We may not yet truly know the motivations behind the Boston Marathon bombers, and frankly, we may never. The two Tsarnaev brothers (one now deceased) who have been charged with the bombing appear to have been driven by the not uncommon brew of Islamic victim-consciousness (Chechen variety) and anti-US rage, as well as in this case, an odd family context.

However, the real drivers of such an extreme act are never really comprehended and any attempt to find a pattern in the minds of perpetrators of terrorist acts risks being simplistic and overly objectified.

On May 15, ABC2 will be screening just such an effort. “The Boarding School Bomber” tracks the story of Isa (aka Andrew) Ibrahim who was thwarted in his plans to conduct a suicide bombing in a Bristol, UK, shopping centre in 2010. Now serving a life sentence for his crime we are told at the documentary’s conclusion that he is now sincerely contrite and is horrified by what he was going to do, and of whom he had become.

Given this, it’s a wonder he was not the subject of the documentary more directly. His story could have been personalised and utilised as a precautionary tale for other would-be nutters considering blowing themselves and others up for no good reason.

What we have is a reconstructed story, with an actor playing Isa’s part (Adam Deacon is the actor and he does very well, especially in not breaking into giggles over the ridiculous fake beard he is obliged to wear – think Australian period dramas circa 1975) and a series of stuttering, scratchy CCTV images (amazing how ubiquitous these are). There are also some telling and compelling interviews with family, school friends and local notables.

The narrative picks up at his posh boarding school – called “Downside” (you have to wonder) where Isa gradually alienated himself from those around him, distorted reality, took up a drug habit and, basically became a stereotypical angry young man.

But, the implication appears to be that from here its possible to plot a linear descent to terrorism. I’m not so sure it’s that cut and dried and not every pissed off kid is a candidate for a desert training camp with al-Qaeda.

What is clear though is that the saturation of narratives that are intended to lead to no good are creating a complex environment which everybody – teenagers especially – must comprehend. It ain’t easy. The power of PR techniques applied to mass politicisation – from big corporations looking for feel-good reputations to al-Qaeda’s media wing As-Sahab – requires us all to constantly set and reset boundaries and disciplines and not all are going to get it right.

This documentary, produced for the BBC in 2011, seems to want to stir up the fears and confusion terrorism creates. By telling Isa’s story, piecing it together on a story-board and dramatising a selection of events,“The Boarding School Bomber” gets the merging of fiction and non-fiction a little off. The producers have painted a monochrome canvas rather than a messy Pollock which was needed to truly capture this tragic story. They seem to have missed an opportunity to say something really valuable.


Title – The Boarding School Bomber

Makers – Omni Productions for BBC

How to Catch it – ABC2 on May 15 and then online at iview

Couch Time – 57 Mins.

High Point – Adam Deacon’s acting in the dramatisations

Low Point – Takes a simplistic approach