In a recent article published in The Atlantic Monthly, authors Daniel Byman and Christine Fair argued that portrayals of terrorists such as those depicted on 24 not only feed into the jihadist ideal of being a fearsome warrior, but also fly far from the mark. They claim instead that the best way to fight terrorists would be to humiliate them, not feed into their own inflated self-image. The US military, for instance, famously released a “blooper” video of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the radical Muslim insurgent in Iraq, which revealed he could not use a machine gun. The authors cite even more outrageous examples, including spy videos of would-be suicide bombers copulating with farm animals.
Chris Morris’ Four Lions takes on the notion of inept jihadists. Omar (Riz Ahmed) is a middle-class family man with a wife and son. He and his dimwitted friend Waj (Kayvan Novak) are in the jihad group of Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a white Muslim convert who has made a name for himself among extremists. Fessal (Adeel Akhtar), the bombmaker of their group, has secured enough explosives, so now all the group needs is a mission. When Omar and Waj are invited to a training camp along the border of Pakistan, things seem to be moving ahead until a mishap with a rocket launcher. Rather than return in shame, Omar pretends he has received a mission, though Barry has in the meantime decided that blowing up a mosque is the only way to get moderate Muslims to join their struggle. He has also recruited Hassan (Arsher Ali), a well-off college student with a fondness for hip-hop, thus changing the power dynamics of the group, setting the scene for literal and figurative explosions.
In taking on a controversial subject, Morris is careful to cover all his bases. For instance, he depicts the British anti-terrorism authorities being nearly as bumbling as Omar and Barry’s group. Whether mistaking a Kebab restaurant hostage for Waj or arresting Omar’s more devout and bin Laden-looking brother instead, Morris points out the flaws in profiling based on stereotypical imagery. And by including Omar’s brother and his group of pious but non-violent Muslims, Morris also delineates the fact that orthodoxy and radical jihad contradict each other. In fact, Omar mocks his brother’s adherence to dogma when he refuses to be in the same room with his sister-in-law, showing that anger, not religious doctrine, spurs people to violent action.
That said, Morris, unlike the task force snipers, aims his scopes clearly at the aspiring suicide bombers, yet always with a little undercutting. Waj is an easily-manipulated idiot, yet comes across as likable in that he enjoys the group camaraderie, and particularly Omar, more than the mission. Waj even begins to show the semblance of a conscience, but cannot escape his own stupidity. Hassan is a middle-class teenage rebel, at odds with yet also enamored by the popular culture of his peers. He thinks it’s cool to be jihadist, until it’s actually time to detonate. Fessal, similar to Waj, is a simpleton, but possesses mechanical gifts and finds a sort of comfort in being good at building bombs. His undoing, of course, comes at the hands of an ironic fate: the bomb expert blows himself up. Barry, the white man, constantly overcompensates for his outsider-ness; his plan to blow up a mosque reveals that his anger is not focused, but directed at the world.
These characters are all set in contrast to Omar, who is motivated by a very clear anger at the killing of Muslims in the Afghan and Iraq Wars. He’s intelligent, driven, and has the most to lose, which is why he serves as the biggest idiot in a cast full of them. And this is the crux of the film. While Morris adopts a purposeful ignorance despite being smart enough to know better, anyone who opposes radical jihad should understand his anger arises from a very real source. In the war of ideas, we must win over the Omars of the world.