Is it conceivable that Al Qaeda, as defined by President Bush as the center of a vast and well-organized international terrorist conspiracy, does not exist?
To even raise the question
amid all the officially inspired hysteria is heretical, especially in the
context of the U.S. media's supine acceptance of administration claims
relating to national security. Yet a brilliant new BBC film produced by
one of Britain's leading documentary filmmakers systematically challenges
this and many other accepted articles of faith in the so-called war on
"The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of
Fear," a three-hour historical film by Adam Curtis recently aired by the
British Broadcasting Corp., argues coherently that much of what we have
been told about the threat of international terrorism "is a fantasy that
has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians. It is a dark illusion
that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the
security services and the international media."
indeed. But consider just a few of the many questions the program poses
along the way:
• If Osama bin Laden does, in fact, head a
vast international terrorist organization with trained operatives in more
than 40 countries, as claimed by Bush, why, despite torture of prisoners,
has this administration failed to produce hard evidence of
• How can it be that in Britain since 9/11, 664 people
have been detained on suspicion of terrorism but only 17 have been found
guilty, most of them with no connection to Islamist groups and none who
were proven members of Al Qaeda?
• Why have we heard so much
frightening talk about "dirty bombs" when experts say it is panic rather
than radioactivity that would kill people?
• Why did Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claim on "Meet the Press" in 2001 that Al Qaeda
controlled massive high-tech cave complexes in Afghanistan, when British
and U.S. military forces later found no such thing?
Of course, the
documentary does not doubt that an embittered, well-connected and wealthy
Saudi man named Osama bin Laden helped finance various affinity groups of
Islamist fanatics that have engaged in terror, including the 9/11 attacks.
Nor does it challenge the notion that a terrifying version of
fundamentalist Islam has led to gruesome spates of violence throughout the
world. But the film, both more sober and more deeply provocative than
Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," directly challenges the conventional
wisdom by making a powerful case that the Bush administration, led by a
tight-knit cabal of Machiavellian neoconservatives, has seized upon the
false image of a unified international terrorist threat to replace the
expired Soviet empire in order to push a political
Terrorism is deeply threatening, but it appears to be a
much more fragmented and complex phenomenon than the octopus-network image
of Al Qaeda, with Bin Laden as its head, would suggest.
BBC documentary acknowledges that the threat of terrorism is both real and
growing, it disagrees that the threat is centralized:
dangerous and fanatical individuals and groups around the world who have
been inspired by extreme Islamist ideas and who will use the techniques of
mass terror — the attacks on America and Madrid make this only too clear.
But the nightmare vision of a uniquely powerful hidden organization
waiting to strike our societies is an illusion. Wherever one looks for
this Al Qaeda organization, from the mountains of Afghanistan to the
'sleeper cells' in America, the British and Americans are chasing a
The fact is, despite the efforts of several
government commissions and a vast army of investigators, we still do not
have a credible narrative of a "war on terror" that is being fought in the
Consider, for example, that neither the 9/11 commission
nor any court of law has been able to directly take evidence from the key
post-9/11 terror detainees held by the United States. Everything we know
comes from two sides that both have a great stake in exaggerating the
threat posed by Al Qaeda: the terrorists themselves and the military and
intelligence agencies that have a vested interest in maintaining the
facade of an overwhelmingly dangerous enemy.
Such a state of
national ignorance about an endless war is, as "The Power of Nightmares"
makes clear, simply unacceptable in a functioning democracy.