Why the world needs to re-think its war on terror

Seventeen years have passed since 9/11, which marked a turning point in relations between the West and the Islamic world. Jordanian Islamism expert, Hassan Abu Haniyya, offers Ouifaq Benkiran the following observations about the most important repercussions of the war on terror

By Ouifaq Benkiran

What are we to make of these repercussions on the international scene today?

Hassan Abu Haniyya: There is no doubt that the attacks of 11 September 2001 were a defining moment in international politics. Terrorism became the most prominent issue globally. The dangers of the Cold War were related to the nature of that conflict. Today, terrorism has evolved from the threat of suicide bombings and revenge to unprecedented levels in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Jihadist groups have been able to take control of large swathes of territory, whether in Iraq, Syria, Southeast Asia, West or East Africa. We are now talking about very real dangers, about the growing extremism of groups which align themselves, either with al-Qaida or Islamic State (Daʹesh). Accordingly, the global risks today canʹt be measured in the same way in which they were assessed 17 years ago. We are way beyond that.

This leads us into a discussion about the Arab world, which has seen a qualitative leap in terms of Salafist jihadist ideas. Does this mean that the region has fallen hostage to extremist Islamist ideology and to those repressive regimes which survived the challenges of the Arab Spring?

Abu Haniyya: Indeed. The main problem in the Arab and Islamic worlds is one of structure. Aside from the cultural framework and analyses that link violence and faith, one of the root causes of terrorism is that these radical movements are feeding on the structural violence of autocratic regimes in the region and their negation of any prospect of democratic change.

We have observed the coups against popular democratic transformation in the Arab world, including the usurping of the electoral outcome in Egypt and the militarisation of the revolutions in Syria, Libya and Yemen; all this has led to a regrettable rise in these extremist groups. In short, the fate of the region is governed by structural problems arising from these tyrannical regimes and the absence of social justice.

Jordanian Islamism expert Hassan Abu Haniyya (photo: Hassan Abu Haniyya)
Hassan Abu Haniyya is a Jordanian expert in Islamist groups. He regularly publishes articles in the Arab media and is the author of numerous books. His most recent publication is "The Islamic 'Solution' in Jordan: Islamists, the State, Democracy and Security"

What about the West? When it comes to dealing with the Arab world, has it learnt nothing from 9/11?

Abu Haniyya: The anti-terrorism approach favoured by the world, including the West, remains harsh. There are no genuine soft alternatives, such as those that rely on reorientation and integration. On the contrary, we have seen how the global community has handled the crises in Iraq and Syria – with greater military force and a network of international alliances. Unfortunately, we have yet to see a combination of the hard and the soft approach, as advocated by the United Nations in 2014. There is no real agenda to back up the strategy. Everything is based on military and security tactics, which explains the actions of the U.S.-led coalition forces. Whatʹs more, democratic European governments have also abandoned their liberal traditions to pursue more stringent anti-terrorism policies.

This means we have two scenarios: the first is an internal Arab construct and the second reflects Western agendas and their approach to dealing with terrorism. Neither case would seem to present any prospect of eliminating terrorism and Islamist extremism ...

Abu Haniyya: It seems inevitable that there will be an increasing focus on the security and military approach. Since President Trumpʹs arrival in the White House, all concepts relating to political, social and cultural reform in the Arab region have been abandoned. We have seen how the United States is supporting authoritarian and dictatorial regimes in the region while ignoring its deeper problems. It is an approach that is merely serving to reinforce extremist ideology. All these factors are contributing to a worsening of the phenomenon across population generations.

Since the arrival of U.S. forces in Iraq, for example, violence has increased. And now, despite Islamic State having been expelled, the problem of sectarianism remains, highlighting the political and economic dilemmas facing the country. Moreover, some movements that had been operating under a peaceful umbrella, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, have since been classified as terrorist organisations in some countries, among them the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The latter are driving radicalisation, which in turn is fuelling violence and extremism.Saudi Arabia has been tagged as a "sponsor of terrorism" ever since the 9/11 attacks, owing to the involvement of prominent Saudi citizens in al-Qaida, including the groupʹs erstwhile leader Osama bin Laden. Has Saudi Arabia succeeded in rehabilitating its image on the international stage?

Abu Haniyya: Saudi Arabia has made some moves, but the path currently being pursued is a dangerous one. Riyadh is in danger of getting rid of the very legitimacy on which its state was founded, namely the combination of Wahhabist Salafist ideology and the al-Saud tribe. The advent of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has weakened this axis. The religious institutions are being increasingly marginalised, while the royal modernisation programme is looking to replace the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue with the Entertainment Authority.

Yet, the fact is that Saudi society has not accepted these changes. Saudi Arabia may have a modern liberal economy, but its political and cultural environment is anything but. Human rights, democracy and womenʹs rights are still lacking, whilst security controls are tight. There have been a few cosmetic changes, but they have had no impact on the core pillars of the system on which Saudi Arabia was been built.

The U.S. has been engaged in its international war against terrorism for the past 17 years and over the course of 5 presidential terms. Clearly, the process of ending it has become hugely complicated. Is it possible that what has been called an "exceptional" war will become a permanent fact for generations to come?

Abu Haniyya: No doubt. There is an utter lack of any definition of terrorism. The UN has consistently failed to come up with a clear definition of the term, so as to avoid having to prosecute states for actions amounting to "crimes against humanity". This legal dilemma has a political aspect and is determined by the national interests of major players. The U.S., with its support for autocratic regimes, has failed to reach a just solution to the Palestinian question. It has even abandoned the two-state solution for the sake of the "deal of the century".

Thus, Washington is turning the phenomenon of terrorism into a growing problem. The end of al-Qaida was much vaunted during the Bush Jr. and Obama eras, but now we are being confronted on the ground with the fact that these organisations are back, with the Taliban in Afghanistan and "Daʹesh" who returned to Iraq after the American withdrawal. The reality is that the U.S. has failed in its war on terror and must develop new tools to deal with it.

But arenʹt the U.S. and Russia – newly active in the region by means of the Syrian gateway – simply using the same excuses?

Abu Haniyya: Russiaʹs involvement is bound to shed yet more blood. And violence inspired by belief will find new excuses to prove that the region and Islam are under siege yet again. Let us not forget that the jihadist phenomenon originated in Afghanistan in the war against the Russians; it is Russia that is now returning to the heart of the Arab world. I believe that extremism will take a much broader approach, with clashes and conflicts taking place either through proxies or by direct confrontations.

Where does Europe stand amid the transformations caused by the war on terror?

Abu Haniyya: Europe, in turn, bears a heavy share of responsibility for the current situation, with the issue of foreign fighters having become an increased focus since the 1980s. Recently we have seen how, with reference to Iraq and Syria, Europe has developed anti-terrorism laws to hunt down fighters, to the point of withdrawing their nationalities. Internally at the very least, Europe has thus retracted some of its existing liberal rights, fuelling the debate about identity and integration, not to mention Islamophobia. Similarly right-wing populist parties have sprung up, touting blatantly Islamophobic rhetoric. All this has created a highly conducive environment for polarisation and recruitment within the Islamist camp. Since the Arab Spring, more than 6,000 fighters have been recruited, 600 of them women, in an unprecedented challenge to European countries.

Interview conducted by Ouifaq Benkiran

© Qantara.de 2018

Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton