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The making of the terror myth

Since September 11 Britain has been warned of the
'inevitability' of catastrophic terrorist attack. But
has the danger been exaggerated? A major new TV
documentary claims that the perceived threat is a
politically driven fantasy - and al-Qaida a dark
illusion. Andy Beckett reports

Friday October 15, 2004
The Guardian

Since the attacks on the United States in September
2001, there have been more than a thousand references
in British national newspapers, working out at almost
one every single day, to the phrase "dirty bomb".
There have been articles about how such a device can
use ordinary explosives to spread lethal radiation;
about how London would be evacuated in the event of
such a detonation; about the Home Secretary David
Blunkett's statement on terrorism in November 2002
that specifically raised the possibility of a dirty
bomb being planted in Britain; and about the arrests
of several groups of people, the latest only last
month, for allegedly plotting exactly that.

Starting next Wednesday, BBC2 is to broadcast a
three-part documentary series that will add further to
what could be called the dirty bomb genre. But, as its
title suggests, The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of
the Politics of Fear takes a different view of the
weapon's potential.

"I don't think it would kill anybody," says Dr
Theodore Rockwell, an authority on radiation, in an
interview for the series. "You'll have trouble finding
a serious report that would claim otherwise." The
American department of energy, Rockwell continues, has
simulated a dirty bomb explosion, "and they calculated
that the most exposed individual would get a fairly
high dose [of radiation], not life-threatening." And
even this minor threat is open to question. The test
assumed that no one fled the explosion for one year.

During the three years in which the "war on terror"
has been waged, high-profile challenges to its
assumptions have been rare. The sheer number of
incidents and warnings connected or attributed to the
war has left little room, it seems, for heretical
thoughts. In this context, the central theme of The
Power of Nightmares is riskily counter-intuitive and
provocative. Much of the currently perceived threat
from international terrorism, the series argues, "is a
fantasy that has been exaggerated and distorted by
politicians. It is a dark illusion that has spread
unquestioned through governments around the world, the
security services, and the international media." The
series' explanation for this is even bolder: "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."

Adam Curtis, who wrote and produced the series,
acknowledges the difficulty of saying such things now.
"If a bomb goes off, the fear I have is that everyone
will say, 'You're completely wrong,' even if the
incident doesn't touch my argument. This shows the way
we have all become trapped, the way even I have become
trapped by a fear that is completely irrational."

So controversial is the tone of his series, that
trailers for it were not broadcast last weekend
because of the killing of Kenneth Bigley. At the BBC,
Curtis freely admits, there are "anxieties". But there
is also enthusiasm for the programmes, in part thanks
to his reputation. Over the past dozen years, via
similarly ambitious documentary series such as
Pandora's Box, The Mayfair Set and The Century of the
Self, Curtis has established himself as perhaps the
most acclaimed maker of serious television programmes
in Britain. His trademarks are long research, the
revelatory use of archive footage, telling interviews,
and smooth, insistent voiceovers concerned with the
unnoticed deeper currents of recent history, narrated
by Curtis himself in tones that combine traditional
BBC authority with something more modern and
sceptical: "I want to try to make people look at
things they think they know about in a new way."

The Power of Nightmares seeks to overturn much of what
is widely believed about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.
The latter, it argues, is not an organised
international network. It does not have members or a
leader. It does not have "sleeper cells". It does not
have an overall strategy. In fact, it barely exists at
all, except as an idea about cleansing a corrupt world
through religious violence.

Curtis' evidence for these assertions is not easily
dismissed. He tells the story of Islamism, or the
desire to establish Islam as an unbreakable political
framework, as half a century of mostly failed,
short-lived revolutions and spectacular but
politically ineffective terrorism. Curtis points out
that al-Qaida did not even have a name until early
2001, when the American government decided to
prosecute Bin Laden in his absence and had to use
anti-Mafia laws that required the existence of a named
criminal organisation.

Curtis also cites the Home Office's own statistics for
arrests and convictions of suspected terrorists since
September 11 2001. Of the 664 people detained up to
the end of last month, only 17 have been found guilty.
Of these, the majority were Irish Republicans, Sikh
militants or members of other groups with no
connection to Islamist terrorism. Nobody has been
convicted who is a proven member of al-Qaida.

In fact, Curtis is not alone in wondering about all
this. Quietly but increasingly, other observers of the
war on terror have been having similar doubts. "The
grand concept of the war has not succeeded," says
Jonathan Eyal, director of the British military
thinktank the Royal United Services Institute. "In
purely military terms, it has been an inconclusive war
... a rather haphazard operation. Al-Qaida managed the
most spectacular attack, but clearly it is also being
sustained by the way that we rather cavalierly stick
the name al-Qaida on Iraq, Indonesia, the Philippines.
There is a long tradition that if you divert all your
resources to a threat, then you exaggerate it."

Bill Durodie, director of the international centre for
security analysis at King's College London, says: "The
reality [of the al-Qaida threat to the west] has been
essentially a one-off. There has been one incident in
the developed world since 9/11 [the Madrid bombings].
There's no real evidence that all these groups are
connected." Crispin Black, a senior government
intelligence analyst until 2002, is more cautious but
admits the terrorist threat presented by politicians
and the media is "out of date and too one-dimensional.
We think there is a bit of a gulf between the
terrorists' ambition and their ability to pull it

Terrorism, by definition, depends on an element of
bluff. Yet ever since terrorists in the modern sense
of the term (the word terrorism was actually coined to
describe the strategy of a government, the
authoritarian French revolutionary regime of the
1790s) began to assassinate politicians and then
members of the public during the 19th century, states
have habitually overreacted. Adam Roberts, professor
of international relations at Oxford, says that
governments often believe struggles with terrorists
"to be of absolute cosmic significance", and that
therefore "anything goes" when it comes to winning.
The historian Linda Colley adds: "States and their
rulers expect to monopolise violence, and that is why
they react so virulently to terrorism."

