The film portrays facts and events that are familiar from the U.S. State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism publications which are the country’s only continuous database on international terrorism. In 2004 Patterns of Global Terrorism reports were replaced by Country Reports on Terrorism.

Terrorists aim at receiving media coverage for their acts. As Elise Kraft says in the film, “They want everyone watching."

When seeing media helicopters hovering over a bombing target, a school, agent Hubbard takes matters into his own hands and prevents the bomb explosion and therefore the terrorists’ goal of receiving media coverage for the destruction of their attack.

The destruction of the FBI Counterterrorism Task Force building in the film is not far from what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, suspected mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, originally planned. His targets included, for example, the CIA and FBI Headquarters in addition to the targets that were hit on September 11, 2001.

The bombing of an FBI building in the film kills some 600 people.

The images from the film's bombing site eerily resemble what TV viewers saw less than three years later in real life.

The Siege is an exceptional Hollywood film because it provides the terrorists with a backstory. The fundamentalist Islamic cleric and his followers were supported and financed by the CIA to destabilize Saddam Hussein, but the CIA left the group behind unprotected when U.S. interests in the area changed.

Samir Nazhde (Sami Bouajila), the film’s last terror cell in New York City, was part of a CIA covert operation during the first Persian Gulf War. In Elise Kraft, his CIA’s handler’s words, “He risked his life for us.”

Today Osama bin Laden is on the FBI’s most wanted list. The film’s terrorists have similar motives as bin Laden: hatred for the U.S. But unlike bin Laden, the film’s terrorists do not have political goals. In the 1990s the State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism reports referred to “Usama bin Ladin” several times, finally in 1997 having a short separate section about him. In future years the information expanded more and more to explain his involvement in international terrorist threats against the U.S. and around the world.

In the 1990s international terrorists, especially Osama bin Laden and his group al Qaeda, started to aim at mass casualties and were looking to acquire weapons of mass destruction against the U.S. True Lies (1994) portrays terrorists who target the U.S. with nuclear weapons.

The film’s terrorists, ex-US allies, had learned how to make bombs from their CIA trainer, Elise Kraft.

In the film a religious washing of the body translates into a new terrorist attack.

While both in real life in 2001 and in the film the terrorists had historical ties to the CIA, the film was behind the times when presenting small attacks, such as a bomb attack on a bus, as the terrorists’ methods against the U.S..

Modern international terrorism
and the United States

The Siege feels contemporary because it has a plot that relies on a familiar version of that both the U.S. foreign policy agenda and news headlines regularly articulate. The federal government has been collecting and publishing statistical data on international terrorism since 1968, generally considered the starting year of modern international terrorism due to the July 23, 1968, hijacking of an Israeli airliner by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). According to Bruce Hoffman (1998) in Inside Terrorism, this event marked the first notable time when terrorists crossed international borders to commit an attack for political purposes while targeting innocent civilians in foreign countries, and they aimed to gain international media coverage while spreading fear and alarm in the world.

During the first decade of modern international terrorism, spectacular media-attention-grabbing terrorist events with destructive power focused on the Middle East and Western Europe. It was not until 1979 when Iranian students took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran that international terrorism became a visible topic on the U.S. foreign policy agenda, in the U.S. news media and in public consciousness (Evans, 1979; Stohl, 1988), and soon after, also on the big screen. Since the 1980s the U.S. Department of State has been in charge of data collection on international terrorism, as well as of the publication of the data as annual Patterns of Global Terrorism documents, as U.S. legislation requires (Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1995, 1996). In 2004 the reports were replaced by Country Reports on Terrorism, which include data collected by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). The department maintains the country’s only continuous statistical database on international terrorism. I use this data here to indicate the official U.S. interpretation of terrorism.

News media also play a central role in creating public understanding of terrorism. When modern international terrorism emerged in the late 1960s, the news media and reporters were crucial sources of information, indeed the only sources of information on the topic, other than governmental. Academics held back from doing research on the subject for fear that their work would be interpreted as supporting the perpetrators of terrorist acts (Wieviorka, 1995). In fact, we have seen such name-calling, with terms such as “un-American and “unpatriotic,” in post-9/11 United States of those who question some of the methods of national policy on fighting global terrorism, especially U.S. policies in Iraq, which have only more recently become unpopular with the U.S. public. These methods are echoed in the film. When agent Hubbard in The Siege questions General Devereaux’s extreme counterterrorism methods and the implementation of martial law which erode civil liberties and terrorize citizens, the General angrily responds

“Are you questioning my patriotism?”

