Middle East and the New Terrorism

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Dr. Kayhan Barzegar
12 June 2005


Since September 11 the Middle East has been the focus of global peace and security. The issues such as the new terrorism and WMD have become amongst the two foremost headlines of international security. The needs for understanding diverse cultures, languages, religions, ethnic groups, etc., have become more significant. Therefore, new circumstances have more emphasized the significance of regional security studies in the international relations. Traditionally, threats to global peace and security ensued from wars and crises amongst the regional states which thereby engaged the international system. Presently, threats to global security are considered in the context of global terrorism. September 11 has introduced a new approach to dealing with the new terrorism, whereby the West is determined to eradicate the root causes of the new terrorism outside of the West’s boundaries. Since global terrorism stems from the region, exploring the correlation between the Middle East’s issues and the new terrorism is of great importance. As a whole, the roots of the new terrorism have undoubtedly been associated with the Middle East’s current problems. If the new terrorism was conceived in the region, one needs to consider the unique political, economic, cultural and religious characteristics of the region on the one hand and the global community’s approach to dealing with these regional issues on the other.

This research examines the role of the international community as the main contributing factor to the development of the new terrorism. Three questions are of particular importance in this research: why has the new terrorism appeared in the Middle East? And have the current policies of the global community, as led by the U.S., comfort the threat posed by the new terrorism? Has this approach itself been a threat to or an opportunity for global security? The main argument of this research advances the idea that the roots of the new terrorism which are found in the Middle East’s political, cultural and economic problems have been considerably affected by the global community’s conduct. Tackling such problems with military operations would be rather pointless and will lead to more hostility developing in the region. Effectively, the current conduct of international community in the region has itself been the source of tension and insecurity. In fact, as a result of the international community’s policies, the two concepts of “stabilization” and “democratization” that are essential to any political and economic transformation and thus to the eradication of terrorism, have diverged in the region to the extent that accommodating them in one context is today largely inconceivable.

What Is the New Terrorism?

Terrorism has always existed in the international community. What is new today is that terrorism has acquired an international dimension with its own specific definition, which increases its importance to the global community. Introducing a new nature and definition, September 11 undoubtedly marks a turning point in terrorist activities. The old terrorism has internal or regional dimensions, functions in a specific place and time and has less negative impact on the international community. In contrast, the new terrorism acts beyond national and regional boundaries, has global impact and constitutes a direct threat to global peace and security.

International security, long threatens by wars and tensions amongst nations, is presently endangered by an unknown, complex and unconventional force. This by no means suggests an easy resolution. In contrast with old terrorism, the new kind of terrorism has no individual, nationalistic or state-sponsored characteristics. It occurs in many countries, and is supported by a global network. The hub of the new terrorism is the Middle East, its driving force is Sunni Islamic radicalism and its representative is Al-Qaeda.  Its main aims include: to destabilize international security; to de-legitimize Western culture and values; and thereby, to create a new balance of power between the West and the Islamic World.

As a result of these aims and characteristics, the new terrorism is more ferocious and less tolerant. It stems from a radicalism which originates in the regional nations’ political, cultural and economic dissatisfaction with the global community’s policies in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda's type of terrorism appeals to the hearts and minds of individuals to act for an idealistic end. “As we are not, no one would have the right to be safe in the world”, they argue. Accordingly, today’s suicide attackers fight for their faith and most importantly “Allah’s satisfaction”, as they are certain that they will be blessed by God.(1)


Finally, the new terrorism is a tactic that is supported by a worldwide network. Considered in this way, no eradication of today’s terrorism will succeed unless the root causes of its emergence on the one hand, and the motives of its adherents on the other, are identified and addressed. In the context of the Middle East, the new terrorism no doubt stems from a collective sense of historical injustice, political subservience, and a pervasive sense of social humiliation inflicted by the global powers and their allies.(2) These political, cultural and psychological complexities operate cumulatively, to trigger the axis of global terrorism. Hence, without solving the existing problems in the region, no abolition of the new terrorism is feasible.

