'Horses of God' follows path of 4 men from Moroccan slum to suicide bombers

There's a moment in the Moroccan film "Horses of God" when the protagonist and a friend successfully repair an old moped and cruise around the dusty alleys of the desperately poor shantytown and experience a fleeting moment of freedom.

Otherwise the lives of the two young men have been dominated by the claustrophobia of their hovels outside Casablanca and the struggle to earn money in a community awash with drugs, prostitution and violence. Soon afterward they are seduced by the dangerously simple message of extremist Islam that turns them into suicide bombers.

On May 16, 2003, 12 young men — all around the age of 20 and from the Sidi Moumen slum — blew themselves up in an Italian restaurant, a Spanish restaurant, a luxury hotel, a club for the local Jewish population and a Jewish cemetery, killing 33 people.

The string of blasts that took place over five minutes shocked Morocco, which until then had been far from the headlines in the war on terror.

In the immediate aftermath, director Nabil Ayouch shot a documentary on the victims, but it was only much later that he realized there was an entire other side to the story.

"It took me years to understand that in this story the victims are on both sides, because the young boys that are just 20 years old and brainwashed and sent to be killed and to kill innocent people, are also victims," he told The Associated Press as the film was released in the U.S. "In this film I wanted to show the source of the violence — that violence doesn't come from the sky."

Horses of God will screen for the next two weeks in New York City before appearing at theaters across the country, including major cities like Miami, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco over the summer.

The fact that the film is finally appearing in the United States is due in large part to the efforts of "Silence of the Lambs" director Jonathan Demme, who saw it on its Moroccan premier at the Marrakech Film Festival in 2012 and later helped Ayouch find a U.S. distributor.

Demme said aside from being a beautiful film, people in the United States and elsewhere need to see it for its portrayal of how someone could do something as unspeakable as a terrorist attack.

"I think there is an impulse when confronted with the subject of suicide bombers to simply go, 'those people are insane, those people are fanatical,' and I think there is very little movement to trying to truly understand who are these people that blow themselves up along with many others," he told the AP.

The film is remarkable for its air of authentic grittiness — it was filmed in a shantytown not far from the one where the Casablanca bombers grew up. Ayouch also used non-professionals, speaking authentic Moroccan Arabic street slang.

For most of the world, Morocco is a rich panorama of Atlantic beaches, colorful handicrafts and stunning mountains, but for millions of its inhabitants — especially those living around the commercial capital of Casablanca — it is these slums.

Trapped and unable to find jobs, one brother, Hamdi, turns to dealing drugs while the other, Yachine, sells oranges from a cart, much like Mohammed Bouazizi, the frustrated Tunisian youth whose self-immolation in 2010 sparked the Arab Spring uprisings.

Nights are spent passing joints, swigging from wine bottles, watching TV, talking about how much they want to leave Morocco. Yachine, who loves soccer and is nicknamed for the famous Soviet-era soccer goalie, often exchanges longing glances with a friend's sister from across the neighborhood, but lacking a job knows he would never be considered a worthy match.

After putting a rock through the window of a police car, Hamdi gets two years in prison and returns a changed man. Behind bars he found religion and is now polite, well-dressed and well-spoken.

Surrounded by new friends with beards and traditional clothes, Hamdi soon brings his brother and their old friends into the group, offering them the discipline of clean living, early-morning prayer and study that their lives in the slum until now has lacked.

Eventually, though, the message moves from self-improvement to tales of the injustices done to Muslims around the world and the need for revenge.

The progression from the violent, crime-filled life of the slum to the seductive order and simplicity of an extremist world view is well handled and gives a glimpse how someone can actually make a choice to become a human bomb.

"When I saw the film, I was pleasantly surprised," said Abdellah Tourabi, an expert on Islamist movements, who now edits the weekly Moroccan newsmagazine TelQuel. "The reason I like the film is because it lingered on the process; these people didn't just carry out the attacks because they were poor but because of the whole ideological process behind it."

In laying blame for the bombings on poverty, violence and hopelessness, as well as extremist Islam, the movie does absolve the Moroccan state from the phenomenon of terrorism, by not suggesting that the years of political repression, especially under Hassan II, the current king's father, might have been a factor.

As it is, many credit the bombing with ending the political openness under his son King Mohammed VI, as draconian anti-terror laws were passed and thousands were arrested.

"It was our 9/11," said Tourabi.