Filmed over two years in Yemen, The Oath is an extraordinary portrait of Nasser al-Bahri, who adopted the nom de guerre Abu Jandal when he worked as Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard and as the “Emir of Hospitality” at an Al Qaeda guesthouse in Kabul, Afghanistan. Abu Jandal, a taxi driver in Yemen as the film opens, is the central protagonist. But The Oath has another presence, a ghostly one that haunts Abu Jandal and hangs over the U.S. efforts to conduct military commissions in the wake of 9/11. It is that of Abu Jandal’s brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, who was recruited by Abu Jandal, became bin Laden’s driver and was later captured and sent to Guantánamo Bay Prison.
The Oath tells a story layered with contradiction, irony and tragedy. Abu Jandal met Salim Hamdan in 1996 while recruiting men to join him for jihad in Tajikistan. A Yemeni orphan with a fourth-grade education, Hamdan was drawn to the charismatic Abu Jandal and to the promise of work and friendship. On their way to Tajikistan, the pair traveled through Afghanistan, where they visited Osama bin Laden, who had just arrived in Afghanistan after being expelled from the Sudan. In 1999, at the instruction of bin Laden, Abu Jandal and Hamdan married two Yemeni sisters and became brothers-in-law.
According to Abu Jandal and other witnesses, Hamdan was only a driver for bin Laden, lured by a $200 per month salary, while Abu Jandal pledge an oath of loyalty to bin Laden. At the heart of The Oath is this contradictory outcome of the War on Terror: Abu Jandal, the firebrand ideologue and former fighter, is free to roam the streets of Yemen, while Hamdan, the driver, is locked away in Guantánamo. More astoundingly, Hamdan becomes plaintiff in the landmark 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, making worldwide headlines for striking down the constitutional authority of the president to create military commissions without consulting Congress. As The Oath begins, a new set of military commissions has been drafted, and Hamdan becomes the first person to stand trial for war crimes at Guantánamo.
Hamdan was still with bin Laden when the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001 and when the United States invaded Afghanistan the following month. Hamdan was captured in November 2001 and sent to Guantánamo. Meanwhile, Abu Jandal, imprisoned in the wake of the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, was in jail in Yemen on Sept. 11, 2001 and was interrogated by the FBI six days after the attack. The two-week FBI interrogation of Abu Jandal, conducted after he had been read Miranda rights and without the use of torture, was considered so important that the start of the war in Afghanistan was delayed so that the interrogation could be completed first. According to FBI interrogator Ali Soufan, when Abu Jandal heard of 9/11, he said, “The sheikh [bin Laden] has gone crazy.”
All of which leaves Abu Jandal in conflict: One minute he defends 9/11 as a blow against America, and the next he carefully explains his dissent from tactics targeting civilians. Especially in conversations with young Muslim men, Abu Jandal pushes the limits of his agreement with the Yemeni government as far as he dares. He argues that he has moved on to jihad by other means, as a writer and teacher, yet he is well aware that others see him as a traitor. There have even been threats to assassinate him from the new generation of Al Qaeda.
Listening to Abu Jandal explain himself may prove the most fascinating yet difficult part of The Oath for American audiences. He is clear-eyed, sincere, idealistic and even charismatic. He is a fanatic, certainly, and can’t help being an indoctrinator in jihad ideology, even when dealing with his young son, who would rather sleep or watch cartoons. But he isn’t mad. He has a well thought-out, if extreme, view of religion, of the world and of what he sees as an inevitable war between Islamic purity and the American empire.
Meanwhile, Hamdan’s trial before the military commission at Guantánamo unfolds. Hamdan’s U.S. military attorney, Lt. Commander Brian Mizer, is convinced of his innocence and also believes that the military commissions have “fundamental flaws” in fairness and legality. The prosecution’s case depends on the idea that a driver for bin Laden must have been a significant figure in Al Qaeda. The press, unconvinced, wonders why the government picked such a low-level figure for its first trial, and Hamdan himself writes, “I would like the law, I would like justice. Nothing else.”
Against expectations, the military commission clears Hamdan of conspiracy to commit terrorism while finding him guilty of five charges of providing material support to a terrorist organization. Furthermore, the commission sentences him to time served plus five months. (Hamdan was released — after being held by the United States for a total of seven years — and was reunited with his family in Yemen in January 2009. He has since refused any contact with the media.) Abu Jandal, meanwhile, has lost his taxi and faces an uncertain future.
“Originally, my idea was to make a film about someone released from Guantánamo and returning home,” says director Poitras. “In May 2007, I traveled to Yemen and that’s when I met Abu Jandal, who was driving a taxi. I wasn’t looking to make a film about Al Qaeda, but the story changed when I met Abu Jandal. Themes of betrayal, guilt, loyalty, family and absence are not typically things that come to mind when we imagine a film about Al Qaeda and Guantánamo. Despite the dangers of telling this story, it compelled me.
“The Oath is the second documentary in a trilogy I am working on about America post 9/11,” Poitras continues. “The first film, My Country, My Country, tells the story of the U.S. occupation of Iraq from the perspective of an Iraqi doctor. In each film, my goal has been to understand these world events through the stories of the people living them. The world will be grappling with the twin tragedies of 9/11 and America’s reaction to the attack for generations to come. The Oath is an effort to document and shine light on this historical moment.”
The Oath is a co-production of Praxis Films and the Independent television Service (ITVS) in association with American Documentary | POV.