The influential BBC documentary "The Power of Nightmares" argued that al Qaeda is largely a phantom of the US national security apparatus's imagination. Even before the bombs in London, the thesis deserved scepticism. The Bush administration in fact ignored Islamic terrorism before 9/11by Peter Bergen / August 28, 2005 / Leave a comment
“The Power of Nightmares” is arguably the most important film yet made about the “war on terror.” The three-part television documentary by Adam Curtis shown last autumn on BBC2—and now turned into a three-hour documentary feature film—is more intellectually engaging, more historically probing and more provocative than any of its rivals, including Fahrenheit 9/11. But although the new film version has been shown at Cannes and at a few festivals in the US, it has yet to find an American distributor. The reservations are understandable. For the documentary asserts that al Qaeda is largely a phantom of the imagination of the US national security apparatus. Indeed, The Power of Nightmares seeks to reframe our understanding of US foreign policy, from the Soviet menace of the 1970s to the al Qaeda threat of today, to argue that neoconservatives in the foreign policy establishment have vastly exaggerated those threats in their quest to remake the world in the image of the US.
The film raises important questions about the political manipulation of fear. Yet even before the latest attacks in London, the thesis that Curtis advances—that the war on terror is driven by nightmares rather than nightmarish potentialities—deserved considerable scepticism. It may be that al Qaeda is less organised and monolithic than George W Bush would have us believe, but it is a fierce and determined organisation that has spawned a global ideological movement led by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose influence and plans we have every reason to be deeply concerned about.
The kernel of Curtis’s argument is that western politicians claim “the greatest danger of all is international terrorism, a powerful and sinister network, with sleeper cells in countries across the world, a threat that needs to be fought by a war on terror.” But, Curtis argues, “Much of this threat is a fantasy. It’s a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services and the international media.” Curtis says that this illusion was set in motion by two seemingly very different groups, American neoconservatives and radical Islamists, whose war with each other conceals a history of tacit alliance, and even ideological resemblance. As Curtis reminds us, the neoconservatives and the Islamists came together in the 1980s in Afghanistan to expel the Soviets, and they share a hostility to the middle east’s authoritarian regimes (although they seek to replace them with altogether…