The Power of Nightmares

The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear

Is the threat of radical Islamism as a massive, sinister organised force of destruction—specifically in the form of al-Qaeda—a myth perpetrated by politicians across the globe, but particularly the American neo-conservatives, in order to unite and justify empire? This series of films charts the rise of both groups and movements, drawing comparisons between them and their origins, to provide much-needed and missing context to the War of Terror.


The first part of the series explains the origin of Islamism and Neo-Conservatism and draws the parallels between the two of their optimistic visions to change the world by force. It shows Egyptian civil servant Sayyid Qutb, depicted as the founder of modern Islamist thought, visiting the United States to learn about the education system, but becoming disgusted with what he saw as a corruption of morals and virtues in western society through consumerism. When he returns to Egypt, he is disturbed by the rampant westernisation and becomes convinced that in order to save the culture, it must be completely restructured along the lines of Islamic law. He also becomes convinced that this can only be accomplished through the use of an elite vanguard to lead a revolution against the established order. Qutb becomes a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and, after being tortured in one of Nasser’s jails, is moved to state that western-influenced leaders can justly be killed for the sake of removing their corruption. Qutb is executed in 1966, but he influences the future mentor of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to start his own Islamist group. Inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution, Zawahiri and his allies assassinate Egyptian president Anwar Al Sadat in 1981, in the hopes of starting their own revolution. The revolution does not materialise and Zawahiri comes to believe that the majority of Muslims have been corrupted not only by their western-inspired leaders, but Muslims themselves have been affected by jahilliyah and thus both may be legitimate targets of violence if they do not join him. They continued to have the belief that a vanguard was necessary to rise up and overthrow the corrupt regime and replace with a pure Islamist state. At the same time in the United States, a group of disillusioned liberals, including Irving Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz, look to the political thinking of Leo Strauss after the perceived failure of President Johnson’s so-called “Great Society.” They come to the conclusion that the emphasis on individual liberty was the undoing of the plan. They envisioned restructuring America by uniting the American people against a common evil, and set about creating a mythical enemy. These factions, the Neo-Conservatives, came to power under the Reagan administration, with their allies Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and work to unite the United States in fear of the Soviet Union. The Neo-Conservatives allege the Soviet Union is not following the terms of disarmament between the two countries, and, with the investigation of “Team B”, they accumulate a case to prove this with dubious evidence and methods.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on 25 December 1979 gives a common cause to an extraordinary alliance of radical Islamists in Afghanistan and around the world and to the neo-conservatives in the United States, as a key battleground of the Cold War. As the United States provides funding and arms—including even Stinger missiles capable of shooting down Soviet helicopters—to Islamic Mujahideen fighters who would fire them, a young wealthy Saudi called Osama Bin Laden is among the many foreigners drawn to Afghanistan. When the Soviets eventually pull out and when the Eastern Bloc begins to collapse in the late 1980s, both groups falsely believe they are the primary architects of the defeat of the Soviet Union. Back in America, the Neo-Conservatives’ aspirations to continue to use the United States military power for further destruction of evils are thrown off track by the ascent of George H. W. Bush to the presidency, followed by the 1992 election of Bill Clinton leaving them out of power. The Neo-Conservatives, with their conservative Christian allies, organise to demonise Clinton throughout his presidency with various real and fabricated stories of corruption and immorality, but to their disappointment, the American people do not turn against Clinton. The Islamist attempts at revolution end in massive bloodshed, leaving the Islamists without popular support. Zawahiri and bin Laden flee to the sufficiently safe Afghanistan and declare a new strategy: to fight Western-inspired moral decay they must deal a blow to its source—the United States.

This final episode addresses the actual rise of al-Qaeda, in particular by examining the United States’ role in its creation: After the failed revolutions, bin Laden and Zawahiri had little or no popular support, let alone a serious complex organisation of terrorists, and were dependent upon independent operatives to carry out their new call for jihad. In order to prosecute bin Laden for the 1998 US embassy bombings, US prosecutors had to prove he was the head of a criminal organisation responsible for the bombings. They find a former associate of bin Laden, Jamal al-Fadl, and pay him to testify that bin Laden was the head of a massive terrorist organisation called “al-Qaeda.” With the September 11th attacks, Neo-Conservatives in the new Republican government of George W. Bush use the created concept of al-Qaeda as an organisation to justify another crusade against a new evil enemy, leading to the launch of the “War on Terrorism.” But after the American invasion of Afghanistan fails to uproot the alleged terrorist network, the Neo-Conservatives focus inwards, searching unsuccessfully for terrorist sleeper cells in America. They then extend the War on Terror to a war against general perceived evils with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The ideas and tactics also spread to the United Kingdom where Tony Blair uses the threat of terrorism to give him a new moral authority. The repercussions of the Neo-Conservative strategy are also explored with an investigation of indefinitely-detained terrorist suspects in Guantánamo Bay, many allegedly taken on the word of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance without actual investigation on the part of the United States military, and other forms of pre-emption against non-existent and unlikely threats made simply on the grounds that the parties involved could later potentially become a threat.