Bin Laden: The Road to 9/11

Benjie Goodhart / 02 September 2021

As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, a new Channel 4 documentary offers a sobering look at the radicalisation of Osama Bin Laden.



Bin Laden: The Road to 9/11, 1/3, Monday 6th September, 9pm, Channel 4

Regular readers of this column (which, for all I know, may be my mum, my editor, and someone whose accidentally bookmarked this page and doesn’t know how to move away from it) will know that its general tone is one of levity. The world is a complex and serious enough place, and telly is frequently a daft enough medium that it warrants a few jokes.

Not this week, though. This week I’m pulling on my big boy pants and donning my serious hat, because I’m writing about Osama Bin Laden and about black representation on TV, and if you make jokes about that sort of stuff, you’ll pretty quickly find you’re getting angry tweets (from my mum and my editor, at least) and maybe even a P45 through the post. So strap yourselves in, we’re being grown-ups this week.

This new three-part documentary series examines the life and legacy of Osama Bin Laden. It is highly prescient, not just because of the impending 20th anniversary of 9/11, but also because of the unutterable mess we’ve just left behind in Afghanistan. It is also an absolutely fascinating study in radicalisation, and a sobering look at how one man, with a horrible idea, a smattering of charisma, and a whole heap of money, can change the world.

Khaled Batarfi is a rather jovial, engaging Saudi fellow with a twinkle in his eye. He was also a childhood friend of a boy called Osama. The pair liked listening to music, watching westerns, and playing football – apparently Osama was an enthusiastic footballer, albeit not very good. In a telling moment, Batarfi recalls an opponent fronting up to the young Bin Laden, whereupon he (Batarfi) shoved the aggressor. Bin Laden chastised him, saying that he was on the point of resolving the situation peacefully.

The young Osama was the 17th of Muhammed Bin Laden’s 54 children. Muhammed was killed in a plane crash when his son was 9, and the boy was raised by his mother. At school, he flirted with extremism, but it was when he went to university that he became radicalised, finding a father figure in one of his extremist tutors. The first episode of the series charts Bin Laden’s journey from childhood to becoming a mythologised freedom fighter, part of the mujahideen in Afghanistan who drove out the Soviet invaders.

Needless to say, there isn’t much in the way of film footage of Bin Laden – the mountains of Afghanistan weren’t exactly filled with people shooting home videos and posting them on Facebook. But what this film does feature is an extraordinary array of interviewees, who are able to cast light on the psychology and development of a radical and dangerous mind. Those featured include friends, mujahideen trainers, a senior Al-Qaeda leader, and an Al-Qaeda bombmaker-turned-MI6 spy.

Combined with excellent use of archive footage, excerpts of print interviews with Bin Laden, and a well-constructed narrative, what results is a grimly fascinating portrait of perhaps the most influential terrorist in history. There is horror and anger in the film, but sadness, too. As Batarfi says of the friend he used to kick a ball around with: “People change, and war changes people. That’s what happened to Osama.”

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Black to Front, Friday 10th September, all day, Channel 4

Channel 4’s Black to Front is a day of programming dedicated to showcasing black talent in television both in front of and behind the camera. It will, inevitably, divide viewers. There will be those who see it as an absurd, publicity-seeking stunt, others who think of it as discriminatory, or as virtue-signalling of the highest order. Then there will be those who regard it as a hugely welcome and necessary step in publicising the issue of how under-represented the black and mixed-heritage community is in television.

I myself fall very much into the latter category. I think it’s a splendid idea. I should reveal, for the purposes of transparency, that I worked at Channel 4 for 25 years, and the organisation is still very dear to my heart. But it’s true that, even at the liberal, leftie, pinko, right-on, bohemian broadcaster, it was still a very Caucasian-centric organisation. It was very much the metropolitan elite, with wax in their beards, chunky knit cardigans and espadrilles with no socks.

But TV should reflect the society it purports to serve, particularly a public service broadcaster like Channel 4. And the industry in general has been too slow in embracing diversity – particularly in the top jobs. As such, and in light of the Black Lives Matter movement over the last year, Black to Front represents a long overdue opportunity to highlight the issue.

Not that the black community is wholesale in favour of the idea. Many agree with comedian London Hughes, who labelled it an exercise in ‘tokenism’, tweeting: “I have no words. Stop it… Just hire black people in general please!” But the day of programming is simply the start – Channel 4 has committed to more than just a day of broadcasting. It is working with the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity to ensure the project “drives significant and sustainable change within the industry off-screen.”

The day itself will begin with the return, for one day only, of The Big Breakfast, presented by Mo Gilligan, AJ Odudu and Melvin Odoom, with the return of Phil Gayle reading the news, all from the show’s original home at Lock Keepers’ Cottages. How enthusiastic you are about the programme may depend upon whether you were a fan of the show in the first place – for some, that degree of noise and enthusiasm in the morning was a little too vivid a start to the day. Personally, I loved it – but I was a much younger man back then. Now it takes me an hour just to get out of bed, and I’d prefer it if nobody spoke to me until lunchtime.

