The Power of Nightmares
By Peter Bergen
Cheney getting the blessings of the king of modern conservatism.
The Power of Nightmares, a three-hour BBC documentary directed by Adam Curtis, is arguably the most important film about the “war on terrorism” since the events of September 11. It is more intellectually engaging, more historically probing and more provocative than any of its rivals, including Fahrenheit 9/11. But although it has been shown at Cannes and at a few film festivals in the United States, it has yet to find an American distributor, and for understandable reasons. The documentary asserts that Al Qaeda is largely a phantom of the imagination of the US national security apparatus. Indeed, The Power of Nightmares seeks nothing less than to reframe the past several decades of American foreign policy, from the Soviet menace of the 1970s to the Al Qaeda threat of today, to argue that neoconservatives in the American foreign policy establishment have vastly exaggerated those threats in their quest to remake the world in the image of the United States.
The fact that the film has not been widely shown here is our loss, since it raises important questions about the political manipulation of fear. Yet The Power of Nightmares is also troubling for reasons other than the ones Curtis supposes. For the thesis he advances–that the war on terrorism is driven by nightmares rather than nightmarish potentialities–is one that merits considerable skepticism. It may be that Al Qaeda is less organized and monolithic than George W. Bush would have us believe, but it is a fierce and determined organization that has spawned a global ideological movement led by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose influence and plans we have every reason to be deeply concerned about.
The kernel of Curtis’s argument is that Western politicians claim “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.” Curtis says that this illusion was set in motion by two seemingly very different groups, American neoconservatives and radical Islamists, whose war with each other conceals a history of tacit alliance, and even some ideological resemblances. As Curtis reminds us, the neoconservatives and the Islamists came together in the 1980s in Afghanistan to expel the Soviets, and they share a hostility to the Middle East’s authoritarian dynastic regimes (although they seek to replace them with altogether different kinds of government). What is more, both groups view Western liberalism with distrust, fearing that it will erode traditional and especially martial values, thus weakening their societies from within.
Curtis begins his story in 1949 in the unlikely setting of Greeley, Colorado, where the Egyptian literary critic Sayyid Qutb attended graduate school. It was Qutb’s encounter with the United States that helped turn him into the Lenin of the radical Islamists. One summer night, the puritanical Qutb went to a dance at a local church hall, where the pastor was playing the big-band hit “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” (The tune provides the title of the documentary’s first hour, as well as a constant musical refrain.) The idea of a house of worship playing a secular love song crystallized Qutb’s sense that Americans were deeply corrupt and interested only in self-gratification. On his return to Egypt, Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood, was arrested on Nasser’s orders in 1954 for supposedly plotting revolution and was then subjected to the most dreadful tortures. Curtis says, “Qutb survived, but the torture had a powerful, radicalizing effect on his ideas.” Writing from his prison cell, Qutb argued that Egypt’s secular nationalist government was presiding over a country mired in a state of pre-Islamic barbarity known as jahiliyyahand, by implication, that the government should be overthrown. Qutb was executed in 1966, but he would profoundly influence a teenager named Ayman al-Zawahiri, who set up a jihadist cell dedicated to the Qutbian theory that Egyptian government officials were apostates from Islam and therefore deserved death.
So far so good. Curtis has done some wonderful archival research to illustrate his film, finding rare footage, for instance, of Qutb in prison (and he wittily punctuates the narrative with passages of popular songs and old film clips). But in telling Qutb’s story, Curtis argues that it is mirrored by that of the University of Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss, a forced analogy that is emblematic of Curtis’s occasionally questionable polemical methods. Curtis says that around the same time Qutb was formulating his apocalyptic vision of waging offensive jihads against the enemies of Islam, Strauss, “who shared the same fears about the destructive influence of individualism in America,” was telling his students, many of whom went on to influential careers in politics, that liberalism was fatally weakening the US body politic and sapping Americans’ will to defend “freedom.” Intellectuals, he believed, would have to spread an ideology of good and evil, whether they believed it or not, so that the American people could be mobilized against the enemies of freedom. For this reason Strauss, we learn in one of many telling asides, was a huge fan of the TV series Gunsmoke and its Manichean depiction of good and evil.
