The following is a summary of the argument of Adam Curtis's three-hour BBC documentary, "The Power of Nightmares" (2004), which traces in parallel the development of American neoconservatism and Islamist radicalism and interprets them as "the last political idealists," bent on exploiting "the politics of fear."  --  Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc., has called "The Power of Nightmares" "arguably the most important film about the ‘war on terrorism’ since the events of September 11."  --  Some additional historical information is added.  --  Links to printable one-page summaries (.pdf format) of each part are provided....

By Adam Curtis

BBC Current Affairs

The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear, written and produced by Adam Curtis (2004)


The following notes summarize the argument of the first part of “The Power of Nightmares,” and add some additional historical information.

Radical Islamists

Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966): [“In 1939, he became a functionary in Egypt's Ministry of Education (wizarat al-ma'arif); from 1948 to 1950, he went to the United States on a scholarship to study the educational system, receiving a master's degree from the Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado). Qutb's first major theoretical work of religious social criticism, Al-'adala al-Ijtima'iyya fi-l-Islam (Social Justice in Islam), was published in 1949, during his time overseas. -- The perceived racism, materialism, and 'loose' sexual conduct that he saw in the United States is believed by some to have been the impetus for his rejection of Western values and his move towards radicalism upon returning to Egypt. Resigning from the civil service he became perhaps the most persuasive publicist of the Muslim Brotherhood. The school of thought he inspired has become known as Qutbism.” ―- Wikipedia.]

1954: Qutb arrested, tortured; develops ideology of Jahiliyya, “which originally referred to humanity's state of ignorance before the revelation of Islam, to modern-day Muslim societies. In his view, turning away from Islamic law and Islamic values under the influence of European imperialism had left the Muslim world in a condition of debased ignorance, similar to that of the pre-Islamic era (or Jahiliyya)” -- Wikipedia. Qutb later writes books calling for the formation of a vanguard to rise up and kill corrupt leaders on the grounds that they are no longer true Muslims. [“His radicalization culminated in a little book published in 1964 which was based on the ideas he had written in notes and letters during his time in prison. This is the famous Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq.” -- Wikipedia.]

1966: Qutb is arrested, tried, and executed on Aug. 29, 1966. On Aug. 30, Ayman Zawahiri forms a cell that he hopes will become one of Qutb’s vanguard; Zawahiri will be Osama bin Laden’s mentor.

Late 1970s: Egypt has become “a modern Westernized state.”

Ayman Zawahiri [1951- ? (present whereabouts unknown)], from a prominent Saudi-Egyptian family, is secretly the leader of an underground cell. Qutb’s ideas are spreading because of widespread corruption in Anwar Sadat’s regime (which Sadat always denied as Soviet propaganda). When Sadat is persuaded by Kissinger to play a role in the Israeli peace process, Zawahiri and associates regard it as proof that he has completely betrayed Islam and is no longer “Muslim.”

1979: Islamic revolution in Iran puts Qutb on a postage stamp. The West’s notion of “freedom” is rejected as a source of corruption.

End of 1980: Zawahiri, who has become a doctor but still heads a secret cell, helps form “Islamic Jihad” to kill Sadat spectacularly.

After Sadat’s assassination [on Oct. 6, 1981], there is no uprising. Assassins arrested and executed. Zawahiri arrested and sentenced to three years; tortured. Develops theological view that the failure to rise up signifies that the masses themselves have become so corrupt as to cease to be true Muslims, and therefore they can be killed by the vanguard for salutary effect -- “to kill our way to perfection” as one expert paraphrased.

American Neoconservatives

Leo Strauss (1899-1973), taught at the University of Chicago from 1949 to 1968. He regarded liberal society as doomed to nihilism in the absence of salutary myths, and regarded the breakdown of civil order in the United States in the 1960s as a symptom of this malaise. Attracted disciples -- Irving Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Francis Fukuyama, William Kristol, Harvey Mansfield, Stanley Rosen. Idealists who aim “to stop the social disintegration they believed liberal freedom had unleashed . . . One of the great influences in doing this would be the theories of Leo Strauss . . . They would set out to recreate the myth of America as a unique nation whose destiny was to battle against evil in the world, and in this project the source of evil would be America’s cold war enemy, the Soviet Union, and in doing this they believed that they would not only give new meaning to people’s lives but they would spread the good of democracy around the world” (Adam Curtis).

Bête noire of the neoconservatives: Henry Kissinger (born 1923), because he was committed to realpolitik and relativism.

1972: Nixon/Kissinger begin era of détente. June 1, 1972, Nixon’s speech on ABM treaty, beginning of end of post-1945 era of fear. Neoconservatives, including Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, set out to destroy Henry Kissinger. CIA dismisses Rumsfeld’s view of the Soviet Union, but in 1976 he persuades Pres. Gerald Ford to set up “Team B” to examine evidence from another set of assumptions. “Team B” headed up by Richard Pipes and Paul Wolfowitz. “Team B” develops suspicious views based on the notion that evidence of absence is not absence of evidence, argues for the existence of undetectable weapons systems. [For more on “Team B” see Anne Hessing Cahn, “Team B: The Trillion-Dollar Experiment,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (April 1993).] Their ideas were “all wrong” (Anne Cahn, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, 1977-1980). But their views contribute to the formation of the Committee on the Present Danger, which was founded nine days after Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976. Ronald Reagan joins; propaganda is produced describing an America facing a radical threat from “a concentration of world evil” (Solzhenitsyn). “This nightmarish vision was beginning to give the neoconservatives great power and influence” (Curtis).

1981: Neoconservatives mobilize religion; Republican Party forms alliance with the religious right. Wolfowitz, Perle, Pipes get policy positions in Reagan administration.

1981-1983: Reagan converted to neoconservative line, with the help of William Casey. Michael Ledeen as an example of someone who comes to believe his own propaganda (the report given to Reagan to prove that the Soviet Union was behind most of the terrorism in the world was largely based on the CIA’s own black propaganda, acc. to Melvin Goodman, Head of the Office of Soviet Affairs at the CIA, 1976-1987).

[Others interviewed in Part I of “The Power of Nightmares,” not mentioned above: John Calvert, Azzam Tamimi, Gen. Fouad Allam, Roxanne Eugen, Stephen Holmes, Omar Azzam, Kamal Habib, Gilles Kepel, Paul Weyrich.]



The following notes summarize the argument of the second part of “The Power of Nightmares,” and add some additional historical information.

Radical Islamists

William Casey (1913-1987), director of the CIA, sends “stinger missiles and $1 billion” to help the mujahideen fight in Afghanistan, who act as proxies for the U.S. in the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union, which sent troops to occupy Afghanistan in 1979. The mujahideen cross the Pakistan border after CIA training (including training in car bombing). Arabs also come to fight; Abdullah Azzam (1941-1989), known as the “emir of the Arab mujahideen” as well as “Godfather of Jihad” for his advocacy of global jihad, for his approach to recruitment and training, and for his contribution to the development of the al Qaeda movement, works out of Peshawar, Pakistan. His lieutenant Osama bin Laden (born 1957) arrived in Afghanistan in 1985. Many Middle Eastern states released radicals from prison in order to allow them to fight in Afghanistan; among them is the Egyptian Ayman Zawahiri (1951- ? [present whereabouts unknown]), a disciple of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) & bin Laden’s future mentor.

Mikhail Gorbachev (born 1931), intent upon reforming the Soviet social, political, and economic system, decides upon a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1987; the U.S. refuses to facilitate this exit through negotiation. The mujahideen believe that the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan is due to them; in reality this victory is an illusion. The Soviet Union collapses beginning in 1989 due to independent internal factors, says Melvin Goodman, head of the CIA’s office of Soviet affairs, 1976-1987.

After Afghanistan, a rift develops among Islamists between Azzam and Zawahiri. Bin Laden is seduced away by Zawahiri from Azzam; in 1989 the latter is assassinated in a car bombing in Peshawar. Islamists’ political movements attempt to overthrow corrupt regimes politically and create Islamist states; their progress is stymied in Algeria (Islamist Salvation Front) and Egypt (Muslim Brotherhood) by state crackdowns circa 1991. Zawahiri feels vindicated by this demonstration of corruption and hypocrisy; he sets out to wage jihad against these governments. From a base on a farm in Sudan, bin Laden and Zawahiri aim at political leaders, but do not succeed in winning public support. They blame the corruption of the masses and begin to attack civilians. In Algeria, thousands are killed. A June 1997 attack on Western tourists at Luxor in Egypt leads to ceasefire in Egypt; in Algeria, internecine warfare breaks out. The jihad of the Arab mujahideen is failing.

