Reflecting on a Week of Terror

Identifying more honestly the combination of reasons that drive ordinary citizens into the arms of killers has stumped Arab and Western authorities for decades, though any Arab teenager could probably explain in five minutes what ails them, and channels some of them into criminal acts.

The most dangerous and troubling among the terror attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait, France, Egypt and Yemen in the past week are probably the Kuwait and Egypt attacks. The bombing of a major Shiite mosque in Kuwait City by a young Saudi man and the assassination in Cairo of the Egyptian public prosecutor show the ease with which ordinary citizens in those countries can move about, cross borders, and kill at will. They also affirm that heavy security and spreading the wealth by munificent governments are unlikely to check the spread of this terrible new scourge of violence by “Islamic State” and others.

Equally troubling is the simplistic response of British Prime Minister David Cameron after thirty British citizens were killed in the Tunisia attack, signaling a continuing lack of appreciation among leading Western governments of the full spectrum of reasons why ordinary young men suddenly turn into vicious killers. This is mirrored in the policies of other Western powers like the United States and France, who cannot seem to grasp the connection between the time and effort that leaders put into selling or giving arms to Arab autocrats and the parallel continued expansion of anti-Western militancy by militant criminals like those who carried out the attacks this week.

As long as Western and Arab power structures refuse to delve fully into the long but clear causal cycle of political and socio-economic factors that transform ordinary young men into global terrorists—including some of the policies of those same Arab and Western powers—then we are all destined to suffer more and more attacks in the years ahead. This is also likely to perpetuate the trend we have witnessed in the past two decades or so: the steady retreat of the reach, relevance and legitimacy of central governments across much of the Arab world.

Government authority has been replaced by a wide range of other organizing forces, including religion, tribalism, ethnicity, civil society, private wealth and others. So ungoverned areas of Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and small bits and pieces of Lebanon, Egypt, Bahrain and Sudan are not wild aberrations of a stable Arab status quo; rather they point to the expected new normal in situations where sustained indigenous autocracy, expanding domestic socio-economic distress, and runaway Western militarism corrode the foundations of existing states and also expose the frailty of those foundations that had been camouflaged for half a century.

The Kuwait and Cairo attacks are especially troubling for several reasons. The Saudi national who bombed the mosque in Kuwait has been identified as Fahad Suleiman Abdulmohsen al-Gabbaa, a Saudi in his early twenties who flew to Kuwait via a connection in Bahrain last Friday morning. The real worry here is multi-faceted: He was a Saudi Arabian national, was not on anybody’s watch list as a potential terrorist, moved around the Gulf region at will, entered the mosque easily, and deliberately assaulted both the Shiite Kuwaitis in the mosque and the modern legacy of Shiite-Sunni coexistence that has always been particularly evident in Kuwait.

The history of terror actions and counter-terrorism in Saudi Arabia over the past thirty-five years, since that homegrown attack on the Great Mosque in Mecca, includes waves of attacks by terrorists and retaliatory massive moves by the state to contain and eliminate this threat. The Kuwait attack should set off major alarm bells about the continued radicalization and sectarian extremism of youth in some Gulf countries, and the need to understand more precisely why this happens. This is especially perplexing in wealthy states that have recently suffered anti-Shiite mosque bombings like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where state policies provide for citizens’ needs and open many opportunities for a good life.

Similarly, the assassination of the public prosecutor in Cairo, on the eve of the second anniversary of the overthrow of former elected President Mohamad Morsi, suggests that the tough anti-terror measures introduced by the government of President Abdelfattah Sisi during his year in office have not adequately contained political violence in the country. The combination of more military security measures alongside a squeezed political system that leaves little room for any voices other than those in or near the ruling elite, while economic stress continues to pervade most Egyptian households, bodes badly for Egypt, as it does for any Arab or Western state that applies such a strategy to quell terror attacks.

The timing, location and target of the Cairo killing should help focus state attention on finding a better way, through inclusive democracy and an expanding economy that is not skewed to the military, to safeguard Egypt and its people. This also requires identifying more honestly the combination of reasons that drive ordinary citizens into the arms of killers. This same challenge has stumped Arab and Western authorities for decades now, though any Arab teenager could probably explain in five minutes what ails them, and channels some of them into criminal acts.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global