Roots of the New Terrorism

Since September 11, the subject of terrorism as the crucial threatening factor to international peace and security and as the major challenge facing the global community has acquired great importance. The question that arises here is why the new terrorism has emerged in the Middle East? To find a sensible answer, one should consider multiple contributing factors. Although the unique political, cultural and economic characteristics of Middle Eastern societies (i.e. their cultural-ethnic fragmentation, religious confrontations, traditional communities, the occurrence of the wars, etc.) provided a platform for the evolution of the new terrorism, the author maintains that the global community’s policies in dealing with the regional issues has played the major role for the development of the new terrorism.

In the Middle East’s contemporary history, Britain and the United States (plus Russia and France with less impact) have respectively shaped the global community’s policies. As for the British colonialist policies, it is imperative to understand that the political map and ethnic boundaries of the region were drawn in accordance with the demands of British foreign policy in the first half of the 20th century. The devastating British policies,(3) based on securing British national interests, have more than anything resulted in unrealistic territorial divisions and the consequent establishment of artificial states. As a result, no distinctly Arab or non-Arab state can be found today in the region without serious difficulty. Given these policies, the second half of the century witnessed numerous wars and crises and thus more ethnic and religious fragmentation in the region. The outcome was the enduring existence of authoritarian regimes, which by enjoying the support of the global community have been able to suppress their nations’ demands for political openness, fair distribution of power and a competitive economy in the globalized economy as the prerequisites for any democratization process.(4) 

As for the United States’ role following Britain’s withdrawal from the region in 1971, more complexity and tension has undoubtedly been brought to the region. In order to secure U.S. national interests – as U.S. leaders have recently confessed – the Middle East peoples’ requests for democratization have long been sacrificed in order to achieve stability in the region.(5) Over the past three decades, U.S. policies aimed at preserving stability have contributed to the halting of any democratization efforts. These stability-seeking policies have been based on two strategic pillars: the control of energy sources, and the termination of the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Achieving the first goal, U.S. foreign policy has manifested itself in two primary ways: support of autocratic regimes, and military presence. After the first Persian Gulf War, huge arms transfers and diplomatic and economic support systems all continue to play a substantial role in keeping autocratic regimes in power and thereby strengthening regional stability. By virtue of their empowerment, these regimes have been able to carry out internal repression.(6) Opposition groups have not been allowed to compete in an open political process, and there has been no democratic distribution of power. As a result of this policy, many Arabs today regard the U.S. as guilty of delaying the creation of political openness.(7) Over the past years, demands to establish real parliamentary systems have been foiled. The result is the emergence of extremism on the one hand, and the creation of a specific “power-base” on the other hand, which in turn has encouraged new levels of extremism.

U.S. policy in the region in the early 1980’s also played a part in creating the initial conditions for radicalism to develop. For example, Washington backed Sunni radical groups against the Soviet army in Afghanistan as a means of limiting the influence of the Islamic revolution in Iran. The result of that policy today is Al-Qaeda and the New Terrorism. Supportive U.S. policy towards the Taliban in Afghanistan in the mid-1990’s provided Al-Qaeda with the opportunity to organize, recruit and train in preparation for terrorist activities around the world.

U.S. support for regional regimes has in fact created a kind of “power-base” which by its nature undermines work towards democratization. As a result of these supportive policies we witness the existence of unusual authoritarian regimes, along with distinctive closed power circuits in the region which are monopolized, unbalanced, unlimited, and offer advantages to those who are loyal to the core of the system. With the existence of these kinds of power bases, there is less chance for any democratization process. Such a process could in fact only occur at the determination of those in power, not by the will of the people.

As for U.S. military presence, the first Persian Gulf War enabled the establishment of several permanent U.S. military bases. This presence has continued, and has become an important component in the forging of political alliances between the U.S. and various Middle Eastern regimes. Although these regimes were grateful for this strong U.S. presence during the 1990’s, it is now felt that the American intervention was not in accordance with international law, nor did it facilitate self-determination or the development of human rights. Rather, it protected U.S. access to and control of energy resources and was, in essence, purely self-interested in order to preserve stability in the region. U.S. policy caused the new wave of religious extremism by creating dissatisfaction, distrust and a popular negative reaction against U.S. military presence and its intervention in the internal affairs of the nations of the region. Ironically, this increase in tension and violence has itself become the main obstacle to further democratization.

