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Last Updated: Monday, 24 January, 2005, 09:18 GMT
Power of Nightmares re-awakened
By Adam Curtis
Writer, Producer and Narrator, The Power of Nightmares

Pro Bin Laden rally
Islamic fundamentalism - but how powerful is al-Qaeda?
The Power of Nightmares - first screened in Autumn 2004 and repeated last week on BBC Two - questions whether the threat of terrorism to the West is a politically driven fantasy and if al-Qaeda really is an organised network.

The BBC has been inundated with correspondence, some critical much of it very positive. Viewers were invited to put their questions to the writer of the series, Adam Curtis. Here he responds to some of those correspondents, chosen to represent a broad selection of your questions.

I know you have already been asked, but PLEASE, PLEASE, release the series on video or DVD

Peter Grant, London

The problem is that the films are full of archive film and music from a multitude of sources. The reason my series are normally not released on DVD is that it is prohibitively costly and a nightmare - no pun intended - to clear the rights.

But so many people have now asked for the series to be released in this form that I think it probably will happen.

NOTE: News about the Power of Nightmares and in particular availability of a DVD or video will be published on this website.

I have sat through your documentary tonight. I hope your programme is shown again following the next terrorist attack. You sound like the hedgehog who claims that cars won't hurt you!!!! I'm amazed!!!!!!!

Iain Foster, Portsmouth

In the face of much more tangible threats in the past - like the IRA, the Soviet Union and even Nazi Germany - British governments did not encourage the people to behave like hedgehogs.

Why roll up into a ball now in the face of what is a serious but in no way an overwhelming threat to our nation and our freedoms?

The programmes did not say that there was no threat. What they argued was that although there is a serious threat of terrorism from some radical Islamists, the nightmare vision of a uniquely powerful hidden organisation waiting to strike our societies is an illusion.

The question the series tried to answer was why contemporary politicians and other elites, like the media, want you to feel frightened - to behave and feel like a hedgehog trapped on a motorway - when the reality and the scale of the threat is actually very different.

Do you believe that there have been any real threats to Western countries that have been 'pre-empted' by the authorities, or have all the arrests fallen down on a lack of evidence? Is the pre-emptive strategy a successful one, and is it not best to be safe rather than sorry?

Dylan Crosby, Birmingham

On the surface the policy of pre-emption - detaining people ahead of time before they can do their attacks - is logical and sensible.

The problem with it though is that it does undermine one of the fundamental principles of our legal system and democracy, the ability to prove your innocence.

If we lock up people on the basis of "future crimes", in other words things that haven't even happened, then you have a huge responsibility to get it right in what you imagine might happen.

At the moment, as the programmes showed, in both Britain and America we are detaining people on the basis of a series of assumptions about international terror networks that when one examines the evidence largely do not exist.

In other words we are locking people up on the basis of an magnified and distorted vision of what might happen - a process driven by the politicians' dark imaginations rather than reality.

Those who have been detained then find it impossible to disprove this because there is, by definition, no substantive proof in a policy of pre-emption.

In the recent Law Lords judgement on the British detainees, Lord Hoffman argued that this may be eroding the very basis of the democracy we are supposed to be defending.

Would you acknowledge that the mujahideen in Afghanistan became radicalised by Zawahiri after the US became involved, rather than because of the US involvement and that many radical Islamic groups around the world have members that were in Peshawar at the time of the Afghan war and would have had contact with Bin Laden & Zawahiri? Here I am thinking of Jamal Islamija, Khattab from Shamil Basaev's group and members of Ansar al Islam in particular.

Harry Schmauzer, London

Many of the mujahideen became radicalised through their experience in Afghanistan. The major influence in this, as the second film in the series showed, was not Ayman Zawahiri but Abdullah Azzam.

He inspired many with the idea that the Afghan experience could transform them as individuals and that they could return to their own countries and lead revolutions that would create Islamist societies throughout the Arab world.

Initially the idea was that this could be achieved politically, but with the failure of Islamist political parties in the 1990s many mujahideen became further radicalised and turned to violence.

But it is important to realise that the overwhelming majority of the Islamists in the camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s were training to go and fight in their own countries - Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Kashmir - not to attack America.

If one looks at the film of the camps at the time one sees fighters being trained in the tactics of urban guerrilla warfare not the terrorism feared by the West.

