9 January 2015
Following the terror attacks in France, Western governments should avoid the temptation to see relations with MENA solely through the lens of counterterrorism.

Jane Kinninmont

Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme


French soldiers patrol in front of the Eiffel Tower as Paris was placed on high alert a day after the attack on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Photo by Getty Images.
French soldiers patrol in front of the Eiffel Tower as Paris was placed on high alert a day after the attack on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Photo by Getty Images.


Reports that one of the Charlie Hebdo attackers may have trained with Al-Qaeda in Yemen will add to the fears of European policy-makers about violent spillover from conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This risks intensifying the existing tendency of Western governments to see the region – and the Western role there – through the lens of counterterrorism.

The Arab uprisings of 2011 briefly provided an opportunity to re-focus policy attention away from the ‘war on terror’ to the broader reality of a diverse region, where violent actors represent only a tiny minority of people. But the radicalization and internationalization of the Syria conflict have returned the focus of Western governments to direct jihadi security risks in their own countries. These can involve both fighters returning from Syria or purely ‘home-grown’ attackers who have been inspired by the rise of Islamic State (IS) and need no battleground experience to hurt ‘soft’ civilian targets.

A preoccupation with counterterrorism is understandable insofar as politicians and policy-makers always prioritize the security of their home country over broader international goals. The security of citizens is one of the primary responsibilities of government. Successful attacks can also threaten governments: the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which took place three days before general elections, encouraged the Spanish public to vote out the government of Jose Maria Aznar, who had authorized Spanish participation in the (already unpopular) Iraq war. The murder of British and American nationals in Iraq and Syria has also turned regional conflicts into domestic-policy issues for Western politicians. The IS tactic of broadcasting the killing of US citizens has also directly reshaped US popular opinion on military action in Iraq.

But Europe and the US need to ensure that the importance of counterterrorism does not distort their priorities, and avoid repeating mistakes of the ‘war on terror’. Firstly, Western countries need to remember, in their rhetoric and in their policies, the non-Western victims of Al-Qaeda and IS − including the 38 Yemenis who were killed by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attack. The fact that the US and its allies decided to attack IS only after it killed Westerners reflects the normal tendency of countries to prioritize their own nationals. But since the US, Britain and France have much more weight in world politics than most Middle Eastern countries, the result is that the international community, not just the individual countries, seems more responsive to the deaths of Western nationals than others. Of course this feeds a sense of injustice.

Secondly, they need to work closely with Muslim countries and Muslim civil society organizations at home to prevent such attacks from polarizing societies. Many Muslim leaders have spoken up to condemn the killings, but Muslims should not be required to apologize for these attacks, any more than Christians need to apologize for the killings in Norway in 2011 by Anders Breivik, who saw himself as fighting for a ‘monocultural Christian Europe’.

Thirdly, they need to avoid being co-opted into regional states’ struggles against those labelled as ‘terrorists’ but conveniently defined to include large swathes of peaceful domestic opposition. For instance, some diplomats and analysts now argue for Western reconciliation with the Syrian government, on the basis of a joint interest in fighting ‘terrorism’. On his recent visits to France and Italy, Egypt’s president, Abdel-Fatah El Sisi, emphasized the need to cooperate to fight ‘terrorism’ too.

But a basic consensus on the identity of the terrorists is lacking. For Syria, the term includes virtually all of the opposition. For Egypt, it includes the Muslim Brotherhood, recently elected into (and ejected from) government. A UK Foreign Office review of Brotherhood activities, completed last July, is reported to have found that the group is not a terrorist organization. But the report remains mysteriously unpublished, seemingly because it is too awkward to broach this with Britain’s regional allies in Egypt and the Gulf.

The US cooperated closely with the Yemeni government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, pouring military assistance into the country. Ironically, this assistance ultimately helped destabilize the regime, which was overthrown in 2011, because corrupt elites battled internally to control the funds and weapons. This undermined the Saleh government’s popular legitimacy further through the perception that it was more interested in the needs of the US than the needs of its people.

Fourthly, too great a focus on counterterrorism risks allowing violent extremists to set the policy agenda. A wide range of groups seek to communicate with and influence the powerful. Acts of sudden, symbolically charged violence − especially in wealthy capitals, far from war zones − have become a short cut to doing this.

Take the Iraqi city of Mosul as an example. From 2011 to 2013, residents of Mosul held repeated peaceful demonstrations against government corruption and against sectarian bias in the implementation of anti-terrorism laws. The government cracked down on the demonstrators; the international community largely ignored them. Yet after IS captured Mosul, it became an international policy priority to address the concerns of the area’s Sunni population, and the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, was replaced.

Such an approach creates perverse incentives. While extremism and violence will naturally preoccupy policy-makers, a more strategic approach to MENA policy is needed − an approach that many governments pledged to take after the uprisings of 2011, but which has again and again been overtaken by events.

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