In 1997, Zawahiri and bin Laden return to Afghanistan. Facing failure, they resolve upon a new strategy: jihad against America, announced in May 1998 -- a “strategy of desperation,” says Curtis.

American Neoconservatives

President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) dedicates the Mar. 22, 1982, launch of the space shuttle Columbia to the “people of Afghanistan” as a sign of support for the struggle of the mujahideen “freedom fighters” against the Soviet-backed regime there. The Reagan doctrine aggressively aims to overthrow tyrannical regimes and to defeat, rather than contain, the Soviet Union. (“We are more like revolutionaries than conservatives,” says Richard Perle.) Influenced by the doctrines of Leo Strauss (1899-1973), neoconservatives believe the people need simple, inspiring myths, and come to believe their own Manichaean myth of a good America fighting an Evil Empire.

Determined to press on, the neoconservatives are frustrated by the moderate ideology of President George H.W. Bush (born 1924; president, 1989-1993); they denounce Bush’s failure to press on against President Saddam Hussein of Iraq after ousting him from Kuwait. Liberalism and relativism are blamed for moral rot in the fabric of U.S. society. Guided by William Kristol (born 1952), Vice President Dan Quayle’s chief of staff during the Bush presidency, as a key ideologue, they set out to enlist the support of the religious right politically and begin the “culture wars.” They are rather like a Leninist vanguard (in fact, many neoconservatives are former Trotskyists), as Michael Lind points out. In 1992 they succeed in gaining control of the Republican Party platform.

No sooner is Bill Clinton (born 1946) elected U.S. president in 1992 than neoconservatives set out to wage a campaign to demonize Clinton as a symbol of what is wrong with America. David Brock (born 1962) of the American Spectator helps in what he now calls “political terrorism,” creating stories about Whitewater, Vince Foster’s suicide, and Arkansas drug smuggling, while trolling through Clinton’s sex life (Brock later repents of this). Clinton is forced to accept an independent prosecutor in the Whitewater inquiry. This is led by Kenneth Starr (born 1946), a lawyer with the right-wing Federalist Society. Starr stumbles upon Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky (born 1973); when the attempt to make this the basis of his removal from office fails, the corruption of the public is blamed by neoconservatives like William Bennett (born 1943).

[Others interviewed in Part II of “The Power of Nightmares,” not mentioned above: Jack Wheeler; Milton Bearden, Abdullah Anas, Azzam Tamimi, Gilles Kepel, Michael Ledeen, Stephen Holmes, Robert Bork, and Joe Conason.]



The following notes summarize the argument of the third part of “The Power of Nightmares,” and add some additional historical information.

Radical Islamists

Toward the end of the 1990s Islamism had failed as a movement in the Arab world. Osama bin Laden (born 1957) and Ayman Zawahiri (born 1951) returned to Afghanistan, having adopted jihad against the U.S. as a new strategy. Their first action: the bombings of Aug. 7, 1998, of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Bombers were recruited from Afghan terrorist training camps, but were marginal to the main Islamist movement. -- Bin Laden claimed no formal organization but the U.S. invented one in January 2001 in Manhattan by naming “al-Qaeda” a “criminal organization.” This was done because of Mafia-inspired U.S. criminal statutes designed to reach the head of an organization in the absence of evidence of a direct link to the crime. In “a federal trial in New York City that ended in June 2001, Mohamed Rashed Daoud Al-Owhali, Mohammed Odeh, Wadih el Hage, and Khalfan Khamis Mohamed were convicted of perpetrating the Nairobi bombing and were sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole” (Wikipedia). The evidence for the existence of al-Qaeda as an organization was dubious testimony from Jamal al-Fadl, who was with bin Laden in the early 1990s. [The name “al-Qaeda” was “based on the name of a computer file of bin Laden's that listed the names of contacts he had made in Afghanistan” (Wikipedia).] The result was “the first bin Laden myth” (Jason Burke, author of Al Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror [2004] and Al Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam [2004]). In reality, bin Laden was not a commander, and “there is no evidence bin Laden used the term al-Qaeda before September 11” (Curtis). Some of al-Fadl’s testimony was false (Sam Schmidt, defense attorney in the 2001 trial). The idea that bin Laden ran an organization of which one could be a member is “a myth” ―- it “simply does not exist” (Burke). Neither Zawahiri nor bin Laden originated the Sept. 11 “Planes Operation,” which was in fact the brainchild of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (born 1964 or 1965), who came to bin Laden for financing and volunteers.

