History has taught us that no society is immune to propaganda. In the BBCdocumentary The Power of Nightmares (2004), by Adam Curtis, this thesis is tested to the extreme. Curtis concludes that Al-Qaeda as a global terrorist network has never existed, and that it is a product of the fertile imagination of the neoconservatives, inspired by the ideology of Leo Strauss, who believed the elite had the right to lead the ignorant masses in the right direction even it meant deceiving them. So the picture is quite simple if we are to believe Curtis: after the Soviet Union broke down, there was a desperate need to create a new external enemy which could unite America behind their policies – and the answer was to be found in the figures of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda – not too far removed from the character Emmanuel Goldstein in the novel 1984, by George Orwell.

Curtis presents this as a bad joke at our expense or a public secret that Western politicians have scarcely attempted to hide in the first place.

 «Leo Strauss believed the elite had the right to lead the ignorant masses in the right direction even it meant deceiving them»

And he attempts to show how it represents a whole new level of cynicism and indifference, where leading politicians do not regard empirical facts as a necessary basis on which to run countries. The questions Curtis addresses in his documentary have not yet died away. We still do not have access to many hard facts about Osama Bin Laden’s role as the leader of Al-Qaeda, even two months after he was surprised by commando soldiers in his villa in Abbottabad, close to a huge Pakistani military base. There he was shot unarmed, identified by DNA analysed in Afghanistan and airlifted to a US navy ship were his body was buried at sea, according to Islamic custom – so we are told.
During this raid the US probably broke an unspoken number of international laws and did not consider it necessary to document how it all happened. And on top of it all, The White House also added to the public confusion by constantly revising what happened during Operation Geronimo, as the raid was called.

Bin Laden

Bin Laden was for example not armed, one of his wives was not killed together with him and he did not resist, as first claimed. With information of such an uncertain quality circulating in the world press, it is perhaps not quite so unexpected that a You Gov poll among Pakistani citizens revealed that 66 percent do not believe Bin Laden was killed during the commando raid. The unreliability of the information made the government and media critic Glenn Greenwald doubt if we could rely on the mass media to sift out the facts: “This process continuously produces highly and deliberately misleading accounts of the most significant news items – falsehoods which endure no matter how decisively they are debunked in subsequent days.” So if nobody can provide documentation about how Osama Bin Laden was killed, can we at least know for certain what he did while he was alive?

In Curtis’ documentary, Al-Qaeda has far more elusive qualities than the usual portrayal of this alleged terrorist network would lead one to believe. This is especially evident when he takes a closer look at how the Northern Alliance and their US and British allies chased the Taliban in the Tora Bora mountains in December 2001. In the documentary, he interviews high ranking military personnel who quite explicitly say that Al Qaeda has never been seen in Afghanistan. Neither the British or American forces found traces of AQ. The same is also the case with The Northern Alliance who only found a few small caves when they stormed the mountains of Tora Bora – no underground bunker systems and no secret tunnels.
The prisoners they caught were often randomly collected and sometimes not related to the fighting in the area at all. For Curtis this is proof of the nonexistence of Al-Qaeda. But at this point I miss the inclusion of conflicting reports of how the battle of Tora Bora actually progressed. Curtis does not include a somewhat different version of the events which is to be found in the book Jawbreaker (2005) written by CIA-agent Gary Berntsen. He claims he in fact had pinpointed the position of Bin Laden but that he escaped via an easterly route across the mountains into Afghanistan since Berntsen was not given proper assistance by US forces.

«Al Qaeda has never been seen in Afghanistan»

A critic from the website Common Dreams once described experiencing Curtis’ documentary as taking “the red pill”, like the character Thomas A. Anderson in the film Matrix does in order to see reality in its true shape and dimension. The moment when this happens in Curtis’ documentary, must be when he shares with us a recruitment video for Bin Laden from his period in Afghanistan. We witness the Saudi noble surrounded by black hooded fighters, an intimidating scene where you believe you are witnessing the famous emir displaying his power. But then the narrator’s voice breaks the illusion: the fighters you see were hired for the day – Al-Qaeda did not have the resources to muster such manpower. It was in reality a quite small organisation in 90s – so the Americans had to invent one for Bin Laden, the narrator concludes.
According to Curtis, the invention of Al-Qaeda happened in January 2001 in Manhattan. There, a former associate of Bin Laden, the Sudanese Jamal Al-Fadl testified against an absent Osama Bin Laden indicted, on the grounds of anti-mafia laws, for being responsible for the embassy bombings in East-Africa in 1998. The British journalist and author, Jason Burke tells in the film a story that in many ways totally breaks with the official view of Bin Laden. According to him, there was never any organised network of which you could be a member, he claims. Burke believes Al-Fadl was the one who invented the network Al-Qaeda from scratch in exchange for the benefits he would receive as a protected witness:  “And you had Al-Fadl and a number of other witnesses who is happy to feed into this, who’s got material that is looked upon in a certain way, can be seen to show this organisation’s existence. You put the two together, and you get what is the first Bin Laden myth. And because it is the first, it is extremely influential”, Burke states in the documentary.

The Power of Nightmares

According to Curtis, many of the lawyers attending the trial believed that Al-Fadl lied to give the Americans the picture of the organisation they needed. Sam Schmidt, a defence lawyer at the embassy bombings trial is also interviewed in the film and he shares the same views as Burke: “There were selective portions of Al-Fadl’s testimony that I believe was false to help support the picture that he helped the Americans join together. I think he lied in a number of specific testimonies about a unified image of what this organisation was. It made Al Qaeda the new Mafia, or the new communists. It made them identifiable as a group and therefore made it easier to prosecute any person associated with Al Qaeda for any acts or statements made by Bin Laden brought to light.”  Curtis agrees with his interview subjects although he adds that the small group of people associated with Al Qaeda were dangerous, inspired as they were by Sayeed Qutb the political leader who shared the same thoughts as Leo Strauss. Qutb advocated that a return to Islamic values was the recipe for curing the barbaric individualism in Western society. To achieve this, he supported the use of violence as a means of setting the people on the right path.

«It made Al Qaeda the new Mafia, or the new communists»

For Curtis, it was the neoconservative’s hangup in wild exaggerations that caused the war in Afghanistan from the start. Rumsfeld’s vision of an underground fortress in the Tora Bora mountains is, for Curtis, no different than the former’s ravings in 1976 about how the Soviet Union had developed more sophisticated weapons than Western countries, when he was enrolled in a group of researchers called Team B, tasked to uncover the military strength of the Soviet Union. Dr. Anne Cahn who was employed by the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency 1977-80 makes this verdict on Rumsfeld’s ability to make fact-based judgments: “I would say that all of it was fantasy. They looked at radars out in Krasnoyarsk and said that ‘this was a laser beam weapon’ when it was in fact nothing of the sort.”

The cases in Curtis’ documentary bring into light a repeating pattern. An influential group of people are up to the same tricks over and over again, from exaggeration about Soviet military strength, the lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the alleged ties between Saddam Hussein and the construction of the mysterious organisation Al Qaeda. The latter and their sympathisers have been used as pawns in a cynical power struggle in the Middle East. And in this great game the US government has never been especially concerned about presenting evidence when they make extraordinary claims. It remains to be seen whether this will repeat itself, whether the ongoing peaceful revolutions in the Middle East will prove Qutb wrong and render Islamist armed militants obsolete.