The parallel is provocative, to be sure, but Curtis takes it several steps too far when he argues that Strauss “would become the shaping force behind the neoconservative movement, which now dominates the American Administration.” In fact, Qutb and Strauss are not of equal weight for the Islamists and the neocons. In al-Zawahiri’s 2001 autobiography, Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet, he repeatedly cites Qutb, while Qutb’s brother taught bin Laden at university in Saudi Arabia in the late 1970s. And Qutb’s claim that Muslim rulers who preside over countries in a state of jahiliyyah are effectively non-Muslims was the intellectual underpinning of the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Moreover, all Islamists are well versed in, and deeply influenced by, Qutb. By contrast, while it’s true that former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz took a couple of courses from Strauss at the University of Chicago, and a number of Straussians have found jobs in the Bush Administration, Strauss’s work as a political philosopher has had little impact on the world outside the academy. Indeed, the key drivers of American foreign policy–Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice–are in all likelihood more familiar with the works of Johann Strauss than with the dense, recondite works of Leo Strauss. (Curtis would have improved his case by focusing not on Strauss but on Albert Wohlstetter, a colleague of Strauss’s at the University of Chicago who, during the 1970s and ’80s, strongly advocated the view that Soviet military power was underrated, and who was an important mentor to both Wolfowitz and Richard Perle.)
The next pillar of Curtis’s thesis is that the neocons and their allies exaggerated the Soviet threat, a precursor of their later inflation of the menace posed by Al Qaeda. It is positively eerie to watch then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld deliver a supremely self-assured speech in a 1976 press conference about the gathering strength of the Soviet war machine that just as easily could have been one of his gung-ho Pentagon briefings decades later. Curtis explains that the CIA found Rumsfeld’s view of the Soviet military buildup to be a “fiction”; but that did not stop Rumsfeld from establishing a commission of inquiry into the putative buildup that was known as Team B and was run, in part, by Wolfowitz. In one of the strongest sections of the documentary, Curtis explains:
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.
This was an early formulation of the Rumsfeldian doctrine that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. To devastating effect Curtis deploys Dr. Anne Cahn, a government arms-control expert during the 1970s, who explains, “If you go through most of Team B’s specific allegations about [Soviet] weapons systems, and you just examine them one by one, they were all wrong.” Team B’s exaggerations, according to Curtis, were all in the service of the neoconservative creation of “a simplistic fiction, a vision of the Soviet Union as the center of all evil in the world.” Central to this fiction was the idea that the Kremlin was behind the violence of militant nationalist insurgencies from Belfast to Palestine (not to mention the attempt on Pope John Paul II’s life). Claire Sterling expounded this theory, which has since been thoroughly debunked, in The Terror Network, a book that influenced the thinking of Reagan officials and neoconservative analysts like Michael Ledeen, who now argues that Tehran has replaced Moscow as the terror network’s base of operations. Curtis can be faulted for overlooking the horror of the Soviet system, something the neoconservatives appreciated better than most leftists, but he is correct that the neoconservatives injected a theological fervor into American foreign policy and that they were willing to look past the flaws of anyone willing to confront America’s enemy–such as the fanatical Islamist Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose party received at least $600 million in US aid to fight the Soviets in the 1980s, and who is now one of the most wanted terrorists in Afghanistan.
