Breaking the Middle East′s cycle of terror

The two-pronged strategy

The governments of the Middle East must not allow themselves to be lulled into complacency by the ostensible fall of the Islamic State. Instead, writes Moha Ennaji, they must urgently commit to weakening the allure of radical Islam – the only way to break the cycle of terror and violence is to resolve Islam′s intra-religious conflicts

In July 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that Islamic State (IS) had been driven out of Mosul, the country′s second-largest city, which it captured three years ago. Then, in October, IS finally lost Raqqa, the capital of its self-styled caliphate – and the last true city under its control. Yet these defeats do not mean the downfall of IS, much less of Islamist terrorism, or even that the Middle East′s most acute conflicts will be resolved anytime soon.

To be sure, the fading dream of an Islamic caliphate will weaken the ability of IS and kindred groups to recruit disaffected youth. Already, the flow of foreign would-be jihadists crossing from Turkey into Syria to join IS has plunged, from 2,000 per month to about 50. Yet such groups still have powerful lures at their disposal. Most fundamentally, they are able to offer disillusioned young people a sense of purpose and belonging. The fact that this purpose entails murder, terror and mayhem may make it all the more appealing to frustrated and resentful youth.

Reasons to be wary

Despite recent setbacks, writing off the threat posed by IS is as unwarranted as it is premature. Consider the history of al-Qaida, which proves that even if a state that nourishes a terrorist group fails, a radical ideology can continue to fuel violence near and far.

Trial of two Tunisian-German IS supporters in Celle, Germany (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Stratenschulte)
A fading dream? ″IS and other kindred groups still have powerful lures at their disposal. They offer disillusioned young people a sense of purpose and belonging. The fact that this purpose entails murder, terror and mayhem may make it all the more appealing to frustrated and resentful youth,″ writes Ennaji

The group′s leaders must simply adjust their methods, in order to continue attracting recruits and planning attacks from outside the borders of a friendly sovereign state. To that end, in Iraq, terrorist groups will continue to exploit sectarianism, which had divided the country long before the United States invaded it in 2003. More broadly, they can capitalise on escalating tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims to attract alienated young Sunnis.

This increasingly dangerous dynamic is apparent in the decision of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, owing to its alleged ties with regional terrorist groups and Iran, Saudi Arabia′s main rival for regional influence. It is also visible in the devastating proxy war in Yemen, which has become a key battleground in the Saudi-Iranian power struggle.

Against this background, it seems likely that IS, from its scattered bases in Egypt′s Sinai Peninsula, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, will be able to continue planning and executing terrorist attacks in the Middle East and beyond. But there are ways to avoid such an outcome – or at least minimise the damage.

Stop funding terror

For starters, governments and non-governmental actors in the Arab world must sever all financial ties to terrorist groups. Beyond official transfers, this means halting private efforts by individual citizens to fund terror. States in the region already have harsh legal codes; governments should enforce them more effectively against those who finance terror.

Demonstration in Tunisia on 19.03.2015 to remember the victims of the Bardo Museum attack (photo: DW/Sarah Mersch)
Prohibit and renounce: firstly, governments and non-governmental actors in the Arab world must sever all financial ties to terrorist groups. Existing laws need to be enforced more effectively if the flow of funds from private individuals to such organisations is to be halted. Secondly, religious and political leaders must spurn the jihadist movements, condemning their violent Islamist ideology with vigour

At the same time, religious and political leaders must loudly condemn the violent Islamist ideology that nurtures jihadist movements, spurning them with the same vigour that they reserve for challengers to their own authority. Qui tacet consentire videtur (silence means consent). In this case, tacit consent emboldens terrorist actors, with deadly results.

The countries of the Middle East have become associated with extremist ideologies and terror the world over. If they are to recover their reputations and restore the health of their societies and economies, they must act decisively to weaken the allure of terrorist recruiters. Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia have all made some moves in this direction, but they cannot do it alone.

Like these countries, others in the Middle East must not allow themselves to be lulled into complacency by the ostensible fall of IS as a territorial entity. Ultimately, the only way to break the cycle of terror and violence in the Arab world is to resolve the conflicts within Islam. To reach that point, however, the region′s governments must urgently pursue a two-prong strategy of interdiction and condemnation.

Moha Ennaji

© Project Syndicate 2017

Moha Ennaji is President of the South North Centre for Intercultural Dialogue and Migration Studies in Morocco and Professor of Cultural Studies at Fez University. His most recent books include ″New Horizons of Muslim Diaspora in North America and Europe″ and ″Muslim Moroccan Migrants in Europe″.

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