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 different kinds of government). What is more, both groups view western liberalism with distrust, fearing it will erode traditional and especially martial values, thus weakening their societies from within.
Curtis begins his story in 1949 in the unlikely setting of Greeley, Colorado, where the Egyptian literary critic Sayyid Qutb attended graduate school. It was Qutb’s encounter with the US that helped turn him into the Lenin of the radical Islamists. One summer night, the puritanical Qutb went to a dance at a local church hall, where the pastor was playing the big-band hit “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” (The tune provides the title of the documentary’s first hour, as well as a constant musical refrain.) The idea of a house of worship playing a secular love song crystallised Qutb’s sense that Americans were deeply corrupt and interested only in self-gratification. On his return to Egypt, Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood, was arrested on President Nasser’s orders in 1954 for supposedly plotting revolution and was then subjected to the most dreadful tortures. Curtis says, “Qutb survived, but the torture had a powerful, radicalising effect on his ideas.” Writing from his prison cell, Qutb argued that Egypt’s secular nationalist government was presiding over a country mired in a state of pre-Islamic barbarity known as jahiliyyah and, by implication, that the government should be overthrown. Qutb was executed in 1966, but he would profoundly influence a teenager named Ayman al-Zawahiri, who set up a jihadist cell dedicated to the Qutbian theory that Egyptian government officials were apostates from Islam and therefore deserved death.
So far so good. Curtis has done some superb archival research, finding rare footage, for instance, of Qutb in prison. But Curtis argues that Qutb’s story is mirrored by that of the University of Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss, a forced analogy that is emblematic of Cur-tis’s occasionally questionable polemical methods. Curtis says that at the same time as Qutb was formulating his apocalyptic vision of waging offensive jihads against the enemies of Islam, Strauss, “who shared the same fears about the destructive influence of individualism in America,” was telling his students, many of whom went on to careers in politics, that liberalism was weakening the US and sapping Americans’ will to defend freedom. Intellectuals, he believed, should spread an ideology of good and evil, whether they believed it or not, so that the country could be mobilised against the enemies of freedom. Strauss, we learn in one of many telling asides, was a fan of the television series Gunsmoke and its Manichean depiction of good and evil.
The parallel is provocative but Curtis takes it several steps too far when he argues that Strauss “would become the shaping force behind the neoconservative movement, which now dominates the American administration.” In fact, Qutb and Strauss are not of equal weight for the Islamists and the neocons. In al-Zawahiri’s 2001 autobiography, Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet, he repeatedly cites Qutb, while Qutb’s brother taught Bin Laden at university in Saudi Arabia in the late 1970s. And Qutb’s claim that Muslim rulers who preside over countries in a state of jahiliyyah are effectively non-Muslims provided the justification for the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981. Moreover, all Islamists are well versed in—and deeply influenced by—Qutb. By contrast, while it is true that former deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz took a couple of Strauss’s courses at the University of Chicago, and that a number of Straussians have found jobs in the Bush administration, Strauss’s work as a political philosopher has had little impact on the world outside the academy. Indeed, the key drivers of American foreign policy—Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice—are in all likelihood more familiar with the works of Johann Strauss than with the dense, recondite works of Leo Strauss. (Curtis would have improved his case by focusing not on Strauss but on Albert Wohlstetter, a colleague of Strauss’s at the University of Chicago who, during the 1970s and 1980s, strongly advocated the view that Soviet military power was underrated, and who was an important mentor to Wolfowitz and Richard Perle.)
The next pillar of Curtis’s thesis is that the neocons and their allies exaggerated the Soviet threat, a precursor of their later inflation of the menace posed by al Qaeda. It is certainly eerie to watch Donald Rumsfeld, as defence secretary, deliver a supremely self-assured speech in a 1976 press conference about the gathering strength of the Soviet war machine. Curtis explains that the CIA found Rumsfeld’s view of the Soviet military build-up to be a “fiction,” but that did not stop Rumsfeld from establishing a commission of inquiry into the putative build-up that was known as Team B and was run, in part, by Wolfowitz. Curtis explains: “Team B made an assumption that the Soviets had developed systems that were so sophisticated they were undetectable. For example, they could find no evidence that the Soviet submarine fleet had an acoustic defence system. What this meant, Team B said, was that the Soviets had invented a new non-acoustic system, which was impossible to detect. And this meant that the US submarine fleet was at risk from an invisible threat… even though there was no evidence for it.”
This was an early formulation of the Rumsfeldian doctrine that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. To devastating effect Curtis deploys Anne Cahn, a government arms control expert during the 1970s, who explains, “If you go through most of Team B’s allegations about Soviet weapons systems, and you just examine them one by one, they were all wrong.” Team B’s exaggerations, argues Curtis, were all in the service of a vision of the Soviet Union as the centre of all evil in the world.”