At 12:30pm, Steph’s Packed Lunch, normally presented by Steph McGovern, will instead become Mel B’s Packed Lunch, as the former Spice Girl takes the reins for the lunchtime magazine show. She will be joined by regular contributor Chris Kamara and the show’s resident chef Freddy Forster. Then, at 2:10pm, Countdown will be hosted by the one and only Sir Trevor McDonald. Joining him in the studio will be poet Lemn Sissay and journalist Marverine Cole in Dictionary Corner, while maths prodigy Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon will be in charge of the numbers board.

At 6pm, a special episode of Hollyoaks will air for an hour, focussing on the events at a birthday picnic with the Deveraux family. Pop star Jamelia will make a guest appearance. I know that Hollyoaks is primarily aimed at a teen audience, so I don’t expect you to be tuning in in your droves, but consider yourselves informed. Knowledge is power, and all that…

At 8pm, a special edition of property show Love It or List It will take place without the reassuringly cheesy banter of Kirstie and Phil. In their place, brother and sister duo Scarlette and Stuart Douglas will fill the breach, bringing a dose of sibling rivalry to proceedings. Scarlette is a presenter of A Place in the Sun, and Stuart is a former footballer, now a physio, but they have jointly run a property development and renovation business for 15 years.

At 9pm, a special edition of Celebrity Gogglebox will see celebrities, and some of the regular families from the show, passing judgement on the week’s telly. The celebrities include Wretch 32 and Ghetts. Nope, me neither. Finally, at 10pm, there is the first episode of a new docu-reality’ (sigh) series, Highlife, following the lives of ambitious and glamorous Nigerian and Ghanaian Brits.

I’ll admit that it’s not necessarily the most Saga-centric set of TV programmes – if you know, for example, who Ghetts or Wretch 32 are, you’re definitely more down with the kids than I am. But, as a statement of intent, I applaud the sentiment behind the occasion, and hope that it kicks off a conversation about creating opportunity in front of, and behind, the camera.

The best…and the rest:

Saturday 4th September

Soccer Aid for Unicef 2021, 6:30pm, ITV: Live coverage of the annual fundraiser between England and the Rest of the World. Each team features a host of former pros and other celebrities, the latter of whom include Paddy McGuinness, Olly Murs and none other than Usain Bolt.

Hangouts of the Rich and Famous 1/6, 8pm, Channel 5: Series documenting how the other half live it up in some of the world’s most opulent locations. Tonight, St Tropez, featuring the recollections of Joan Collins, and a distinctly high-end wedding.

Elizabeth Taylor: A fierce Love, 9pm, Channel 5: Profile of the Hollywood icon, featuring archive interview footage and recollections of friends and family.

Sunday 5th September

Live International Football: England v Andorra, 4:30pm, ITV: They say there are no easy games in international football anymore. They are wrong.

Monday 6th September

Silent Witness 1/10, 9pm BBC One: Series (checks calculator) one squillion of the pathology drama. Nikki and Jack visit a high-security prison to investigate the suspicious death of an inmate.

Fever Pitch: The Rise of the Premier League 1/4, 9pm, BBC Two: Documentary series about a the formation of football’s Premier League in 1992, and how it affected the modern game.

Tuesday 7th September

A House Through Time 1/4, 9pm, BBC Two: David Olusoga returns with his excellent series, looking at the occupants of a single house throughout its existence. This series follows a Victorian townhouse in Leeds with a fascinating history.

9/11: Life Under Attack, 9pm, ITV: This promises to be a powerful and difficult watch. The feature length film simply shows footage (much of it unseen) from the day itself, without narration, commentary or interview.

Wednesday 8th September

Live International Football: Poland v England, 7:15pm, ITV: This promises to be the hardest of England’s World Cup qualifiers, particularly if the prolific Robert Lewandowski is in the mood.

Animals with Cameras 1/4, 8pm, BBC Two: Wildlife photographer Gordon N=Buchanan and his team use on-board cameras to follow animals whose lives depend upon the ocean, and witness some ground-breaking new behaviours.

Thursday 9th September

The National Television Awards, 7:30pm, ITV: Joel Dommett introduces live coverage of the awards show from the O2. The public vote for the awards, and Ant and Dec always win their category.

A Killing in Tiger Bay 1/3, 9pm, BBC Two: The story of the murder of Lynette White in February 1988, and how it led to an astonishing miscarriage of justice.

The North Water 1/5, 9:30pm, BBC Two: Outstanding drama set on board a whaling ship bound for the arctic in 1859, featuring marvellous performances from jack O’Connell, Stephen Graham and Colin Farrell.

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