Just as Curtis gets his account of Team B right, so too he deftly charts the history of Islamist militancy over the past several decades. But he blows it when he concludes that Al Qaeda is a phantasmagorical construct of US officials. Curtis tells the story of al-Zawahiri, who, like Qutb before him, was radicalized by the three years he spent in an Egyptian prison during the early 1980s, emerging in jail as a spokesman for his fellow Islamist prisoners. Curtis shows powerful footage of al-Zawahiri at his trial shouting toward the camera in excellent English:
Now, we want to speak to the whole world. Who are we? Who are we? Why did they bring us here? And what we want to say? About the first question: We are Muslims. We are Muslims who believed in their religion, in their broad feelings, as both an ideology and practice. We believed in our religion as both an ideology and practice. And hence, we tried our best to establish an Islamic state and Islamic society…. The real Islamic front against Zionism, communism and imperialism.
Watching this footage you get a strong sense of both the forcefulness of al- Zawahiri’s intellect and of his religious beliefs. After his release from prison he and bin Laden encountered each other in Pakistan in the mid-1980s during the Afghan war against the Soviets and forged a partnership. It is in recounting the nature of that partnership that Curtis makes his most explosive charge: “Beyond his small group, bin Laden had no formal organization, until the Americans invented one for him.”
In support of this view Curtis relies, in part, on an interview with the British journalist Jason Burke, a friend of mine who has written an excellent book on Al Qaeda. Burke tells Curtis: “The idea…that bin Laden ran a coherent organization with operatives and cells all around the world of which you could be a member is a myth. There is no Al Qaeda organization. There is no international network with a leader; with cadres who will unquestioningly obey orders, with tentacles that stretch out to sleeper cells in America, in Africa, in Europe.” However, in his 2003 book, Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, Burke is less dismissive of the idea that Al Qaeda was an organization than this soundbite suggests. Burke wrote that while the “al-Qaeda hardcore” consisted of relatively few people, “by late 2001, bin Laden and the men around him had access to huge resources, both symbolic and material, which they could use to project their power and influence internationally”–that sounds suspiciously like a “coherent organization” to me.
Indeed, there is an excellent example of how this global organization operated that, for obvious reasons, goes unmentioned in Curtis’s documentary. In December 2001 Singaporean authorities arrested thirteen operatives of Jemaah Islamiyah, the largest Southeast Asian terrorist group, for planning to blow up the US Embassy there. It transpired that those operatives had videotaped the embassy as part of their preparations for attacking it and had sent a copy of the tape to Mohammed Atef, Al Qaeda’s military commander in Afghanistan, so he could give the operation his blessing. In addition, a man who went by the alias of Hambali was simultaneously Jemaah Islamiyah’s operational commander and a member of Al Qaeda’s shura council, or deliberative body. Although Burke in his book was correct to emphasize that lumping together all the jihadist groups from around the world as “Al Qaeda” is a serious oversimplification, that does not change the fact that there was an Al Qaeda organization (an organization that has now largely been replaced by the militant jihadist ideological movement from which Al Qaeda first sprang and to which Al Qaeda has now given a tremendous boost).
Curtis claims that “Al Qaeda” was first “invented” in 2001 when US prosecutors put four men involved in the 1998 plot to blow up two US embassies in East Africa on trial in New York. During the trial they drew heavily on the testimony of former bin Laden associate Jamal al-Fadl, who spun a story about the Saudi militant that would make it easier for US prosecutors to target bin Laden using conspiracy laws that had previously put Mafia bosses behind bars. Curtis explains:
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 organized network of control. He also said that bin Laden had given this network a name, Al Qaeda….But there was no organization. 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 had given it.
This is nonsense. There is substantial evidence that Al Qaeda was founded in 1988 by bin Laden and a small group of like-minded militants, and that the group would mushroom into the secretive, disciplined organization that implemented the 9/11 attacks. Two years ago the minutes of the founding meetings of Al Qaeda (which had been discovered in Bosnia) were described in court documents in a trial in Chicago. Those meetings took place in August 1988 and involved bin Laden and Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, who would later become Al Qaeda’s military commander. The participants in the meetings discussed “the establishment of a new military group” consisting of a “qaida,” or “base.” In a handwritten organizational chart of the new group, bin Laden, who then went by the alias of Abu Abdullah, is at the top.