Curtis can be faulted for overlooking the horror of the Soviet system, something the neoconservatives appreciated better than most leftists, but he is correct that the neocons injected a theological fervour into US foreign policy and that they were willing to disregard the failings of anyone willing to confront America’s enemy—such as Islamist Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who received $600m in US aid to fight the Soviets, and is now the most wanted terrorist in Afghanistan.
Just as Curtis gets his account of Team B right, so too he deftly charts the recent history of Islamist militancy. But he then wrongly concludes that al Qaeda is a phantasmagorical construct of US officials. Curtis tells the story of al-Zawahiri, who, like Qutb, was radicalised in an Egyptian prison, where he spent three years during the early 1980s, emerging in jail as a spokesman for his fellow Islamist prisoners. After his release from prison he and Bin Laden met in Pakistan in the mid-1980s during the Afghan war against the Soviets and forged a partnership. It is in recounting the nature of that partnership that Curtis makes his most explosive charge: “Beyond his small group, Bin Laden had no formal organisation, until the Americans invented one for him.”
In support of this view, Curtis relies, in part, on an interview with the journalist Jason Burke, who has written an excellent book on al Qaeda. Burke tells Curtis: “The idea… that Bin Laden ran a coherent organisation with operatives and cells all around the world of which you could be a member is a myth. There is no al Qaeda organisation. There is no international network with a leader, with cadres who will unquestioningly obey orders, with tentacles that stretch out to sleeper cells in America, in Africa, in Europe.” However, in his 2003 book, Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, Burke is less dismissive of the idea that al Qaeda was an organisation than this soundbite suggests. Burke wrote that while the “al Qaeda hardcore” consisted of relatively few people, “by late 2001, Bin Laden and the men around him had access to huge resources…which they could use to project their power and influence internationally.” That sounds rather like a “coherent organisation.”
Indeed, there is an excellent example of how this global organisation operated, which, for obvious reasons, goes unmentioned in Curtis’s documentary. In December 2001, Singaporean authorities arrested 13 operatives of Jemaah Islamiyah, the largest southeast Asian terrorist group, for planning to blow up the US embassy there. It transpired that those operatives had videotaped the embassy as part of their preparations for attacking it and had sent a copy of the tape to Mohammed Atef, al Qaeda’s military commander in Afghanistan, so that he could give the operation his blessing. In addition, a man called Hambali was simultaneously Jemaah Islamiyah’s operational commander and a member of al Qaeda’s shura council, or deliberative body. Although Burke in his book is correct to emphasise that lumping together all the jihadist groups from around the world as “al Qaeda” is an oversimplification, that does not change the fact that there was an al Qaeda organisation (now largely replaced by the militant jihadist ideological movement from which al Qaeda first sprang and to which al Qaeda has now given a tremendous boost).
Curtis claims that al Qaeda was first “invented” in 2001 when US prosecutors put four men involved in the 1998 plot to blow up two US embassies in east Africa on trial in New York. During the trial they drew on the testimony of former Bin Laden associate Jamal al-Fadl, who spun a story about the Saudi militant that would make it easier for US prosecutors to target Bin Laden using conspiracy laws that had previously put mafia bosses behind bars. Curtis explains: “The picture al-Fadl drew for the Americans of Bin Laden was of an all-powerful figure at the head of a large terrorist network that had an organised network of control. He also said that Bin Laden had given this network a name, al Qaeda… But there was no organisation. These were militants who mostly planned their own operations and looked to Bin Laden for funding and assistance. He was not their commander. There is also no evidence that Bin Laden used the term ‘al Qaeda’ to refer to the name of a group until after 11th September, when he realised that this was the term the Americans had given it.”
This is nonsense. There is substantial evidence that al Qaeda was founded in 1988 by Bin Laden and a small group of like-minded militants, and that the group would mushroom into the secretive, disciplined organisation that implemented the 9/11 attacks. Two years ago the minutes of the founding meetings of al Qaeda (discovered in Bosnia) were described in court documents in a trial in Chicago. Those meetings took place in August 1988 and involved Bin Laden and Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, who would become al Qaeda’s military commander. The participants discussed “the establishment of a new military group” consisting of a “qaeda” or “base.” In an organisational chart of the new group, Bin Laden, then known as Abu Abdullah, is at the top.
In a 2001 interview with the Arab News, Hasan al-Seraihi, a militant Saudi cleric who had recently been released from jail, gave a description of al Qaeda’s beginnings in the late 1980s. Bin Laden himself recounted how the name “al Qaeda” first emerged in an interview with Al-Jazeera shortly after the 9/11 attacks: “Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri established the training camps for our mujahedin against Russia’s terrorism during the 1980s. We used to call the training camp al Qaeda. And the name stayed.”