The idea of attacking the West directly came from Zawahiri and a small group of Islamists who were frustrated by the failure of Islamism to achieve its goal.

Many of the Islamists in Afghanistan were against this strategy, including the Taliban leadership.

The point is that Islamism is a complex political and revolutionary movement with many different strands and theories. Zawahiri's strategy and argument are just one extreme part of that movement.

The common idea that all the mujahideen flooded out of Afghanistan with the sole intention of attacking and destroying the West is just wrong.

Zawahiri's ideas are out there and as the films showed they have inspired groups and individuals around the world - and they are dangerous.

But to search for a hidden organised network is to miss and misunderstand the real nature of the threat that we face from some radical Islamists.

How can we not take the nightmare scenario seriously with the increasing threat of available WMD? How will this programme be remembered when that happens?

Kevin Dale, Manchester

The world is full of threats. But you cannot let your judgement be distorted or overwhelmed by the politics of fear. Cf: Iraq.

Why did you omit the economic element - oil, trade, globalisation, privatisation etc. The crucial project of imperialism.

Shosh Morris, London

I think this is a serious and important criticism. To put it at its simplest it says that the neocons are being used. That their ideas and their myth of America as a revolutionary force that can spread democracy and freedom around the world are a convenient disguise for a much more ruthless and anti-democratic exploitation of the world.

My problem with it as an argument is that it is itself based on a simplistic ideology that doesn't fully explain what is happening.

Underlying the argument is what some people call a "vulgar Marxism", the belief that business and corporate interests shape the world and that all ideas and political ideology are just froth on the surface that disguise the real, hidden forces underneath.

The neoconservatives and the Islamists believe the complete opposite - that ideas can fundamentally change the world. In the neoconservatives' own words: "Ideas do have consequences."

I don't believe either of these positions. I think the reality is far more complex - that ideas do have widespread effects but not in the way those who developed them necessarily intended. They are taken up, used and distorted by many other forces which include business and corporate interests.

But the essential point is that it is not business that leads the way. And in this area in particular I do think that the ideas had a primacy.

The reality is that both the neoconservatives and the Islamists became powerful and influential because of the power of their ideas and I wanted to make a series of films that explained the roots of these ideas and how they were taken up, simplified and distorted.

This was the focus of the programmes, and I made them this way because very few people know anything about the history of these ideas and I thought it was important to tell that history from the point of view of those involved and to critically analyse the development of their ideas.

I think it may well be true that there is a synergy, a fit, between the neoconservatives' particular individualistic version of democracy and the neo-liberal economic policies that suit American business interests but I really don't think that is what is driving the neo-conservatives.

As I said in the films I see them as the last political idealists - they are driven by an extraordinary and epic vision of transforming the world which reflects America's own revolutionary history as much as it does its capitalist economics.

Do you believe it possible that the American Neo-Cons engineered the 9/11 atrocity as a catalyst for their program?

Cliff Babbs, Daventry


Is it possible that the ideology of radical (political) Islam has a better chance of succeeding where it failed in the 1980s now that the West has responded as it has to the perception of its threat in Afghanistan, Iraq etc?

James, London

I can only repeat what I said in my previous responses on this site. I think one has to be very careful about this.

The films showed that Islamism is not a new phenomenon. Its trajectory in the 1980s and 90s is that of rise and fall. It tried to create a pan-Arab revolution and failed because it couldn't inspire the masses.

The answer is that no-one knows whether the war on terror is re-creating mass Islamism and giving it a new revolutionary appeal, or whether it is actually fuelling a more nationalist opposition that uses an Islamist rhetoric - as seems to be happening in Iraq.

The problem is that it is so dangerous to report anything in Iraq that everyone - both pro and anti - project what they want to see onto the insurgency.

Yet again our perception of reality is being driven by political fantasies rather than an accurate understanding drawn from reality.

Hearing so much that we are being misled by the government, how could I determine that programmes like yours isn't misleading as well? Of course the government has their reasons to mislead the public, but I think there are also reasons for people like yourself and Michael Moore to release information such as the ones shown in your documentary. Other than the goal to show "the truth." I don't think I am alone being paranoid with all this information contradicting with each other.

