King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia donated earlier this month another $100 million to the UN’s International Centre to Combat Terrorism. On its surface, it is a sensible approach to find a global solution for a global problem, but in reality global terrorism is a local issue. Three things Abdullah will need to consider to secure a reasonable return on his investment; first, looking inward to address causes leading to grievances amongst his population. Second, reorienting the current security based reactionary approach to terrorism to one that is proactively steeped in social justice. Third, moving away from casting terrorists as religious hijackers by offering a parallel narrative to a swayable population.
“The goal [of the International Center to Combat Terrorism] is to exchange and pass information in an expedited fashion … to prevent events before they hit” said Abdullah in a frustrated tone a couple of weeks back. Exchanging intelligence is a surmountable challenge as we have realized from the American experience on 9/11 when the intelligence community failed to “connect the dots.” Sharing critical information in a timely fashion continues to be problematic despite restructuring the U.S. intelligence system under the Department of Homeland Security. What are the chances of a successful ongoing exchange of relevant intelligence in real time on a global level? I dare say very limited, at least not more effective than the current established channels of communicating security/intelligence information.
This myopic obsession with countering a tactic, terrorism, with security responses keeps the intelligence community consumed with figuring out the next step on a chessboard of infinite pawns. This reactionary stance fails the test of guaranteed prevention knowing that terrorist are one step ahead. The manpower and budgetary attrition rates will only get worse for the intelligence community and security forces particularly that terrorist can be destructive on the cheap. Security can only be one spoke in the wheel that moves a society away from such destruction.
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has set up a number of security, media and social programs to combat terrorism. One of which is Intellectual Security concerned with what is commonly referred to in Saudi as “deviant thoughts” a euphemism for terrorist ideology. Another is the Commission for Advise to “correct mistaken religious thoughts” according to their mission statement and finally, the After Care Program which is a social and financial program providing services and money to previously incarcerated terrorists. These are smart programs, but none of them address any of the root causes leading to terrorism. Social justice and political inclusion are effective ways to prevent aggrieved citizens from resorting to terrorism to affect political change.
Abdullah was quoted numerous times saying that “terrorist are hijacking Islam.” Putting distance between terrorists and Islam is a matter of religious interpretation. Islam is not being “hijacked” by mostly disheveled Captain Hook lookalikes for religious reasons. Nor are terrorists attempting to spread sharia laws by reviving the Caliphate. Rather Islam provides these criminal leaders with an established narrative that took decades to develop thanks to the rhetoric of Said Qutb and Hassan Al-Banna of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. Aggrieved Arabs embraced this narrative and ensuing indoctrination across the region. Focusing on the narrative and offering parallel accounts capturing the audiences’ imagination should be added to the spectrum of tools utilized to complement the concrete action for social justice and political inclusion. Religious based narrative is not what causes citizens to become new foot solders for AlQaeda or Islamic State/ISIS; grievance is.
The latest report confirm that the Saudi security apparatus is put on high alert after a number of AlQaeda sympathizers sprayed threatening graffiti messages on the walls of a security barracks in Sharorah close to the Saudi-Yemeni boarder two months after a terrorist attack killing a number of Saudi security forces mere miles away. This is a troubling sign as emboldened terrorist flank both northern and southern borders of the country. Banning the Muslim Brotherhood and being vigilant are options exercised by the Saudi government, but until the regime resolves to addressing root causes of freedoms and rights for its people the old strategy of pacifying citizens with hollow gestures will only lead to more discontent, deeper resentment, more grievances and ultimately more terrorists.