American Neoconservatives

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks brought neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz (born 1943) and allies like Donald Rumsfeld (born 1932) back to power; they were being largely ignored in the early days of the Bush administration. But Sept. 11 seemed to validate their vision. They conceived of the war on terror in the same epic terms as the Cold War (1947-1991). Just as with the Soviet Union, with the Islamists “they took a failing movement that had lost mass support, and began to reconstruct it into the image of a powerful network of evil controlled from the center by bin Laden from his lair in Afghanistan. They did this because it fitted with their vision of America’s unique destiny to fight an epic battle against the forces of evil throughout the world” (Curtis).

The U.S. war on Afghanistan was justified as the destruction of this supposed organization. Their principal ally was the Northern Alliance, a loose collection of warlords fighting the Taliban. To satisfy Americans, the Northern Alliance turned over, to the U.S., foreign fighters for the Taliban as members of al-Qaeda, but most of them had nothing to do with bin Laden. The Northern Alliance told the U.S. that bin Laden was hiding in Tora Bora, but the promised fortress was found not to exist; Arabs were sold to the U.S. as al-Qaeda “members.” “The terrible truth was that there was nothing there, because al-Qaeda as an organization did not exist” (Curtis).

The real danger was in the Islamist idea, not the organization, which did not exist. “In looking for an organization, the Americans and the British were chasing a phantom enemy and missing the real threat” (Curtis). “People are looking for something that does not exist” (Burke).

After Sept. 11, the search for the network in the U.S. began. Thousands were detained. The government looked for and claimed to find “sleeper cells.”  “But in reality, there is very little evidence that any of those arrested had anything at all to do with terrorist plots” (Curtis). Evidence was flimsy and often bizarre, e.g. in Detroit a video of a tourist trip to Disneyland by teenagers. Two convictions obtained were cited by officials as successes, but were eventually overturned. In the Buffalo case, six young Yemeni-Americans traveled to Afghanistan in early 2001 and spent weeks in an Islamist training camp, then returned to Lackawanna, a suburb of Buffalo, and did nothing. When one of them, Mukhtar al-Bakri, sent an e-mail from Bahrain, it was was interpreted as a coded message and led to arrests. But in fact it was merely a truthful report of al-Bakri’s upcoming marriage. Other cases were even flimsier and more pitiful. “It’s a fantasy that it was politically expedient to sell” (William Swor, defense attorney in the Detroit case). “We projected our own worst fears. . . . We have an exaggerated perception of the possibility of terrorism that is quite disabling; we have only to look at the evidence to understand that the figures simply don’t bear out the way that we have responded as a society” (Bill Durodie, Director, International Center for Security Analysis, King’s College). But the simplistic fantasy serves the interests of so many powerful groups that it goes unquestioned in media and government discourse.

Abu Zubaydah (born 1973), after his March 2002 capture, told interrogators stories based on Hollywood films; his testimony led to reports of the possibility of a “dirty bomb.” In fact such a bomb poses a negligible danger to the public.

After Afghanistan, neoconservatives “found” previously unperceived links of terrorists to Saddam Hussein and used them as a justification for the invasion of Iraq. “The driving force was the power of a dark fantasy” (Curtis). The very nature of politics was changed. The ability of frightening visions became a source of political strength. “The fear of an imagined future” became a weapon for politicians like Tony Blair and George W. Bush.

From the point of view of public policy, this was a version of the precautionary principle developed by the Green movement: “not having the evidence that something might be a problem is not a reason for not taking action as if it were a problem” (Durodie). But this is a shift from an empirical to an imaginative basis for policy. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft (born 1942) called this “the preventive paradigm” in testimony to Congress. The problem: this justifies acting without evidence. “Once you start imagining, there’s no limit” (Durodie).

Neoconservatives and Islamists were “the last political idealists” (Curtis). Both have failed. But “together, they have created today’s strange fantasy of fear” (Curtis). “In a society that believes in nothing, fear becomes the only agenda . . . And a society that believes in nothing is particular frightened by people who believe in anything” (Durodie).

[Others interviewed in Part III of “The Power of Nightmares,” not mentioned above: Victor Cannistraro (CIA Counterrorism chief, 1988-1990), David Cole (Georgetown U.), John Prados (National Security Archive), Theodore Rockwell (nuclear scientist), Lewis Z. Koch (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists).]