At the end of Inauguration Day next year, when the folks who make up the American political media finally hit the showers and reflect on the outrageous dereliction of duty they committed during this last presidential election cycle, they will hopefully consider just how narrow their idea of newsworthiness on the world stage has been this campaign season. They will hopefully realize, most likely too late, how inexcusably lenient they’ve been when it comes to demanding critical specifics from potential leaders in both major parties about their foreign policy priorities.
Nowhere on Earth has the absence of thorough questioning and coverage been more apparent than in Libya, the once thought-to-be Arab Spring success story that saw the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and in Yemen, the fractured Middle Eastern state under assault by Zaidi Shia-led Houthis from the north. In this two-part Frontline hour, correspondents Feras Kilani and Safa Al Ahmad buck the cavalier-media trend against tangled international stories and help fill the intel-void by providing rare, extraordinary footage of life inside contested territories in both countries. Interviews with the militants, counselors, doctors, and teachers trying to keep civilization intact reveal the Catch-22 madness that keeps peace deals out of reach.
Even compared to the unreliable travel conditions reporters who cover world conflicts are accustomed to, attempting to enter and obtain reliable information in Libya in the age of different governments controlling Tripoli and Tobruk presents immense and unprecedented challenges. After Gaddafi’s fall, divided factions and political upheaval created a vacuum later exploited by the so-called Islamic State, which resulted most recently in 18 months of fighting and 100,000 Benghazi residents becoming displaced. As the BBC’s Owen Bennett Jones put it earlier this year, “It’s quite unusual, even in the middle of a war zone, not to be able to fly in and out.” That’s now the case in Libya. In “Benghazi In Crisis,” Kilani remarkably not only achieves access, but he embeds himself 400 meters from enemy territory with the Benghazi anti-terrorism unit, one of the city’s anti-Islamist militias working alongside (and sometimes, unwittingly, in the heavy-weapons crosshairs of) the Libyan government. In scenes not unlike the ones taking place in Iraq’s Anbar Province, 38-year-old militia leader Faraj Quaim implies that his troops’ missions are essentially suicide. A four-year United Nations arms ban prevents direct weapon sales to the country, so fighters instead rely on scraps from Egypt and their own confidence. Neither are sufficient.
With only 17 minutes, Kilani just provides a quick-and-dirty recap of the events between the 2011 revolution and today, almost entirely skipping over the 2012 embassy attack, focusing instead on the sense of paralysis overtaking anti-ISIS fighters present day. More time is devoted to part two, “Yemen Under Siege,” where the background-information-to-new-footage ratio is better and more accessible.
Al Ahmad makes the dangerous ocean passage from Djibouti to Aden, Yemen, then to the front lines in Taiz. In a moment the encapsulates the “enemy of my enemy is my enemy” conundrum facing all sides, anti-Houthi members of Al Qaeda become enraged after seeing Al Ahmad, a female journalist, recording nearby. It’s an uncomfortable reminder of how flimsy the coalition alliances between parties like Al Qaeda and United Arab Emirates and Yemeni forces really are. “I think a lot of people worry about what will happen after there is no more Houthi to fight, as in how those different factions are going to deal with each other after the war is over,” observes Al Ahmad. Just four years ago, she was imbedded with Al Qaeda while they were actively fighting the United States. For now, their interests are temporarily aligned.
Moments in both “Benghazi In Crisis” and “Yemen Under Siege” reminded me of a crude and sobering statement made by Commission for International Justice and Accountability head Bill Wiley to The New Yorker: Politics And More podcast a few weeks ago about Syria: “Victim witnesses—if I can use a rather cold metaphor—they’re a dime a dozen. We don’t need a lot of victims to build a case.” He was speaking to the specific legal challenges of compiling evidence for a genocide prosecution in the International Criminal Court, but the same could be said for investigative reporting and agitprop. Al Ahmad documents the struggle of civilians—families trying to survive in hollowed out neighborhoods, a soldier undergoing surgery without an anesthetic, a child bombed while trying to fill a jug of water—to incredible effect. The most impactful episodes of Frontline, though, like the gut–wrenching “Solitary Nation,” use a broad mix of talking heads, graphics, obtained footage and powerful original footage to make its case. Oddly, it’s not until the second half here that we even get a visual aid, and more than most Frontline episodes, this one benefits from some pre-reqs. Given how rarely these stories get in-depth long-form coverage, I’d imagine more viewers would benefit from more recent history and context throughout. I sure would have.