Norway journo gets under the skin of Al-Qaeda fighters

One is a devout and cheery Saudi, the other a British convert overcome by doubt, the third a Syrian fascinated by the promise of 72 virgins: a new documentary unveils the shadowy world of Syria's would-be suicide bombers.

Norway journo gets under the skin of Al-Qaeda fighters
A screenshot from 'Dugma, the Button'. Photo: Paul Refsdal/Journeyman Pictures/YouTube
In a rare, in-depth look at the Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, the 58-minute documentary 'Dugma, the Button' reveals the convictions and doubts of those ready to become martyrs — “the precision weaponry of the poor,” in the words of the filmmaker, Norwegian journalist Pal Refsdal.
The film follows the three future suicide bombers as they wait for their missions, without any commentary. See an extended trailer here:
“When I get close to the target, I'll pull the safety switch, the first one… and I'll keep driving until I'm a few metres away from the target, and then I'll pull the other safety switch,” says Abu Qaswara, sitting at the wheel of a lorry loaded with explosives, covered in makeshift armour so it looks like something out of road movie 'Mad Max'.
“This is the button. This is Dugma. I'll press it… and with Allah's permission I'll send them all to hell,” he says with a disconcerting smile.
Aged 32 when the documentary was shot and father of a little girl he's never seen, the Saudi national arrived in Syria two years earlier. He's on “the list” of volunteers ready to blow themselves up to take out a Syrian army position.
The wait is usually a long one, between one and two years, according to Refsdal who spent more than six weeks with the men at the end of 2014 and in mid-2015 in northwestern Syria.
The Al-Nusra Front is parsimonious with its use of suicide bombers, according to Refsdal.
“Several weeks can go by in between two operations,” he told AFP in an interview in Oslo.
“They're not like IS [the Islamic State group, which they are also fighting which sends car bombs one after the other with very young drivers dying en masse,” he added.
While waiting for a target to be selected — always strictly military, according to Refsdal — the candidates for martyrdom go about the daily routines that are part of a messy and never-ending war. At the risk of being overcome by doubt.
'Relaxed' kamikazes
Born Catholic to a British mother and an American father who worked in Hollywood — Patrick Kinney worked on 'Braveheart', 'Indiana Jones' and 'Rambo II' — Lucas Kinney, who goes by the name Abu Basir al-Britani (“the Briton”), sees his convictions falter after his young wife gets pregnant.
“Now I can't do that to my family,” he admits, his voice cracking with emotion.
There are also moments of levity and humour, such as when the Syrian, who goes by the pseudonym “Abu Ljaman”, asks where the speedometer is on the armoured vehicle that Abu Qaswara is teaching him to drive.
“You're on your way to martyrdom. Are you really going to worry about speeding?,” the Saudi asks him incredulously.
Abu Ljaman also gets gently chided when he makes a second reference to the 72 virgins promised in the afterlife.
“I was surprised by the ease of relations with them, by their relaxed side,” said Refsdal, who converted to Islam while being held by Afghanistan's Taliban in 2009.
“If I hadn't known they were Al-Qaeda, I would never have guessed based on my gut feeling alone,” he said.
But does his documentary, filmed after the Al-Nusra Front gave him free access, not risk giving a grandstand to members of what many countries consider to be a “terrorist” organisation?
“I understand that there may be people who disagree with it in principle and argue that Al-Qaeda attacked New York in 2001, Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, Paris and Charlie Hebdo,” he said.
“But the film isn't trying to tell people what to think, it's just depicting their daily lives and then it's up to people to think what they want after having seen it,” he added.
The Norwegian intelligence service PST had no problem with his time spent with the suicide bombers.
“What's illegal is to support and participate in the Al-Nusra Front or IS,” PST spokesman Martin Bernsen told AFP.
“Making a documentary about them can not be considered as providing support or participation,” he said.
Sold to at least four television channels, “Dugma, the Button” will air on Norwegian television in early March.


‘I can’t go back’: Syrian refugees in Denmark face limbo after status revoked

Bilal Alkale's family is among the hundred or so Syrian refugees in Denmark whose lives are on hold amid an insufferable legal limbo -- their temporary residency permits have been revoked but they can't be deported. Now, they have no rights.

