"The Power of Nightmares" Transcript and Documentary.
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In the past, politicians promised to create a better world. They had different ways of achieving this. But their power and authority came from the optimistic visions they offered to their people. Those dreams failed. And today, people have lost faith in ideologies. Increasingly, politicians are seen simply as managers of public life. But now, they have discovered a new role that restores their power and authority. Instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us from nightmares. They say that they will rescue us from dreadful dangers that we cannot see and do not understand. And the greatest danger of all is international terrorism. A powerful and sinister network, with sleeper cells in countries across the world. A threat that needs to be fought by a war on terror. But much of this threat is a fantasy, which has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians. It's a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services, and the international media.
At the heart of the story are two groups: the American neoconservatives, and the radical Islamists. Both were idealists who were born out of the failure of the liberal dream to build a better world. And both had a very similar explanation for what caused that failure. These two groups have changed the world, but not in the way that either intended. Together, they created today's nightmare vision of a secret, organized evil that threatens the world. A fantasy that politicians then found restored their power and authority in a disillusioned age. And those with the darkest fears became the most powerful.
...when a middle-aged school inspector from Egypt arrived at the small town of Greeley, in Colorado. His name was Sayyed Qutb. Qutb had been sent to the U.S. to study its educational system, and he enrolled in the local state college. His photographs appear in the college yearbook. But Qutb was destined to become much more than a school inspector. Out of his experiences of America that summer, Qutb was going to develop a powerful set of ideas that would directly inspire those who flew the planes on the attack of September the 11th. As he had traveled across the country, Qutb had become increasingly disenchanted with America. The very things that, on the surface, made the country look prosperous and happy, Qutb saw as signs of an inner corruption and decay.
What Qutb believed he was seeing was a hidden and dangerous reality underneath the surface of ordinary American life. One summer night, he went to a dance at a local church hall. He later wrote that what he saw that night crystallized his vision.
To most people watching this dance, it would have been an innocent picture of youthful happiness. But Qutb saw something else: the dancers in front of him were tragic lost souls. They believed that they were free. But in reality, they were trapped by their own selfish and greedy desires. American society was not going forwards; it was taking people backwards. They were becoming isolated beings, driven by primitive animal forces. Such creatures, Qutb believed, could corrode the very bonds that held society together. And he became determined that night to prevent this culture of selfish individualism taking over his own country.
But Qutb was not alone. At the same time, in Chicago, there was another man who shared the same fears about the destructive force of individualism in America. He was an obscure political philosopher at the University of Chicago. But his ideas would also have far-reaching consequences, because they would become the shaping force behind the neoconservative movement, which now dominates the American administration. He was called Leo Strauss. Strauss is a mysterious figure. He refused to be filmed or interviewed. He devoted his time to creating a loyal band of students. And what he taught them was that the prosperous liberal society they were living in contained the seeds of its own destruction.
Strauss believed that the liberal idea of individual freedom led people to question everything—all values, all moral truths. Instead, people were led by their own selfish desires. And this threatened to tear apart the shared values which held society together. But there was a way to stop this, Strauss believed. It was for politicians to assert powerful and inspiring myths that everyone could believe in. They might not be true, but they were necessary illusions. One of these was religion; the other was the myth of the nation. And in America, that was the idea that the country had a unique destiny to battle the forces of evil throughout the world. This myth was epitomized, Strauss told his students, in his favorite television program: Gunsmoke.
Leo Strauss' other favorite program was Perry Mason. And this, he told his students, epitomized the role that they, the elite, had to play. In public, they should promote the myths necessary to rescue America from decay. But in private, they didn't have to believe in them.
In 1950, Sayyed Qutb traveled back to Egypt from America. He too was determined to find some way of controlling the forces of selfish individualism. And as he traveled, he began to envisage a new type of society. It would have all the modern benefits of Western science and technology, but a more political Islam would have a central role to play, keeping individualism in check. It would provide a moral framework that would stop people's selfish desires from overwhelming them. But Qutb realized that American culture was already spreading to Egypt, trapping the masses in its seductive dream. What was needed, he believed, was an elite, a vanguard who could see through these illusions of freedom, just as he had in America, and who would then lead the masses to realize the higher truth.
On his return, Qutb became politically active in Egypt. He joined a group called the Muslim Brotherhood, who wanted Islam to play a major role in governing Egyptian society. And in 1952, the Brotherhood supported the revolution led by General Nasser that overthrew the last remnants of British rule. But Nasser very quickly made it clear that the new Egypt was going to be a secular society that emulated Western morals. He quickly forged an alliance with America. And the CIA came to Egypt to organize security agencies for the new regime. Faced with this, the Muslim Brotherhood began to organize against Nasser, and in 1954 Qutb and other leading members of the Brotherhood were arrested by the security services. What then happened to Qutb was going to have consequences for the whole world.
In the 1970s, this film was made, that showed what happened in Nasser's main prison in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It was based on the testimony of survivors. Torturers who had been trained by the CIA unleashed an orgy of violence against Muslim Brotherhood members accused of plotting to overthrow Nasser. At one point, Qutb was covered with animal fat and locked in a cell with dogs trained to attack humans. Inside the cell, he had a heart attack.
Qutb survived, but the torture had a powerful radicalizing effect on his ideas. Up to this point, he had believed that the Western secular ideas simply created the selfishness and the isolation he had seen in the United States. But the torture, he believed, showed that this culture also unleashed the most brutal and barbarous aspects of human beings. Qutb began to have an apocalyptic vision of a disease that was spreading from the West throughout the world. He called it jahilliyah—a state of barbarous ignorance. What made it so terrifying and insidious was that people didn't realize that they were infected. They believed that they were free, and that their politicians were taking them forward to a new world. But in fact, they were regressing to a barbarous age.
To Qutb, this force of jahilliyah had now gone so deep into the minds of Muslims that a dramatic way had to be found to free them. In a series of books he wrote secretly in prison, which were then smuggled out, Qutb called upon a revolutionary vanguard to rise up and overthrow the leaders who had allowed jahilliyah to infect their countries. The implication was that these leaders could justifiably be killed, because they had become so corrupted, they were no longer Muslims, even though they said they were. Faced with this, Nasser decided to crush Qutb and his ideas, and in 1966 Qutb was put on trial for treason. This is the only known film of Qutb as he awaits sentence. The verdict was a foregone conclusion, and on August 29, 1966, Qutb was executed. But his ideas lived on. The day after his execution, a young schoolboy set up a secret group. He hoped that it would one day become the vanguard that Qutb had hoped for. His name was Ayman Zawahiri, and Zawahiri was to become the mentor to Osama bin-Laden.