Furthermore, in real life an erosion of civil rights, including spying on the country’s own citizens and residents and even using torture as a method of questioning of terror suspects, has become part of U.S. post-9/11 reality without much resistance from the public.

True to modern terrorism and the way it is communicated in our time, The Siege's narrative depicts the news media as the public's main source of information about terrorism. Only at the end of the film do the citizens of New York City become part of the story as actors when they react against the government action of detaining Arab-Americans and implementing martial law. With different ethnic and religious groups united, they protest against terrorism and extreme government actions. The film further uses the news media for exposition, and it even mentions news coverage as a specific goal of modern terrorism, as has been the case of modern international terrorism since its emergence in the late 1960s. When news helicopters arrive at a public bus that Arab terrorists on a suicide mission have taken over, the film’s female CIA operative cries out,

"They are not here to negotiate. They were waiting for the cameras. They want everyone watching."

Throughout the film, the film’s terrorists seek media attention.

Real terrorist threats versus
reel terrorist threats

The Siege's screenwriters did their homework well. The film comes quite close to the State Department’s definitions of international terrorism. The script makes terrorism a complicated phenomenon of international relations that has historical similarities to world politics. The film's terrorism fits the State Department’s definitions of international terrorism, as described in Patterns of Global Terrorism publications. Foreign nationals are threatening the security of the U.S. and U.S. citizens, and the terrorists are crossing international borders to perform politically motivated attacks, though the film only vaguely addresses the group’s political motivations beyond portraying their attacks as a revenge mission. Several facts from the State Department documents on international terrorism appear in the film itself. These include, for example, a $2 million reward for leads (in 1999 moved up to $5 million), the cell structure of modern terrorist organizations, as well as a list of the possible countries behind the film’s attacks, that is, Libya, Iran, Iraq and Syria, each of them familiar from the State Department’s list of the state sponsors of terrorism.

The film’s attacks are reminiscent of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which was an act of domestic terrorism. Just as in 1995, a van bomb in the film destroys a federal building, in this case it destroys the headquarters of the FBI Counterterrorism Task Force, killing some six hundred people. The film’s terrorists bring terror into New York City, just as Islamic fundamentalists had tried to do in the early 1990s. At that time, six U.S. citizens were killed when fundamentalist Islamic terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993. The goal of the bomb’s planter, Ramzi Ahmad Yousef, had been to kill at least a quarter million people. According to the State Department, the World Trade Center suspects had links to those who had been arrested the previous year and whose targets had included, for example, the United Nations building, and the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels. Their motivation for fighting an urban “holy war” drew from the extremists’ view that the U.S. is an enemy of Islam (Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1994, 1995; Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1995, 1996; The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004).

The Siege provides its foreign terrorists with a backstory. That backstory draws on the first Persian Gulf War, combined with the U.S. 1980s experience with Afghan mujahideen fighters. We find out in exposition that the terrorist group’s leader, Sheik Ahmed bin Talal (played by Ahmed Ben Larby), is a radical fundamentalist Muslim cleric whom the U.S. supported and financed during a two-year U.S. operation to destabilize Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein with the help of the cleric and his followers. That group in Iraq was trained by the CIA. However, the U.S. left the group behind after the end of the Persian Gulf War after which many of the group’s members were slaughtered. These events reflect real-life CIA and Saudi aid to Afghan fighters against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and subsequent U.S. indifference to the area after Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of the Cold War (Jentleson, 2004; The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004). The film also portrays some events that were historically realized later in 2001; for example, in the film the suicide bomber who sets off a bomb in the bus came here from Germany on a student visa, which was later to be true of some of the 9/11 hijackers.

Other true historical events from the 1990s form part of the film's backstory. As part of the first Persian Gulf War, the Bush administration brought U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia, the holy land of Islam, where the troops stayed after the end of the war. This did not sit well with Islamic fundamentalists, including Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network, which had grown out of the veterans of the Saudi- and CIA-backed mujahideen fighters from Afghanistan, although according to The 9/11 Commission Report (2004) while the Saudi and U.S. aid to Afghan fighters was worth billions of dollars, Osama bin Laden and his group received little or no U.S. funding. Osama bin Laden’s response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait had been an offer to the Saudi monarchy to call for a jihad and fight Iraq and defend Saudi Arabia with his mujahideen fighters. Saudi Arabia refused the offer, and instead joined the U.S.-led international coalition (The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004).

