Suroosh Alvi Knows Terrorism Is Alive And Well
In new show, Vice co-founder chats with notorious militants
by DAVID AXE
In 2016, America’s war on terror turned 15 years old. Now, Suroosh Alvi has found terrorism is alive and well despite interventions, drone strikes and commando raids.
In October 2016, the the co-founder of Vice magazine presented the first episode of his new series, Terror. In each segment, the Pakistani-Canadian journalist and filmmaker and his team travel the world to chat with notorious militants.
After six episodes aired, War Is Boring got a chance to talk with Alvi about his experiences.
Terror appears on the Viceland Canada T.V. network Tuesdays at 9:00 p.m. You can also find the episodes online.
WIB: You cover a lot of geography in this series but none of the conflicts are particularly new. What did you hope to learn that you didn’t already know?
S.A.: As the “war on terror” has continued, so has the brutality exhibited by these different groups. I wanted to get a deeper understanding of this evolution of darkness.
What is the connective tissue that exists between the groups, the similarities, parallels, etc., beyond just being “Sunni-based Islamic radicals” with the goal of implementing Sharia law or establishing a caliphate? Why do they do what they do? Where does all this anger and pain come from?
I had a cursory understanding of the history and motivations of these groups, I knew that they didn’t appear overnight, but I wanted to dig deeper. What impact did local governments, western powers, and U.S. foreign policy specifically play in contributing to their evolution?
The goal was to make an evergreen series that could answer some of these questions.
WIB: Logistically, what was the biggest challenge?
S.A.: On paper, the idea of doing Terror seemed pretty straightforward, but on the ground it was extremely challenging, and nightmarish at times. We wanted to meet all the players involved, including members of these groups. That didn’t always happen. You’re dealing with lots of paranoia and fear and there’s obviously the risk factor, so the challenge was getting in and out of these places safely and smoothly, with our crew intact and stories in tow. Overall we accomplished what we set out to do, except for the ISIS guys who just shot at us. They made Al Qaeda look civilized.
WIB: Did you struggle to find good fixers? Can you highlight some of the work your fixers did behind the scenes?
S.A.: The fixer in Pakistan was terrible. I’d worked with him before on a different shoot and he delivered, but over the last few years he seems to have gotten really lazy. I almost felt like he was actively sabotaging us at times. In Iraq our fixers were amazing. They got us out of multiple awful situations. The fixer we used in Yemen was excellent. It was actually the first time he’d worked with a foreign crew and he was the guy that convinced Al Qaeda to guarantee us safe passage, and for them to not reneg on that promise. That was impressive work.
WIB: To what extent did local bureaucracy help or hurt your production?
S.A.: Nigerian bureaucracy is brutal. The army shut us down multiple times and eventually deported us from Maiduguri back to Abuja. It’s the fastest I’ve ever made it through airport security. I know how to navigate my way around Pakistani bureaucracy quite well but on this shoot the ISI [the Inter-Services Intelligence agency] started tracking us and threatened to arrest our crew members and generally bummed us out and threw us off our game. The Somalis were cool and cooperative.
WIB: You came under fire a few times. You coping with that okay?
S.A.: I’m coping fine, thanks, but I have no interest in getting shot at again.
I’m not an active combat-zone reporter, though I have been in a bunch of volatile zones over the years. For the Terror shoot in Iraq, I had been in the country for only 24 hours when the ISIS sniper incident happened. We were just getting comfortable and acclimatizing ourselves with the environment. We went to a site where a Shia militia had been fighting with ISIS, a Japanese and French crew had been in the days before so we were told it was going to basically be a dog and pony show, but it was not. It was terrifying.
WIB: What steps did you take to protect your sources — including on-camera interviewees — who are themselves terrorists or other militants?
S.A.: We take this stuff very seriously. When someone doesn’t want to show their face or give their name we don’t blow their cover.
WIB: What’s the most important thing you hope your viewers will learn?
S.A.: The war on terror has created a Frankenstein and the world has been become binary.