But at the very moment when Sayyed Qutb's ideas seemed dead and buried, Leo Strauss' ideas about how to transform America were about to become powerful and influential, because the liberal political order that had dominated America since the war started to collapse.
Only a few years before, President Johnson had promised policies that would create a new and a better world in America. He had called it "the Great Society."
But now, in the wake of some of the worst riots ever seen in America, that dream seemed to have ended in violence and hatred. One prominent liberal journalist called Irving Kristol began to question whether it might actually be the policies themselves that were causing social breakdown.
In the early ‘70s, Irving Kristol became the focus of a group of disaffected intellectuals in Washington. They were determined to understand why the optimistic liberal policies had failed. And they found the answer in the theories of Leo Strauss. Strauss explained that it was the very basis of the liberal idea—the belief in individual freedom—that was causing the chaos, because it undermined the shared moral framework that held society together. Individuals pursued their own selfish interests, and this inevitably led to conflict. As the movement grew, many young students who had studied Strauss' ideas came to Washington to join this group. Some, like Paul Wolfowitz, had been taught Strauss' ideas at the University of Chicago, as had Francis Fukuyama. And others, like Irving Kristol's son William, had studied Strauss' theories at Harvard. This group became known as the neoconservatives.
The neoconservatives were idealists. Their aim was to try and stop the social disintegration they believed liberal freedoms had unleashed. They wanted to find a way of uniting the people, by giving them a shared purpose. One of their great influences in doing this would be the theories of Leo Strauss. They would set out to recreate the myth of America as a unique nation whose destiny was to battle against evil in the world. And in this project, the source of evil would be America's Cold War enemy: the Soviet Union. And by doing this, they believed that they would not only give new meaning and purpose to people's lives, but they would spread the good of democracy around the world.
But to do this, the neoconservatives were going to have to defeat one of the most powerful men in the world. Henry Kissinger was the Secretary of State under President Nixon, and he didn't believe in a world of good and evil. What drove Kissinger was a ruthless, pragmatic vision of power in the world. With America's growing political and social chaos, Kissinger wanted the country to give up its ideological battles. Instead, it should come to terms with countries like the Soviet Union, to create a new kind of global interdependence. A world in which America would be safe.
Kissinger had begun this process in 1972, when he persuaded the Soviet Union to sign a treaty with America limiting nuclear arms. It was the start of what was called "détente." And President Nixon returned to Washington to announce triumphantly that the age of fear was over.
But a world without fear was not what the neoconservatives needed to pursue their project. They now set out to destroy Henry Kissinger's vision. What gave them their opportunity was the growing collapse of American political power, both abroad and at home. The defeat in Vietnam, and the resignation of President Nixon over Watergate, led to a crisis of confidence in America's political class. And the neoconservatives seized their moment. They allied themselves with two right-wingers in the new administration of Gerald Ford. One was Donald Rumsfeld, the new Secretary of Defense. The other was Dick Cheney, the President's Chief of Staff. Rumsfeld began to make speeches alleging that the Soviets were ignoring Kissinger's treaties and secretly building up their weapons, with the intention of attacking America.
The CIA, and other agencies who watched the Soviet Union continuously for any sign of threat, said that this was a complete fiction. There was no truth to Rumsfeld's allegations. But Rumsfeld used his position to persuade President Ford to set up an independent inquiry. He said it would prove that there was a hidden threat to America. And the inquiry would be run by a group of neoconservatives, one of whom was Paul Wolfowitz. The aim was to change the way America saw the Soviet Union.
The neoconservatives chose, as the inquiry chairman, a well-known critic and historian of the Soviet Union called Richard Pipes. Pipes was convinced that whatever the Soviets said publicly, secretly they still intended to attack and conquer America. This was their hidden mindset. The inquiry was called Team B, and the other leading member was Paul Wolfowitz.
Team B began examining all the CIA data on the Soviet Union. But however closely they looked, there was little evidence of the dangerous weapons or defense systems they claimed the Soviets were developing. Rather than accept that this meant that the systems didn't exist, Team B made an assumption that the Soviets had developed systems that were so sophisticated, they were undetectable. For example, they could find no evidence that the Soviet submarine fleet had an acoustic defense system. What this meant, Team B said, was that the Soviets had actually invented a new non-acoustic system, which was impossible to detect. And this meant that the whole of the American submarine fleet was at risk from an invisible threat that was there, even though there was no evidence for it.
What Team B accused the CIA of missing was a hidden and sinister reality in the Soviet Union. Not only were there many secret weapons the CIA hadn't found, but they were wrong about many of those they could observe, such as the Soviet air defenses. The CIA were convinced that these were in a state of collapse, reflecting the growing economic chaos in the Soviet Union. Team B said that this was actually a cunning deception by the Soviet regime. The air-defense system worked perfectly. But the only evidence they produced to prove this was the official Soviet training manual, which proudly asserted that their air-defense system was fully integrated and functioned flawlessly. The CIA accused Team B of moving into a fantasy world.
The neoconservatives set up a lobby group to publicize the findings of Team B. It was called the Committee on the Present Danger, and a growing number of politicians joined, including a Presidential hopeful, Ronald Reagan.
Through films and television, the Committee portrayed a world in which America was under threat from hidden forces that could strike at any time, forces that America must conquer to survive.
This dramatic battle between good and evil was precisely the kind of myth that Leo Strauss had taught his students would be necessary to rescue the country from moral decay. It might not be true, but it was necessary, to re-engage the public in a grand vision of America's destiny, that would give meaning and purpose to their lives. The neoconservatives were succeeding in creating a simplistic fiction—a vision of the Soviet Union as the center of all evil in the world, and America as the only country that could rescue the world. And this nightmarish vision was beginning to give the neoconservatives great power and influence.
By the late 1970s, Egypt had been transformed. On the surface, it had become a modern, Westernized state with a prosperous middle class who were benefiting from a flood of Western capital that was being invested in the country. One member of this prosperous Egyptian elite was Ayman Zawahiri. He was now a young doctor, just starting his career.
