Skip to main content

The Power of Nightmares was possibly the last great documentary series produced by the BBC. A decade after it was first broadcast I look back at the series, offering a brief review before using this as a basis for analyzing recent events. I discuss the criticism of the film-maker Adam Curtis for his superficial take on 9/11, before exploring the ‘defection’ of Jamal Al Fadl, an associate of Osama Bin Laden. I also examine author Jason Burke’s claim that ‘Al Qaeda doesn’t exist’ and thus that there is no guiding force behind the globalization of Islamism. I round off by picking up some of the elements that have emerged in the comments section about the attacks in Paris, including the arrest of a mysterious Montenegrin arms dealer on his way to Paris and the emergency service exercise on the morning of the attacks.


This documentary series was brought up in the comments section and I thought about doing a full review of it. I’m sure most if not all of you have seen it, but rather than just talk about the series itself I thought it would be better to use it as a platform for discussing what little we know about Paris and some other related events this last week.

So, as I’m sure most of you know, The Power of Nightmares is a three-hour documentary series made by Adam Curtis for the BBC. It was originally broadcast in late 2004, which is when I first saw it and I was very impressed. Looking back, it is probably the last great documentary that the BBC have made, since then their output has been lame. Even Curtis’ more recent documentaries just aren’t as relevant and important as The Power of Nightmares. Obviously when it comes to serious things like 9/11 and 7/7 the BBC have made no serious documentaries whatsoever. They tried to get me involved in one particularly shoddy and despicable show, the 7/7 Conspiracy Roadtrip. Naturally, that was a non-starter.

But The Power of Nightmares is genuinely good – it shows, in some depth, the development of both Islamism and Neo-Conservatism, and its basic hypothesis – that these two are in fact quite similar and are responses to the failings of liberal consumerist society, is something I accept. As a more contextualised, complex view of the War on Terror there is a lot more in the three episodes that I agree with than I disagree with. That is quite rare, hence me extolling its virtues.

But there are some quite significant points of disagreement, and I’m sure you share some if not all of them. Naturally, the major one is that Curtis accepts that 9/11 was purely an attack by Al Qaeda, inspired by a violent jihadi ideology. I do not accept that, unless by Al Qaeda we mean a military-intelligence secret team and by a violent jihadi ideology we mean seeing an opportunity to use that ideology to reshape the world. Obviously, that’s not what Curtis means, this isn’t a coded message. He has quite explicitly denied the idea that the US government or something approximating that are the real culprits.

Now, Curtis takes some flack for this, and during one period I would have supported this and agreed with it. I agree with it as a criticism of his work, no doubt, don’t get me wrong, but I also feel that hostility towards a film for going 95% of the way down the right road but getting that question wrong when it doesn’t feature centrally in the narrative – I don’t think it’s constructive. Not that i’m trying to protect Curtis from the criticism, but more that it’s not useful for us to focus any energy on criticising an otherwise excellent documentary.

After all, I’m sure plenty of people watched The Power of Nightmares and then in the following months or years watched a alternative 9/11 documentary or two out of curiosity. I think it opens the door to a more subtle worldview of the war on terror much more than it closes off the discussion of false flag terrorism. Naturally, that’s my interpretation, perhaps you draw the lines differently but a decade later, having watched the 9/11 movement rise and decline, having seen so much hostility and dogmatism, I think that gateways to a wider discussion, a better discussion of the war on terror are something to value.

I will also say that 9/11 has become a litmus test topic for some people, and by no means is 9/11 the only topic that performs this function. I don’t think that is healthy, I think that there are lots of different aspects to the war on terror that are wrong, not just official propaganda about major terror events, but the wars, the kidnap and torture programs, the miscarriages of justice. False flags are not the only relevant issue, to my mind. So to make one event or a small handful of events the defining line as to whether we can discuss these other issues is, as I say, not very constructive.

The part of The Power of Nightmares that has received the most attention is the section where an interviewee says that Al Qaeda doesn’t exist. Back in 2004, 2005 this was obviously quite a radical statement, and one seen by many in the alt media as confirmation of everything they wanted to say about the war on terror. So I’ll play you the three clips, just to remind everyone of what we’re talking about specifically then I’ll come back and discuss some of the complexities here.

