Robert Baer, the ex-CIA operative upon whom George Clooney’s “Syriana” character was fashioned, is the narrator and central figure in “The Cult of the Suicide Bomber,” a docu that aims to explain the tactic, as practiced in the Middle East. Benefiting from a remarkable array of interviewees, this thoughtful, incisive, controversial docu, which already aired on Australian TV, bowed June 2 at Gotham’s Cinema Village.
One of the few agents based in Lebanon to escape the 1983 attack by a suicide bomber on the American Embassy, Baer took it as his mission to find out who was responsible and why. He traces the origins of such bombings to Iran, to a 13-year-old soldier who sacrificed himself to blow up a tank. Baer subsequently points to the Ayatollah Khomeini as the man who provided the idea for the cult. By reimagining the Iran-Iraq War as a re-enactment of an ancient religious massacre that consecrated its Shiite victims as holy martyrs headed to paradise, Khomeini gave soldiers a reason to go into battle welcoming death.
Baer travels to Lebanon, where suicide bombing was practiced by members of Hezbollah on invading Israeli troops. The case is made that the huge disparity of firepower between the invading Israelis and the Lebanese army, and the large number of casualties among Lebanese civilians made suicide bombing one of the few effective logistical weapons available.
Baer argues that these were not terrorists, but ordinary soldiers, and wonders whether we would judge them differently if they had dropped bombs on the Israelis from the sky rather than blowing them up on the ground.
He observes that the event that launched suicide bombings inside Israel was perpetrated not by a Palestinian but by an Israeli settler who in 1994 opened fire in a Hebron mosque, killing 29 worshippers and injuring more than 100.
He singles out Palestinian Yahya Ayyash, mastermind of suicide bombings of Israeli buses, as the man responsible for changing this weapon of war into a weapon of terror. Present-day footage in the Occupied Territories of parades featuring children festooned with fake sticks of dynamite, and omnipresent posters of youthful martyrs testify to the widespread belief that suicide is the only heroic act of resistance left.
Baer pinpoints the 2005 London bombings, carried out by a homegrown group, as the birth of a new brand of terror dependent on no particular cadre, training or cause.
Baer fearlessly strides through bombing hot spots across the globe, venturing confidently into Iranian anti-American rallies, Hamas-controlled neighborhoods or Hezbollah headquarters, as archival footage of past devastation in each location counterpoints current tensions. As he sips coffee with a member of the Israeli Special Forces or sits down on a couch with a Muslim martyr’s mother, he never evades a question or dodges a controversy.
Pic’s theorizing is likely to inspire dissent from both left and right. Baer’s views on the Occupied Territories are unlikely to please hardline supporters of Israel, and his vision of Iran as a breeding ground for terrorists could be perceived as warmongering at a time when President Bush seems poised for attack.
Production values are those of a superior TV news special.