In reality, Zawahiri was the leader of an underground Islamist cell. The group that he had started as a schoolboy, which he had modeled on the ideas of Sayyed Qutb, had grown. Sayyed Qutb's ideas were now spreading rapidly in Egypt— above all, among students—because his predictions about the corruption from the West seemed to have come true. The government of President Sadat was controlled by a small group of millionaires, who were backed by Western banks. The banks had been let in by what Sadat called his open-door policy. To the Western media, Sadat denied any corruption. All Egyptians knew that this was a blatant lie.
Zawahiri was convinced that the time was now approaching to fulfill Qutb's vision. The vanguard should rise up and overthrow this corrupt regime. And the man who would give the Islamists that opportunity would be Henry Kissinger. As part of his attempt to create a stable and balanced world, Kissinger had persuaded President Sadat to begin peace negotiations with the Israelis. To Kissinger, the ruthless pragmatist, religious divisions and hatreds were irrelevant. The most important thing was to create a safer world. And in 1977, Sadat had flown to Jerusalem to start the peace process. To the West, it was a heroic act. But to the Islamists, it was a complete betrayal. It showed that Sadat's mind had become so corrupted by the West that he was now completely under their control. And under the theories of Sayyed Qutb, this meant that he was no longer a Muslim, and so could justifiably be killed. And then, in 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini showed Zawahiri that his dream of creating an Islamist state was possible.
Khomeini had inspired an uprising against the Shah of Iran. The Shah was another leader who had allowed Western banks to corrupt his country.
Khomeini had put forth the idea of an Islamist state that was remarkably similar to Qutb's ideas. He acknowledged this by placing Qutb's face on one of the postage stamps of the new Islamic republic. In his first sermon, Khomeini addressed the West. "Yes," he told them, "we are reactionaries, and you are enlightened intellectuals. You who want freedom for everything, the freedom that will corrupt our country, corrupt our youth, and freedom that will pave the way for the oppressor—freedom that would drag our country to the bottom."
At the end of 1980, Ayman Zawahiri, with a number of other followers of Qutb who had formed cells, came together. They created an organization they called Islamic Jihad. Its leader was a man called Abdel Salam Faraj. And Faraj argued that they should kill Sadat in a spectacular way that would shock the masses. It would make them see the true reality of the corruption surrounding them, and they would rise up and overthrow the regime.
Those who carried out the assassination were a group of Army officers who were a part of Islamic Jihad. They were immediately arrested, and the regime launched a massive manhunt for those behind the plot. But the effect of the assassination on the Egyptian people was not what Zawahiri had hoped for. That night, Cairo remained calm. The masses failed to rise up. And in the following weeks, Zawahiri and many other conspirators were arrested. The assassins were tried immediately and executed. But then, nearly 300 Islamists, including Zawahiri, were put on trial in a pavilion in Cairo's industrial exhibition park. It was agreed that Zawahiri would be their spokesman.
At the trial, Zawahiri was sentenced to three years in prison, along with many others of Islamic Jihad. He was taken to cells behind the Police National Museum, where, like Sayyed Qutb, he was tortured. And under this torture, he began to interpret Qutb's theories in a far more radical way. The mystery, for Zawahiri, was why the Egyptian people had failed to see the truth and rise up. It must be because the infection of selfish individualism had gone so deep into people's minds that they were now as corrupted as their leaders. Zawahiri now seized on a terrible ambiguity in Qutb's argument. It wasn't just leaders like Sadat who were no longer real Muslims, it was the people themselves. And Zawahiri believed that this meant that they too could legitimately be killed. But such killing, Zawahiri believed, would have a noble purpose, because of the fear and the terror that it would create in the minds of ordinary Muslims. It would shock them into seeing reality in a different way. They would then see the truth.
And at this very same moment, religion was being mobilized politically in America, but for a very different purpose. And those encouraging this were the neoconservatives. Many neoconservatives had become advisers to the Presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan. And as they became more involved with the Republican Party, they had forged an alliance with the religious wing of the party, because it shared their aim of the moral regeneration of America.
By the late ‘70s, there were millions of fundamentalist Christians in America. But their preachers had always told them not to vote. It would mean compromising with a doomed and immoral society. But the neoconservatives and their new Republican allies made an alliance with a number of powerful preachers, who told their followers to become involved with politics for the first time.
And at the beginning of 1981, Ronald Reagan took power in America. The religious vote was crucial in his election, because many millions of fundamentalists voted for the first time. And as they had hoped, many neoconservatives were given power in the new administration. Paul Wolfowitz became head of the State Department policy staff, while his close friend Richard Perle became the Assistant Secretary of Defense. And the head of Team B, Richard Pipes, became one of Reagan's chief advisers. The neoconservatives believed that they now had the chance to implement their vision of America's revolutionary destiny—to use the country's power aggressively as a force for good in the world, in an epic battle to defeat the Soviet Union. It was a vision that they shared with millions of their new religious allies.
But the neoconservatives faced immense opposition to this new policy. It came not just from the bureaucracies and Congress, but from the President himself. Reagan was convinced that the Soviet Union was an evil force, but he still believed that he could negotiate with them to end the Cold War.
To persuade the President, the neoconservatives set out to prove that the Soviet threat was far greater than anyone, even Team B, had previously shown. They would demonstrate that the majority of terrorism and revolutionary movements around the world were actually part of a secret network, coordinated by Moscow, to take over the world. The main proponent of this theory was a leading neoconservative who was the special adviser to the Secretary of State. His name was Michael Ledeen, and he had been influenced by a best-selling book called The Terror Network. It alleged that terrorism was not the fragmented phenomenon that it appeared to be. In reality, all terrorist groups, from the PLO to the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany, and the Provisional IRA, all of them were a part of a coordinated strategy of terror run by the Soviet Union. But the CIA completely disagreed. They said this was just another neoconservative fantasy.
But the neoconservatives had a powerful ally. He was William Casey, and he was the new head of the CIA. Casey was sympathetic to the neoconservative view. And when he read the Terror Network book, he was convinced. He called a meeting of the CIA's Soviet analysts at their headquarters, and told them to produce a report for the President that proved this hidden network existed. But the analysts told him that this would be impossible, because much of the information in the book came from black propaganda the CIA themselves had invented to smear the Soviet Union. They knew that the terror network didn't exist, because they themselves had made it up.
