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Opinion: Terrorism in Sochi | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Men claiming to be from an Islamist militant group speak, in this still image taken from video footage posted on the Internet on January 20, 2014, claiming responsibility for the December 2013 attacks on the Russian city of Volgograd. (Reuters/Handout via Reuters Television)

The world has been clutching its heart since a Dagestan-based terrorist group declared its intention to target the athletes competing in the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. The irony here is that one of the reasons the Olympic Games were introduced was to avert violence between nations and societies. They provided an opportunity for peaceful competition while creating a space for compulsory peace. This was the logic of the ancient Hellenic founders of the Olympics and the idea was revived with the Olympic tradition in the modern era.

This is not to suggest that politics or even political confrontation were absent, merely that there would be a kind of temporary truce. In the Cold War era, the Olympics offered a window for political propaganda. Communist nations, for example, paraded the notion that Olympic victories reflected the superiority of an entire political order. The Cold War has ended, of course, while the Olympic Games remain a space for athletic competition and human ingenuity. Moreover, whereas before they were held once every four years in the summer, we now have the Winter Olympics, held in countries endowed with heavy snowfalls, a phenomenon unfamiliar to most Arab countries.

This year, it was Sochi’s turn to host the Winter Olympics. Russia’s political circumstances and the many small civil wars waged by “Islamist” groups of various stripes based in former Soviet republics with majority Muslim populations would inevitably cast their shadow over the games. This time the threat came from Dagestan. Oddly enough, it took the form of a publicized threat. Generally, the major instrument of terrorism is the element of surprise that can create the largest possible reverberations.

In fact, the question at hand is far broader and more complex than the nervous apprehension that has descended upon Sochi. Along a broad global front there appears to be a major “awakening” of terrorist groups inspired by or working directly with Al-Qaeda. This resurgence comes after a lull in Al-Qaeda’s operations following the American execution of Osama Bin Laden.

At one point, many believed the Arab Spring revolutions had been a major setback for Islamist terrorist movements. It was argued that these revolutions cleared the way for alternative drivers for change in Arab and Islamic states and societies aside from the mechanism of violence disguised in a religious cloak. This contention has turned out to be groundless. What has happened is that Al-Qaeda and its affiliates and their clones have reorganized themselves and have begun to move along two parallel lines. One was to regroup and deploy their forces along a broad front extending from the borders of Morocco and northern Mali to Afghanistan; the other was to exploit Muslim minorities to create terrorist cells in other countries. One of those cells surfaced in faraway Boston in the US; another has today reared its head against Sochi in Russia.

In fact, these movements benefited greatly from the Arab Spring revolutions that they exploited in various ways. Above all, the revolutions weakened states in the Arab and Islamic world along with their security forces—the police and armed forces. These countries were, therefore, easily penetrable, enabling terrorist groups to establish new bases, as has occurred very visibly in Libya, Yemen and Egypt. In Syria, these groups also succeeded in weakening a peaceful and democratic revolution, furnishing the fascist Bashar Al-Assad regime with a golden opportunity to survive.

The revolutions also opened the way to power—or something resembling it—for the Muslim Brotherhood that found in groups linked with and inspired by Al-Qaeda a handy weapon to wield against civil and democratic political forces. The Muslim Brotherhood, therefore, cooperated with these groups. It is well known that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt made a deal with the Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis group for the latter to cease its bombardment of Egyptian natural gas pipelines in exchange for the release of imprisoned members of terrorist groups and for permission for Islamist militants abroad to return to Egypt. That deal marked the beginning of the Muslim Brotherhood–Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis alliance that we see in operation in Egypt today.

Thirdly, the revolutions generated enormous arsenals of advanced weaponry that gave Islamist terrorist groups a major material and logistical boost. These groups had never previously dreamed of the abundant arms sources they would find in Libya, Syria and Iraq.

This alarmingly broad scope of terrorist movements with their various guises and interpretations of fundamentalism received powerful blows when the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt fell and when the Syrian resistance decided it could ally itself terrorist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in order to establish a civil democratic government in a unified Syrian state. However, the great clash between terrorism and the Arab state is still in its initial phases. Some strategic thinking of the first order will have to be brought to the fore, as the battle not only takes place in streets and squares but also in hearts and minds. There is also a danger of setbacks due to the circumstances of the socioeconomic classes these groups seek to exploit. Nevertheless, the battle that is unfolding in Egypt has brought some initial benefits. Not only did it prove how the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies failed in their management of the state, it also showed how they failed to win the support of the majority of the people behind the false religious banners they wielded for the purposes of deception, tyranny and aggression.

A complex and multifaceted battle such as this also requires intensive and coordinated regional and international action. Various forms of cooperation between the security agencies of the countries concerned probably already exist. However, cooperation must be closer, not only with respect to direct confrontation against terrorist groups but also with respect to addressing “Islamist thinking” and the socioeconomic classes these groups prey on and from which they draw their recruits, brainwashing them until they become savage killing machines that murder women, children and the elderly without a moment’s hesitation, and who become so bloodthirsty that they wrench the hearts out of their victims and brandish them in front of TV cameras.

Clearly there must be closer coordination in intelligence gathering and border controls, and the most sophisticated technology available must be put to use. The deteriorating situations in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia and Sudan cannot be allowed to continue, as they increasingly threaten the stability and security of other countries in the region that have managed to defeat the onslaught of the blend of extremism and terrorism.

Arab national security as a whole and that of individual Arab states is facing a terrifying danger. Its roots do not only exist in this part of the world; they extend to other countries where it extends its networks of hatred and hostility. Its threat against the Olympic Games in Sochi is not the first manifestation of this peril, nor will it be the last. Once, several years ago, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak proposed an international anti-terrorism conference. Its purpose was to set into motion an international campaign to unify efforts in the fight against terrorism and to establish systems for tracking and monitoring the funding, armament and training operations of terrorist groups. Is anyone out there ready to take up this proposal?