In a scene from Norwegian journalist Paul Refsdal’s new documentary Dugma: The Button, Abu Qaswara, a would-be suicide bomber, describes the sense of exhilaration he felt during an aborted suicide attack against a Syrian army checkpoint. “These were the happiest [moments] I’ve had in 32 years. If anyone had felt exactly what I felt at that moment, Muslims would want to go through the same feeling and non-Muslims would convert just to experience it,” he enthuses to the camera, visibly elated by his attempted self-immolation.
Abu Qaswara’s attack failed after his vehicle was blocked by obstacles on the road placed by the Syrian military. But speaking shortly after he returned from his mission, it was clear that his brush with death had filled him with euphoria. “It was a feeling more than you can imagine,” he says. “Something I cannot describe, it cannot be described.”
Dugma follows the lives of several volunteers fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s former affiliate organization in Syria. Refsdal, who previously produced a film while embedded with the Afghan Taliban, spent six weeks living with al-Nusra fighters in Syria. The men profiled are not Syrians, but volunteers from abroad. Abu Qaswara is a Saudi citizen who traveled to fight in Syria, while another character in the film, Abu Basir al-Britani, is a British-born convert to Islam. Raised in London, Abu Basir came to public attention last year when British reporters discovered that he had formerly been an amateur rock musician named Lucas Kinney in a band called Hannah’s Got Herpes.
The film profiles Abu Qaswara and Abu Basir as they prepare for their respective missions. The men have been approved by al-Nusra leadership to be placed on “the list,” a roster of individuals cleared to conduct suicide attacks. As one al-Nusra religious leader counsels Abu Qaswara, “[This] is about a human life, the most precious thing you have.” Adding, “A person would not sacrifice himself for tons of money, but as you can see, the young men compete over martyrdom operations.”
The lives of the volunteers leading up to their suicide missions are remarkably quotidian. Abu Qaswara meets friends at a fried chicken restaurant, talks on the phone to his family in Saudi Arabia, and beams while watching videos of his young daughter on his laptop. Abu Basir reads the news, picks flowers, and sarcastically jokes with friends about American foreign policy. Describing his own path to joining al-Nusra, he tells Refsdal that while growing up in Britain, “I saw myself as a little different to the people around me. I questioned a lot more.”
Only the few Syrians who appear in the film speak at length about their grievances over the crimes of the Syrian government. In contrast, the foreign volunteers appear largely driven by personal motivations. Liberating the local people from oppression appears at best a secondary concern. Perishing in the conflict and reaping the existential rewards of such an end takes precedence. Both Abu Qaswara and Abu Basir gave up comfortable lives to come to Syria, knowing that certain death would be the outcome of that decision. But rather than deterring them, the prospect of a rewarding death was a primary factor motivating their decision to fight.