In the end, Casey found a university professor who described himself as a terror expert, and he produced a dossier that confirmed that the hidden terror network did, in fact, exist. Under such intense lobbying, Reagan agreed to give the neoconservatives what they wanted, and in 1983 he signed a secret document that fundamentally changed American foreign policy. The country would now fund covert wars to push back the hidden Soviet threat around the world.
It was a triumph for the neoconservatives. America was now setting out to do battle against the forces of evil in the world. But what had started out as the kind of myth that Leo Strauss had said was necessary for the American people increasingly came to be seen as the truth by the neoconservatives. They began to believe their own fiction. They had become what they called "democratic revolutionaries," who were going to use force to change the world.
The neoconservatives now set out to transform the world. In next week's episode, they find themselves joining forces with the Islamists in Afghanistan, and together they fight an epic battle against the Soviet Union. And both come to believe that they had defeated the Evil Empire. But this imagined victory would leave them without an enemy. And in a world disillusioned with grand political ideas, they would need to invent new fantasies and new nightmares, in order to maintain their power.
The Islamists believed that this great victory would start a revolution that would sweep across the Arab world and topple the corrupt leaders. But as with the neoconservatives, this dream was built on an illusion. There was a deep rift within the Islamist fighters based in Peshawar—between the moderates, led by Abdullah Azzam, who believed this revolution could be accomplished politically; and the extremists, like Ayman Zawahiri, who saw violent revolution as the only way. And Zawahiri now set out to extend his influence over the movement, and to undermine Abdullah Azzam. To do this, he seduced Osama bin-Laden—and his money—away from Azzam. He promised bin-Laden that he could become the emir, the leader of Zawahiri's small extremist group, Islamic Jihad.
Then, at the end of 1989, Abdullah Azzam was assassinated by a huge car bomb in Peshawar. It is still unknown who carried out the assassination. But despite his death, it seemed as if Azzam's vision of a political revolution might prevail. In the early ‘90s, in countries across the Arab world, Islamist parties began to gather mass support.
In Algeria, the Islamic Salvation Front won overwhelming victories in local elections, and looked certain to win the coming general election. And at the same time in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood began to win mass support, and a growing number of seats in Parliament. Both parties were riding to power on an idealistic vision. They would use Islam in a political way to create a new type of model society through peaceful means.
But the governments in both Egypt and Algeria faced a terrible dilemma. At the heart of the Islamist vision was the idea that the Koran should be used as the political framework for the society. An absolute set of laws, beyond debate, that all politicians had to follow. The implication of this was that political parties would be irrelevant, because there could be no disagreement. The people were about to vote in parties that might use that power to end democracy.
Faced by this dilemma, in Algeria the army decided to step in, and in June 1991 they staged a coup d'état and immediately canceled the elections. Mass protests by the Islamists were repressed violently, and their leaders arrested. At the same time, in Egypt, the government also clamped down. They arrested hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members, and banned the organization from any political activity.
For Ayman Zawahiri, this was a dramatic confirmation of his belief that the Western system of democracy was a corrupt sham. Groups of radical Islamists who had developed his theories into even more extreme forms now set out to create violent revolutions in Algeria and Egypt. It would be the start of a jihad that would liberate the Muslim world from corruption.
At this same time, in Washington, the other group who believed that they had brought down the Soviet Union—the neoconservatives—were also determined to push on with their revolutionary agenda. They were convinced that the Soviet Union was just one of many evil regimes in the world led by tyrants that threatened America. Regimes they had to conquer to liberate the world and spread democracy.
One of the most evil of these tyrants, the neoconservatives decided, was Saddam Hussein. In the 1980s, Saddam had been America's close ally. But in 1990, he invaded Kuwait. The neoconservatives now saw him as a key to pursuing the next stage of their transformation of the world. An American-led coalition had been created by President Bush senior, to liberate Kuwait. But the neoconservatives, like Paul Wolfowitz, who was Undersecretary of Defense, wanted to push on to Baghdad, and bring about a transformation of the Middle East. It would fulfill America's unique role to defeat evil in the world.
But President Reagan was no longer in charge. The neoconservatives now had a leader who did not share their vision.
President GEORGE HW BUSH : Kuwait is liberated. Iraq's army is defeated. Our military objectives are met. And I am pleased to announce that all United States and Coalition forces will suspend combat operations.
Once Kuwait was freed, Bush ordered the fighting to stop. His view was that America's role was to create stability in the world, not to try and change it. Like Henry Kissinger, who had been the enemy of the neoconservatives in the 1970s, Bush saw questions of good and evil as irrelevant. The higher aim was to achieve a stable balance of power in the Middle East.
In private, the neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz were furious. Not just because Saddam Hussein had been left in power, but because they saw this as a clear expression of the corrupt liberal values that dominated America—a moral relativism that was prepared to compromise with the forces of evil in the world.
Faced by this defeat, the neoconservative movement now turned inwards, to try and defeat the forces of liberalism that were holding it back. And to do this, they turned again to the theories of Leo Strauss. Strauss believed that good politicians should reassert the absolute moral values that would unite society, and this would overcome the moral relativism that liberalism created. One of the most influential Straussians was the new assistant to the Vice-President, William Kristol.
The neoconservatives set out to reform America. And at the heart of their project was the political use of religion. Together with their long-term allies, the religious right, they began a campaign to bring moral and religious issues back into the center of conservative politics. It became known as the "culture wars."
For the religious right, this campaign was a genuine attempt to renew the religious basis of American society. But for the neoconservatives, religion was a myth, like the myth of America as a unique nation that they had promoted in the Cold War. Strauss had taught that these myths were necessary to give ordinary people meaning and purpose, and so ensure a stable society.
Out of this campaign, a new and powerful moral agenda began to take over the Republican Party. It reached a dramatic climax at the Republican Convention in 1992, when the religious right seized control of the party's policy-making machinery. George Bush became committed to running for President with policies that would ban abortion, gay rights, and multiculturalism. Speakers who tried to promote the traditional conservative values of individual freedom were booed off the stage.
