swat Valley, which is populated by a tribe of exceptionally tall people.

    Two former C.I.A. operatives with firsthand knowledge of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas said that the American assault, if it did take place, would confront enormous logistical problems. “It’s impenetrable,” said Robert Baer, who visited the Hindu Kush area in the early nineties, before he was assigned to lead the C.I.A.’s anti-Saddam operations in northern Iraq. “There are no roads, and you can’t get armor up there. This is where Alexander the Great lost an entire division. The Russians didn’t even bother to go up there. Everybody’s got a gun. That area is worse than Iraq.” Milton Bearden, who ran the C.I.A.’s operations in Afghanistan during the war with the Soviet Union, recounted, “I’ve been all through there. The Pashtun population in that belt has lived there longer than almost any other ethnic group has lived anywhere on earth.”

    In September of 2002, Yosri Fouda of Al Jazeera was told that he was chosen to interview the chief plotters of 9/11 — Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh — because Mr. bin Laden was a fan of his show.

    Whether Super Size Me, Mr. Spurlock’s documentary on obesity in America, holds similar allure for the Al Qaeda chief, though, remains to be seen.

    Photo: Slashfilm.com

    Related links:

  • First Look: Morgan Spurlock’s Where In The World is Osama Bin Laden? Slashfilm.com, December 2, 2007
  • Did Morgan Spurlock find Osama bin Laden?, MSNBC News Services. December 5, 2007