WASHINGTON, Feb. 9, 2016 – HBO’s documentary “Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma” is a must-watch as much for the small, revealing moments as for the big picture.
Director Greg Barker and author Peter Bergen deliver a confusing, conflicting and messy look at terrorism and counter-terrorism, and that it what makes it brilliant. The mixed emotions from all sides of the problem reflect the cold hard reality of tracking terrorists — it’s not pretty, it’s not easy, and it haunts all parties involved.
The documentary is poignant because it tells the counter-terror story from people it touches most closely.
The family of Ehsanul Sadequee, sentenced to 17 years in federal prison for material support for terrorism, shares photos of him as a child and tells about Sadequee as a boy, a man and a person. His stoic sisters hold back tears and anger when they talk about how their 19-year-old brother was kidnapped on the streets of Bangladesh as he prepared for his wedding and was then held in solitary confinement for more than two years while awaiting trial. They admit he communicated with known terrorists but, they say, he never committed a single act of violence.
The sisters are emotional and eloquent, and cannot understand how the U.S. government could believe their scholar brother was a terrorist.
It also follows Nadar Hasan, the cousin of convicted in the Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, who forms a friendship with the daughter of one of the victims of the shooting and works against extremist violence. Viewers see Nadar Hasan and his family and listen to his accounts of growing up with Nidal Hasan. They hear how he came under suspicion after the shootings because of his relationship with Nidal, and how he struggles in the aftermath of the shooting.
Perhaps most interesting, however, are the interviews with former U.S. officials Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd. Liepman was deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, and Mudd was both deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and responsible for adding an intelligence component to the FBI.
Both Liepman and Mudd convey the delicate, difficult task of hunting terrorists and keeping America safe. At one point, Liepman discusses one of the most difficult decisions officials have to make regarding terrorists, which is when to move in. There is always a balancing act of letting potential terrorists on the street in order to collect enough information to make sure it is correct and that the government has identified co-conspirators while at the same time taking them off the street before they kill innocent people. Liepman notes you do not want to move in too soon, or you can “leave people on the street” who can revive a terrorist plot.
Mudd explains that for analysts, it is not about the politics or the emotions, but always about the facts. He says that he deals in facts, and that is what motivates his decisions.
Yet at times, Mudd is clearly haunted by the decisions he has made, and frequently fights back tears. He notes that “you need to be corrupted…to carry out predator strikes” and admits you wonder if you targeted the right person.
Mudd, who is no stranger to controversy, makes several bold statements in the documentary. At one point, admitting that his view is not popular, he says he does not believe the shooting by Hasan was terrorism. He goes back to his point about analysis, and says he does not see a political motivation for Hasan’s shootings. Instead, he sees it as an act by a mentally unstable person.
Both Mudd and Leipman give a dose of reality on terrorism, which will also almost certainly draw criticism. Mudd candidly says that terrorism has a “miniscule to near-zero impact” on the lives of Americans. Liepman says, “You could argue there are a lot more dangerous things than terrorism: cancer, obesity, gun violence. But that doesn’t capture America’s imagination as much as the threat from ISIS.”
When talking about the Sadequee case, Mudd exhibits his dismay. He said that while watching Sadequee become increasingly involved with radical jihadists, “…you cannot let this proceed,” Mudd then shakes his head and says, “But at the same time, this is someone who is 18 years old…“You almost want to pick up the phone and say, ‘Son, don’t do this!’”
Sadequee’s family visibly struggles with the picture painted by the government, unable to see their brother and son as a terrorist supporter. Sonali, Sadequee’s older sister, narrates his story. She is shown without a head scarf, marching in a gay pride parade, and talking to her mother and sister about memories of her brother. The family consistently notes that Sadequee committed no violent acts, never picked up a weapon.
The end of the film shows Mudd inviting the Sadequee family to his Memphis home. Sonali, her sister and her mother go to the house, although they clearly question their own motivations. Mudd welcomes them and invites them to discuss the case.
In response to a question from Sadequee’s mother, Mudd — again fighting back tears — sadly concedes that the arrest ruined her son’s dreams of having a family. He provides no additional explanation. However, he also says he firmly believes Sadequee was prepared to commit violence in the name of radical Islam.
Finally, Mudd asks the family to switch places with him. Knowing what he knew, what would they do?
“Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma” is uncomfortable because it is real. There are no neatly wrapped up endings or clear answers. And that is its beauty.
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