In a 2001 interview with the Arab News, Hasan al-Seraihi, a militant Saudi cleric who had recently been released from jail, gave a description of Al Qaeda’s beginnings during the late 1980s: “Al-Banshiri turned to me and started speaking in a quiet voice: ‘You know that Brother Osama has spent a lot of money to train and buy weapons for the Arab Mujahedeen. We should not waste this investment after the jihad against the Russians. We should reorganize them under an Islamic army with the name al Qaeda. The army should be always ready to uphold the cause of Islam and Muslims in any part of the world.'” Similarly, Nasser Ahmad Nasser Al-Bahri, a bin Laden bodyguard who is now living in Yemen, recalled in an interview earlier this year with Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper that when bin Laden “returned to Afghanistan in 1996, he…opened branches of the al Qaeda organization in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and elsewhere.”
Bin Laden himself recounted how the name “Al Qaeda” first emerged in an interview with an Al Jazeera correspondent shortly after the 9/11 attacks: “Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri established the training camps for our mujahedeen against Russia’s terrorism [during the 1980s]. We used to call the training camp al Qaeda. And the name stayed.” As early as 1999, in an interview with leading Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, bin Laden started publicly referring to Al Qaeda, at one point explaining that he didn’t personally know everyone in his organization: “The number of brothers is large, thank God, and I do not know everyone who is with us in this base or organization.” Bin Laden went on to note that someone named Mamdouh Salim, who had recently been extradited from Germany to the United States on terrorism charges, was “never a member of any jihad organization. He is not a member of the base.” Indeed, when Al Jazeera broadcast a major documentary about bin Laden in 1999, the network called it The Destruction of al Qaeda, an odd choice of title if Al Qaeda did not in fact already exist.
Materials recovered in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban demonstrate that people within Al Qaeda referred to it as such and saw themselves as part of a larger organization led by bin Laden. Alan Cullison, a Wall Street Journal reporter, for instance, purchased a computer in Kabul that turned out to have been used by members of Al Qaeda, including Ayman al-Zawahiri himself. One memo on the computer dated April 1998, written by Tariq Anwar, was addressed to “Al-Qaeda Members in Yemen” and described the hassles of daily life in Afghanistan. Other memos were written in what Cullison describes as “language mimicking that of a multinational corporation.” Bin Laden was referred to as “the contractor,” while acts of terrorism became “trade.” A memo from al-Zawahiri griped about how salaries had been halved for the militants living in Afghanistan and bemoaned the lack of accounting of monies spent in Yemen, the kind of memo familiar to anyone who has toiled inside a bureaucratic organization. Similarly, New York Times reporters recovered documents in Kabul such as one titled “Al Qaeda Ammunition Warehouse,” which the organization used for tracking weapons and ammunition.
The 9/11 plot itself amply demonstrates the fact that Al Qaeda was an organization of global reach led by bin Laden. Although, as Curtis correctly points out, the 9/11 plot was the “brainchild of an Islamist militant called Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who came to bin Laden for funding and help in finding volunteers,” Mohammed’s scheme for crashing jets into American landmarks would have remained only a powerful nightmare without Al Qaeda, as the plot needed not only hundreds of thousands of dollars but, above all, a large pool of young men sufficiently indoctrinated that they would willingly “martyr” themselves in the operation. The 9/11 plot subsequently played out across the globe, with planning meetings in Malaysia, operatives taking flight lessons in the United States, coordination by plot leaders based in Hamburg, money transfers from Dubai and the recruitment of suicide operatives from countries around the Middle East–all activities that were ultimately overseen by Al Qaeda’s leaders in Afghanistan.