Materials recovered in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taleban demonstrate that people within al Qaeda referred to it as such and saw themselves as part of a larger organisation led by Bin Laden. Alan Cullison, a Wall Street Journal reporter, for instance, purchased a computer in Kabul that turned out to have been used by members of al Qaeda, including Ayman al-Zawahiri himself. One memo on the computer, dated April 1998 and written by Tariq Anwar, was addressed to “al Qaeda members in Yemen” and described the hassles of daily life in Afghanistan.
The 9/11 plot itself amply demonstrates the fact that al Qaeda was an organisation of global reach led by Bin Laden. Although, as Curtis correctly points out, the 9/11 plot was the “brainchild of an Islamist militant called Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who came to Bin Laden for funding and help in finding volunteers.” Mohammed’s scheme for crashing jets into American landmarks would have remained only a powerful nightmare without al Qaeda, as the plot needed not only hundreds of thousands of dollars but, above all, a large pool of young men sufficiently indoctrinated that they would willingly martyr themselves in the operation. The 9/11 plot subsequently played out across the globe, with planning meetings in Malaysia, operatives taking flight lessons in the US, co-ordination by plot leaders based in Hamburg, money transfers from Dubai and the recruitment of suicide operatives from countries around the middle east—all activities that were ultimately overseen by al Qaeda’s leaders in Afghanistan.
While Bin Laden did not involve himself in the details of the 9/11 operation, he was its ultimate commander. In 2002, Al-Jazeera reporter Yosri Fouda interviewed Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, who co-ordinated the 9/11 attacks. Bin al-Shibh told Fouda that he had travelled to Pakistan from Hamburg in late August 2001 to ensure that Bin Laden was aware of the timing of the attacks five days before they happened. Bin Laden’s supervisory role in the attacks on Washington and New York was amplified in the 9/11 congressional commission report last year, which explained that in 1999 Bin Laden appointed Mohammed Atta to be the lead hijacker. The report concluded: “It is clear, then, that Bin Laden and Atef [his military commander] were very much in charge of the operation.” The same can also be said of al Qaeda’s attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. In 1993, Bin Laden dispatched an aide to case the US embassy in Kenya, and, when shown photographs from the trip, pointed to the exact location where he thought the truck bomb should be detonated.
When Curtis says he does not believe that al Qaeda is an organisation directed by Osama bin Laden, he unwittingly aligns himself at times with the Bush administration, whose failure to capture Bin Laden remains a big source of embarrassment. Take, for instance, Curtis’s discussion of the battle at Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, where Bin Laden and his followers fought several hundred soldiers of the Northern Alliance and a handful of US special forces in December 2001. Just as the Bush administration minimises the significance of Tora Bora, since it was the one moment after 9/11 when the US knew of Bin Laden’s location, so Curtis suggests that Tora Bora is but a “few small caves” and finds no evidence that al Qaeda members had holed up there.
In fact, according to a widely reported background briefing by Pentagon officials in mid-December 2001, there was “reasonable certainty” that Bin Laden was at Tora Bora, a judgement based on intercepted radio transmissions. Last year, Lutfullah Mashal, a senior official in Afghanistan’s interior ministry, told me that based on conversations he had had with a Saudi al Qaeda financier and Bin Laden’s cook, both of whom were at the battle, Bin Laden was at Tora Bora. Indeed, in an audiotape released on Al-Jazeera two years ago, Bin Laden recounted his own memories of the Tora Bora battle. And last August, Al Sharq Al Awsat newspaper published the account of a Moroccan guard of Bin Laden’s, Abdallah Tabarak, who was also at Tora Bora: “We entered Tora Bora, where we stayed for 20 days. From there, Ayman al-Zawahiri fled… and Bin Laden fled with his son Muhammad.”
In his effort to portray al Qaeda as a construct of US officialdom, Curtis misses the real story about the Bush administration and al Qaeda. It is not that Bush officials created a mythical organisation but that al Qaeda did not fit their worldview of what constituted a serious threat, and so they largely ignored it—until they evacuated their offices on the morning of 11th September 2001. We know from the 9/11 commission that while Bush cabinet officials met 33 times before 9/11, only one meeting was about terrorism. Al Qaeda was not a subject that exercised senior Bush officials privately or publicly before 9/11 because they were preoccupied by state-based threats—China, Iraq and ballistic missile defences.