(7:25 – 9:30, 11:55 – 12:40, 24:45 – 25:33)

So that was three clips from the third episode of the Power of Nightmares, mostly featuring Jason Burke, the author of a book Al Qaeda, the True Story of Radical Islam. As far as mainstream books on Al Qaeda go, it’s not half bad, though certainly not a crucial entry on your bookshelf because most of the interesting stuff is in The Power of Nightmares. But let’s pick apart what he’s saying there, and there are three points I’d like to focus on:

1) The Jamal Al-Fadl story

2) The claim that there is no organising force behind islamism

3) The claim that it is the idea itself which poses a threat, rather than the Al Qaeda organisation

Point 1: Jamal Al-Fadl

Jamal Al Fadl, as the clips explained, was a militant who was with Bin Laden in the 1990s in Sudan, when he was not doing very much and was being spied on by more or less everybody. He dodged the occasional assassination attempt, and so CIA triple agent Ali Mohamed trained his security guards to protect him better.

Al Fadl embezzled around 100,000 dollars and had a falling out with Bin Laden. Even though he had a contact in Sudanese intelligence he defected and offered himself to the CIA, who turned him over to Jack Cloonan and Dan Coleman, the two FBI agents on secondment to the Bin Laden unit and prime suspects in what the hell was going on in the run up to 9/11.

When the case was prosecuted in 2001 and Al Fadl was the key witness to the existence of an Al Qaeda organisation the main prosecutor was Patrick Fitzgerald. He was the lead on most of these major cases – going back to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing all the way through to the prosecution of David Headley’s friend Tahawwur Rana for his role in the Mumbai massacre. He is clearly the go-to guy, who knows which questions not to ask which rocks not to turn over. So these three guys – Coleman and Cloonan of the FBI/CIA and then Fitzgerald at the Justice Department, they handled Al Fadl’s defection. But Jason Burke pins this whole creating of the Al Qaeda myth just on the FBI and the DOJ, the question of who might have encouraged Al Fadl to say these things and whether that was part of a wider agenda is completely ignored in his analysis.

Point 2 – that there is no Al Qaeda organisation, no unifying or organising force behind militant Islamism

Obviously, I think this is bollocks. There is an Al Qaeda organisation, or at least there was, but most of the key figures were some form of military intelligence asset. And across the world, from Algeria to the Phillipines, the most prominent organising force behind Salafist terrorists and extreme Sunni guerilla movements has been NATO, or at least people and agencies within NATO. I think we can somewhat forgive Burke and Curtis for not getting into this because in all likelihood they simply don’t know about it, but nonetheless this notion of ‘Al Qaeda doesn’t exist’ is a simplistic one. It would be like saying ISIS doesn’t exist now. It does, even if it isn’t what they say it is and if the reasons they attribute to it existence aren’t the real ones.

Point 3 – That it is the idea of radical Islamism itself which poses a threat

This is where I have serious issues with The Power of Nightmares and with Jason Burke’s work and analysis. The idea itself mostly poses a threat to other Muslims, who are seen as being insincere or unwilling to embrace the true Islam or whatever. It’s certainly a problem for them, and the millions of deaths in the war on terror are partly attributable to this idea as a motivation. But obviously there are many other factors, and this whole discussion borders on ‘see, it’s how you think that makes you a terrorist, not whether you’re part of some network’. It actually expands the scope of the war on terror, at least theoretically, while appearing to do the opposite. Whether Burke is aware of this or not, I don’t know. Perhaps some of you would like to drop him an email and ask him.

So, without going into an in-depth discussion of The Power of Nightmares, that is my brief take on it. I certainly recommend it, with a few caveats. But let’s move on to recent events, which are of course linked in several ways to what I’ve just discussed. As I explained in the last episode, I saw the most likely explanation behind Paris being a Mumbai-style attack by real jihadis, being used and organised by an outside force, an agent of NATO.

That said, this idea that some of the attackers – the bombers at the stadium and those who took hostages in the Bataclan theatre – were expendable, but there were also a pair of white mercenaries in a black Mercedes who were responsible for most of the scattered shootings across the city – I do find that idea quite credible. I have not found much in the way of corroboration, but it would not necessarily be that difficult to do.

The problem, I guess is that it might entail relatively large numbers of people within the French authorities being willing to cover it up. Witness accounts, CCTV – it would be impossible for evidence of this black Mercedes to be kept out of the police investigation. But in the regularly updated ‘latest news’ reports I keep seeing the vehicles mentioned do not include this black Mercedes. So I have some doubts, but like I say, I do find the overall idea quite credible and it would help explain the scattered nature of the attacks and the question of how so few attackers accomplished all this.

