What connects Al Qaeda to the Pentagon’s Entertainment Liaison Offices? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is Ali Mohamed – the triple agent who was Al Qaeda’s main terrorist trainer. This week we look at two films and a documentary to illustrate these connections and examine how they were influenced by the Pentagon’s propaganda machine.
Escape from New York
As we looked at in the Ali Mohamed episode, shortly after 9/11 Ali was offering to help track down Bin Laden, having apparently switched his loyalty from Al Qaeda to the US government. Delta Force commander Pete Blaber was one of very people to talk to Ali around this time, and in his book The Men, The Mission and Me he recounts what happened. Blaber’s account strange thing to read – it comes across like a self-help book, but it’s written by a former special forces commando.
Blaber says that Ali promised that he could find Bin Laden, that he knew exactly which areas of the Afghan-Pak border region where Bin Laden was likely to be hiding. Had the US been especially interested in capturing Osama at this time then they could have done a lot worse than to employ a man who was experienced in the region, could speak some of the languages, could find his way around, and knew Bin Laden personally for a number of years. But as Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said in April 2002, ‘the goal has never been to get Bin Laden’. A couple of years later in January 2005, the CIA’s departing executive director Buzzy Krongard said, ‘You can make the argument that we’re better off with him [at large]. Because if something happens to bin Laden, you might find a lot of people vying for his position and demonstrating how macho they are by unleashing a stream of terror.” The Times reported that, ‘Several US officials have privately admitted that it may be better to keep bin Laden pinned down on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan rather than make him a martyr or put him on trial.’
Presumably this is why Ali Mohamed was never employed to help in the hunt for Osama – because at least some of the security apparatus wasn’t actually trying to catch him, no matter what the White House said. Nonetheless, Blaber and some of his colleagues did consider the possibility, and dreamt up various scenarios whereby they could deploy Ali to help with the manhunt.
One of these involved the ‘Escape from New York scenario’. Now, given that some of you will have never seen the film and most of you may not remember it very well, let’s recap. A white female terrorist who is some kind of anarchist or radical leftist, hijacks Air Force One. She crashes the plane into a skyscraper in lower Manhattan, trying to kill the President, who is on board. Shortly before the crash the President is ejected in a safety pod, and lands on Manhattan island. Unfortunately, the whole island has been converted into a massive, maximum-security prison where all the nation’s criminals are placed so they are removed from polite society. The president is now stranded inside this massive prison so the government send in Snake Plissken – Kurt Russell, in his most badass role among many badass roles – to rescue the President. He does this by paragliding onto the roof of the WTC and apparently running down over a hundred flights of stairs in a few minutes before starting the search. I never said the film was realistic, though it is very entertaining.
Before they send Plissken into the giant prison they come up with an insurance policy:
According to Blaber, they considered doing the same with Ali Mohamed – injecting or implanting some kind of capsule that would enable them to limit the potential damage he could do if he was tricking them into setting him free. Obviously this plan was never carried out, but the parallels are quite startling. A suicide crash of a massive jetliner into lower Manhattan leads to a plan to send a former special forces soldier turned rogue, criminal agent into a dangerous territory to help with a manhunt of critical importance. You can see why Blaber and his colleagues came up with this idea.
What does all this have to do with the Entertainment Liaison Offices? Well, Escape from New York received support from the military. In the credits they thanked the US Army Reserve and the Missouri National Guard, and they filmed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tuscon, Arizona. This where the famous aeroplane boneyard is located – you’ll have seen pictures of the massive rows of old aircraft lined up in the desert. It appears these scenes were cut out of Escape from New York, but nonetheless they will have had to go through the ELO process, the script review process, to get access and DOD support.
Now, while I don’t know what changes the DOD made to the script, it is a strange film for them to have supported. The military play no role in the story – Plissken is sent into Manhattan by the chief of police, though the police are quite militarised in the film. Our hero is very cynical about the government and authority in general, so I’m really not sure what PR or recruitment or propaganda value the DOD saw in Escape from New York. Those of you who have seen the film, or are now downloading it so you can watch it after listening to this – let me know your thoughts.
Black Hawk Down
The second example I want to talk about is Black Hawk Down – the film based on Mark Bowden’s book about the 1993 battle of Mogadishu. Without getting into all the background of the US and UN involvement in Somalia and the ongoing civil war there, essentially this was a fight between US Special Forces soldiers and militiamen loyal to Mohammed Farrah Aidid.
While a successful rescue operation was launched and the battle only lasted a couple of days, it led to the military cancelling Operation Gothic Serpent – the mission to capture Aidid, and ultimately to the US and UN withdrawing from Somalia. Some historians of Al Qaeda claim that this withdrawal emboldened Bin Laden and made him realise how vulnerable the US military was. However, it was another three years before he moved back to Afghanistan, issued a fatwa declaring war on the US and set up the Yemen communication hub.
Nonetheless, Al Qaeda were involved with some of the militias in Somalia who were loyal to Aidid. I’ll quote from an ABC news article written for the 20th anniversary of the battle:
The 9/11 Commission disclosed that the CIA did not learn until 1997 that bin Laden had sent top military experts to Somalia almost a year before the Black Hawk Down battle to aid Aideed.
