Tattle tales: spinning terror vs telling the truth

December 16, 2005

The BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares was screened recently in Australia. The series was scheduled to go to air in July but was then held over as it was felt to be inappropriate to screen it so soon after the bombings in London. The network which screened the documentary, SBS, obviously also felt that it may be accused of being partisan; hence it chose to follow this excellent series with a series titled The New Al Qaeda.

Each series had three hours of air time, in itself an indication of an Australian obsession with being "fair." But then SBS does receive a good portion of its funding from El Governmente so it must be excused to some extent. Of course, to the educated viewer, the bid for balance was a joke - the powerful arguments and thesis that Adam Curtis brought to life in Nightmares is a once-in-a-lifetime effort; Peter Taylor's documentary belonged more to the apologists' school of thinking than anything else.

Curtis developed the series as an extension of his research into the origins of neo-conservatism in America - an attempt to find out how the current trend of neo-conservative thinking came about and how people who espouse this school of thought have gained ascendancy in the American administration. 

What finally emerged as around 180 minutes of fascinating investigation is a look at two parallel schools of thought - Islamic fanaticism and neo-conservatism - which are the two protagonists in George W. Bush's so-called "war on terror." There was a time when the two, now sworn enemies, came together - in Afghanistan - to defeat a third entity - the Soviet Union. Curtis's thesis is simple: international terrorism is a dangerous threat to the world at large, but governments lie when they say that a single huge network, Al Qaeda, is responsible for the threat.

Rather, the groups are disparate; they draw inspiration from a common ideology which was initially advanced by the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb and now has as its most powerful advocate Ayman Al Zawahiri. These disparate groups may approach the figurehead of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, for funds. But they are not a homogenous entity and do not take orders from a central command - none exists.

Curtis's documentary is marked by commentary from experts - there are no government sources sought to corroborate anything which he advances. There is some remarkable footage, chief among it being the scenes of a young Zawahiri in a courtroom during a trial in Egypt in 1982. What is remarkable about this bit of footage is the extent to which Zawahiri knows how to use the visual image - he clearly shows that he knew more about PR at that time, than many so-called pracitioners of the art do today. A passionate speech by Zawahiri tells the viewer more about the nature of Islamic fanaticism than any treatise can.

Additionally, Curtis draws on people who can speak without fear - they have no stake in the game. For instance, who better to speak about the role Arab fighters played in Afghanistan than their commander at the time, Adbullah Anas, himself? Every person who is interviewed in this documentary is credible. That, in itself, is a remarkable achievement.

Curtis makes a telling point in the final episode - Islamic terrorists have now realised the fear that the name Al Qaeda inspires in Western minds due to the perception that Western govermments themselves have created. Hence, they have no hesitation in painting everything, right down to a protest on the main street, with an Al Qaeda brush. He also investigates some of the so-called terror cell arrests in both the US and the UK and reveals that there was nothing to them - only three of over 600 people were convicted of anything in the UK and that was for funding Islamic groups. Small-scale funding, that is. The US investigations were more comical than anything else.

Peter Taylor's documentary deals with the way Islamic terrorists are using the internet to spread their message, the 2004 bombings in Madrid (which is tackled from the angle that ordinary people carried it out) and finally Pakistan's role, both as a country which harbours terrorists and also, which, through the good guy-bad guy President Pervez Musharraf, tries to follow the American dictates in the so-called "war on terror."

Right at the beginning of the documentary, there is a moment of intellectual dishonesty when Taylor casts himself as having covered terrorism for 30+ years. He fails to say that what he covered was the Northern Ireland brand of terrorism, not the Islamic brand. Why leave this important fact out? It reminds me of Rohan Gunaratne, who cast himself as an expert on Islamic terrorism, when all that he had researched was the Tamil Tigers. (Gunaratne made plenty of other untrue statements as is evident from this investigation).

At the beginning of each episode, Taylor states that some people tend to cast the spectre of international terrorism as an illusion. It is difficult to know whom he is talking about as Curtis makes no such claim in Nightmares. Thus Taylor's beginnings are mired in a false premise. He then proceeds to try and substantiate the claims made by American officialdom (though he does not exactly say this) that Al Qaeda is a vast commando-style network with branches in a large number of countries.

A large portion of Taylor's first hour is spent with Mohammed Al Mashaari, a Saudi dissident who took refuge in the UK in the 1980s and often proved to be a thorn in the flesh for his hosts. Mashaari, as is the case with many Saudis, supports the bin Laden campaign, and allows people to upload clips of bombings and beheadings to his own website. This is not against British law.

Taylor's other sources are somewhat suspect. The director of The Search for International Terrorist Entitites (SITE), Rita Katz, and the director of Global Terror Alert, Evan Kohlmann, are two people who get a good deal of mileage. Both are individuals who profit greatly from spreading the perception that Al Qaeda has its hooks into most countries which are part of this world of ours. As part of their claim to fame, both Katz and Kohlmann list the fact that they were, or are, advisers to the US government. That does wonders for their credibility.

If that weren't enough, another sought after source is the commander of the American forces in Iraq, General John Abuzaid. Given the number of lies that have emerged from the occupying American army in that part of the world - remember a minor incident known as Abu Ghraib ? - it is surprising that any documentary maker, least of all one who claims to be in the BBC mould, would approach such a man to shore up any thesis connected to terrorism.

And in stark contrast to Curtis, who, like a genuine journalist, stays out of camera range for the entire three hours of Nightmares - even when he interviews people, the camera stays on the interviewee and Curtis's voice comes from off-screen - there is needless footage of Taylor, in various poses, in his New Al Qaeda. We see Taylor, the intrepid reporter, striding purposefully across the landscape, Taylor, the seer, peering into space, Taylor, the tireless questioner asking meaningless questions with stress on the wrong words. This, in itself, is a giveaway of the quality of this documentary - it is third-rate and reminds me of some of the worst "investigative" stuff I've seen on Australian TV.

Taylor's second hour is spent detailing the modus operandi of the Madrid bombings. Here again, the sources are all government people, which reduces the level of credibility to something close to zero. His thesis is that the ordinary person can be involved in terrorist acts - in Madrid, a real estate agent, a phone seller and a drug dealer were the three people who are believed to have planned and carried out the attacks.

There is nothing new about this thesis - there are plenty of ordinary people residing in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank who can be held up as examples. The UK bombings are believed to have been carried out by  a number of London-born Pakistanis - and an investigation into this affair would probably have been closer to home and more revealing. But this would have involved some real investigative work and perhaps Taylor wasn't up to it.

Taylor's third hour is spent in Pakistan - and a lot of it with Pakistani president Musharraf, a dictator, who has kept the West in thrall with his dual act. Musharraf is part of the problem in Pakistan - the constant political intervention by the army in running the 58-year-old country has been one reason why Islamic fanaticism has gained ground in Pakistan. Now the general has cast himself as a bulwark against Al Qaeda and the West is willing to give him any sum he asks for so long as he continues to fight the good fight.

Taylor does not explore why terrorism has spread in Pakistan, why madrassas are growing in number, why people prefer to send their children to these schools rather than to regular institutes of learning. No, his mission is to try and spread the idea that Al Qaeda is something like a piece of chicken coop wire, spreading out from a central source known as bin Laden.

The best way to contrast the two documentaries is by pointing out that Curtis came to a conclusion after much study and then had to merely record it on tape - his sources were all in place. Taylor appears to have picked a conclusion and then scurried about to try and find people to back it up. He picked pretty poor sources, all of whom lack credibility. Thus to cast the New Al Qaeda as some kind of counterpoint against Nightmares is silly - one could as well compare cow dung and chocolate cake.