There have been two interesting initiatives on “terrorism” over the month, both highly revealing in different ways about opposition to Islamic State (Isis). The first is a ludicrous document issued by the government of the United Arab Emirates that lists as “terrorist organisations” no less than 85 groups, coupling well-regarded Muslim charities with violent jihadis such as Isis. The second initiative is a carefully considered speech by Britain’s Home Secretary Theresa May, explaining a new counter-terrorism and security law aimed at detecting and rendering harmless potential terrorists. What these two declarations have in common is that neither is likely to be much of an impediment to terrorism.
The list issued by the UAE cabinet on 15 November is so sloppy in composition and puerile in intent that it is easy to miss its significance. In addition to Isis, the groups characterised as “terrorist” include Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. But also listed are Islamic Relief, a respected British-based aid agency and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the biggest Muslim civil rights and lobbying group in the US. By denouncing a potpourri of different groups, the UAE can satisfy the US, Britain and other Western allies that it has outlawed Isis, while in practice diluting its denunciation of the one terrorist group that is a powerful state the size of Britain.
The true policy priorities of the UAE and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia, are evident from the way Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups and Shia movements are singled out as terrorists. Of course, the real objection of absolutist rulers of the Gulf to the Muslim Brotherhood has nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with the movement standing for elections and winning them in countries such as Egypt (before the government was overthrown by a military coup backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE). Almost any Shia group can be termed “terrorist” according to the UAE, since it lists the powerful Houthi movement of Yemen that holds the capital Sanaa, as well as the Badr Organisation whose senior members are part of the Iraqi government in Baghdad.
All this is good news for Isis because it shows that the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf are still focussed on their confrontation with the Shia rather than with defeating Sunni jihadis in Iraq and Syria. They may have had their arms twisted by the Americans to force them to send a few planes to bomb Isis targets, but their basic sympathies have not changed. The West may be focussing, though in an ineffective way, on how to combat the Sunni jihadis, but the Sunni monarchs are more alarmed by what they see as the Shia becoming the predominant power in four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. As one observer in Baghdad put it: “The Sunni rulers may fear the Islamic State, but they still like the idea that it causes more trouble to the Shia than it does to them.”
The diversity of opponents identified in the UAE terrorist list has important consequences for policy. President Obama put together a coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Isis, but largely excluded those who are actually fighting it on the ground. The contradictions in the US approach are both patent and self-defeating. The US, Britain and France want to defeat IS but also displace President Bashar al-Assad. But if Assad goes and the Syrian army then disintegrates, as it likely would, the chief beneficiaries would be IS and Jabhat al-Nusra. In brief, the need to keep the Sunni states, including Turkey, on board in fighting Isis has meant adopting a strategy against the jihadis that is bound to fail.
Theresa May’s speech last Monday recognises the gravity of the jihadi threat and the way it has fundamentally changed in nature over the past six months. She said that “unlike other terrorist organisations, Isil [as Isis is also known] has the ambition to become a state in its own right with all the financial clout and the military and technological possibilities statehood brings.” In fact, the caliphate declared by its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on 29 June is not a future ambition, but exists as a real state when it comes to the ability to defend its own territory. With its beliefs and actions publicised by the internet and social media, the new state is inspiring young Muslims to travel to Syria and Iraq to fight and has “given energy and a renewed sense of purpose to subversive Islamist organisations and radical organisations in Britain.”
This is all very true, but the measures in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill are marginal and arguably counter-productive when it comes to dealing with the threat posed by Isis. Schools, colleges, universities, the police, prisons, the probation service and local government are supposed to be drawn into preventing “radicalisation”, a term so loose as to be meaningless. The movement of jihadis in and out of Britain is to be more closely monitored and possibly prevented. Internet providers are to give more information about the identity of users and there are to be measures against insurance companies being involved in payment of ransoms.
None of these measures will make Isis or other jihadis lose much sleep. Increased surveillance and controls might have some effect on what Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, described as “misguided young men, rather pathetic figures” who reveal their intentions on the internet and social media. In reality, Isis is an obsessively secretive organisation that last week shut down the phone system in Mosul because it believed people were disclosing information about its movements.
These minor adjustments to security and surveillance avoid the main issue which is not technical but political. It is impossible to police British borders effectively without bringing ports and airports to a halt or allocating vastly more resources to the system. Demonising Muslim or other educational institutions for failing to prevent something as vague as “radicalisation” will simply fuel Islamophobia and a sense of persecution among Muslims.
The real objection to Theresa May’s counter-terrorism Bill is not so much its possible impact on civil liberties but that it gives the impression that something is being done about “terrorism” when it is not. The place to stop British jihadis is not Heathrow but the crossing points on the Syrian-Turkish border through which jihadis still pass into land held by Isis. Getting Turkey to close its 610-mile frontier with Syria will take intense political pressure on a powerful and uncooperative Turkish state, but it is only by these means that potential terrorists can be impeded.
Becoming dangerously “radicalised” in effect means adopting a violent sectarian anti-Shia ideology akin to Saudi Wahhabism. Stopping this happening means confronting Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE over their support and funding for Sunni fundamentalism. To do this requires a political decision from the Prime Minister not the Home Secretary. The failure to take such action against the real sources of terror in the wake of 9/11 is the reason why Isis exists today.