Looking for terrorists in all the wrong places: Sasha Baron Cohen's "Bruno" has a thing for militancy. (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
"When we were making this film we wanted to make it better than 'Borat,'" Cohen told Letterman,
and we thought, what could people see that they've never seen before on film. And we thought one thing could be a comedian interviewing a terrorist. Which I think has never been done before--for good reason. And so we showed the script, you know, the outline of the script to the studio, and they said, 'Oh, this is great. Who's going to play the terrorist?' We said no, we're going to find a real terrorist. Now, it's not that easy to find a real terrorist. In fact, your government has been looking for one for about nine years. There's no Craig's List in Beirut, for example. So, we called up a contact we had at the CIA, and said, 'Can you help us? We're looking to find a terrorist."At which point Letterman interrupted with this: "Bruno, Bruno has a contact at the CIA" (though he should have been more skeptical of anyone thinking the CIA a reliable reference, on terrorists or anything else not shadowed by incompetence). Cohen went on:
Bruno doesn't, but I knew somebody who did. And the guy at the CIA said, 'You know, we've got a lot of names of terrorists, but we have almost no addresses.' And so eventually after a few months we found somebody who actually lived in a town that had a terrorist from a pretty nasty group called the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades who kind of, they're, Number One suicide bombers out there. If you're looking for them. And he said [in a put-on accent right out of Borat's Kazakhstan rather than anything Levantine], he goes, 'yea, there is a terrorist who lives in my town.' So I said great, can we interview him, but I'm a little bit scared about reprisal attacks from the other people in your city. And he said, 'Don't worry, you know, everybody loves you, we love the Ali G show.'"As it turned out, they didn't love him, or it, quite so much. Cohen might have been better off checking his history before setting out for the West Bank. The CIA's connection, sure enough, proved a dud.
The reputed Palestinian journalist Zaki Chehab refers al Aqsa as the military wing of Fatah, the secular party once led by Yasser Arafat. There is some dispute over the rigidity of the links between Fatah and al Aqsa--a fuzziness both sides take advantage of when it comes time for plausible deniability of incidents or attacks neither wants to be officially identified with.
It is also true that the al Aqsa brigade launched suicide bombings against Israeli civilians earlier this decade, making it, by definition, at least at the time, a terrorist organization. The first female suicide bomber was a member of al Aqsa: 28-year-old Wafa Idris, who killed herself and murdered an 81-year-old Israeli man in Jerusalem on Jan. 27, 2002, during the second Intifada. Another al Aqsa bombing in Jerusalem in March that year landed the organization on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations, where it remains. (Hamas didn't launch its first suicide bomber until two years latter.)
Al Aqsa's present status is not as certain. The organization supposedly stopped launching terrorist bombers in 2005 and reached an amnesty deal with Israel in 2007 for 178 of its militants, but took responsibility for a lone bombing in 2008. Whether it was, in fact, an al-Aqsa bombing is also in dispute.
By the time Cohen made contact with an alleged member of al Aqsa, if indeed it was an Al Aqsa member, there would have been fewer reasons for the man to be hiding--only to take routine, understandable precautions, when living under Israeli martial law, to prepare for a rather large camera crew's visit (why give away the store's location?).
Needless to say, Ayman Abu Aita, the alleged "terrorist group leader" of "al aqsa martyrs brigade," as "Bruno" had it, was not amused by the stunt. He claims to have abandoned al Aqsa years ago (a plausible enough claim) and no longer to own any weapons (a slightly less plausible claim, given the Dodge City conditions in the West Bank). And he senses an opportunity: he wants to sue. But he'll have to get in line. Cohen is proud of the 200-odd lawsuits "Borat" triggered. His production bureau hasn't yet produced a census of the "Bruno" suits.
Ayman would be better off joining the Bruno publicity machine. He could play the role of reformed terrorist. Or reformed something. Either way, the terrorist-interview scene in the movie may not have been worth the trouble. But it was worth the Letterman interview.