‘Warriors From the North’: Hot Docs Review

Warriors of the North Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Made in Copenhagen

Warriors of the North Still - H 2015

An intimate glimpse of Danish jihadists joining the ranks of Al-Shabaab

Directors Nasib Farah and Soren Steen Espersen premiered their film at Hot Docs

Although less mediatized than their Middle Eastern counterparts ISIS and Al-Qaeda, the militant Islamist group Al-Shabaab has wreaked havoc in Somalia throughout much of the last decade, while also spreading violence to neighboring lands – most recently in Kenya with the horrific attack at Garissa University College.

The name Al-Shabaab means “The Youth” in Arabic, and like other extremist organizations its ranks are fueled by young recruits, many of them hailing from immigrant communities in Europe. One such case is explored in the Danish documentary Warriors From the North, featuring interviews with parents and friends of several men who decided to wage war back in their native country. While there’s nothing groundbreaking here for anyone who reads the news, the film nonetheless offers up a rare and intimate account of what exactly drives such youngsters to action, making this Hot Docs premiere a strong contender for fests and the small screen – especially with a TV-friendly 58-minute running time.

Directed by Nasib Farah and Soren Steen Espersen, the doc is centered around an attack that took place in Mogadishu back in 2009, when a young jihadist set off a bomb during a medical school graduation ceremony, killing twenty-five people, including three government ministers. Gruesome footage of the assault is shown at the start of the film, after which we are introduced to an unidentified man in Denmark who was close friends with the bomber. Another interview subject is amusement park employee Abukar Nuur, whose son Mohamed joined Al-Shabaab and has since disappeared somewhere in Somalia, cutting all ties with his family.

The narration by the anonymous interviewee reveals a pattern typical in recent years, describing the life of an immigrant who grew up in the working-class suburbs of Copenhagen and eventually became disillusioned with the world around him. “I was restless, confused and never belonged anywhere – neither here nor in Somalia,” is how the man recalls a sentiment that led him to join up with other foreigners, frequenting a local mosque and soon crossing paths with an Al-Shabaab recruiter.

Interviews with other jihadists from Norway, the Netherlands and the U.K. reveal a similar group of lost 20-somethings who chose to take up arms back in their homeland, especially after Ethiopian troops moved into Somali territory in 2006. It’s then that Al-Shabaab’s numbers rose and Muslim fighters banded together to ward off the Christian army, with the terrorists carrying out bombings both during and after the conflict, which officially ended in 2009. (A devastating chronicle of Al-Shabaab’s attacks in Mogadishu appeared in the 2013 New Yorker article, “Now Serving.”)

Cutting between footage of bloodshed in Somalia and reenacted scenes of men wandering the dark streets of Copenhagen, Warriors From the North paints a convincing portrait of disenchanted youths who’d prefer to die for a cause back home rather than lead meaningless lives in their adopted nations. And even though the film’s anonymous witness decided not to join Al-Shabaab in the end, he still sympathizes with his friends (two of whom blew themselves up), while not condoning their actions: “Danish soldiers fight in other countries and I couldn’t see any difference,” he says. “Can you?”

Directors: Nasib Farah, Soren Steen Espersen
Screenwriters: Lars K. Andersen, Soren Steen Jespersen
Producer: Helle Faber
Director of photography: Henrik Bohn Ipsen
Editor: Steen Johannessen
Composer: Morten Svenstrup
International sales: DR Sales

No rating, 58 minutes