It’s doubtful that any professional filmmaker is better equipped than ex-CIA agent Robert Baer to inform us about the history, sociology, and psychology behind suicide bombing. Baer, whose memoir inspired Syriana, resigned from the CIA in 1997 to become a writer, after two decades as one of the agency’s best on-the-field officers. Long critical of American foreign policy, his current policy fuck-up of choice is our too-cozy relationship with the reprehensible Saudi regime. Refreshing in a media saturated by ill-informed, Ann Coulter-ish commentary, Baer takes a generally neutral stance in the fascinating and disturbing Cult of the Suicide Bomber.
Returning to Iran, Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon, Baer pieces together the stories behind a handful of bombings, beginning with that of 13-year-old Hossein Fahmideh, the world’s first such bomber, and ending with the 2005 London bombings. Baer weaves his own recollections, interviews with would-be bombers and families of successful bombers, and riveting video footage of actual bombings. The result is more than an attempt at unraveling the mystery behind the “martyrs”; Cult is a kaleidoscope of the West’s worst post-9/11 nightmares.
The film, which first appeared on Aussie TV, is purely expository, but its lack of artfulness doesn’t matter; this is vastly important stuff. And Baer is the perfect tour guide — informed, sobering, and never judgmental. In 96 minutes, he trumps our TV talking heads and everything we’ve learned from them since 9/11. Whatever bit of success we gain in Iraq aside, one gets a distinct sense here that suicide bombing is too popular — indeed, too cultish — to stop. Though he recommends revamping our intelligence system, Baer isn’t here to solve the problem. Sadly, one also gets the sense that Washington wouldn’t listen to him anyway.