Sung Choi, New York

Welcome to the modern world. I agree with you, I think that "the truth" has become a much more contentious issue since the end of the Cold War.

Back then the world was much simpler and more certain, and patrician elites on both sides of the Iron Curtain were confident in putting forward the received wisdom on all important issues.

Today we all have to work much harder to weigh up the different versions of the truth that are being presented to us. This is exactly what I tried to do in the series.

I looked at both historical and contemporary factual evidence and judged the politicians' and the media's versions of what we were threatened by against this evidence. In doing this I found a severe mismatch between the rhetoric and the evidence.

I then put forward an argument which tried to explain why this has happened - that in this new and uncertain world politicians have found in fear a way of restoring their patrician authority.

My aim in doing this was to say to people: "Look, have you thought of it this way?" as a means of encouraging them to question the received wisdom they are told by governments and the media.

You don't have to agree with my argument about why this has happened, but what I do hope is that the basic journalism and evidence in the programmes will make people see how weak and partial the official version is.

In a bewildering and confusing time I think that is proper public service broadcasting.

Has there been any response (official or unofficial) from the government to the arguments put forward by your series? As someone who still just about manages to trust Tony Blair I would be particularly curious to know if he has seen any of the programmes.

Miles Doubleday, Oxford

None - either official or unofficial. But the Archbishop of Canterbury liked it and the President of Venezuela has asked for a tape.

Surely, the danger is from the primitive belief in a god of whatever kind. Don't you agree that all sane people must reject religion whether Islamic, Christian, Judaist or whatever, as only such fanatical beliefs claim there is an absolute truth?

Keith Hose, London

Stalin managed perfectly well without religion. To be blunt I think that religion has very little to do with this.

In the case of Islamism I think religious ideas were taken up and used by thinkers like Sayyid Qutb for political purposes to drive what is essentially a nationalist movement that flourished in the wake of the failure of the secular politics of Nasser.

I would suggest you read a fascinating article in this month's edition of Prospect magazine by Michael Hirsh. He argues that it was the marginalisation of Islam in Arab societies by Kemal Ataturk and Nasser that left Muslim societies unprotected against dictatorships. His view is that Islam will come to play a crucial role in the growth of future democracies in the Middle East.

You succeeded in avoiding any mention of Israel which may have been sensible but perhaps somewhat economic with the truth?

E Asseily, London

My focus was the history of Islamism as a political movement. Its aim is a revolutionary one, to create a new type of society in countries throughout the Middle East.

If the Palestinian question was solved tomorrow, that would not alter the Islamist's aims or strategy at all.

Bin Laden, Zawahiri and all Islamists, moderate and extreme, speak out against Israel's occupation of the Palestinian homeland.

They do this because they see it as part of the American domination of the Middle East and they may see this as a part of their strategy. But it is not their primary focus. This is why I did not concentrate on it.

Since the programme's first screening and the recent repeats, have you noticed any significant impact the programme has had among politicians and/or the public?

Michael Kenny, Northampton

I don't think that television programmes really change things. Television is a reinforcing medium - it tends to express and amplify already existing changes that are in motion.

In the case of the Power of Nightmares I think the series gave a sharp and focussed expression to a widespread and growing disquiet about the way governments and the media had been reporting the threat.

If there is a terrorist attack in the coming months - which there may be - then I think there will be a counter-reaction from within both the political and media elites.

They will seek to say loudly that this proves there is a hidden and terrifying network unlike anything we have faced before.

But I think that there is now a strong enough body of opinion that will challenge this and say that it shows nothing of the kind.

We have faced urban terrorism before and dealt with it calmly and bravely and I would hope that our politicians will help us do so again without hysterical overreaction.

But I really don't think that this state of fear will last. The Law Lords ruling is very very important and it shows members of the establishment are really beginning to ask questions.

The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these
Lord Hoffman, December 2004
Standard disclaimer: The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

I would point you towards Lord Hoffman's speech and in particular to paragraphs 94 - 97.

Like Lord Hoffman I am optimistic, I'm sure we will survive not only "al Qaeda" but also the politics of fear.

Of course when the fear goes and people see just how much it was exaggerated then there will be a further loss of trust in politicians and their authority.

But that in itself may provide an opportunity for a new and more progressive form of politics to emerge.