For the neoconservatives, the aim of this new morality was to unite the nation. But in fact, it had completely the opposite effect. Mainstream Republican voters were frightened away by the harsh moralism that had taken over their party. They turned instead to Bill Clinton, a politician who connected with their real concerns and needs, like tax and the state of the economy.
At the end of 1992, Bill Clinton won a dramatic victory. But the neoconservatives were determined to regain power. And to do this, they were going to do to Bill Clinton what they had done to the Soviet Union: they would transform the President of the United States into a fantasy enemy, an image of evil that would make people realize the truth of the liberal corruption of America.
In the early ‘90s, Algeria, Egypt, and other Arab countries were being torn apart by a horrific wave of Islamist terror. The jihadists who had returned from Afghanistan were trying to topple the regimes. At the heart of their strategy was the idea that Ayman Zawahiri and others had taught them: that those who were involved in politics could legitimately be killed, because they had become corrupted and thus were no longer Muslims. This violence, they believed, would shock people into rising up, and the corrupt regimes would then be overthrown.
Ayman Zawahiri was now based with bin-Laden on this farm in the Sudan. He used it as a base for his group, Islamic Jihad, to launch attacks on politicians in Egypt. But as one of the leading ideologues of the revolution, he also traveled throughout the Arab world, advising other groups on their strategy. But the revolutionaries soon found that the masses did not rise up and follow them. The regimes stayed in power, and the radical Islamists were hunted down. Faced by this, the Islamists widened their terror. Their logic was brutal: it was not just those who were involved with politics who should be killed, but the ordinary people who supported it. Their refusal to rise up showed that they, too, had become corrupted, and so had condemned themselves to death.
In Algeria, this logic went completely out of control. The Islamist revolutionary groups killed thousands of civilians, because they believed that all these people had become corrupted. In turn, the generals running Algeria infiltrated the revolutionary groups. They told their agents to persuade the Islamists to push the logic even further, to kill even more people. This would create such horror that the groups would lose any remaining support, and the generals could use the fear and revulsion to increase their grip on power.
By 1997, the Islamist revolution was failing. There were mass demonstrations against the Islamist groups by thousands of people horrified by the violence. And then, in June of that year, a group of Egyptian Islamists attacked Western tourists at the ruins of Luxor. 58 were killed in three hours of random violence. The massacre shocked the Egyptian people, and the leaders of the revolutionary groups agreed to call a cease-fire. In Algeria, a few groups held out. But they began to tear each other apart, as they followed the logic that had driven their revolution to its ultimate—and logical—end: they started to kill each other.
The main Islamist group in Algeria, the GIA, ended up being led by a Mr. Zouabri, a chicken farmer, who killed everyone who disagreed with him. He issued a final communiqué, declaring that the whole of Algerian society should be killed, with the exception of his tiny remaining band of Islamists. They were the only ones who understood the truth.
By the mid-'90s, politics in Washington was dominated by one issue: the moral character of the President of the United States.
Behind this were an extraordinary barrage of allegations against Clinton that were obsessing the media. These included stories of sexual harassment; stories that Clinton and his wife were involved in Whitewater, a corrupt property deal; stories that they had murdered their close friend Vince Foster; and stories that Clinton was involved in smuggling drugs from a small airstrip in Arkansas. But none of these stories were true. All of them had been orchestrated by a young group of neoconservatives, who were determined to destroy Clinton. The campaign was centered on a small right-wing magazine called the American Spectator, which had set up what was called the "Arkansas Project" to investigate Clinton's past life. The journalist at the center of this project was called David Brock.
Since then, Brock has turned against the neoconservative movement. He now believes that the attacks on Clinton went too far, and corrupted conservative politics.
The stories began to grip America, and despite Clinton's denials, the Republicans in Congress seized on the scandals and began to press for investigations into this immorality at the heart of government.
Out of this pressure, Clinton was forced to agree to an independent investigation into Whitewater. It was headed by a senior judge in Washington called Kenneth Starr. But what was not widely known was that Starr was a member of a right-wing group of lawyers called the Federalist Society, that had financial and ideological links to the neoconservatives. And like the neoconservatives, they saw Clinton as a danger to the country, and they were determined to prove this to the American people.
But despite all his efforts, Kenneth Starr could find no incriminating evidence in Whitewater. Nor could he find any evidence to support any of the sexual scandals that had come from the Arkansas Project. Until finally, his committee stumbled upon Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, which Clinton denied. And in that lie, the neoconservative movement believed they had found what they had been looking for: a way to make the American people see the truth about the liberal corruption of their country. A campaign now began to impeach the President. And in the hysteria, the whole conservative movement portrayed Clinton as a depraved monster who had to be removed from office. But yet again, the neoconservatives had created a fantasy enemy by exaggerating and distorting reality.
But all the moral fury, and the deception, came to nothing. The impeachment failed because the polls consistently showed that Americans still did not care about these moral issues. One leading neoconservative, William Bennett, wrote a book called The Death of Outrage, which blamed the people. He accused the public of making a deal with the devil. Their failure, he said, to support the impeachment, was evidence of their moral corruption.
By 1997, bin-Laden and Ayman Zawahiri had returned to Afghanistan, where they had first met ten years before. Back then, it had seemed as if Islamism might succeed as a popular revolutionary movement. But now, they were facing failure. All attempts to topple regimes in the Arab world had not succeeded. The people had turned against them because of the horrific violence, and Afghanistan was the only place they had left to go.
In May, 1998, bin-Laden and Zawahiri invited a group of journalists to this press conference, where they announced a new jihad. Zawahiri was convinced that it was not their theories that were to blame for the failure; it was the fault of the Muslim masses. Their minds had been corrupted by the liberal ideas from the West. But rather than give up, they believed that the solution was to attack the source of the corruption directly. The new jihad would be against America itself.
This was a strategy of desperation, born out of failure by a small group whose revolution had failed. And the anger that came from that failure was about to be directed at the United States. What Zawahiri and bin-Laden were about to do would dramatically affect the future of the neoconservative movement. By 1998, all their attempts to transform America by creating a moral revolution had failed. Faced with the indifference of the people, the neoconservatives had become marginalized, in both domestic and foreign policy. But with the attacks that were about to hit America, the neoconservatives would at last find the evil enemy that they had been searching for ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And in their reaction to the attacks, the neoconservatives would transform the failing Islamist movement into what would appear to be the grand revolutionary force that Zawahiri had always dreamed of. But much of it would exist only in people's imaginations. It would be the next phantom enemy.
