A Global Terrorism Index report, released on Tuesday, suggests that 107,000 people have died in 48,000 terrorist attacks between 2000 and 2013. The revelation may be terrifying, but it is not surprising. Excluding sectarian wars and tensions, terrorism is the biggest enemy threatening the stability of several Arab and Muslim countries that have suffered the highest number of attacks and casualties. In 2013 alone, around 18,000 people were killed in 10,000 terrorist attacks, of which the majority, of course, took place in Arab and Muslim countries, raising serious questions about the efforts being exerted there to fight terrorism.
Statistics show that Arab and Muslim countries have been the most affected by terrorism. Data also suggests that these countries will remain under threat in light of the growing activity of extremist and terrorist groups, particularly since the eruption of the Arab Spring and the chaos, fighting, and political and sectarian conflicts that have accompanied it.
There are solo efforts and there could be implicit or explicit security cooperation taking between some Arab and Muslim countries, but genuine teamwork remains absent. It should not be forgotten that individual countries cannot confront a phenomenon as global and complex as terrorism alone.
Arab and Muslim organizations are successful at issuing statements while African countries, for example, have succeeded in forming joint forces to face the threat or halt the advance of extremist and terrorist groups, be that in Somalia, Mali, or Nigeria. The bitter truth is that disputes, conflicts and skepticism prevent teamwork among Arab and Muslim countries. Even worse, these differences mean that some countries support and fund extremist organizations and as a result contribute to the growth of terrorism. Overlapping regional calculations and conflicts have allowed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other extremist groups to grow in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. Moreover, Al-Qaeda previously found a safe haven in some Muslim countries and received support from some Arab media outlets.
Experience shows that military and security efforts, despite their importance, will not succeed on their own in eliminating terrorism and extremism. The same report suggested that most of the terrorist groups that have ceased to operate were dealt with politically, while only 7 percent of them were defeated through the use of military force. Addressing terrorism requires analysis of the roots of the phenomenon, and then confronting it by means of internal and collective efforts to counter the ideologues of extremism.
There is also the issue of sectarianism, a phenomenon that continues to eat away at the region and poses a real threat to its stability. Confronting sectarianism is an urgent issue that requires intellectual and political efforts from within the countries affected, as well as collective steps to be taken under the umbrella of regional organizations such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Many Western media outlets and analysts have grown accustomed to associating terrorism and extremism with Islam itself, a harmful simplification or sometimes a deliberate distortion. But what is remarkable about the report is that it does not deem religion, or what it refers to as “religious ideology,” as the sole motivation behind terrorism. It is true that religious factors play a key role, but other issues such as racial and ethnic tensions, political chaos and violence and oppression, as well as feelings of injustice also contribute to the emergence of extremist organizations that resort to terrorism. The report also highlights a well-known fact: that terrorism is not organically linked with poverty or low education rates. Some countries, although poor, are not considered hotbeds of terrorism, while other rich ones suffer as their youth are entrapped in the web of terrorism. Today’s terrorists do not lack education and many come from middle class families, though this is not to deny that extremist and terrorist organizations exploit areas with high levels of poverty and youth unemployment by stirring up feelings of injustice.
Confronting terror is, first and foremost, an Arab and Muslim responsibility. This is not because the four organizations responsible for 66 percent of terrorist attacks (ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Boko Haram) fight—falsely—under the banner of Islam, nor because 80 per cent of the victims of terror were killed in five countries, four of which are Muslim (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan). Rather, it is because defeating terrorism intellectually and acquitting Islam of terror charges and the distortions of its nature that stem from this phenomenon will not be achieved without inclusive and comprehensive Arab and Muslim efforts. No one can fight this disease on our behalf. The West’s war on terror will not eradicate this phenomenon, which has somehow become a lifeline for preachers of extremism and terrorism. The responsibility, first and foremost, rests with the Arab and Muslim worlds.