Is there a track list available for all music used. I like the music (recognise some of it) but would like to find out what the other tracks are called.

Suzanne Costello,Oxford

There is too much music and noise to list everything. But the main pieces used are these:

John Carpenter - The theme from The Prince of Darkness - the 1987 movie. Plus the repetitive piano bit from Halloween in the haunted house.

Brian Eno - From Another Green World - Big Ship - and In Dark Trees

Charles Ives - Symphony number two - 5th movement. Putnam's Camp from Three Places in New England. Plus a bit from Central Park in the Dark

Ennio Morricone - Theme from the 1970 film Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion And a Morricone piece from the 1980 Pontecorvo film Ogro

Shostakovich - Lyric waltz from the Ballet Suite No 1and a bit from The Young Lady and the Hooligan

John Barry - The Ipcress File

Soundtrack to The Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea - Paul Sawtell and Jerry Goldsmith

Colours by Donovan

Baby It's Cold Outside - the 1949 version by Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting

The best noises come from Skinned - which is a whole lot of samples from the archives of the band Skinny Puppy

Please can you attach to the website some suggestions for further reading

Chris Drinkwater, Rochdale

For Islamism the best books are:

Jihad - The Trail of Political Islam by Gilles Kepel and his earlier book, The Prophet and the Pharaoh

The best insight into the ideas behind all this are in the writings of Sayyid Qutb - in particular Milestones (also translated as Signposts Along the Road)

Olivier Roy - The Failure of Political Islam and Globalized Islam.

Jason Burke - Al Qaeda

By far the best book on Afghanistan is The Fragmentation of Afghanistan by Barnett Rubin and his follow up called The Search for Peace in Afghanistan.

And Zawahiri's own account of the struggle which is actually very revealing - It is translated as Knight's under the Prophet's Banner (I think you can still find it on the internet)

For the history of Neoconservatism try:

The Rise of the Counterestablishment by Sidney Blumenthal

Neoconservatism by Irving Kristol

Leo Strauss and the American Right - Shadia Drury

Antiliberalism by Stephen Holmes

Recasting Conservatism by Robert devigne

Neoconservatism by Irving Kristol

The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom

And for the weirdness of the 1990s:

Blinded by the Right - David Brock

The Gang of Five - The Leaders at the Centre of the Conservative Ascendancy - Nina Easton

Adam Curtis wrote, produced and narrated the series, Power of Nightmares first broadcast on BBC Two in Autumn 2004 and repeated in January 2005.

His other work for the BBC includes The Century of the Self, The Mayfair Set, Pandora's Box, The Living Dead and An Ocean Apart.


Can I get a video or DVD of the programme?

Many viewers requested a copy of the programme. Unfortunately, because of the large and complex amount of archive and music in the series there are no immediate plans to release the programmes on DVD or video. If this situation changes, updated information will be posted at this webpage.

Will the programme be shown internationally, in America or online?

We are very keen that the programmes are made widely available including in America and although the main networks have shown little interest, we are confident that the programmes will be shown in some form. There are however no plans for a book or that the BBC should publish transcripts in addition to the unofficial ones already existing on the internet.

Are you saying that there is no threat?

No, the series did not say this. It was very clear in arguing that although there is a serious threat of terrorism from some radical Islamists, the nightmare vision of a uniquely powerful hidden organisation waiting to strike our societies is an illusion.

As the films showed, wherever one looks for this "al-Qaeda" organisation - from the mountains of Afghanistan to the "sleeper cells" in America - the British and Americans are pursuing a fantasy.

Tuesday 18 January 2005, 2320GMT, BBC Two
Wednesday 19 January 2005, 2320GMT, BBC Two
Thursday 20 January 2005, 2320GMT, BBC Two

The bombs in Madrid and Bali showed clearly the seriousness of the threat - but they are not evidence of a new and overwhelming threat unlike any we have experienced before. And above all they do not - in the words of the British government - "threaten the life of the nation". That is simply untrue.

OK, so al-Qaeda does not exist as a highly organised and structured group. But it is a terrifically powerful ideology, which makes it even more dangerous.

No - the extreme Islamist ideas are dangerous, as Madrid, Bali and 11 September showed, but to portray them as a terrifying new viral form of terrorism is also part of the politics of fear.

