The Arab Spring from a Counter-Terrorism Perspective

, May 27, 2011

Vol. 10, No. 38     May 27, 2011

  • World War III is occurring right now. It is not only a war of ideas, it is a religious war – not between Islam and the rest of the world, but first and foremost a war within the religion of Islam. It is a war of the culture of Islamic radicalism against the rest of the world, which includes the majority of Muslims worldwide.

  • A few months ago, White House Counter-Terrorism Advisor John Brennan said, “Islamists and Jihadists are not our enemy.” In response, I wrote an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post which explains that moderate Arab leaders know that Jihadists and Islamists are the enemy. By saying that Islamists and Jihadists are not the enemy, the United States – the spearhead of Western society and the protector of liberal values in the world – is sending a confusing message to its allies worldwide.

  • In the competition between the Iranian axis and the pragmatic axis, the Iranian axis is winning. Hizbullah is growing stronger in Lebanon and Hamas is gaining power and scoring points in Gaza for the Iranian axis. Also, the decision of Turkey to choose the Iranian axis is becoming quite clear.

  • Dr. Condoleezza Rice has said that her next book is going to refer to a pillar of American foreign policy: the introduction of democracy in the Muslim world. My upcoming book will address exactly the opposite. It will be about how terrorists and fundamentalists are misusing the democratic apparatus of the state in order to promote their goals. When fundamentalists win in democratic elections, it is one man, one vote, one time.

  • Is there anything we can do in order to change this negative outcome? I would call to immediately establish a second Marshall Plan, similarly to what happened after World War II, for those new regimes being established in the Muslim world and to support other pragmatic regimes that have not yet faced internal revolutions. Since imposing democracy on these societies might be counterproductive and dangerous, it should be an incremental process. At the end of the day, only Muslims can and should educate Muslims.

A War within Islam

What is the connection between terrorism and the processes that we are seeing in the Muslim world? They are interdependent, have many common denominators, and will definitely influence one another in the coming years.

World War III is occurring right now. It is not only a war of ideas, it is a religious war. It is not a war between religions, between Islam and the rest of the world, but first and foremost a war within the religion of Islam. It is a war of the culture of Islamic radicalism against the rest of the world, which includes the majority of Muslims worldwide. Essentially, the Muslims have a responsibility to deal with those bad seeds which are coming from Islam.

The Equation of Terrorism

The equation of terrorism involves two factors: motivation and operational capability. When a group of people has both the motivation to conduct terrorist attacks and also the operational capability to do so, there are going to be terrorist attacks.

In the equation of counter-terrorism, you either need to reduce the motivation or the operational capability. The ultimate solution is to deal with both factors at the same time. In the counter-terrorism literature there is only one way to reduce the terrorists’ operational capability, and this is by attacking them. Once you do this, you raise their motivation to retaliate.

Israel is the best example in the world of a state that understands the need to fight the operational capability of the terrorists, and succeeds in doing that based on a very efficient intelligence capability, as well as defensive capabilities (e.g., the West Bank security barrier).

At the same time, a lot more can and should have been done in the last two decades in understanding and countering the motivations that lead to terrorism, as, for example, in people-to-people activities and interaction. Among the Palestinians, many hate us, but many understand at the same time that we were born to live with each other and that overcoming the personal obstacles is crucial. This would never be a replacement for ending the conflict and solving the political dispute, but even at times of dispute it is crucial to lower the flames of hatred and establish the platform needed for the next step – to build a political solution.

The American Approach to Counter-Terrorism

After 9/11, America’s focus was on reducing the operational capability of the terrorists. The outcome was the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The effort was designed to reduce the capabilities of al-Qaeda, the global Jihadists, and terrorists worldwide. Yet the Americans did not pay enough attention to the simultaneous need to deal with counter-motivation.

A few months ago, the White House Counter-Terrorism Advisor, John Brennan, discussed the Obama Administration’s counter-terrorism policy. He explained: “Terrorism is not our enemy.” I understand that terrorism is a tactic and that a tactic cannot be an enemy. But then he said, “Islamists and Jihadists are not our enemy.” In response, I wrote an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post entitled: “If Global Jihad Isn’t the Enemy, What Is”?

I explained that President Mubarak knows who the enemy is, as does King Abdullah of Jordan and other moderate Arab leaders. They know that the Jihadists and Islamists are the enemy. By saying that Islamists and Jihadists are not the enemy, America – the spearhead of Western society and the protector of liberal democratic values in the world – is sending a confusing message to its allies worldwide.

It is true that al-Qaeda has yet to succeed in establishing an Islamist caliphate, an Islamic radical state that will control the whole world and will be governed by Muslim Sharia law. But it is succeeding in achieving its intermediate goals to gain hearts and minds that buy into its version of Islam. While the vast majority of Muslims have not bought into these views, the trend is negative, as we see more and more people buying into it. From an historical point of view, the Islamists are winning the war.

The Strengthening of the Iranian Axis

For the last decade in the Middle East there has been a competition between two players: the Iranian axis and the pragmatic axis. Unfortunately, the Iranian axis is winning, point by point. Hizbullah is growing stronger in Lebanon, which in the future may turn into a radical Islamic Shia state. We see the same process in Gaza, and some would say throughout the Palestinian arena. Hamas is gaining power and scoring points for the Iranian axis. Also, the decision of Turkey to choose the Iranian axis is becoming quite clear.

