Embedded with a unit of the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, Norwegian director Paul S. Refsdal filmed "martyrdom seekers" waiting to go on a suicide mission. He tells DW about his intimate documentary.
Deutsche Welle: How did you enter the group of so-called martyrdom seekers in Syria for your documentary "Dugma - The Button"?
Paul S. Refsdal: In summer 2014, I met up with one media representative of Nusra [Eds. Al-Nusra Front, a Sunni Islamist militia also known as Al-Qaeda in Syria], and he said I should write an application.
I prepared a good piece of paper. I told them about my previous journalistic work. I told them about the Osama bin Laden list: A few years ago, a Norwegian journalist called me and said that I was on the list of approved journalists that had been sent to Osama bin Laden. I thought he was joking with me.
But it was true, and I've seen the original paper. It was from the responsible of media in Al-Qaeda - he's been killed now by an American drone strike. He sent a letter to bin Laden, and he had some suggestions about the 10-year anniversary of the attacks. He said that there were some journalists they should provide information to, and he said that in Europe, there's this Norwegian journalist who stayed with the Taliban and who filmed them and showed them as normal people, eating, laughing, etc. So that was my endorsement.
And when I spoke to Nusra, Al Qaeda in Syria, they said that I am on the list of approved journalists from Al Qaeda still, so… But they also said that if there is a journalist who really wants to go with them, he can apply, and they will consider it, whether he is a Muslim or not.
I also described the project, you know, the target group of my film. And I told them the target group of this film is non-Muslims and Muslims who do not sympathise with you. And I described what I wanted in general, that I wanted to stay for a long time with a small group of low-level operatives, and I wanted to show the daily life they had.
At the end of the summer, when I was leaving actually, I got an answer, saying "you've been approved."
Your original intention was not to make a film about suicide bombers…
I knew there were some things I wanted in the film: I should follow low-level fighters, not commanders, I wanted to stay with them a long time, and it should be one group, and they should have some kind of purpose, a mission. Then when I was there the first time, I asked: "What about those seeking martyrdom, could I meet one of them just to talk with him?"
I was connected with this Saudi man, and he was just so different from what I thought I would meet. I thought I would meet some young guy, a little bit fanatic, without any attachment to life. And then I met this guy, he was so likeable. He had kids, he has a daughter he never met, he can sing really well - his voice is just beautiful. And he just loves food. He could never get enough fried chicken. So I met him, and he was supposed to do the operation just after I left, so I prepared something like a report about him, just to put out when he had done the operation.
But when I got back in the next summer, he was still there. And the British man I had interviewed on my first trip - a white typical British guy who converted to Islam - he also said that he wanted to do a martyrdom operation. So I thought maybe I should start to follow the people on the list [Eds. of people ready to go on a suicide mission]. And that's what I ended up doing.
Refsdal filming a British convert, who goes under the name of Abu Basir: He applied for a suicide mission
What do you know about this list?
It's a long list. There's a lot of people who want to do it, but the Nusra don't use this operation frequently. It can be many weeks between the times they do these operations. So I guess the list is getting longer and longer.
One of the Syrians I interviewed for the film, Abu Ali, told me that he put his name on the list, but he discovered that there were about 50 people in front of him, so he decided he should get married instead of waiting for his turn.
He was already preparing to get married when I was filming him. In one sequence, he is talking with the others about flowers for his fiancée, because he wants to pick some roses to bring to his fiancée, but he finds the flowers there very ugly. At the same time, they are waiting for their order to drive a truck with 10 tons of explosives to the military frontline and blow themselves up. It's like a parallel world in a way.
There was also a lot of humour in the group, sarcasm even?
When they talk about "Islamic State," there are a lot of jokes. The policy of "Islamic State" is totally different [Eds. compared to Nusra's]. They use these young guys as cannon fodder. They just send them one after the other with explosives.
So there were several jokes about them, for example, they would say, if someone from "Islamic State" wants to make a hole into the wall of his house, he will just send in a suicide bomber. They don't really respect "Islamic State," and they have a reason not to respect it. "Islamic State" is pouring out these young kids.
In Nusra, as I said, they have a different policy. Every operation is planned in detail, the one who is going to do the bombing is supposed to look at the target, to see it himself, to know the place and to make sure that it is not a civilian location.
There is a lot of effort that goes into these operations, that's why they are so different. And that's why in Nusra you have maybe 50 people on the list, waiting, and maybe one operation every month or every two weeks, for instance.
You converted to Islam when you were kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan while filming a documentary with them in 2009.
They gave me four options. Number one: a ransom. At that time they asked for $500,000, which I negotiated down to 20,000. The second option was a prisoner exchange, which of course was totally impossible. The third option was to convert to Islam, and the fourth was that they would cut my head off. But I had already been considering converting - although maybe that timing was not the best. Or maybe it was. Anyway, I converted at that time, and I'm still a practicing Muslim.
You never re-converted?
For me, a promise is a promise. If you make a promise to God, you follow it. There are many ways to be a Muslim, not only the "Islamic State" way. I think people who convert to Islam will always keep their personality with them. I grew up in a liberal, tolerant society. I will not go around criticising everyone for eating with the left hand or being homosexual. What people do is their thing, really.
Paul Refsdal, 52, is a freelance journalist who has specialized over the last three decades in covering world conflicts. His film "Dugma - The Button" is shown at the Hot Docs international documentary festival, taking place in Toronto from April 28 to May 8, 2016.