Breaking the Middle East’s Cycle of Terror

FEZ – In July, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that the Islamic State (ISIS) had been driven out of Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, which it captured three years ago. Sooner or later, it will also lose Raqqa, the capital of its self-styled caliphate – and the last true city under its control. But these defeats do not mean the downfall of ISIS, much less Islamist terrorism, or that the Middle East’s most acute conflicts will be resolved anytime soon.


To be sure, the fading dream of an Islamic caliphate will weaken the ability of ISIS and kindred groups to recruit disaffected youth. Already, the flow of foreign would-be jihadists crossing from Turkey into Syria to join ISIS has plunged, from 2,000 per month to about 50.

But such groups still have powerful lures at their disposal. Most fundamentally, they are able to offer disillusioned young people a sense of purpose and belonging. The fact that this purpose entails murder, terror, and mayhem may make it all the more appealing among frustrated and resentful youth.

Despite recent setbacks, writing off the threat posed by ISIS is as unwarranted as it is premature. Consider the history of al-Qaeda, which proves that even if a state that nourishes a terrorist group fails, a radical ideology can continue to fuel violence near and far. The group’s leaders must simply adjust their methods, in order to continue attracting recruits and planning attacks from outside the borders of a friendly sovereign state.

To that end, in Iraq, terrorist groups will continue to exploit sectarianism, which had divided the country long before the United States invaded it in 2003. More broadly, they can capitalize on escalating tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims to attract alienated young Sunnis.

This increasingly dangerous dynamic is apparent in the decision of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, owing to its alleged ties with regional terrorist groups and Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival for regional influence. It is also visible in the devastating proxy war in Yemen, which has become a key battleground in the Saudi-Iranian power struggle.

Against this background, it seems likely that ISIS, from its scattered bases in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, will be able to continue planning and executing terrorist attacks in the Middle East and beyond. But there are ways to avoid such an outcome – or at least minimize the damage.

For starters, governments and non-governmental actors in the Arab world must sever all financial ties to terrorist groups. Beyond official transfers, this means halting private efforts by individual citizens to fund terror. States in the region already have harsh legal codes; governments should enforce them more effectively against those who finance terror.

At the same time, religious and political leaders must loudly condemn the violent Islamist ideology that nurtures jihadist movements, spurning them with the same vigor that they reserve for challengers to their own authority. Qui tacet consentire videtur (silence means consent). In this case, tacit consent emboldens terrorist actors, with deadly results.

The countries of the Middle East have become associated with extremist ideologies and terror the world over. If they are to recover their reputations, and restore the health of their societies and economies, they must act decisively to weaken the allure of terrorist recruiters. Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia have all made some moves in this direction, but they cannot do it alone.

Like these countries, others in the Middle East must not allow themselves to be lulled into complacency by the ostensible fall of ISIS as a territorial entity. Ultimately, the only way to break the cycle of terror and violence in the Arab world is to resolve the conflicts within Islam. To reach that point, however, the region’s governments must urgently pursue a two-prong strategy of interdiction and condemnation.

Moha Ennaji is President of the South North Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Migration Studies in Morocco. His most recent books include New Horizons of Muslim Diaspora in North America and Europe and Muslim Moroccan Migrants in Europe.

By Moha Ennaji

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