While bin Laden did not involve himself in the details of the 9/11 operation, he was its ultimate commander. In 2002, when Al Jazeera reporter Yosri Fouda interviewed Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who had together coordinated the 9/11 attacks, bin al-Shibh told Fouda that he had traveled to Pakistan from Hamburg in late August 2001 to insure that bin Laden was apprised of the timing of the attacks five days before they happened. Bin Laden’s supervisory role in the attacks on Washington and New York is amplified in The 9/11 Commission Report, which explains that in 1999 bin Laden appointed Mohamed Atta to be the lead hijacker. The report concludes, “It is clear, then, that Bin Laden and Atef [his military commander] were very much in charge of the operation.” The same can also be said of Al Qaeda’s attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. In 1993 bin Laden dispatched an aide to case the US Embassy in Kenya, and when he was shown photographs from that trip he pointed to the exact location where he thought the truck bomb should be detonated.
Because Curtis does not believe that Al Qaeda is an organization directed by Osama bin Laden, he unwittingly aligns himself at times with the Bush Administration, whose failure to capture bin Laden remains such a source of embarrassment that it seldom dares to utter his name. Take, for instance, Curtis’s discussion of the battle at Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, where bin Laden and his followers battled with several hundred soldiers of the Northern Alliance and a handful of US Special Forces during the first two weeks of December 2001. Just as the Bush Administration minimizes the significance of Tora Bora, since it was the one moment after 9/11 when the United States had a good idea of bin Laden’s location, so Curtis suggests that Tora Bora is but a “few small caves” and finds no convincing evidence that Al Qaeda members had holed up there. Those who followed the American elections will remember that when Senator John Kerry said President Bush had squandered an opportunity to nab bin Laden “when we had him cornered in the mountains,” Bush dismissed Kerry’s assertion as “a wild claim.”
In fact, according to a widely reported background briefing by Pentagon officials in mid-December 2001, there was “reasonable certainty” that bin Laden was at Tora Bora, a judgment based on intercepted radio transmissions. Last year, Luftullah Mashal, a senior official in Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry, told me that based on conversations he had had with a Saudi Al Qaeda financier and bin Laden’s cook, both of whom were at the battle, bin Laden was indeed at Tora Bora. In June 2003 I met with several US counterterrorism officials, one of whom explained, “We are confident that [bin Laden] was at Tora Bora and disappeared with a small group.” And the editor of Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, Abdel Bari Atwan, a consistently accurate source of information about Al Qaeda, has reported that bin Laden was wounded in the shoulder at Tora Bora. Indeed, in an audiotape released on Al Jazeera television two years ago, bin Laden recounted his own vivid memories of the Tora Bora battle. “We were about 300 holy warriors. We dug 100 trenches over an area of one square mile, so as to avoid the huge human losses from the [American] bombardment.” And last August Al Sharq Al Awsat newspaper published the account of a Moroccan guard of bin Laden’s, Abdallah Tabarak, who was also at Tora Bora: “We entered Tora Bora, where we stayed for twenty days. From there, Ayman al-Zawahiri fled…. Afterward, bin Laden fled with his son Muhammad.” In short, there is plenty of evidence that bin Laden and hundreds of his followers were at Tora Bora, a fact that undercuts both the Bush Administration’s and Curtis’s reconstruction of the battle.
In his effort to portray Al Qaeda as a construct of US officialdom, Curtis misses the real story about the Bush Administration and Al Qaeda. It’s not that Bush officials created the myth of a nonexistent organization but that Al Qaeda simply did not fit their worldview of what constituted a serious threat, and so they largely ignored it until they evacuated their offices on the morning of September 11, 2001. A database search for any statements by senior Bush officials about bin Laden or Al Qaeda that were made before the 9/11 attacks yields negligible results. And we know from the 9/11 Commission that while Bush Cabinet officials met thirty-three times before 9/11, only one of their meetings was about terrorism. Al Qaeda was not a subject that exercised senior Bush officials either privately or publicly before 9/11 because they were preoccupied by state-based threats–hence their focus on China, Iraq and ballistic missile defenses (which do nothing, of course, to protect against terrorist attacks).
This was especially odd because rarely have our enemies warned us so often about their intentions. Imagine for a minute that officials in the Japanese high command, beginning in 1937, repeatedly stated that they were intending to attack the United States. Imagine then how differently the events of Pearl Harbor might have played out four years later. Well, that’s exactly what bin Laden did beginning in 1997, repeatedly warning in widely broadcast interviews on CNN, ABC and Al Jazeera that he was launching a war against the United States. But those warnings were taken by certain members of the Bush Administration as the fulminations of a wannabe rather than a capable adversary. As former counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke recounts in his book Against All Enemies, when the Deputies Committee of sub-Cabinet officials met for the first time in April 2001 to discuss terrorism, Wolfowitz–who had long been preoccupied by discredited conspiracy theories that Iraq was behind the first World Trade Center attack, in 1993–testily said, “Well, I just don’t understand why we are beginning talking about this one man bin Laden.” In short, Wolfowitz, at least until the 9/11 attacks, would have agreed with Curtis’s assessment that the threat posed by Al Qaeda was a “fantasy.” The leading neoconservative in the Administration did not seek to inflate the Al Qaeda threat but rather misunderstood its significance–until it was too late.
It is in the final hour of his documentary that Curtis’s argument that Bush officials have distorted the Al Qaeda threat takes its strongest shape. A critical element of the Bush Administration’s approach to the threat is that there are “sleeper cells” in the United States, a “greens under the bed” fixation that Curtis characterizes as a chase for a “phantom enemy”:
Thousands were detained, as all branches of the law and the military were told to look for terrorists…. And, bit by bit, the government found the network: a series of hidden cells in cities around the country from Buffalo to Portland…. 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.
Curtis illustrates this with a story that owes something to the Keystone Kops and Inspector Clouseau. After 9/11 four Arab teenagers living in Detroit were arrested on suspicion of being an Al Qaeda sleeper cell, following a tip from a known con man. US officials subsequently found a videotape of a trip the teenagers had made to Disneyland and became convinced that it was a “casing tape” for a future terrorist attack. As Ron Hansen, a reporter for the Detroit News, explains,
I could never get past the fact that the tape just looked like a tourist tape. The Disneyland ride, for example, was a lengthy queue, people just making their way to the ride. The camera occasionally pans to look at the rocks on the wall, made to look like an Indiana Jones movie, and after several minutes the camera, it pans across and shows a trash can momentarily, and then continues off to look into the crowd. The [government] expert basically said that, by flashing on that trash can for a moment, the people who are part of this conspiracy to conduct these kinds of terrorist operations–they would understand what this is all about: how to locate a bomb in Disneyland in California.
The case became even more bizarre when officials also charged that the Detroit teenagers were planning to attack a US base in Turkey. The drawings, discovered in a diary, were later determined to be the demented doodles of a Yemeni who believed he was the minister of defense for the entire Middle East and who had committed suicide a year before any of the accused had arrived in Detroit. Eventually, the terrorism convictions of the teenagers were overturned.
The Detroit case is emblematic of so many of the “terrorism” cases that US officials have prosecuted since 9/11, which have often followed the trajectory of a tremendous initial trumpeting by the government only to collapse, or to be revealed as something less than earth-shattering, when the details emerge months later. Who can forget Chaplain James Yee, the Al Qaeda spy at Guantánamo who turned out to be cheating not on his country but on his wife? Or the unfortunate Oregon lawyer busted for his alleged role in the Madrid bombing attacks? Or, as Curtis points out, how the Justice Department held a press conference to announce the disruption of an “Al Qaeda terrorist cell” in Buffalo, New York, when in reality those arrested had made the dumb mistake of lying to federal investigators about briefly attending a Taliban training camp at a moment when it was unclear that this was a crime, and there was no evidence that they were involved in terrorism? The Buffalo case was, in sum, the ex post facto criminalization of bad judgment, not the discovery of an Al Qaeda cell or the prevention of a terrorist attack.
