The Power Of Nightmares
The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear is a BBC television documentary series by Adam Curtis.
Part 1: Baby Its Cold Outside
The first part of the series explains the origins of Islamism and neoconservatism. It shows Egyptian civil servant Sayyid Qutb, depicted as the founder of modern Islamist thinking, visiting the U.S. to learn about its education system, then becoming disgusted at what he judged as the corruption of morals and virtues in western society through individualism. When he returns to Egypt, he is disturbed by westernisation under Gamal Abdel Nasser and becomes convinced that in order to save his own society, it must be completely restructured along the lines of Islamic law while still using western technology. He then becomes convinced that his vision can only be accomplished through use of an elite “vanguard” to lead a revolution against the established order. Qutb becomes a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and, after being tortured in one of Nasser’s jails, comes to believe that western-influenced leaders can be justifiably killed to remove their corruption. Qutb is executed in 1966, but he influences Ayman al-Zawahiri, the future mentor of Osama bin Laden, to start his own secret Islamist group. Inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution, Zawahiri and his allies assassinate Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat in 1981 in the hopes of starting their own revolution. However, the revolution does not materialise, and Zawahiri comes to believe that a majority of Muslims have been corrupted, not only by their western-inspired leaders, but Muslims themselves have been affected by jahilliyah and thus may be legitimate targets of violence if they refuse to join his cause. They continued to believe that a vanguard was necessary to rise up and overthrow the corrupt regime and replace it with a ‘pure’ Islamist state.
Part 2: The Phantom Victory
In the second part, Islamist factions, rapidly falling under the more radical influence of Zawahiri and his rich Saudi acolyte Osama bin Laden, join the neoconservative-influenced Reagan administration to combat the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. When the Soviets eventually pull out of Afghanistan, and when the Eastern Bloc begins to collapse in 1989, both the Islamists and the neoconservatives believe they are the primary architects of the “Evil Empire’s” defeat. Curtis argues that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapsing anyway. However, the Islamists see it quite differently. In their triumph, they believe they have the power to create ‘pure’ Islamic states in Egypt and Algeria. Attempts to create such Islamic states are blocked by force. The Islamists then try to foment revolutions in Egypt and Algeria by using terrorism to scare the people into rising up against their leaders. But the people are terrified by the violence, and the Algerian government exploits that fear as a way to hang on to power. In the end, the Islamists declare the entire populations of the countries to be thoroughly contaminated by western values. Finally, in Algeria, they begin to turn on each other, each believing that members of other terrorist groups are not true Muslims.
In America, neoconservative aspirations to use the United States’ military power to further destroy evildoers are thrown off track by the election of George H. W. Bush to the presidency, followed by the election in 1992 of Bill Clinton which left them totally out of power. The neoconservatives, along with their conservative Christian allies, attempt to demonize Clinton throughout his presidency with various real and fabricated stories of corruption and immorality. To their disappointment, the American people do not turn against Clinton. Meanwhile, Islamist attempts at revolution end in massive bloodshed, leaving the Islamists without popular support. Zawahiri and bin Laden flee to the relative safety of Afghanistan and declare a new strategy. To fight Western-inspired moral decay, they must deal a blow to its source: the United States.
Part 3: The Shadows In The Cave
The neoconservatives use the September 11 attacks, with al-Fadl’s description of al-Qaeda, to launch the War on Terror.
The final part addresses the actual rise of al-Qaeda. Curtis argues that, after their failed revolutions, bin Laden and Zawahiri had little or no popular support, let alone a serious complex organisation of terrorists, and were dependent on independent operatives to carry out their new call for jihad. However, the film argues that in order to prosecute bin Laden in absentia for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings, U.S. prosecutors had to prove that he is the head of a criminal organisation responsible for the bombings. They find a former associate of bin Laden, Jamal al-Fadl, and pay him to testify that bin Laden is the head of a massive terrorist organisation called “al-Qaeda”. With the September 11 attacks, neoconservatives in the new Republican administration of George W. Bush use this invented concept of an organisation to justify another crusade against a new enemy, culminating in the launch of the War on Terror.
After the American invasion of Afghanistan fails to uproot the alleged terrorist organisation, the Bush administration focuses inwards, searching unsuccessfully for terrorist sleeper cells in America. In 2003, they extend the War on Terror to a war on general perceived evils with the invasion of Iraq. The ideas and tactics also spread to the United Kingdom, where Tony Blair uses the threat of terrorism to give him a new moral authority. The repercussions of the neoconservative strategy are also explored, with an investigation of indefinitely-detained terrorist suspects in Guantanamo Bay, many allegedly taken on the word of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance without actual investigation on the part of the United States military, and other forms of “preemption” against non-existent and unlikely threats made simply on the grounds that the parties involved had the potential to become a threat. Curtis specifically attempts to allay fears of a dirty bomb attack, and concludes by reassuring viewers that politicians will eventually have to concede that some threats are exaggerated and others have no foundation in reality. He says, “In an age when all the grand ideas have lost credibility, fear of a phantom enemy is all the politicians have left to maintain their power.”