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Thursday, March 08, 2012 

A reappraisal of the Power of Nightmares.

Not to keep banging on about Adam Curtis or anything, but it's about time that the Power of Nightmares was reappraised. Broadcast on BBC2 in 2004, it was broadly welcomed (as his films in general are) on the left and criticised by the right. As set out in his introduction to the first film, his thesis was that the threat posed by al-Qaida had been massively exaggerated by both politicians and the media, turning what was a dysfunctional and small organisation that had nonetheless pulled off a massive coup into a vast network that was close to threatening our very existence. In reality, this was a fiction: the really dangerous thing about al-Qaida was not the network itself, but the ideology. Politicians in turn had discovered that by promising to protect their voters from this existential threat, it invested them with the power they had lost as a result of the turn to neoliberalism in the 80s.

Then 7/7 happened. The Power of Nightmares, with its title apparently suggesting that jihadists were nothing but bad dreams and that the politicians, police and security services were just imagining the threats they were talking about, was ridiculed and derided and still is now. Just recently over on Liberal Conspiracy Flowerpower responded to one of my cross-posted blogs on Abu Qatada to take issue with my use of the word phantom. It was perhaps a bit careless to use phantom instead of spectre in the context of us being unconcerned about Islamic extremism in the 90s, but it was obvious I wasn't saying there isn't a threat. To quote him:

The last time some idiot lefty (Adam Curtis) started peddling that line of nonsense, Muslims soon start exploding on the London Underground.

This might be slightly unfair to Flowerpower, but his remark in itself is a caricature of most of the criticism of Curtis. Curtis most certainly didn't suggest there weren't any suicide bombers, just that politicians were abusing the threat there was, most of which was only tenuously linked with al-Qaida in Pakistan, for their own ends. If anything, as John B wrote at the time on his recently resurrected blog from back then, 7/7 proved him right. The bombers were not foreigners, but born and raised here; they were trained in Pakistan in making explosives, and filmed a couple of martyrdom videos which were subsequently released by al-Qaida's media arm, and that's pretty much the extent of their connections. It was the ideology which had brought them together. As the security services claimed in the immediate aftermath, they were not a sleeper cell waiting for the moment to attack; they were "clean skins", with few or no links to those they expected to launch an assault.

As it turned out, this was wrong. The 7/7 group were connected to those who had been arrested under Operation Crevice, although whether the attack could have prevented is doubtful. This pattern of British citizens or residents being the ones behind planned attacks continued, right up to the supposed disrupted 2009 plot, where it was Pakistani students here on visas who were arrested and later released. By that point al-Qaida central's influence, as discussed yesterday, was heavily on the wane. Instead, the very idea of al-Qaida as a brand had spread globally. Jihadist groups with nationalist motives started to pledge allegiance to al-Qaida, although this has often meant little other than a change in name. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has continued to focus on North Africa, just as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat as they were formally known had. There have been some attacks linked back to al-Zarqawi's al-Qaida in Iraq/Islamic State of Iraq outside of that country, but apart from the bomb in Jordan these have been minor or failed. The same will almost certainly be the case with al-Shabaab, which pledged allegiance earlier in the year.

The one exception is Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, whose de facto leader had taken note of the foiled or failed spectaculars linked back to al-Qaida central and started to push for a change in tactics. AQAP still clearly felt there was a place for major attacks with the potential for debilitating effects, as seen in the antics of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and 2010's cargo bomb attempt, but at the same time Anwar al-Awlaki started pushing for those who had become radicalised online to do what they could for the cause of global jihad on their own. His suggestion wasn't that they become suicide bombers in foreign countries, or form cells with like-minded individuals which could be more easily monitored and disrupted, it was for them to launch what have become known as "lone wolf" attacks. Al-Awlaki had allegedly been in direct contact with the Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan. Similarly, his sermons have been said to have inspired Roshonara Choudhry in this country, although her true reasoning for stabbing Stephen Timms might never be fully known, while the magazines AQAP has published also promote the same notion of individual action.

Anwar al-Awlaki's message has been so successful and influential in changing the minds of those who might have previously sought refuge for their ideas with others that the security services now regard those completely off their radar as posing the biggest threat to the Olympics. Whereas al-Qaida had felt that multiple attacks at the same time would have the most impact, their adherents now think that the best way to emphasise that their ideology isn't going anywhere is to do it alone, regardless of how this will make it much harder to achieve multiple casualties. In spite of how this makes it likely an attack, should it come, will be far less devastating than 7/7 (Anders Breivik not withstanding, and few have the resources that were available to Tim McVeigh, who was helped in any case), ever larger amounts of money are being spent to prevent it. An astonishing £1bn is going on security at the Olympics.

Adam Curtis has then essentially been proven right. Al-Qaida as a cohesive organisation directing groups of those trained in the camps in Afghanistan to attack at a precise moment was a fiction. It took the credit for the attacks that were successful mainly because those who carrying them out believed in the Salafist vision of a global caliphate, with bin Laden and al-Zawahiri in the vanguard, even if the real role those back in Pakistan had in them was slight. As consecutive plots failed, its influence began to wane. The triumph of the ideology though has been such that it can motivate individuals who have never been to a training camp to do what they are told will be their bit for the cause. At the same time, our politicians have locked us into a perpetual war against people who pose no real threat whatsoever to our way of life. It has come at an immense cost in terms of money and lives, and reality shows no sign of entering the picture any time soon.

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That Adam Curtis was right was evident from the day his documentary aired, and anyone who thought otherwise was an idiot. Anyone who still thinks otherwise is a complete tool.

The inability -- or unwillingness -- of those in positions of authority to understand the nature of the problem and its causes hasn't changed in 40 years or more. I just finished watching The Baader-Meinhof Complex, which depicts the rise and fall of the Baader-Meinhof wing of the Red Army Faction, which began activities in the late '60s/early '70s, and I remember those days from when I lived in Germany. The utter cluelessness of the German government resulted in the creation of successively more violent generations of the RAF.

Of course, the vast majority of 'terrorism' is really a response to the past 60 years or more of US foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and the problem will not be solved until that is changed.

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