Indeed, an authoritative survey by NYU’s Center on Law and Security released in February found that of the 119 criminal cases the Bush Administration has pursued under the rubric of the war on terrorism since 9/11, “the courts have indicted relatively few individuals on the charge of direct acts of terrorism and convicted only one [Richard Reid],” the so-called “shoe bomber,” who, of course, wasn’t an American sleeper cell but a British-Jamaican who tried to blow up an American Airlines flight he boarded not in Paris, Texas, but in Paris, France.
The American sleeper-cell phenomenon has been much exaggerated by both US officials and hyperventilating stories in the media, which is not to say that sleepers have not existed in the past. For instance, Ali Mohamed, Al Qaeda’s military trainer, was a US Army sergeant in the late 1980s who married a Mexican-American woman and was working as a computer network specialist in California when he was arrested in 1998, thirteen years after first arriving in the States. Mohamed was the aide bin Laden dispatched to case the US Embassy in Kenya in 1993, five years before it was destroyed by Al Qaeda’s local cell.
However, since 9/11 there has been no evidence of sleepers like Mohamed operating in the United States. Either these sleeper cells are so asleep they are effectively dead, or they simply don’t exist. The onset of the Iraq War and the presidential election both offered perfect occasions for the supposed cells to strike, but nothing happened. And the 9/11 Commission, building on the work of the largest criminal investigation in history, concluded that the hijackers did not have a support network in this country. This fact, taken together with the lack of real terrorism cases or terrorist attacks in the United States, leads one to surmise that there are no American sleeper cells. And support for this view came from an unlikely quarter in March: The FBI, in a leaked report, concluded that “US Government efforts to date also have not revealed evidence of concealed cells or networks acting in the homeland as sleepers.”
That’s the good news. But is that the real problem, anyway? There have been sleepers such as Ali Mohamed who have embedded themselves in American society for many years, but the real threat from Islamist terrorists has historically come from visitors to the country. That was the case in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center–the mastermind of which, Ramzi Yousef, arrived from Pakistan intent on attacking American targets–and that was also the case in the 9/11 attacks. It was also true of Ahmed Ressam, who was stopped at a Canadian border crossing in December 1999 on a mission to bomb Los Angeles International Airport, and also of Reid.
In fact, the Islamist terrorist threat to the United States today largely emanates from Europe, not from domestic sleeper cells or, as is popularly imagined, the graduates of Middle Eastern madrasas, functional idiots who can do little more than read the Koran. Reid is British, Al Qaeda member Zacarias Moussaoui is French and the 9/11 pilots became militant in Hamburg. The attacks in Madrid last year that killed 191, and the assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, demonstrate that men animated by Al Qaeda’s worldview have recently conducted significant acts of terrorism in Europe, a trend that is likely to accelerate as continued heavy Muslim immigration into Europe collides with widespread racism to create a population of alienated Muslims who often feel that no matter how much money they make, or how long their families have been in the country, as Pakistanis in London they are never quite British, or as Algerians in Paris they are not quite French, or as Moroccans in Madrid they can never be really Spanish. These are not powerful nightmares; they are a reality, a view that Curtis may finally come around to when a significant terrorist attack is carried out in London, which British authorities regard as inevitable.
Still, despite my many disagreements with The Power of Nightmares, which sometimes has the feel of a Noam Chomsky lecture channeled by Monty Python, it is a richly rewarding film because it treats its audience as adults capable of following complex arguments. This is a vision of the audience that has been almost entirely abandoned in the executive suites of American television networks. It would be refreshing if one of those executives took a chance on The Power of Nightmares. After all, its American counterpart, Fahrenheit 9/11, earned more money than any documentary in history. And what Curtis has to say is a helluva lot more interesting than what Michael Moore had to say.