Al Qaeda military chief Mohammed Atef, an Egyptian known as “Abu Hafs,” was sent by bin Laden to Mogadishu, where he offered to help Aideed fight U.S. and U.N. forces, according to FBI files. In 1998, after two U.S. embassies were struck by suicide bombers in Kenya and Tanzania, the FBI interviewed Al Qaeda operative Mohammad Sadiq Odeh in Nairobi, who admitted he was among the men al Qaeda shura council member Saif el Adel — also a former Egyptian military officer — had ordered to Somalia before the attack on the Rangers and Delta operators.
“Odeh stated that his mission in Somalia was to train some of the tribes fighting and to provide food and money,” FBI Agent Dan Coleman wrote in a report then.
Coleman also interviewed an active-duty U.S. soldier, Army Sgt. Ali Mohamed, a Special Forces Middle East expert at Fort Bragg who later pled guilty to scouting the U.S. embassies for bin Laden before they were bombed, in addition to training al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan.
“Mohamed also advised that he was in Somalia during the United States intervention overseas and knew that bin Laden’s people were responsible for the killing of United States soldiers in Somalia,” Coleman reported back to the FBI in 1998.
Exactly what Ali was doing in Somalia isn’t clear, though it’s possible, even likely, that he helped train some of these militiamen. Perhaps unsurprisingly, very little of this made it into Bowden’s book and none of this made it into the film. Bowden didn’t accord Al Qaeda much significance in the events on the ground and perhaps he’s right about that, but it’s no surprise a Pentagon-sponsored Hollywood movie simplified everything, and excluded this element entirely.
However, it doesn’t appear to be the result of Pentagon script influence. They did change the name of Ewan McGregor’s character because in real life he was a child rapist. They also removed a scene where some of these soldiers shoot a wild boar. As far as I know they had little influence on the geopolitical background to the story, but that was watered down to almost nothing in the film anyway.
That was a clip from Gorilla Radio, a show I was on recently, where they were talking with David Robb, the author of Operation Hollywood, a precursor to National Security Cinema. They raise an interesting point – that even anti-war films can act as recruitment tools for the military.
In the case study of Black Hawk Down in National Security Cinema we compared the film to the original book and showed how Bowden’s book is much more critical of the US intervention in Somalia, and by implication of similar interventions all over the world. None of this made it into the film, as Bowden’s own screenplay adaptation was rewritten. Nonetheless, the film retains the basic story of a Special Forces operation gone bad – not unlike Lone Survivor. Just telling these stories, where regimented military purpose descends into chaos, violence and death, is somewhat anti-war, or at least critical of war. If we compare these two to, say, Captain Phillips we can see quite a difference in tone – Captain Phillips is basically a story of military triumph, not military fuck up.
So we should bear this in mind when approaching entertainment propaganda – that these films are open to the interpretations of different people in the audience, and that what some people might read as an anti-war mentality might inspire others to sign up and join the military.
National Geographic’s Triple Cross
The 2006 National Geographic documentary Triple Cross is the only big mainstream documentary on Ali Mohamed. It is ultimately a punch-pulling softball piece of film that avoids almost all of the controversial questions and portrays the whole thing as one evil Muslim spy who bamboozled the dodgy adminstrations that make up US intelligence.
However, they were denied military support. An entry in the liaison office reports from June 2006 reads:
“Ali Muhammed.” Declined a request to film USASOC facilities for a National Geographic program about terrorists. The producer wanted footage to tell the Ali Muhammed story.
So the filmmakers wanted to shoot footage at US Special Operations Command facilities but were declined. Now, the liaison office regularly grants requests for access to such facilities – Fort Bragg features quite regularly in TV broadcasts of varying kinds. Likewise, the Army regularly works with National Geographic, they seem to have a good relationship. So why did they turn down this request?
No reason is given, but the fact that the liaison office report notes that National Geographic were making a film about the Ali Mohamed story suggests they anticipated this, and rejected it because of the overall subject matter, rather than any specific content within the documentary. It also shows that the Ali Mohamed story is, or at least was, well known within the Army’s entertainment liaison office.
We could look at other examples that relate to this topic such as Charlie Wilson’s War and United 93, but I’ve written about those and discussed them at some length before so if you want to understand more about the full gamut of the connections between Al Qaeda and the liaison offices then you can find those on the site.
So what does all this add up to? Well, in the National Geographic case I think it shows how the military will not encourage the industry to make products based on stories they don’t want people to know about. Where it isn’t possible to rewrite the story to make the military look good, they simply refuse to support the project. With Black Hawk Down I think we have a strong example of a story they did want told, but in the usual contextless, uncontroversial manner. While it is a very well executed film there is something a moral chasm at the heart of the movie precisely because it doesn’t consider anything wider than the events themselves. And with Escape from New York we have a camp, high-grade B-movie that weirdly predicted 9/11 and was taken a bit too seriously by some Special Forces guys. Once again – the military watch this stuff, they’re big consumers of entertainment culture and it has an influence on them, particularly on their grip on reality.