It may be one of the best films of the year; it’s certainly turning into one of the most controversial. But in some respects, it is also the most perplexing. Woe betide those who go to see Zero Dark Thirty without being properly briefed. A passing interest in the CIA and the hunt for Osama bin Laden will not make it easy on the eye, or the ear.
The screenplay of Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-nominated film assumes people know about counter-terrorism. And Maya, the main character, is an obsessive, whose relentless search for the al-Qaida leader doesn’t include pausing for explanations. Names and acronyms fly at viewers faster than a Black Hawk helicopter, so stragglers could be easily left behind. For non-military types, and those too shy to ask, here is a glossary of some of the terms that might make the film a tad more comprehensible.
Zero Dark Thirty
The title is a good place to start. Zero Dark Thirty isn’t the name of the operation to find Bin Laden, nor is it actually mentioned anywhere in the film. It isn’t a term that is unique to the special forces units that found the al-Qaida leader hiding in Pakistan. Zero Dark Thirty is military slang, used across the services, by British and American soldiers, to describe a time after darkness has fallen. Zero Dark Thirty is night-time. Some soldiers say it refers to 12.30am, but others insist this is not true. The phrase, it seems, doesn’t refer to any single point, just night-time. When it is pitch black, dark.
The Saudi group
The film starts with a reference to the Saudi group, and immediately focuses on the tribulations of a prisoner, Ammar. It is not clear whether Ammar is a Saudi, or which group is being referred to. Confusingly for experts on Middle East construction firms, Saudi Group is the name of a vast building business in the kingdom, but this is a red herring. The group here is probably the number of detainees in CIA custody, such as Ammar, who are being interrogated, and tortured, for information leading to the whereabouts of the man who is known to them as the “emir”. Bin Laden was a Saudi, but his closest associates were not all fellow countrymen.
These were secret locations where bad things tended to happen – places that US government agencies used to transport, detain, and interrogate detainees. Their use was authorised in the days after the 9/11 attacks as hubs for prisoners accused of terrorist involvement. They were also handy stopover sites for suspects who were being transported, kidnapped really, under the extraordinary rendition programme coordinated by the CIA. For years their existence was rumoured, but denied. President Bush was forced into an admission in 2006, but only after the media began to publish details of black sites around the world. Poland and Romania are known to have hosted black sites, and some campaigners say 17 ships were also used for the same purposes.
A decade ago, when everyone became an armchair general in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, most people had heard of the Tora Bora. But it’s been a long time since the invasion of Afghanistan. For those of us with poor memories and worse geography, Tora Bora is the complex of caves in eastern Afghanistan where it was thought Bin Laden was hiding. Back then, there was speculation that al-Qaida had created a James Bond villain’s lair, hewn from the rock. The range was a fortress, apparently. Apparently not. Despite relentless special forces operations, very few al-Qaida supporters were found in the caves, and the caves themselves were just, well, caves.
The initials do not stand for a Dutch airline. That’s KLM. The CIA officers in Zero Dark Thirty keep referring to KSM – Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He is regarded as the mastermind of the 9/11 plot, and one of Bin Laden’s most trusted and senior lieutenants. KSM was captured in Pakistan in 2003 and taken to the Guantánamo Bay detention centre three years later. In the meantime, he was waterboarded 183 times as the CIA pressed him for information about the al-Qaida network. A man who graduated at an American university, he is currently facing charges relating to his involvement in 9/11 that are being heard by a military tribunal.
This is another of the acronyms used repeatedly during the film. The ISI is Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, a powerful part of the country’s military machine. It is MI5 with hobnailed boots on, and has the word “shadowy” as an almost permanent prefix. World leaders, including David Cameron, have questioned the loyalties of the ISI, and claimed that it appears to be both a supporter of terrorist groups, as well as the agency responsible for keeping them in check. The ISI has been accused of funding and training the Taliban in Afghanistan. Many commentators said have said it is inconceivable that the ISI didn’t know Bin Laden was living in Pakistan. But as Maya suggests, would Bin Laden really have trusted the ISI to have kept such a secret? And would he have felt safer or more vulnerable if the ISI had known his whereabouts?
Abu Faraj al-Libi
He is another senior member of al-Qaida who features in the film, albeit briefly (a character played, incidentally, by an Israeli actor, Yoav Levi). Faraj al-Libi was captured in 2005 and is still in US custody. He is alleged to be Bin Laden’s number three, who knows the identity of Abu Ahmed, the courier who has become the focus of Maya’s obsessional search for OBL. But unless I missed something, he doesn’t tell the CIA anything. So why he is in the film at all is a bit of a mystery.
Yes, that really is him. “T” makes an appearance in Zero Dark Thirty. Not as a ruthless Italian mafioso from New Jersey, but as a ruthless CIA boss who is only referred to as “the director”. The character played by Soprano, AKA James Gandolfini, is a thinly disguised portrayal of Leon Panetta, who was director of the CIA at the time Bin Laden was found. Gandolfini was slightly abashed by his performance, and admitted writing to Panetta to apologise. “I sent a note to Leon saying, ‘I’m very sorry about everything,” he told reporters. “The wig, everything. You’re kind of like my father. You’ll find something to be angry about’.”
Area 51, south Nevada
This place actually exists. It is part of the vast test and training range in the south Nevada desert. Without giving too much away, it is the place in the film where Maya tells some rather sceptical special force troops that Bin Laden has been found. She hopes. The helicopters they are to use on the mission are based at Area 51. They ain’t just any old helicopters either. Though it remains one of the most secret military installations in America, the CIA has acknowledged operating there, and it is thought to have been a test site for military aircraft, such as the U-2 spy plane, and the stealth fighter.
This means operations security, and it is something the military is obsessed by, understandably. Op-sec is the protection, encryption, and removal of any information that might unwittingly lead an operation to be compromised, and/or anticipated by an enemy. Piecemeal identification of a target, or a plan, is often a concern. Journalists who go on visits to Afghanistan embedded with the military have to agree to have their stories cleared by op-sec before they are published. The MoD won’t ask you to remove criticisms of the campaign, but it will demand the removal of any material that might be handy to the Taliban. That could be something as basic as saying when a flight leaves.
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