At the end of the 1990s, Osama bin Laden had returned to Afghanistan. He was accompanied by Ayman Zawahiri, the most influential ideologist of the Islamist movement. For 20 years, Zawahiri had struggled to create revolutions in the Arab world, but all attempt had ended in bloody failure.
Zawahiri was a follower of the Egyptian revolutionary, Sayyed Qutb, who had been executed in 1966. Qutb's vision had been of a new type of modern state. It would contain all of the benefits of Western science and technology, but it would use Islam as a moral framework to protect people from the culture of Western liberalism. Qutb believed that this culture infected the minds of Muslims, turning them into selfish creatures who threatened to destroy the shared values that held society together. Throughout the 80s and 90s, Zawahiri had tried to persuade the masses to rise up and topple the rulers who had allowed this corruption to infect their countries.
But the revolutionaries became trapped in a horrific escalation of violence, because the masses refused to follow them. Islamism failed as a mass movement, and Zawahiri now came to the conclusion that a new strategy was needed.
Zawahiri and bin Laden began implementing this new strategy in August, 1998. Two huge suicide bombs were detonated outside American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 200 people. The bombings had a dramatic effect on the West. For the first time, the name "bin Laden" entered the public consciousness as a terrorist mastermind.
The suicide bombers had been recruited by bin Laden from the Islamist training camps in Afghanistan. But his and Zawahiri's operation was very much on the fringes of the Islamist movement. The overwhelming majority of the fighters in these camps had nothing at all to do with bin Laden or international terrorism. They were training to fight regimes in their own countries, such as Uzbekistan, Kashmir, and Chechnya. Their aim was to establish Islamist societies in the Western world, and they had no interest in attacking America. Bin Laden helped fund some of the camps, and in return was allowed to look for volunteers for his operations. But a number of senior Islamists were against his new strategy, including members of Zawahiri's own group, Islamic Jihad.
Even bin Laden's displays of strength to the Western media were faked. The fighters in this video had been hired for the day and told to bring their own weapons. For beyond this small group, bin Laden had no formal organisation—until the Americans invented one for him.
In January, 2001, a trial began in a Manhattan courtroom of four men accused of the embassy bombings in east Africa. But the Americans had also decided to prosecute bin Laden in his absence. But to do this under American law, the prosecutors needed evidence of a criminal organisation because, as with the Mafia, that would allow them to prosecute the head of the organisation even if he could not be linked directly to the crime. And the evidence for that organisation was provided for them by an ex-associate of bin Laden's called Jamal al-Fadl.
JASON BURKE , AUTHOR, "AL QAEDA" : During the investigation of the 1998 bombings, there is a walk-in source, Jamal al-Fadl, who is a Sudanese militant who was with bin Laden in the early 90s, who has been passed around a whole series of Middle East secret services, none of whom want much to do with him, and who ends up in America and is taken on by—uh—the American government, effectively, as a key prosecution witness and is given a huge amount of American taxpayers' money at the same time. And his account is used as raw material to build up a picture of Al Qaeda. The picture that the FBI want to build up is one that will fit the existing laws that they will have to use to prosecute those responsible for the bombing. Now, those laws were drawn up to counteract organised crime: the Mafia, drugs crime, crimes where people being a member of an organisation is extremely important. You have to have an organisation to get a prosecution. And you have al-Fadl and a number of other witness, a number of other sources, who are happy to feed into this. You've got material that, looked at 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—the first Al Qaeda myth. And because it's one of the first, it's extremely influential.
The picture al-Fadl drew for the Americans of bin Laden was of an all-powerful figure at the head of a large terrorist network that had an organised network of control. He also said that bin Laden had given this network a name: "Al Qaeda." It was a dramatic and powerful picture of bin Laden, but it bore little relationship to the truth.
The reality was that bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri had become the focus of a loose association of disillusioned Islamist militants who were attracted by the new strategy. But there was no organisation. These were militants who mostly planned their own operations and looked to bin Laden for funding and assistance. He was not their commander. There is also no evidence that bin Laden used the term "Al Qaeda" to refer to the name of a group until after September the 11th, when he realized that this was the term the Americans have given it.
In reality, Jamal al-Fadl was on the run from bin Laden, having stolen money from him. In return for his evidence, the Americans gave him witness protection in America and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many lawyers at the trial believed that al-Fadl exaggerated and lied to give the Americans the picture of a terrorist organisation that they needed to prosecute bin Laden.
What did exist was a powerful idea that was about to inspire a single, devastating act that would lead the whole world into believing the myth that had begun to be constructed in the Manhattan courtroom.
The attack on America by 19 hijackers shocked the world. It was Ayman Zawahiri's new strategy, implemented in a brutal and spectacular way. But neither he nor bin Laden were the originators of what was called the "Planes Operation." It was the brainchild of an Islamist militant called Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who came to bin Laden for funding and help in finding volunteers. But in the wake of panic created by the attacks, the politicians reached for the model which had been created by the trial earlier that year: the hijackers were just the tip of a vast, international terrorist network which was called, "Al Qaeda."
And the attacks had another dramatic effect: they brought the neoconservatives back to power in America. When George Bush first became president, he had appointed neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz, and their allies like Donald Rumsfeld, to his administration. But their grand vision of America's role in the world was largely ignored by this new regime.
But now, the neoconservatives became all-powerful, because this terror network proved that what they had been predicting through the 1990s was correct: that America was at risk from terrifying new forces in a hostile world. A small group formed that began to shape America's response to the attacks. At its heart were Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, along with the vice-president, Dick Cheney, and Richard Perle, who was a senior advisor to the Pentagon. The last time these men had been in power together was 20 years before, under President Reagan. Back then, they had taken on and, as they saw it, defeated a source of evil that wanted to take over America: the Soviet Union. And now they saw this new war on terror in the same epic terms.
The neoconservatives distorted and exaggerated the Soviet threat. They created the image of a hidden, international web of evil run from Moscow that planned to dominate the world, when, in reality, the Soviet Union was on its last legs, collapsing from within. Now, they did the same with the Islamists. They took a failing movement which had lost mass support and began to reconstruct it into the image of a powerful network of evil, controlled from the center by bin Laden from his lair in Afghanistan. They did this because it fitted with their vision of America's unique destiny to fight an epic battle against the forces of evil throughout the world.