Bin Laden vocalized his opposition to allowing U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia. According to Ahmad (1998/2004), bin Laden was a U.S. ally until 1990 when U.S. military forces as the first foreign military forces entered Saudi Arabia and never left. For bin Laden and his group, the United States became the target of a new jihad. Ahmad (1998/2004) argues that it is important to note that bin Laden’s code of ethics is determined by his background. Discussing bin Laden, Ahmad points out,

"…he comes from a tribal people. Being a millionaire doesn’t matter. His code of ethics is tribal. The tribal code of ethics consists of two words: loyalty and revenge. You are my friend. You keep your word. I am loyal to you. You break your word, I go on my path of revenge. For him, America has broken its word. The loyal friend has betrayed him. Now they’re going to go for you" (Ahmad, 1998/2004: p. 51).

Furthermore, for the mujahideen group, it was not new to take on a super power. In their view they had succeeded in driving the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. Now it was time to turn on another powerful enemy.

Paralleling historical events, the film’s plot has the Sheik and his followers turn against their old ally after the U.S. leaves them behind forgotten and unprotected when U.S policy interests change. They go on their path of revenge against their ex-ally who, in their view, has betrayed them. This becomes central to the group's motivation after the abduction of their cleric, whom the film’s General Devereaux considered a threat to the U.S. At first even the FBI/NYPD counterterrorism taskforce does not know that the U.S. has the cleric, and is baffled by a faxed demand that only spells, “Release him.”

The terrorist villain most developed as a character in The Siege, Samir Nazhde (played by Sami Bouajila), teaches Arab Studies at Brooklyn College. His backstory, as given in exposition in the film, draws from real-life events, that is, from the intifadah, the Palestinian uprising in the occupied areas in Israel (Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1992, 1993), during which he spent two years in jail. He became a U.S. ally, being part of a CIA covert operation in Iraq, run by Elise Kraft (played by Annette Bening). In her words,

“He risked his life for us.”

Kraft is Samir Nazhde’s handler but also compromised as a character. She has a sexual relationship with him in order to support him in his work and thus to receive information. She is indeed a tainted woman who sleeps around professionally. She tells to agent Hubbard that “I’m not fucking with you,” when she is trying to convince him that she is not hiding any information but giving the facts as she has them. Agent Hubbard’s terse response to her is,

“How could you possibly remember who you are fucking?”

The script gives Samir Nazhde a certain amount of sympathetic dialogue. He tells how his brother became a suicide bomber because the youth could no longer tolerate living in a refugee camp. The brother was promised that he'd live in paradise with seventy virgins and that his parents would be taken care of after his death. Bitter, Samir relates,

“Living in a camp, my brother needs to believe it very much.”

And so the brother blew up a movie theater in Tel Aviv. I indicate these lines because it is exceptional for a Hollywood action-adventure film, especially for one that draws on Middle Eastern terrorism, to provide the film’s antagonist with a backstory or any human feelings other than insanity or vengeance. Furthermore, the film also provides the villain’s brother, a suicide bomber who is not even portrayed in the film, with a backstory, describing the despair of living in inhuman conditions, even if just briefly.

However, even with the inclusion of such moments, the film's script largely draws the terrorists' motivation as vengeance, with a touch of religious fundamentalism, while not explaining any of their political goals. While fundamentalist Islam serves as a motivation for the attacks, the film does a poor job of portraying a religiously motivated terrorist who would actually practice his religion. This kind of script development, in fact, parallels the way news media coverage of international terrorism is structured. In the United States, the news mentions religion when terrorists come from the Middle East and when that religion is Islam but otherwise rarely touches the topic, as should be the case, for example, in portrayals of Northern Ireland where religion is an important part of the complex construction of the area’s terrorism. Furthermore, the way the script fails to explain the group’s political or social objectives also parallels news media portrayals of terrorism, which focus on the act, not on the motivation nor the political nor social context of terrorism (Falkenrath, 2001; Picard, 1993; Herman & O’Sullivan, 1989). While The Siege relies on the action-adventure film genre traditions when not exploring or presenting the villain’s motivations, the news media have no excuse for their poor coverage of the phenomenon of terrorism.

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