Britain may also be particularly sensitive to foreign
infiltrators, fifth columnists and related menaces. In
spite, or perhaps because of, the absence of an actual
invasion for many centuries, British history is marked
by frequent panics about the arrival of Spanish
raiding parties, French revolutionary agitators,
anarchists, bolsheviks and Irish terrorists. "These
kind of panics rarely happen without some sort of
cause," says Colley. "But politicians make the most of

They are not the only ones who find opportunities.
"Almost no one questions this myth about al-Qaida
because so many people have got an interest in keeping
it alive," says Curtis. He cites the suspiciously
circular relationship between the security services
and much of the media since September 2001: the way in
which official briefings about terrorism, often
unverified or unverifiable by journalists, have become
dramatic press stories which - in a jittery
media-driven democracy - have prompted further
briefings and further stories. Few of these ominous
announcements are retracted if they turn out to be
baseless: "There is no fact-checking about al-Qaida."

In one sense, of course, Curtis himself is part of the
al-Qaida industry. The Power of Nightmares began as an
investigation of something else, the rise of modern
American conservatism. Curtis was interested in Leo
Strauss, a political philosopher at the university of
Chicago in the 50s who rejected the liberalism of
postwar America as amoral and who thought that the
country could be rescued by a revived belief in
America's unique role to battle evil in the world.
Strauss's certainty and his emphasis on the use of
grand myths as a higher form of political propaganda
created a group of influential disciples such as Paul
Wolfowitz, now the US deputy defence secretary. They
came to prominence by talking up the Russian threat
during the cold war and have applied a similar
strategy in the war on terror.

As Curtis traced the rise of the "Straussians", he
came to a conclusion that would form the basis for The
Power of Nightmares. Straussian conservatism had a
previously unsuspected amount in common with Islamism:
from origins in the 50s, to a formative belief that
liberalism was the enemy, to an actual period of
Islamist-Straussian collaboration against the Soviet
Union during the war in Afghanistan in the 80s (both
movements have proved adept at finding new foes to
keep them going). Although the Islamists and the
Straussians have fallen out since then, as the attacks
on America in 2001 graphically demonstrated, they are
in another way, Curtis concludes, collaborating still:
in sustaining the "fantasy" of the war on terror.

Some may find all this difficult to swallow. But
Curtis insists,"There is no way that I'm trying to be
controversial just for the sake of it." Neither is he
trying to be an anti-conservative polemicist like
Michael Moore: "[Moore's] purpose is avowedly
political. My hope is that you won't be able to tell
what my politics are." For all the dizzying ideas and
visual jolts and black jokes in his programmes, Curtis
describes his intentions in sober, civic-minded terms.
"If you go back into history and plod through it, the
myth falls away. You see that these aren't terrifying
new monsters. It's drawing the poison of the fear."

But whatever the reception of the series, this fear
could be around for a while. It took the British
government decades to dismantle the draconian laws it
passed against French revolutionary infiltrators; the
cold war was sustained for almost half a century
without Russia invading the west, or even conclusive
evidence that it ever intended to. "The archives have
been opened," says the cold war historian David Caute,
"but they don't bring evidence to bear on this." And
the danger from Islamist terrorists, whatever its
scale, is concrete. A sceptical observer of the war on
terror in the British security services says: "All
they need is a big bomb every 18 months to keep this

The war on terror already has a hold on western
political culture. "After a 300-year debate between
freedom of the individual and protection of society,
the protection of society seems to be the only
priority," says Eyal. Black agrees: "We are probably
moving to a point in the UK where national security
becomes the electoral question."

Some critics of this situation see our striking
susceptibility during the 90s to other anxieties - the
millennium bug, MMR, genetically modified food - as a
sort of dress rehearsal for the war on terror. The
press became accustomed to publishing scare stories
and not retracting them; politicians became accustomed
to responding to supposed threats rather than
questioning them; the public became accustomed to the
idea that some sort of apocalypse might be just around
the corner. "Insecurity is the key driving concept of
our times," says Durodie. "Politicians have packaged
themselves as risk managers. There is also a demand
from below for protection." The real reason for this
insecurity, he argues, is the decay of the 20th
century's political belief systems and social
structures: people have been left "disconnected" and

Yet the notion that "security politics" is the perfect
instrument for every ambitious politician from
Blunkett to Wolfowitz also has its weaknesses. The
fears of the public, in Britain at least, are actually
quite erratic: when the opinion pollsters Mori asked
people what they felt was the most important political
issue, the figure for "defence and foreign affairs"
leapt from 2% to 60% after the attacks of September
2001, yet by January 2002 had fallen back almost to
its earlier level. And then there are the twin risks
that the terrors politicians warn of will either not
materialise or will materialise all too brutally, and
in both cases the politicians will be blamed. "This is
a very rickety platform from which to build up a
political career," says Eyal. He sees the war on
terror as a hurried improvisation rather than some
grand Straussian strategy: "In democracies, in order
to galvanize the public for war, you have to make the
enemy bigger, uglier and more menacing."

Afterwards, I look at a website for a well-connected
American foreign policy lobbying group called the
Committee on the Present Danger. The committee
features in The Power of Nightmares as a vehicle for
alarmist Straussian propaganda during the cold war.
After the Soviet collapse, as the website puts it,
"The mission of the committee was considered
complete." But then the website goes on: "Today
radical Islamists threaten the safety of the American
people. Like the cold war, securing our freedom is a
long-term struggle. The road to victory begins ... "

The Power of Nightmares starts on BBC2 at 9pm on
Wednesday October 20.