To do this, the Americans allied themselves with a group called the Northern Alliance. They were a loose collection of warlords, fighting a war of resistance against the Taliban, the Islamists who controlled Afghanistan. The Taliban's best troops were the thousands of foreign fighters from the training camps who the Northern Alliance hated.
And now, they took their revenge on the foreign fighters. The Americans believed that these men were Al Qaeda terrorists, and the Northern Alliance did nothing to disabuse them of this, because they were paid by the Americans for each prisoner they delivered. But the majority of these fighters had never had anything to do with bin Laden or international terrorism. Both they and the Taliban were radical nationalists who wanted to create Islamist societies in their own countries. But now, they were either killed or taken off to Guantánamo Bay and Islamism, as an organised movement for changing the Muslim world, was obliterated in Afghanistan. But as it disappeared, it was replaced by ever more extravagant fantasies about the power and reach of the Al Qaeda network.
In December, the Northern Alliance told the Americans that bin Laden was hiding in the mountains of Tora Bora. They were convinced they had found the heart of his organisation.
For days, the Americans bombed the mountains of Tora Bora with the most powerful weapons they had. The Northern Alliance had been paid more than a million dollars for their help and information, and now their fighters set off up the mountains to storm bin Laden's fortress and bring back the Al Qaeda terrorists and their leader.
But all they found were a few small caves, which were either empty or had been used to store ammunition. There was no underground bunker system, no secret tunnels: the fortress didn't exist. The Northern Alliance did produce some prisoners they claimed were Al Qaeda fighters, but there was no proof of this, and one rumor was that the Northern Alliance was simply kidnapping anyone who looked remotely like an Arab and selling them to the Americans for yet more money.
The Americans now began to search all the caves in all the mountains in eastern Afghanistan for the hidden Al Qaeda network.
But wherever they looked, there was nothing there. Al Qaeda seemed to have completely disappeared.
But then, the British arrived to help. They were convinced they could hunt down Al Qaeda because of what they said was their unique experience in fighting terrorism in Northern Ireland. They could succeed where others had failed.
The terrible truth was that there was nothing there because Al Qaeda as an organisation did not exist. The attacks on America had been planned by a small group that had come together around bin Laden in the late 90s. What united them was an idea: an extreme interpretation of Islamism developed by Ayman Zawahiri. With the American invasion, that group had been destroyed, killed or scattered. What was left was the idea, and the real danger was the way this idea could inspire groups and individuals around the world who had no relationship to each other. In looking for an organisation, the Americans and the British were chasing a phantom enemy and missing the real threat.
But the neoconservatives were now increasingly locked into this fantasy, and next they set out to uncover the network in America itself. The American government set out to search for the Al Qaeda organisation inside its own country. Thousands were detained as all branches of the law and the military were told to look for terrorists.
The Americans called them "sleeper cells," and decided that they had just been waiting to strike. But in reality there is very little evidence that any of those arrested had anything at all to do with terrorist plots. From Portland to the suburb of Buffalo called Lackawanna, yet again the Americans were chasing a phantom enemy.
The evidence behind all of the sleeper cell cases is flimsy and often bizarre. This tape was one of the central pieces of evidence in the first of the cases. It was found in a raid on this house…
... in Detroit. Four Arab men were arrested on suspicion of being an Al Qaeda sleeper cell.
They had been accused by another immigrant called Mr Hmimssa. But Mr Hmimssa was, in reality, an international con man with 12 aliases and wanted for fraud across America.
Despite this, the FBI offered to reduce his sentence for fraud if he testified against the men. And to back up Mr Hmimssa's allegations, the FBI turned to the videotape. On the surface it was the innocent record of a trip to Disneyland by a group of teenagers who had nothing to do with the accused, but the government had discovered a hidden and sinister purpose to the tape.
And what looked like a camera which had accidentally been left running was in reality a terrorist secretly counting out distances to show others where to place a bomb. And the government also said that the Detroit cell was planning to attack US military bases around the world. Yet again, they found hidden evidence of this in a day planner they discovered under the sofa in the house in Detroit. What looked like doodles were in reality, they said, a plan to attack a US base in Turkey.
But the drawings in the day planner were discovered to have actually been the work of a madman. They were the fantasies of a Yemeni who believed that he was the minister of defence for the whole of the Middle East. He had committed suicide a year before any of the accused had arrived in Detroit, leaving the day planner lying under the sofa in the house. Despite this, two of the accused were found guilty. But then, the government's only witness, Mr Hmimssa, told two of his cellmates that he had made the whole thing up to get his fraud charges reduced. The terrorism convictions have now been overturned by the judge in the case, but it was acclaimed by the President as the first success in the war on terror at home.
Another case, in the city of Buffalo, New York, seemed on the surface to be more substantial. Six young Yemeni-Americans had gone to an Islamist training camp in Afghanistan. They travelled there in early 2001 and spent between 2 and 6 weeks training and being taught Islamist revolutionary theory. Two of them even met bin Laden on one of his tours of the camp. They then returned to the Buffalo suburb of Lackawanna, where they lived, but they did nothing. The FBI heard about their trip and they watched the six men around the clock for nearly a year, but there was no suspicious behavior.
But then, one of the men, Mr al-Bakri, went to Bahrain and sent his friends an E-mail. It said he was going to get married and that he wouldn't be seeing them for awhile. The CIA, who had been monitoring their E-mails, understood this to be a coded message: the cell was about to launch a suicide attack on the US Fifth Fleet.
JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Good afternoon. In the past 24 hours, United States law enforcement has identified and disrupted an Al Qaeda-trained terrorist cell on American soil.
The arrests were announced proudly by Washington as another sleeper cell plotting an attack. But it soon became clear that there was no evidence for this at all, other than the E-mail.
Faced with the fact that there was no evidence, the government quietly dropped any charges of their being a terrorist cell. Instead, they were prosecuted simply for having gone to the training camp, and for having bought uniforms there. And all the other cases were even flimsier: A group of students who supported the liberation of Kashmir were found paint-balling in the woods of Virginia. They were convicted of training to attack America. A group of African-Americans from Oregon tried to go to Afghanistan to support the Taliban but got lost in China. All these groups, the government said, were part of a hidden and terrifying Al Qaeda network.