As regards termination of the Arab-Israeli Peace Process, U.S. policies have always favored Israel as the counter-weight to the regional powers, in order to preserve stability. In fact, over the past decade the United States has not been a fair mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Unfair U.S. policy has created enormous resentment as diplomatic, financial and military support for the Israeli regime and its humiliating attitude to the Palestinians has continued. The failure of the U.S. to be a fair mediator means that Arab feelings towards it are rapidly worsening.

This growing Arab frustration is thought of as the primary catalyst of the move towards extremism, and of attempts to obtain rights through armed struggle or even sometimes through terrorist activity. As the Iraq case displays, some segments of more politicized and radicalized Sunni Muslims are feeling the need to wage Jihad in support of their suffering brethren and to restore the lost credit of Muslims. At present, Muslim public opinion is daily expressing its concern about the US-led war on terror and its threat to Islam.(8) A negative view of U.S. policy among Muslims had previously been largely confined to countries in the Middle East, but has now increasingly spread to other parts of the Islamic world.

Another sign of the sacrifice of the democratization effort is provided by U.S. interference in overthrowing Mosadeq’s national government in the 1953 Coup in Iran, ultimately resulting in the extension of Shiite radicalism in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Although Shiite radicalism introduced fewer threats to the global community, when combined with the Persian culture it became the example of Sunni radicalism in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Presently, the main legitimacy of Al-Qaeda in the eyes of its proponents is the organization’s precious effort to de-legitimize the regional regimes and thereby liberate Islamic nations from dependence on the West.

Viewed in this light, no place could have been more appropriate for the emergence of terrorist activities than the Middle East. In other words, the new terrorism could in fact just have been a response to the Middle East’s ruin and misery. As an underlying reality, it is hard today to find even one nation without territorial, political, and ethnic problems. Even within the nation-states we witness countless ethnic and religious fragmentations, which have now been fuelled by the new round of global interference such as the conduct of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

War on Terrorism: Challenges for the Global Peace and Security

Regardless of what component(s) contributed the evolution of the new terrorism, the main challenge now is whether the global community’s current confrontation of terrorist activities has resulted in the eradication of or at least a reduction in the terrorist threat to international security. Are the current policies the continuation of the previous ones, or has some fundamental change occurred? 

With the events of September 11, a worldwide consensus has emerged among the global community as to how the terrorist threat as the priority of international peace and security should be tackled. Accordingly, confronting the new terrorism has become one of the most important fundamentals of national governments’ foreign policies. On the other hand it has become a source of pressure when applied to so-called rebel states, who regard the existing order as a threat to their systems and thus are unsympathetically questioning the current international system. The war on terrorism has generally gained legitimacy and justification among the international community, nation-states today considering it to be their international obligation to support the global movements for security. Consequently, the United States as the representative of the global community (or even as claimed, its head) and as the major victim and target of the new terrorism, has come to dominate the scene with the new rhetoric of abolishing terrorist activities by prioritizing democratization processes.

From the US administration’s perspective, future 11 September type of attacks can only be prevented through liberalization and democratization of the Middle Eastern countries.(9) This was a key rationale used by the Bush administration to mobilize public support for conducting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In other words, the justification of starting war on terrorism was based on eradicating Al-Qaeda type terrorist activities in Afghanistan, and the subsequent war in Iraq was justified by the excuse of denying terrorist access to Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD). From this perspective, removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein as the two components of the expanding new terrorism constitute the great effort made by the U.S. to establish stability and security in the Middle East and, thus, in the world.

Irrespective of the purposes behind the U.S. administration’s present talk of the necessity of democratization in the Middle East,(10) one should ask whether this type of democratization would effectively work in the region. The fundamental question is now what the global community has accomplished by conducting almost three long occupation wars. Has the global community’s approach to dealing with the new terrorism led to any proper outcome, and is the world is a safer place now? Has the region shifted to a secured place, as a prerequisite of the democratization process? And have the terrorists’ operational and organizational power declined?