This was especially odd, because rarely have our enemies warned us so often about their intentions. Imagine that officials in the Japanese high command, beginning in 1937, repeatedly stated that they were intending to attack the US. Imagine then how differently the events of Pearl Harbour might have played out four years later. Well, that is exactly what Bin Laden did. Beginning in 1997, he repeatedly gave warning in widely broadcast interviews on CNN, ABC and Al-Jazeera that he was launching a war against the US. But those warnings were taken by certain members of the Bush administration as the fulminations of an impotent fanatic rather than a capable adversary. As Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism co-ordinator, recounts in his book Against All Enemies, when the deputies’ committee of sub-cabinet officials met for the first time in April 2001 to discuss terrorism, Wolfowitz—who had long been preoccupied by discredited conspiracy theories that Iraq was behind the first World Trade Centre attack, in 1993—said testily, “Well, I just don’t understand why we are talking about this one man Bin Laden.” In short, Wolfowitz, at least until the 9/11 attacks, would have agreed with Curtis’s assessment that the threat posed by al Qaeda was a “fantasy.” The leading neoconservative in the administration did not seek to inflate the al Qaeda threat but rather failed to appreciate its significance—until it was too late.
In the final part of the documentary, Curtis’s argument that Bush officials have distorted the al Qaeda threat takes its strongest shape. A critical element of the Bush administration’s approach to the threat is that there are “sleeper cells” in the US, a “greens under the bed” fixation that Curtis characterises as a chase for a phantom enemy: “Thousands were detained, as all branches of the law and the military were told to look for terrorists… And, bit by bit, the government found the network: a series of hidden cells in cities from Buffalo to Portland… The Americans called them ‘sleeper cells’ and decided that they had just been waiting to strike. But there is little evidence that any of those arrested had anything at all to do with terrorist plots.”
Curtis illustrates this with a story that owes something to Inspector Clouseau. After 9/11, four Arab teenagers living in Detroit were arrested on suspicion of being an al Qaeda sleeper cell, following a tip from a known conman. US officials subsequently found a videotape of a trip the teenagers had made to Disneyland and became convinced that it was a “casing tape” for a terrorist attack. The case became even more bizarre when officials also charged that the Detroit teenagers were planning to attack a US base in Turkey. Eventually, the terrorism convictions of the teenagers were overturned.
The Detroit case is emblematic of so many of the “terrorism” cases that US officials have prosecuted since 9/11. These have often followed the trajectory of a tremendous initial trumpeting by the government only to collapse, or to be revealed as something less than earth-shattering, when the details emerge later. Who can forget Chaplain James Yee, the al Qaeda spy at Guantánamo who turned out to be cheating not on his country but on his wife? Or the unfortunate Oregon lawyer busted for his alleged role in the Madrid bombing attacks?
The American sleeper cell phenomenon has been much exaggerated by both US officials and hyperventilating stories in the media—which is not to say that sleepers have not existed in the past. Ali Mohammed, an al Qaeda military trainer, was a US army sergeant in the late 1980s who married a Mexican-American woman. However, since 9/11 there has been no evidence of sleepers like Mohammed in the US. Either these cells are so asleep that they are effectively dead, or they do not exist. The onset of the Iraq war and the presidential election both offered perfect occasions for the cells to strike, but nothing happened. And the 9/11 commission, building on the work of the largest criminal investigation in history, concluded that the hijackers did not have a support network in the US. This fact, taken together with the lack of real terrorism cases or terrorist attacks in the US, leads one to surmise that there are no American sleeper cells. And support for this view came from an unlikely quarter in March. The FBI concluded that “US government efforts to date have not revealed evidence of concealed cells or networks acting in the homeland as sleepers.”
That is the good news. But is that the real problem anyway? Historically, the threat from Islamist terrorists has come from visitors to the country. That was the case in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre. Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of that event, arrived from Pakistan intent on attacking American targets—and that was also the case in the 9/11 attacks. It was also true of Ahmed Ressam, who was stopped at the Canadian border in December 1999 on a mission to bomb Los Angeles airport, and also of Richard Reid the British-Jamaican “shoe bomber.”
In fact, the Islamist terrorist threat to the US today largely emanates from Europe, not from domestic sleeper cells or the graduates of middle eastern madrassas. Reid is British, al Qaeda member Zacarias Moussaoui is French and the 9/11 pilots became militant in Hamburg. The attacks in Madrid last year that killed 191, the assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, and now the London bombs, demonstrate that men animated by al Qaeda’s worldview have recently conducted significant acts of terrorism in Europe, a trend that is likely to accelerate as continued Muslim immigration into Europe collides with widespread suspicion and hostility to create a population of alienated European Muslims. These are not powerful nightmares; they are a reality—a view that Curtis may be more open to after the London bombs.