But, yet again, there is very little evidence for this. Of the 664 people arrested under the Terrorism Act since September the 11th, none of them have been convicted of belonging to Al Qaeda. Only 3 people have so far been convicted of having any association with any Islamist groups, and none of those convictions were for being involved in a terror plot; they were for fundraising, or possessing Islamist literature. The majority of people convicted under the Terrorism Act since September the 11th have actually been members of Irish terrorist groups like the UVF or the Real IRA. And many of the arrests that were dramatically announced as being part of a hidden Al Qaeda network were, in reality, as absurd as the cases in America. For example, the London police swooped on a Mr Zain ul-Abedin who they said was running an international network for terrorist training. It turned out to be a self-defence course for bodyguards. He called it "Ultimate Jihad Challenge." His only client was a security guard from a supermarket, who wanted to learn how to defend himself against shoplifters. Mr Zain ul-Abedin was cleared of all charges. Then there was the Hogmanay terror cell who, it was alleged, were planning to attack Edinburgh. All charges against them were quietly dropped when it was revealed that a key part of the evidence, a map that showed the targets they were going to attack, turned out to have been left in their flat by an Australian backpacker who had ringed the tourist sites he wanted to see. And even the most frightening and high profile of the plots uncovered turned out to be without foundation. No one was ever arrested for planning gas attacks on the London tubes; it was a fantasy that swept through the media. Just as in America, there is no evidence yet of the terrifying and sinister network lurking under the surface of our society which both government and the media continually tell us is there.
What the British and American governments have done is both distort and exaggerate the real nature of the threat. There are dangerous and fanatical groups around the world who've been inspired by the extreme Islamist theories, and they are prepared to use the techniques of mass terror on civilians. The bombings in Madrid showed this only too clearly. But this is not a new phenomenon. What is new is the way the American and other governments have transformed this complex and disparate threat into a simplistic fantasy of an organised web of uniquely powerful terrorists who may strike anywhere and at any moment. But no one questioned this fantasy because, increasingly, it was serving the interests of so many people. For the press, television, and hundreds of terrorism experts, the fact that it seemed so like fiction made it irresistible to their audiences. And the Islamists, too, began to realise that by feeding this media fantasy they could become a powerful organisation—if only in people's imaginations.
The prime mover in this was one of bin Laden's associates, who had been captured by the Americans. He was called Abu Zubaydah. He began to tell his interrogators of terrifying plots that Al Qaeda was preparing, some of which, he said, they had copied from Hollywood movies like Godzilla, which they had watched in Afghanistan.
And the media took the bait. They portrayed the dirty bomb as an extraordinary weapon that would kill thousands of people, and, in the process, they made the hidden enemy even more terrifying. But, in reality, the threat of a dirty bomb is yet another illusion. Its aim is to spread radioactive material through a conventional explosion, but almost all studies of such a possible weapon have concluded that the radiation spread in this way would not kill anybody because the radioactive material would be so dispersed, and, providing the area was cleaned promptly, the long-term effects would be negligible. In the past, both the American army and the Iraqi military tested such devices and both concluded that they were completely ineffectual weapons for this very reason.
The scale of this fantasy just kept growing as more and more groups realised the power it gave them—above all, the group that had been instrumental in first spreading the idea: the neoconservatives. Because they now found that they could use it to help them realise their vision: that America had a special destiny to overcome evil in the world, and this epic mission would give meaning and purpose to the American people. To do this, they were going to start with Iraq, and, just as they had discovered a hidden reality of terror beneath the surface in America, they now found hidden links that previously no one had suspected between the Al Qaeda network and Saddam Hussein.
The driving force behind these new global policies in the war on terror was the power of a dark fantasy: a sinister web of hidden and interlinked threats that stretched around the world. And such was the power of that fantasy that it also began to transform the very nature of politics because, increasingly, politicians were discovering that their ability to imagine the future and the terrible dangers it held gave them a new and heroic role in the world.
In the post-War years, politicians had also used their imaginations, but to project optimistic visions of a better future that they could create for their people, and it was these visions that gave them power and authority. But those dreams collapsed, and politicians like Tony Blair became more like managers of public life, their policies determined often by focus groups. But now, the war on terror allowed politicians like Blair to portray a new, grand vision of the future. But this vision was a dark one of imagined threats, and a new force began to drive politics: the fear of an imagined future.
What Blair argued was that faced by the new threat of a global terror network, the politician's role was now to look into the future and imagine the worst that might happen and then act ahead of time to prevent it. In doing this, Blair was embracing an idea that had actually been developed by the Green movement: it was called the "precautionary principle." Back in the 1980s, thinkers within the ecology movement believed the world was being threatened by global warming, but at the time there was little scientific evidence to prove this. So they put forward the radical idea that governments had a higher duty: they couldn't wait for the evidence, because by then it would be too late; they had to act imaginatively, on intuition, in order to save the world from a looming catastrophe.
The supporters of the precautionary principle argue that this loss of rights is the price that society has to pay when faced by the unique and terrifying threat of the Al Qaeda network. But, as this series has shown, the idea of a hidden, organised web of terror is largely a fantasy, and by embracing the precautionary principle, the politicians have become trapped in a vicious circle: they imagine the worst about an organisation that doesn't even exist. But no one questions this because the very basis of the precautionary principle is to imagine the worst without supporting evidence, and, instead, those with the darkest imaginations become the most influential.
This story began over 30 years ago as the dream that politics could create a better world began to fall apart. Out of that collapse came two groups: the Islamists and the neoconservatives. Looking back, we can now see that these groups were the last political idealists who, in an age of growing disillusion, tried to reassert the inspirational power of political visions that would give meaning to people's lives.
But both have failed in their attempts to transform the world and, instead, together they have created today's strange fantasy of fear which politicians have seized on. Because in an age when all the grand ideas have lost credibility, fear of a phantom enemy is all the politicians have left to maintain their power.
But the fear will not last, and just as the dreams that politicians once promised turned out to be illusions, so, too, will the nightmares, and then our politicians will have to face the fact that they have no visions, either good or bad, to offer us any longer.