The new terrorism, as argued, operates through persuading the thoughts and hearts of its believers and utilizes “life as a weapon”. It talks about the global community’s mistreatment of the Muslim world. Viewed in this context, the global community’s presence in the region and conducting the current type of wars against terrorist activities will undoubtedly have counter-productive consequences. How would it be possible to find a military solution to a political-cultural problem? As the Middle East’s current problems have cumulative effect, rooting out the new terrorism requires first identifying, and then solving, the regional difficulties. 

In order for the global community to remain safe, the Middle East must become stable and prosperous. This is a massive undertaking with at least two very complex components for the international community: first, committing to remove the authoritarian regimes in the region, which of course will destabilize the closed power circuits in the regional states, inevitably leading to further extremism and ultimately to terrorist activities. The result is again instability and the undermining of democratization; and second, solving the Palestinian problem, which appears to be the most pivotal fuel of the new terrorism. 

Exploring the consequences of conducting wars on the new terrorism, one should first be thinking of spreading terror across the world. Assuming that the existence of insecurity and disorder will provide the best conditions for terrorists operations, U.S. strategies have intensified insecurity in the region. War followed by overwhelming military presence in Iraq not only resulted in a secured Iraq, but we are witnessing more instability and violence in the region. The underlying fact is that the first priority of Middle Eastern citizens today is security not democratization. In other words, the peoples of the region are now prioritizing daily matters such as safety, a certain future, better economic conditions, etc., rather than the growing rhetoric about promoting freedom and democratization. As a result of the global community’s paradoxical conduct, there is effectively no place more hostile to democracy and the globalization process in today’s world than the greater Middle East. Today, the Arab nations of the region are wary of the current U.S. policies.  As history shows, Arab Muslims have always resisted domination by foreigners, particularly non-Muslims. No doubt, the more extensive presence of the West will bring more violence and dissatisfaction in the Arab public opinion. As a result, no place in the world is safe today for Western citizens.

In addition, the current policies of the occupation forces have escalated religious-ethnic fragmentation in the war-torn region most notably amongst Sunnis and Shias. The war on terrorism has undoubtedly accelerated religious, ethnic and identical fragmentation at the worldwide and/or at the regional and national levels. At the global level, while the terrorist threat expands from the Middle East and the Arab world, the division between Islam and Christianity is widening and getting more complicated. Since the West is the place of diverse religious Muslim minorities, these reciprocal unsympathetic conditions will breed more anxiety and tension between the two worlds.  In this context, Muslims today feel unsafe and humiliated in the West. Engulfing the two worlds, the new terrorism is increasingly seeking more divergence between Muslims and Christians. 

At the regional and national levels, the more than three-year war on terrorism neither resulted in a safer region, nor led to more convergence. On the contrary, waging wars in multi-ethnic countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq has intensified ethnic and religious factionalism and, hence, provided breeding grounds for terrorist activities. In Afghanistan, for instance, the U.S. in order to hunt Al-Queda and Taliban remnants has begun working separately with the central government and the influential regional commanders called Warlords or Mojaheddins. While paradoxical U.S. policies have stepped up insecurity and disorder, Afghans have become frustrated and disappointed of the global community’s efforts to fill the power vacuum in the country. Although the uncivilized Taliban regime no longer has a physical existence, their thoughts still dominate the country. In an illegitimate and malignant unity with terrorist organizations, international drug smugglers are taking advantage of ethnic and religious fragmentation and disorder inside the country, thereby fuelling the new terrorism. Absolute U.S. support of Karzi as the representative of the ethnic Pashtuns has broken up the natural power equations, thus disappointing the other political and ethnic factions and leading to their loss of confidence in the power division. This would work as a driving force for more skirmishes. As a result, a new wave of severance is on the way, notably between the Pashtuns and the ethnic Tajik and Uzbak, and among Shias and Sunnis, as evident in the upcoming presidential election.

Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq’s political scene presents a more complex challenge to global peace and security. As a result of the manipulation of the power division, rivalry within the diverse ethnic Sunni, Shia and Kurdish factions has intensified to the extent that the extremist Sunnis (Zarqavi’s group) today regard the Shias as their number one enemy. The enmity not only accelerated among the ethnic groups, also within the groups themselves there are different adversary segments with competing approaches toward the occupation forces, the role of neighboring countries, the future of the government, etc. The current division between the various Shiite factions is a substantial testament. Significantly, Moghtada Al-Sadar’s Shiite group’s uprising against the occupation forces is the result of current U.S. efforts to marginalize the Shias from the real power division. No Shiite group has forgotten the unsupportive America policy in the 1991 uprising, which left thousands of Shias massacred by the Saddam regime. Understandably, no trust today exists among the Shias as regards U.S. policies.

And finally, conducting the wars followed by the comprehensive presence of great powers has been interpreted by the regional governments as the new threats to their system and ultimately led to their dissatisfaction. Since the U.S. established its new and direct presence in the region, the regional states have started to protect themselves from the threats posed by the global community’s policies. As an immediate result of the war in Afghanistan and subsequently in Iraq, the current U.S. administration never denied its purpose to change the regimes in Iran or Syria. Unrealistic U.S. conducts in dealing with the two solid opponents have caused these countries to be considered as threats rather than as opportunities in war against terrorism.  

As an underlying reality, the foremost principle for Middle Eastern governments is safeguarding the national security. While the US is determined to advance its grand strategy of regime change, it is understandable that the regional anti-U.S governments like Syria will do their best to confront the threats posed by the U.S. and its allies in the region. No more important justification can be raised here for these countries’ opposition to the U.S. policies. As for the other Arab allies, it becomes more complicated – unlike in the past, future U.S. strategy leaves no place for authoritarian regimes. The divergence between stability and democratization comprehensively ironically, in today’s Middle East any effort toward democratization equals instability, and instability equals increased terrorist activities. The paradox lies here: the region’s democratization requires stability and security to be the first priorities. Demonstrates itself here. As the Iraqi political scene shows, any further attempts to advance the regime change policy will in the short term lead to more insecurity, the engagement of the global community and ultimately the spreading of the new terrorism.  

As regards Iran, the Islamic Republic is currently neither looking to export its revolution, nor using the ideological approach to set its regional policies as was intended shortly after the Revolution.(11) Similar to any other political system, the Iranian government gives the first priority to protecting itself through empowering the means of influence. To uphold the system, the Iraqi political scene indeed presents a new challenge for the Islamic Republic. From the perspective of Iran as the next target of the U.S. current administration, Tehran’s key role in the war on terrorism sensibly becomes uncooperative. Many elements make Iran an influential country in the war against terrorism: The strategic location of Iran (located between Afghanistan and Iraq, the two centers of the spreading new terrorism) and its flexible social and cultural characteristics are two important facts in encountering terrorist activities. As Shiite radicalism declines and Sunni radicalism rises in the region, Iran could play a precious role in balancing extremism as the foremost fuel of the new terrorism.(12) Accordingly, as long as the U.S. administration is determined to pursue the policy of regime change, the Islamic Republic’s role in the war on terrorism could be understandably unsupportive.

Final Words

Solving a profound political-cultural problem by a military solution is rather unrealistic in the today’s world. The war on terrorism cannot be won militarily, but must be won politically and with long-term plans. The root causes of the new terrorism originate in the region’s problems, notably created by the policies of global governance. The two principles of stability and democratization essential for eradicating the new terrorism have diverged. Ironically, in today’s Middle East any effort toward democratization needs stability and security, and any stability in turn needs democratization.


Global community needs to help to create a calm regional environment in which democratic change can more easily occur. In contrast, the almost three years long conducting wars in the region has intensified insecurity and fragmentation and hence fuelled terrorist activities. The current overwhelming military presence in fact leaves no chance for such developments. It must be recognized that any change in the region must come from within the societies. No example of imposed democracy has been successful in the world, since it needs to be offered in compromise with the national characteristics. A stable, democratic and prosperous Middle East depends on fair and just global governance, working with all the regional societies, not by one power alone. Whereas conducting the current type of war on terrorism may in the short-term lead to some achievements in halting or reducing terrorist activities, it will cause more complexity in long term.