I am surprised by some voices in the Arab press suggesting that the problem of terrorism has come to an end, or has been put under control. In fact, the activities of al-Qaeda, and other manifestations of modern religious violence, have not ceased for more than a decade now. Indeed even longer than that, ever since the al-Alia blasts occurred in the Saudi capital of Riyadh back in 1995, terrorist attacks have been committed both in Saudi Arabia and beyond, on an international scale, by several religious extremist groups.
The reasons have varied, the languages, cultures and distances have changed, but the essence of religious terrorist attacks has remained the same. No sooner does one cycle of religious violence diminish than another one erupts. We see the al-Qaeda network engulfing Yemen and Somalia to the extent that it is now feared that the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula will become a major terrorist hub. On both sides of the Straits of Bab al Mandab, two large al-Qaeda wings extend through Somalia and Yemen. The Somali wing runs deep into the heart of Africa. We saw how a deadly explosion was carried out at café in the Ugandan capital, where a large audience had gathered to watch the 2010 FIFA World Cup final in South Africa.
News reaches us every day about al-Qaeda’s activities in Yemen, killing an officer here, blowing up security headquarters there, or releasing a videotape of one of its suicide bombers, training in Yemen and then targeting Saudi Arabia. In Iraq, al Qaeda’s activity has not diminished, and it seems that the bombing of Al-Arabiya TV office in Baghdad was the work of the organisation.
So what lull or decline in terrorism are we talking about? The trend is moving upwards, not downwards, and it cannot be blamed on foreign occupation, as some like to suggest. Yes, the presence of foreign military troops, such as in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, provides a substantial rationale for the activities of religious militant groups, under the pretext of “Jihad”. But how can we understand and interpret religious violence, and the ruthless presence of al-Qaeda in Yemen, where there is no foreign occupation, US or otherwise, prevailing over the country? Moreover, how can we explain the resilient activity of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia? We know that the main purpose of the Saudi youth influx into Yemen is to join al-Qaeda camps and target the Kingdom. It is worth noting that Saudi Arabia has never, at any period in history, been subject to any form of occupation or colonialism.
The existence and activities of al-Qaeda is not the upshot of resisting foreign occupation, as proposed by some Arabs, namely revolutionary nationalists or leftists. In fact, al-Qaeda derives its existence from within, and its activity is an intrinsic part of its identity. Because the organisation is obsessed with religious salvation, it is able to denounce anyone indiscriminately, as traitors and infidels.
The foreign presence, US or otherwise, helps al-Qaeda in terms of its recruitment, activities, and ability to polarise opinion. It also provides al-Qaeda with considerable sympathy or at least an understanding of the nature of its motives. This has been observed in much Arab analysis of al-Qaeda’s activity in Iraq, because all they [Iraqis] can see is a hatred for the Occupation. This is a natural reaction, and we can’t hold it against them, but the problem lies in underestimating or marginalizing any fundamentalist threat, or spread of extremist thought, after the dust of the war settles. For often nothing remains, after the withdrawal of foreign troops, and the fading roar of military engines, apart from a toxic cloud of extremism.
The problem with religious terrorism extends beyond the lives it takes or the serious injuries it causes, despite the gravity of this matter alone. The real problem lies in the poisoned intellectual atmosphere that extremist thought spreads, in addition to the futile arguments that characterise the terrorism debate, with sides levelling accusations of responsibility at each other.
This is why notable figures from Islamic circles in Saudi Arabia, amidst controversy and criticism from the Saudi press regarding the responsibility for terrorism, came out and said: “The [radicalisation] of the liberals is one of the causes of terrorism”! This reminds me of a scene from the play “A Witness Who Saw Nothing” where [famous Egyptian comedian] Adel Imam slaps a private across the face, then walks up to the officer complaining that the private had hit him on the hand with his face!
Terrorism has not ended, but there is a lot of talk about it, the bulk of which is worthless. This should not divert our attention from the fact that there is an enormous problem in our Arab culture which clearly generates religious extremism. This is not to say that terrorism is characteristically Arab or Islamic, but an underlying problem exists, as there is an endless production of extremist youth and religious terrorism [in Arab society].
Look at the ages of the new generation of al-Qaeda recruits in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and elsewhere. The majority of them are young men who were recruited after the intense media campaign surrounding terrorism a few years ago. Any method of counter-propaganda has failed to dissuade them, as the lure of the extremist ideology was more influential, and perhaps still is. If we liken terrorism to a lethal virus, we would find that it has evolved its defences and mutated at an alarming rate. Terrorism has developed its rhetoric, along with its military and tactical planning.
A Saudi security expert told me that al-Qaeda had developed its tactics and recruitment plans, and that it had transferred its operations centre from Iraq to Yemen. The expert observes that al-Qaeda had always envisioned a ‘pure’ land to serve as a beacon for recruitment, such as Chechnya, Bosnia and so on. But before long, new recruits will travel to another territory, where al-Qaeda has established another base. New recruits are also not immediately drawn into al-Qaeda, it is a gradual process.
According to my colleague, Iraq is now considered the largest setting for recruitment propaganda, under the pretext that ‘Mesopotamia is being occupied by the neo-Crusaders’. However, soon new recruits will go on to other places for training and preparation, most notably Yemen these days. This is how al-Qaeda grows its membership.
I was not surprised by what the security expert had said. The reason is that the mental and psychological similarities between groups of Islamic salvation are almost identical. And so it would be easy to move from one direction to another or from one land to another, as long as the ideogical ‘engine’ is the same.
I have been saying for a decade, along with others, that terrorism will never come to an end in the Arab and Muslim worlds, unless we think outside of the ‘security solution’ box. We must stop avoiding responsibility, and overlooking the intellectual dilemma which constitutes the culture of al-Qaeda and those like it.
In short, security should form the ‘external’ part of the solution, whereas internally, there is a need for intellectual and political reform, as well as a restructuring of Arab society. Unless there is a parallel between the external and internal parts of the solution, we will continue to go round this vicious circle until we wear ourselves out.