American Sniper’s crucial arc

I finally went to see American Sniper a couple of weeks ago. It was OK. Possibly it had been spoiled for me by the ceaseless debate about what it all meant. Whether it was pro or anti-war. Pro-America or anti. That sort of stuff.

In fact, as this rather excellent review in the New York Review of Books points out (subscription), it painted a more complex picture than its critics were prepared to allow. Sure, it didn’t give too much of an insight into Iraqi life. But it was a film about an American sniper. And in doing that it captured something crucially important about the development of that American sniper, and thus the war more broadly. Take this exchange when a psychiatrist asks Chris Kyle whether he had done things didn’t want to do….

“Oh, that’s not me, no. No, Sir, I’m not worried about that. I am willing to meet my Creator and answer for every shot I took.”

These lines are also simple and direct, but Cooper’s voice is weak, close to breaking, and the look on his face betrays bleak fear and doubt. With these two scenes and a few others the arc of the film is established, from the gung-ho enthusiasm of young men eager to go forth and kick ass for the greatest country in the world, to the half-strangled confusion of men who have suffered and killed for reasons that slip away like water in sand.

(One other brief point. I have started reading the NYRB recently. Many of its reviews are of books that are months – if not years – old. How much better than the instanalysis we are subjected to everywhere else.)


I prefer Brooklyn’s royal couple


So another royal visit. This time Charles and Camilla. Cue a load of articles in the British media about how the US loves our Royal Family. I’m not entirely convinced, given the not-very-scientific sample of chatter coming from the seats behind me during the Brooklyn Nets game attended by Wills and Kate last year.

There was no sign of the royal couple for the first half, much to the fury of the people behind me. In fact they only took their seats midway through the third quarter. Worse followed, when they were immediately attended to by a couple of waiters bearing oversize cartons of popcorn on silver platters. And then the rather pithy put-down from the seats behind…

“Not even Jay-Z and Beyonce get treatment like that… and they’ve earned it.”

Which I suspect is a little unfair on all the hard work done by Kate’s mum Carole, but you get the point. And I wonder if that sort of attitude rather explains why Pippa is struggling to get a deal…

Death of the guitar…


Lots to like in Kim Gordon’s new memoir. As a regular consumer of Britain’s music magazines throughout the 1980s and 1990s one paragraph made me chuckle out loud…

In England, people had been loudly proclaiming the death of the guitar and the birth of the synthesiser, but Sonic Youth and other American guitar bands started to create a buzz.

Now that takes me back…

The making of Jihadi John

Astute piece on the making of Jihadi John by my friend Amil Khan. He rightly – in my view – points out that the lure of al-Qaeda is not in its ideology per se, more in its ability to mould injustices, local grievances and conflicts to its own agenda, providing a ready-made set of solutions to young men whether they are growing up in northern Nigeria or west London.

The result is that if you have a problem with the status quo—with the world you see around you—al Qaeda, and now Islamic State, provide you with a ready-made practical ideology, supported by soldiers confident in their ability to scare their enemy. Other anti-establishment forces such as the anti-globalisation movement are unable to match the broad-based appeal or the battlefield-earned credentials—and for many youth, the thrill—of Islamist extremism.

It is also a reminder of how our own society seems to lack any of the organising ideologies that once offered us certainty – for good or ill.

2009: Al-Qaeda’s Western plots


I’ve spent the past couple of weeks covering the trial of Abid Naseer, a Pakistani student convicted of plotting to bomb Manchester’s Arndale Centre. I interviewed his father almost five years ago in Pakistan. The feeling there was that he – and his nine friends – were being discriminated against for nothing more than being Pakistanis in Britain. After all, they were never charged in the UK.

The evidence laid out during the trial suggested otherwise.

The prosecution laid out a story that suggested Naseer was a very highly regarded al-Qaeda operative, trained by Rashid Rauf, for a plot that stretched all the way to Osama bin Laden himself.

But there were holes in the prosecution. They had next to no evidence about what Naseer had been up to in Pakistan during a crucial visit home in 2008 nor any evidence that he had actually met Rauf.

Naseer’s downfall, however, was the undeniable fact that he was emailing an al-Qaeda handler who was also in touch with two other cells – in New York and in Oslo. The diagram above, which I sketched in court, suggests the structure of the plots and how they were connected.

Where I won’t be going on Paddy’s Day…

So I’ve had several a decade of slightly inauthentic Paddy’s Day experiences. It wasn’t easy, what with living in Nairobi and Islamabad.

There was the time Begley and I drove across Mumbai to find what we thought to be the city’s sole Irish bar, only to find none of the staff understood the significance of the date. And of course there was no Guinness.

One time I had to make do with ouzo, but that’s a long story.

Thankfully, I never had to stoop so low as attend The British Club in Islamabad, which without the slightest hint of shame would put on a Paddy’s Day party.

Anyway, now I’m New York things will be easier. Although it brings other risks. I don’t want my Guinness dyed green thank you very much. Nor will I be going to Jose O’Shea’s…


How Pakistan deals with Americans trying to join the Taliban…


There was a revealing moment in the testimony of Zarein Ahmedzay last week in the trial of Abid Naseer. No-one else in the Brooklyn courthouse paid it much heed. But it gave this former Pakistan correspondent an opportunity for a wry smile.

Ahmedzay was one of three young American Muslims – two of Pakistani and Afghan extraction and one of Bosnian origin – who travelled to Peshawar with hopes of joining the Taliban. From there they set off to drive to Afghanistan but are stopped by police.

There’s a problem.

One of the men Adis Medunjanin can’t answer the officers’ questions for he speaks no Urdu or Pashto. To make matters worse, he shows them his US passport. Zarein tries to tell the officers they are merely tourists and that he is Adil’s translator.

This is August 2008. And the officers sense they are on to something big. Peshawar is something of a hub for foreign fighters joining the insurgent groups based along the border with Afghanistan. So of course they arrest the three on suspicion of being American spies…

They are told they are being taken to the local police chief. Ahmedzay tries to come clean…

“I told them that I was not an interpreter and Adil was not a spy. Adis started to recite the Koran, so they knew he wasn’t a kafir [unbeliever].”

Say this in front of the police chief, they are advised. When they do, they are promptly released.

Shortly thereafter they are recruited by al-Qaeda and two years later they were all arrested for their part in a plot to bomb the New York Subway.