As expected, the French authorities have managed to kill most of the key suspects they were trying to bring in for questioning about this plot. But they’ve arrested so many by now that presumably some are going to go on trial. The story that caught my eye and I know caught some of your eyes was this 51 year Montenegrin arrested in Germany. Most stories report the same details – his satnav was taking him to Paris, his car had concealed compartments with automatic weapons, pistols, dynamite and grenades. No one has reported his name, Montenegro’s government have said they have no criminal record on him, and aside from him being arrested there is basically nothing about what’s going on with him. After initially connecting him with the Paris attacks the authorities have now backed off from that.

One odd detail that only appeared on is that he hasn’t hired a lawyer. You know how it is, the police are saying nothing so the journalists ask about the defence lawyer to see if they can squeeze some stuff out of them. So clearly someone told the journalists that the guy doesn’t have a lawyer. He’s been caught smuggling weapons and explosives. And he’s from Eastern Europe. Slap bang in the middle of the trail of jihadis going East to Syria, refugees coming West from Syria, in the middle of the Balkans which has become a hotspot for gangsterism and facilitates a lot of the illegal drugs and weapons trades that are key to black operations. And he hasn’t hired a lawyer. And we don’t know his name, unlike most of the other people who’ve been arrested, blown themselves up, been killed by the authorities or are still at large.

My guess is that whether or not this guy was connected to what happened in Paris, he’s connected to something they do not want anyone looking at. I’m not sure what we can do to push this further and find out more, but so far this is the most interesting aspect of the entire story, for me at least.

I guess we also should get into the issue of what was going on in the hours before the attacks. Following up on the last episode there is abundant evidence for the security alert and evacuation of the train station – the other alert was at the hotel where the German national football team were playing. And there was a training exercise involving the emergency services that morning preparing for this sort of mass casualty event. This story first came out via an interview in French, and my French wasn’t good enough to be sure of what was being said and I don’t trust it when one person goes on the radio and says there was an exercise. Seems too convenient to me.

So, I went looking for confirmation and found another interview with the same guy, Patrick Pelloux, in English, on BBC radio. So here’s that clip.

Again, this is the same source, so I did wonder whether this was for real or this guy was spinning a tale. Since then another doctor who worked on the exercise has been interviewed in another article so it definitely seems this exercise did take place. However, it is described as a tabletop exercise, no boots on the ground. So in terms of physically carrying out the attacks this is like 7/7 – it had nothing to do with that. So what was the purpose? I do wonder, as with 7/7, whether this is catnip for conspiracy theorists to play with and obsess over. A planned distraction. But the whole exercise-false flag question is too complex to get into now, I do promise I’ll do a dedicated episode on the subject at some point.

To wrap things up this week I’d also like to quickly talk about another event in Germany this week which illustrates The Power of Nightmares so very well. The football game between Germany and the Netherlands on Tuesday night was called off less than two hours before it was due to begin due to an alleged very credible threat of a major terrorist attack. The warning appears to have come from French intelligence to German intelligence, who intervened and told them to call off the game. This story was everywhere on Tuesday night and hence was one of the talking points on Wednesday morning, just as people were getting bored of the Paris story. What is not highlighted in any of the media coverage is the follwing:

1) There were no explosives found in or near the stadium.

2) No weapons have been found or seized

3) No one has been arrested.

So clearly this wasn’t a real plot, and yet the security services made sure every single media outlet in Europe were carrying this story. Lots of quotes from official sources, the full job. Clearly this was bullshit. Clearly this was an event designed for media. In terms of media fakery, this is the most prominent example of it from this week – the notion that there ever was a plot to attack the game on Tuesday night. So, all the stuff Adam Curtis talked about and I imagine quite a lot of you were talking about 10 years ago – certainly a lot of the stuff I was thinking about and talking about 10 years ago – it’s all still going on. Not to be downcast about it, the ease of identifying things like this football game plot nonsense reassures me that the world isn’t as insane as it sometimes appears. The tactics used against us are often pretty crude. Effective, I admit, but pretty crude. Sooner or later we’ve simply got to find a way to make them less effective. I just feel that is inevitable.