Syrian refugee Bilal Alkale and his daughter Rawan at their home in Lundby, Denmark on November 17th 2021. 
Syrian refugee Bilal Alkale and his daughter Rawan at their home in Lundby, Denmark on November 17th 2021. Photo: Thibault Savary / AFP

Alkale, who until recently ran his own small transportation company in Denmark, found out in March he wasn’t allowed to stay in the Scandinavian country where he has lived as a refugee since 2014, as Copenhagen now considers it safe for Syrians to return to Damascus.

His wife and three of his four children were also affected by the decision taken by Danish authorities.

Once the ruling was confirmed on appeal in late September — like 40 percent of some 200 other cases examined so far — Alkale and his family were ordered to leave.

READ ALSO: Danish refugee board overturns decisions to send home Syrians

They were told that if they didn’t go voluntarily, they would be placed in a detention centre.

The family has refused to leave.

Normally they would have been deported by now, but since Copenhagen has no diplomatic relations with Damascus, they can’t be. And so they wait.

Days and weeks go by without any news from the authorities.

In the meantime, the family has been stripped of their rights in Denmark.

Alkale can’t sleep, his eyes riveted on his phone as he keeps checking his messages.

“What will become of me now?” the 51-year-old asks.

“Everything is off. The kids aren’t going to school, and I don’t have work,” he says, the despair visible on his weary face as he sits in the living room of the home he refurbished himself in the small village of Lundby, an hour-and-a-half’s drive south of Copenhagen.

“All this so people will get annoyed enough to leave Denmark.”

For him, returning to Syria means certain death.  

“I can’t go back, I’m wanted,” he tells AFP.

And yet, he has no way to earn a living here.

“As a foreigner staying illegally in Denmark, your rights are very limited,” notes his lawyer Niels-Erik Hansen, who has applied for new residency permits for the family.

In mid-2020, Denmark became the first European Union country to re-examine the cases of about 500 Syrians from Damascus, which is under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, saying “the current situation in Damascus is no longer such as to justify a residence permit or the extension of a residence permit”. 

The decision was later widened to include the neighbouring region of Rif Dimashq.

Despite a wave of Danish and international criticism, the Social Democratic government — which has pursued one of Europe’s toughest immigration policies — has refused to budge.


The Alkale family is considering leaving for another European country, even though they risk being sent back to Denmark. 

Alkale’s oldest child was already over the age of 18 when they arrived in Denmark and therefore has her own residency permit, currently under review.

Of the three other children, only the youngest, 10-year-old Rawan, still has the carefree ways of a child.

Majed, 14, says he’s “bummed”, while Said, 17, who was studying to prepare for professional chef school, says he now has no idea what his future holds.

Only a handful of Syrians have so far been placed in detention centres, regularly criticised for poor sanitary conditions.

Asmaa al-Natour and her husband Omar are among the few.

They live in the Sjælsmark camp, a former army barracks surrounded by barbed wire and run by the prisons system since late October.

“This centre should disappear, it’s not good for humans, or even for animals. There are even rats,” says al-Natour.


 The couple, who have two sons aged 21 and 25, arrived in Denmark in 2014.

“My husband and I opened a shop selling Arabic products, it was going well. Then I decided to resume my studies, but now everything has just stopped,” says al-Natour, who “just wants to get (her) life back.” 

“Going back to Syria means going to prison, or even death, since we’re opposed to Bashar al-Assad. He’s a criminal.”

Niels-Erik Hansen, who also represents this couple, says his clients are being “held hostage by the Danish authorities.”

The government is trying “to spread the message that ‘in Denmark, we almost deport to Syria’,” he says.

Amnesty International recently criticised Syrian security forces’ use of violence against dozens of refugees who returned home.

Danish authorities meanwhile insist it’s safe for Syrians to go back.

“If you aren’t personally persecuted … there haven’t been acts of war in Damascus for several years now. And that is why it is possible for some to go back,” the government’s spokesman for migration, Rasmus Stoklund, tells AFP.

Some 35,500 Syrians currently live in Denmark, more than half of whom arrived in 2015, according to official statistics.