Observers and analysts of the war on terrorism are unanimous on two points. Firstly, the terrorism phenomenon, as a whole, suffered debilitating blows during 2017 and the first half of this year.
It has been forced into retreat in Libya, Sinai, Nigeria and elsewhere, or it has been militarily routed, as occurred with the so-called “caliphate” state founded by ISIS (the Islamic State group). In general, terrorist operations have receded during recent months.
The second point is that this decline does not mean that the terrorist phenomenon is over. Confrontations continue in Sinai, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As for those countries in which there is a form of accommodation between the state and the Muslim Brotherhood, we find that these countries are the highest producers of terrorists. Tunisia is a case in point.
This continued uncertainty over the future of terrorism in the Middle East not only renders US intentions to withdraw from the war against terrorism unjustifiable, it makes it premature to declare victory over terrorism.
Even in Syria and Iraq, extensive terrorist pockets remain, and these have the capacities to recruit, mobilise and obtain funding to mount broad operations.
The current phase between the beginnings of victory and ongoing battles compels Arab countries to constantly reassess strategic realities.
This is all the more the case in view of the fact that terrorist groups, from the Muslim Brotherhood through ISIS, have always had the ability to re-emerge and regenerate themselves since they possessed the strategic capacities enabling them to recruit, train and fund, and to exploit the weak points of the countries in which they operate.
The current balance of powers between terrorist groups and the countries of the Middle East is strongly against the former.
Yet, in spite of the terrorists’ failure to seize power, with only brief exceptions, in the Middle East, they have remained a constant source of threat in past decades, a threat that intensified following the “Arab Spring” revolutions.
Terrorists’ regenerative ability has, in large measure, been the product of deficiencies in counterterrorist strategies.
These have taken various forms. One has been to try to outbid terrorists in dogma and religiosity. Another has been to depend exclusively on the security approach.
A third strategic flaw has been to merely chalk up the terrorist phenomenon up to a foreign conspiracy. In the first two cases intelligence has been sorely lacking. In the third, the effect was to aggravate security and ideological costs.
In addition, the political, economic and social climates in countries of this region have generally been conducive to the growth of terrorism.
Political vacuums, economic weakness, social divisions and cultural underdevelopment have combined to shape an environment that facilitates terrorist thought and organisations.
The ability to sustain the battle against terrorism is contingent on a precise awareness of the state of the terrorist phenomenon.
If terrorist groups vary in outward form and sometimes rival one another over methods of practice, strategic goals and tactical means, they nevertheless can be ranked under one of two categories: the Muslim Brotherhood variety and the Al-Qaeda variety.
Although terrorist groups pose a threat to all Middle Eastern and Islamic countries, they pose a threat to Arab countries above all.
Perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood is the main and long term strategic threat at the level of the domestic political order, international relations and economic and civilisational progress.
It is the oldest and most experienced organisation and most widely disseminated, with branches in 81 countries. It has leveraged itself as the foremost mouthpiece of Islam and Muslims in Europe and the US where it has taken control of mosques and Islamic centres.
And has managed to survive for more than 80 years in spite of a record of constant failure.
The reason it has been able to remain so tenacious despite multiple defeats is because it has been the bridge between kharijite thought and the Arab and Muslim public and because it has large and renewable capacities for strategic planning, analysis and infiltration, inciting violence and terrorism, and active engagement in violence and terrorism against the state, national economy and civilians.
Because of the nature of this organisation and its modus operandi, the war inherently requires a security/military operational dimension.
However, no less important is the need to prevent others from emerging in the place of the terrorists that have been eliminated, which means the battle has a major ideological dimension as well.
During recent years, there has been an increasing awareness in Arab states of the need to renovate religious thought and of the need for religious institutions to actively contribute to the ideological dimension of the counterterrorist drive.
Nevertheless, we still lack a comprehensive and long-term strategy for defeating and eliminating terrorism so as to enable the Middle East become a terrorist-free region.
To attain this goal, the drive to uproot terrorism must meet three basic conditions:
Firstly, the tools that are brought to bear in the security and ideological dimensions of the battle must be complimented by government developmental efforts in the political and economic spheres.
Secondly, Arab states must have greater stamina than terrorist organisations and they have much greater knowledge about these organisations, how they operate and how they are structured.
Thirdly, Arab governments, and the members of the quartet coalition (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain) above all, must cooperate fully with each other through an effective and permanent mechanism for collective strategic planning and action.
I will therefore take this opportunity to reiterate my call for the creation of an “Arab Counterterrorism Centre” to deal with this complex and multifaceted phenomenon.
True, a number of Arab countries have established research centres for this purpose and various security agencies also have research and intelligence gathering instruments in place.
However, the product of these diverse efforts has yet to be channelled into a single repository so that all the information can be available for processing and analysis, and for the formulation of comprehensive counterterrorist strategies that integrate both the security and ideological dimensions.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: War on terrorism continues