Blair and Bush in the shadow of Osama Bin Laden
The Power of Nightmares re-defined the terrorist threat
If one looks at the history of the Islamist movement and its ideas it is clear that its high point came in the late 80s when it seemed on the verge of success across the Muslim world.

But then in the 1990s Islamism failed dramatically in its attempts to create revolutions because the ideas failed to inspire the masses. They did not appeal to the majority of people.

The attacks on 11 September were not the expression of a confident and growing movement, they were acts of desperation by a small group frustrated by their failure which they blamed on the power of America. It is also important to realise that many within the Islamist movement were against this strategy.

The films were biased.

The films were far less biased than the overwhelming majority of media reporting of the al Qaeda threat over the past three years.

Almost all of this reporting was based solely on unsubstantiated briefings from government and security sources.

As with politicians, the media also stumbled on a way of reasserting their authority because they could portray themselves as powerful figures who knew about the terrifying hidden world of "al-Qaeda".

In this way a fantasy became the received wisdom. Just because one is challenging the received wisdom on the basis of historical facts and journalistic investigation does not make one biased.

How can the BBC broadcast the Dirty Bomb programme and transmit the Power of Nightmares?

I don't know, you'll have to ask them. But I am really pleased they were so supportive of the Power of Nightmares. It shows the BBC is a strong and confident public service broadcaster.

Haven't the actions of the Americans and British in the "war on terror" turned the fantasy into reality? In particular with the emergence of Islamist foreign fighters in Iraq.

I think one has to be very careful about this. The anti-war movement and the Left is just as capable as other politicians of playing the politics of fear.

There is very little hard evidence of foreign fighters in Iraq, the majority of the insurgents are Iraqis and despite claims in Washington, the Commander in Chief in Iraq, General Casey, recently said that as far as he could discover foreigners were playing a minimal role in the insurgency.

It starts with conclusions and makes up the evidence to support it. The neo-Conservatives didn't come to power in the US as a result of 9/11. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were already in the Defence Department before 9/11.

World Trade Center site
The attacks on 11 September were not the expression of a confident and growing movement, they were acts of desperation by a small group frustrated by their failure
Adam Curtis, producer, Power of Nightmares
The neo-Conservatives were part of the administration but if you talk to the neo-Cons, which I did, they will tell you candidly that they had very little influence during the early part of the Bush administration, particularly in foreign affairs.

It was the events of 11 September that showed the president, they say, that what they had been warning of since the early 1990s was correct - that America faced dangerous threats in a new unipolar world, and the need for America to fight pre-emptive wars. This, as the programme said, brought them back to power in America. They would agree with this.

Are you saying it's a conspiracy?

No. The use of fear in contemporary politics is not the result of a conspiracy, the politicians have stumbled on it. In a populist, consumerist age where they found their authority and legitimacy declining dramatically they have simply discovered in the "war on terror" a way of restoring their authority by promising to protect us from something that only they can see.

I don't think it will last. Already senior parts of the Establishment are beginning to question the very basis of the politicians' argument - that "al-Qaeda" is a threat like no other which "threatens the life of the nation".

In the recent House of Lords ruling which said that the indefinite detention of foreign nationals without trial was illegal, one of the Law Lords - Lord Hoffman - publicly challenged the government's justification.

He said: "This is a nation which has been tested in adversity, which has survived physical destruction and catastrophic loss of life.

"I do not underestimate the ability of fanatical groups of terrorists to kill and destroy, but they do not threaten the life of the nation.

"Whether we would survive Hitler hung in the balance, but there is no doubt that we shall survive al-Qaeda.

"The Spanish people have not said that what happened in Madrid, hideous crime as it was, threatened the life of their nation. Their legendary pride would not allow it.

"Terrorist violence, serious as it is, does not threaten our institutions of government or our existence as a civil community."

Was the programme trying to change anything?


Can the programme be compared to the red pill offered by Morpheus in The Matrix?

Thank you very much. But remember always to read the label before taking the medication.

Adam Curtis wrote and produced the series, Power of Nightmares first broadcast on BBC Two in Autumn 2004 and repeated in January 2005.

His other work for the BBC includes The Century of the Self, The Mayfair Set, Pandora's Box, The Living Dead and An Ocean Apart.

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