Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Arab counterterror centre

Effective intelligence and analysis is crucial to successful military operations against terrorists. Equal effort should be made to confront the roots of terrorism, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

Terrorism has two sides: one operational (the acts of murder and destruction intended to disseminate a permanent state of fear and panic and a state of total anarchy in societies), the other ideological (involving the exploitation of religion for the purposes of recruitment and mobilisation and as moral shield for military operations). But while these are two faces of the same coin, each needs to be studied and understood in its own way through methodologies and approaches most appropriate to each.

Both still require exhaustive study if we are to combat the terrorism that has been born within Arab states and societies in recent times. In the 1960s, when the Arab-Israeli conflict intensified, the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Palestinian Studies Centre and Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies pioneered a process of explaining Israel. Eventually, other Arab institutes followed their lead. They brought their magnifying glasses to that country and their scholars learned Hebrew in order to familiarise themselves with the language used in Israel as a mode of expression and as a mentality for political and strategic action. This was an application of the principle of “Know thy enemy.” Unfortunately, as far as I am aware, the amount of knowledge available in the Arab world on the operational and ideological facets of terrorism still lags far behind the amount needed to confront this challenge.

I do not think that anyone will underestimate the gravity of the danger, not just for the present. If the current degree of vigilance and readiness to act appears sufficient to cope with repeated terrorist attacks, it is not sufficient to contend with the constant spread of fanaticism, extremism and the culture of violence that is constantly moving towards greater extremes of zealotry as though incapable of introspection and revision. After we had thought that Al-Qaeda had attained the peak of Kharijite thought and the depths of probing it for justifications to legitimise murder and destruction in the modern age, it now seems almost moderate compared to Daesh (Islamic State group) thought. Whereas Osama Bin Laden was once the emir of terrorists, Al-Zarqawi and his successor Abu Bakr Al-Baghdad have become the kings of terrorism.

Events during the past two years since the creation of Baghdadi’s so-called Caliphate had previously been unimaginable, especially following the elimination of Bin Laden and the signs of decay and disintegration in Al-Qaeda. But terrorism is a phoenix forever capable of rising again from the ashes. What is clear today is that as far as their mentality lags behind the modern age, terrorists have no compulsion against using the technologies of this age — communications technology, social networking sites and even the search for weapons of mass destruction — and turning them with unprecedented ferocity towards the achievement of their ends. The trajectory of recent events from the Paris attacks through the attacks in Brussels, Munich, Ankara, Istanbul, Dhaka, Tunis, San Bernardino, Orlando and elsewhere is a sign of what is to come and that the fall of Daesh, as important as that will be, will not signal the end of terrorist movements.

This is a situation that demands focussing a much greater amount of concentrated study, thought and analysis on both the operational and ideological faces of the phenomenon in order to acquire the best possible knowledge of the terrorist enemy that is bent on disseminating enough chaos and anarchy in Arab countries to destroy and conquer them completely. This is not to diminish the importance of efforts exerted so far and the scientific studies that are currently available. These have helped win many battles, but winning the war requires more. We need to face up to the fact that 95 per cent of the victims of terrorism throughout the world are Muslims, regardless of the outcries internationally and in the West in particular against the terrorist phenomenon. The terrorists’ chief target is the Arab world. They want to propel its countries individually and collectively backwards in time, away from the modern age. This is a challenge that requires an Arab centre to undertake the tasks of information gathering, monitoring and analysing everything that pertains to terrorism and terrorists.

Information is extremely important. Yet, most of the information that we have on Arab terrorists comes from Western — and particularly, American — studies that relied on what was available from the Arab world, studies of Western terrorists in European and US prisons and, more importantly, the fruits of eavesdropping and surveillance, whether using terrestrial equipment or satellite technologies. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the wars today along the Iraqi-Syria border, in Yemen, in Sinai, the Horn of Africa and the Sahara have generated a vast quantity of political literature, some of which sheds light on the terrorist condition.

However, we still possess the greatest share of untapped study resources in view of the large accumulation of experience in fighting terrorism and the considerable number of terrorists in Arab prisons.   

Studying events and their actors and generating an Arab database on terrorism and terrorists is urgently needed in this phase in the war against terrorism. If this is necessary from the military perspective in order to assess operations that are currently in process on various fronts, it is even more necessary from the ideological perspective, as this will serve not only to safeguard the present but to protect the future as well. All that has been done with respect to the ideological facet so far is to try to persuade the religious establishments in Arab countries to pursue a programme for “renovating religious thought”. The effort has led to some increased interest, some upgrading of textbooks, some renovation in religious discourse and some conferences in which religious leaders condemn terrorism. That is all very good. At the very least it is essential in order to drive home the fact that the Islamic faith cannot be stolen or hijacked. But, again, it is not sufficient because the terrorist phenomenon itself is complex. It involves more than erring theologically and morally. It also contains a large element of psychological and social deviation that requires different approaches to those espoused by the various religious institutions. The proposed Arab Counterterrorist Centre is the type of agency capable of connecting all the diverse threads and efforts and channelling them towards the realisation of three goals: the defeat of terrorism militarily, the defeat of terrorism ideologically and winning the battle for the hearts and minds of young people in particular in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

It is up to Arab governments to determine the persons to undertake this task and up to the Arab League to study or adopt the proposed centre. Arab governments are crucial in this endeavour because they have the information and facilities to offer. They are also the most vulnerable to the terrorist danger. Certainly, there is already a good deal of coordination and exchange of intelligence between them. As is often said, the Council of Arab Interior Ministers is the most active and productive of the various Arab ministerial councils, whether in political or economic affairs. Still, such activities are one thing and intensive collective research efforts are another. At the very least, perhaps we should try to emulate that arrangement that the five English speaking nations (the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) have created in order to deal with various threats, the most serious of which at present is terrorism. Could the Arabic-speaking nations do that? Hopefully the message has been conveyed.


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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