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TERRORISM IS A GLOBAL CANCER
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
February 6, 2008

Marking its silver jubilee, the Assembly of Arab Interior Ministers, holding its annual session in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, last week, has singled out terrorism as "the principal threat" to the national security of the 22 countries that form the Arab League.

One might wonder what took the ministers so long to understand what terrorism is doing to their nations.

In fact, terrorism was discussed in the inaugural session of he assembly 25 years ago and has been a key item on the agenda in every annual session.

The problem was that the Arab states could not agree on what constituted terrorism. They shied away from a clear definition for fear that it might apply to the various groups that were active against Israel or India, and, at times, against each other.

Nor were they prepared to take a tough line on textbooks, media products, and sermons that incited xenophobia, hatred and violence against others and, in some cases, even against Muslims from different "schools".

They did not recognise the fact that words may have consequences in deeds and that individuals brainwashed into hating "the other" might end up trying to kill.

From the mid-1980s, almost all Arab states set up special anti-terrorism units. This was no accident.

From the end of 1979 when terrorists seized control of the Kaaba precinct in Makkah, provoking carnage, Arab countries have been among the worst victims of global terrorism.

Between 1979 and 2001, an estimated 35,000 people died in terrorism related events in Egypt.

Algeria suffered its first terrorist attack in 1986 when the so-called Bouyali Jihadi group attacked a gendarmerie post, killing 14 men.

A second wave of terror between 1992 and 2003 claimed the lives of at least 180,000 people in Algeria. In recent months, the terrorist monster, wounded but not dead, has re-emerged in Algeria under the new label of Al Qaida in the Maghrib.

Libya has been engaged in a war against terrorist groups in the Jabal Akhdhar (Green Mountain) area and on the edge of the Sahara since 1994. It is not clear how many people have died in that war, although Western sources put the number of victims at over 4000.

Morocco and Tunisia have managed to limit the damage done by terrorists, with victims numbering in the dozens rather than the thousands. Nevertheless, the threat of terrorism has done much damage to the economies of both nations.

Lebanon, Syria and Jordan have also been, and to some extent remain, victims of terrorism with the number of victims running into hundreds for the past 25 years.

The second wave of terrorism in Saudi Arabia, starting in 2001, has claimed over 1,400 lives so far. A further 8,000 men have been arrested over the past seven years, often before they could launch terrorist attacks.

Major victim

Yemen is another major victim of terrorism. According to the latest figures from the government, more than 6,000 people have died in terrorism-related events over the past seven years. In some cases, the authorities had to engage heavily armed terror groups in what looked like conventional battles lasting weeks.

Since 2004, Iraq has emerged as the number one victim of terrorism in the Arab world. According to Iraq Body Count, a private nonprofit group, in the past four years at least 40,000 people have died in terrorism-related events.

By any measure, the Arab countries have emerged as the principal victims of global terror. According to some estimates, terrorism and measures aimed against it have cost the Arab states the equivalent of 1.2 per cent in annual economic growth rate since 2000.

In some Arab countries, the so-called security industry has been the fastest growing sector of the economy. Since 2001, Arab budgets to fight terrorism have quadrupled on the average.

And, yet, in many respects, these states are the least prepared to defend themselves.

The Arab states do not yet have a central database for terrorists, as do the European Union nations since 1995. A terrorist could move from one country to another without being traced.

Last year, the Moroccan authorities identified at least 100 terrorists who had fled Saudi Arabia and established themselves as "sleeping warriors" in Morocco. Often these men had taken Moroccan wives and blended into society, waiting for orders to strike.

The United States has accused Syria of ignoring the passage of Arab terrorists to Iraq. However, it is quite possible that the Syrian authorities often do not know the individuals involved.

There is also little coordination among the various Arab anti-terrorism units, and a great deal of jealousies. Vital information that could save lives is often withheld or offered in exchange for money and/or favours from the governments concerned.

Most Arab states do not have extradition treaties that cover terrorism cases. This is how dozens of known and wanted terrorists continue to live, and in some cases plot operations, in various Arab capitals outside their original homelands.

The meeting in Tunis came up with a number of good ideas. It proposes a pan-Arab designation of all propaganda that favours terrorism as a distinct crime of incitement.

Although it is up to every individual state to choose the wording of the legislation required, it is clear that most Arab states wish to clamp down on sermons, radio and television programmes, and other media products that encourage terrorism and violence in general.

More importantly, perhaps, the ministers agreed to combat fund-raising for terrorist operations. This is easier said than done as suspect fund-raising operations are often conducted through charities whose good work is a cover for money laundering.

Amazingly, none of the Arab states has a proper piece of legislation regarding charities that they regard as a private activity motivated by religious beliefs. As a result, a charity that might be banned in one country can appear in another or resume life under a new name.

The ministers realised that the war on terror is global and that the Arab states cannot win without coordinating with other affected nations.

This is why they approved a Saudi proposal to set up an international centre to combat terrorism. That, however, would require a definition of terrorism acceptable to a majority of the members of the United Nations, something that has eluded them for almost a decade.

Eventually, nothing may come out of all the good intentions expressed in Tunis. Nevertheless, the good news is that the Arab states are no longer in denial. They now admit that they are threatened by a terrorism they had believed concerned "the infidel" only.

Amir Taheri is an Iranian journalist based in Europe.

 

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