The current Middle East turmoil was not a direct outcome of any American initiative, but the Americans are somehow responsible, due to their obsession with democracy. Dr. Condoleezza Rice has said that her next book is going to refer to a pillar of American foreign policy: the introduction of democracy in the Muslim world.

My book will say exactly the opposite. It will be about how terrorists and fundamentalists are misusing the democratic apparatus of the state in order to promote their goals. When fundamentalists win in democratic elections, it is one man, one vote, one time, and there is no way to get rid of them except through violence.

Democracy is not only about free elections; nor are free elections the most important part of democracy. Democracy is a state of mind and a set of values. Democracy is human rights and women’s rights. When you take people who for years have been exposed to incitement and indoctrination, it automatically leads them to believe that becoming a shahid, a suicide attacker, is the most important goal of every patriotic Palestinian youth. So do not be surprised if, when you impose free elections on them, they will vote for Hamas.

My Ph.D. dissertation was called “The Israeli Counter-Terrorism Strategy: Efficiency versus Liberal Democratic Values.” Of course there is an integral contradiction between liberal democratic values and security. Finding the correct balance is the counter-terrorism dilemma of every liberal democratic state.

Popular Rebellions in the Middle East

The current turmoil in the Middle East was not pre-planned. This was a genuine popular rebellion against those regimes. There is a connection between them because there is an epidemic effect at work. If you are a frustrated youngster watching Al Jazeera – which is playing a negative role in the whole process – and you see others succeeding, then you will do the same.

Islamic revolutions behave according to two different models. One is the Iranian model – a rapid revolution. It took only 36 days to pave the way from Shapour Bakhtiar’s government – which replaced the Shah’s regime – to the takeover by Ayatollah Khomeini. The second model, that of Hizbullah and Turkey, follows a slower path. In Lebanon, the Islamic radical revolution of Hizbullah has been taking place for 15 years. Turkey is in the midst of a long-term process as well.

In Turkey, the Islamists are starting from a different point than in the Arab countries, taking people who were not fundamentalists and incrementally brainwashing them by changing the messages in the education system, by changing the constitution, reducing the power of the military, and putting their people on the supreme court. Similarly, the Iranians were one of the most pro-Western, pragmatic, non-radical populations prior to the Khomeini revolution. The Iranian people basically are not fundamentalists.

It’s still a question if the outcome of the revolution in Egypt will lead to a more democratic government. Even if the Egyptians choose in a free election the most liberal and moderate figure they can vote for, does anybody think that this person has the capability to meet the expectations of the Egyptian public to change the current condition of Egyptian society, and change the fact that every year there are one million babies born in Egypt? I tend to believe that frustration will come after their new elected government does not succeed in ameliorating their welfare, and the life of that government would end in a very clear mandate for the Islamic radical option of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The United States is much weaker in the region today than it was a few months ago. Egypt was a crucial ally of the United States, but it will not be as friendly and as close as it used to be. Even if the regime would want to, they cannot. From the point of view of the United States, this is a negative trend.

What Should the West Do?

Is there anything we can do in order to change this negative outcome? I would immediately call to establish a second Marshall Plan, similarly to what happened after World War II, for those new regimes being established in the Muslim world. This Marshall Plan should also be used to support other pragmatic regimes that have not yet faced internal revolutions. The money should also come from Muslim sources, from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. Those pragmatic regimes should be helped to improve the welfare of their nation and to introduce the values of democracy. Since imposing democracy on these societies might be counterproductive and dangerous, it should be an incremental process – using an educational approach.

We need to bear in mind that it should be a Muslim educational approach, with Western help and positive guidance. At the end of the day, only Muslims can and should educate Muslims. Only Muslims can and should interpret Islam in a pragmatic and moderate way.

Finally, the Israeli government must not support a comfortable status quo situation. Israel needs to support the pragmatic Palestinian elements. Abbas and Fayyad have a common interest with the pragmatic axis, and this is new because Israel, the Palestinians, Egypt, Jordan, and even Saudi Arabia today have many common interests that they did not have before, and common enemies as well.

Israel is currently enjoying a period of relative quiet. No doubt Israel’s intelligence capabilities are much better than they used to be, but there are two other important elements at work. The first is the understanding by Abbas and Fayyad that terrorism is counterproductive to Palestinian national interests, something Arafat never understood. The second is the understanding by Hamas that right now it is counterproductive for them to let the situation deteriorate into an all-out war because Hamas is eager to get international legitimization or rehabilitation, and to lift the siege from Gaza. Terrorist attacks are not going to promote Hamas’ immediate goals.

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Dr. Boaz Ganor is the Acting Dean of the Lauder School of Government and Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya as well as the founder and Executive Director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT). He is a member of Israel’s National Committee for Homeland Security Technologies, and of the International Advisory Team of the Manhattan Institute to the New York Police Department. Dr. Ganor has served as a consultant to the Israeli government on counter-terrorism on numerous occasions and is the author of numerous articles and books on counter-terrorism. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on March 24, 2011.

Dr. Boaz Ganor

Dr. Boaz Ganor is the deputy dean of the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel. He is also the founder and the executive director of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at the IDC.