The Power of Nightmares:

Programme Information:    The Power of Nightmares
                BBC Two                         Tue 18 Jan, 23:20 - 00:20  60 mins
                                       Baby It's Cold Outside

The first of three films about the rise of the politics of fear.

The series demonstrates how the threat of Islamist terrorism has been distorted and exaggerated by politicians. While there is a terrorist threat from radical Islamism, the idea that we are faced by a terrifying hidden organisation orchestrated by evil mastermind Osama bin Laden is a fantasy.

It is a myth that has spread unquestioned through politics, the security services and the international media.

At the heart of the story are two groups: the American neoconservatives and the radical Islamists. Both groups were idealistic, born out of the failure of the liberal dream to build a better world. Together they created today's nightmare vision of an organised terror network.

The story begins in 1949 with two men. One an Egyptian school inspector called Sayyid Qutb. His ideas would directly inspire those who flew the planes on the September 11th 2001 attack. The other was philosopher Leo Strauss. His ideas would be one of the main influences on the neoconservative movement that now dominates Washington.

In an age of growing disillusion with politics the neoconservatives turned to fear in order to pursue their vision. They would create the spector of a hidden network of evil run by the Soviet Union that only they could see.

While the Islamists, faced by the refusal of the masses to follow their dream, began to turn to terror to force the people to see the truth. They were led by Ayman Zawahiri who would become Osama bin Laden's mentor.

              Subtitles        Stereo
              Subject:       ; Current Affairs
                      Factual; Documentaries

Programme Information:     The Power of Nightmares
                 BBC Two:                       Thu 20 Jan, 23:20 - 00:20  60 mins
                                            The Shadows in the Cave

The final part tells the story of how today's illusion of a hidden international network of terror was created and who benefits from this myth.

In the wake of the shock created by the devastating attacks on September 11th 2001, the neoconservatives reconstructed the Islamists in the image of their last evil enemy the Soviet Union. They identify a sinister web of terror run from the centre by bin Laden in his lair in Afghanistan.

This film makes it clear that there are dangerous and fanatical 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 powerful hidden organisation waiting to strike our societies is an illusion.

Wherever one looks for Al Qaeda, from the mountains of Afghanistan to the 'sleeper cells' in America, the British and Americans are chasing a phantom enemy.

But the reason that no one questions the illusion is because this nightmare enemy gives so many groups new power and influence in a cynical age.

Contains very strong language.

            Subtitles   Stereo
            Subject:       ; Current Affairs        Factual; Documentaries        

Power of Nightmares re-awakened

By Adam Curtis
Series producer, 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 this week on BBC2 - 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 was inundated with correspondence, some critical much of it very positive. Adam Curtis who created the series has responded to some of the issues raised. And you can put any further points to him using the form at the bottom of this page.

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.

I:   Baby It's Cold Outside
     Tuesday 18 January 2005, 2320GMT, BBC Two
II:  The Phantom Victory
      Wednesday 19 January 2005, 2320GMT, BBC Two
III: The Shadows In The Cave
      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.

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

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. As the programmes are shown again this week on BBC Two, you can put any further questions to Adam Curtis using this form. His response to a selection of the e-mails will be published on this page early next week.

Your E-mail address:
Town or city:
Ask Adam Curtis:

Disclaimer: The BBC will select questions for Adam Curtis to answer representing the concerns of as many viewers as possible. Not all questions can be answered and the BBC reserves the right to edit questions that are published.

The Power of Nightmares was first broadcast in Autumn 2004.

It is being reshown over three nights from 18 to 20 January, 2005 at 2320GMT on BBC Two. The final part has been updated in the wake of the Law Lords ruling in December 2004 that detaining foreign terrorist suspects without trial was illegal.

         (Personal Notes -based on the programme)

-Paradoxal war between American Neo-cons and Middle Eastern Islamic muslim brotherhood based on a parallel ideology opposing the corrupting influence of bourgoise individualism.

-Neo-Cons, based on the theories of Leo Straus believe in creating a mythology (which the elite don't need to believe) which forges unity amongst the general population.... The "grand idea" is a romantic belief in American supremacy combined with a simplistic view of the opposition between good and bad which leads to a moral crusade to bring (American style) "democracy" to the world.

-As a result, they are continually inventing threats to the security of America which need to be agressively dealt with. During the cold war they invented weapons that didn't exist -and just as before the invasion of Iraq -claimed that if these weapons couldn't be found this only underlined how dangerous the enemy was.....

-The neo-Cons were opposed to the amoral and pragmatic policies of Kissinger and his ilk.

-Francis Fukuyama seems an interesting case -not only did his book appear to be opposed to the current neo-con approach -he was also an advisor to a democratic administration (Clinton)....

-Sayad Qdth
-Ayman al-Zawahiri
-Leo Straus
-Irving Kristol
-William Kristol
-Richard Pipes
-Michael Ledeen
-Richard Pearl
-Francis Fukuyama ("The End of History")  
-William Casey (CIA)

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