Many efforts to understand why Middle Eastern and South Asian societies are plagued and disfigured by terrorism suggest local causes — poverty, corruption and abuse of power by ruling elites, the impact of charismatic religious radicals, a sense of vulnerability to foreign cultures and military power. These are intriguing and relevant phenomena, but none alone conclusively explains the problem.
A more complete picture requires that we gaze beyond the local stresses of the Arab-Asian region, to get a more complete and accurate understanding of why terror persists as a chronic feature of this region.
This also requires more political honesty and courage than have been permissible in mainstream public discussions in the Western world — most particularly the United States and Britain — where the prevalent analyses of Arab-Asian-based terror focus mainly on the local problems and disregard the consequences of Anglo-American and other foreign policies.
A more accurate, integrated analysis of why terror has persisted in the Middle East for decades should include an acknowledgment that this problem has also been paralleled by another chronic phenomenon since the 1980s: the regular movement of foreign armies into Arab and South Asian countries, either as long-term occupiers, regime-change-minded invaders or long-distance aerial assassins via unmanned drones or missiles.
The cycle of local and global factors that drives terrorism keeps rearing its head. Politicians and analysts in both the Middle East-Asia and Western world must summon the capacity to deal with this reality, rather than only blaming the other for a scourge that threatens them both.
This cycle of causes was brought home to me once again last week while I was reading two very different texts.
One was the report of the court hearing of Feisal Shahzad, who pleaded guilty to 10 charges of terror in his recent attempt to blow up a car bomb in Times Square. The other was a short paper by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on “Exploiting Grievances: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”
The critical link between them is that terrorists are motivated by a deadly combination of both local grievances in the Arab-Asian region and global factors sharply focused on the actions of foreign, mainly American, troops in this same region.
Shahzad unapologetically characterized himself as “part of the answer to the U.S. terrorizing the Muslim nations and the Muslim people.” He added, “I want to plead guilty, and I’m going to plead guilty 100 times over, because until the hour the U.S. pulls its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, and stops the drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen and in Pakistan, and stops the occupation of Muslim lands, and stops killing the Muslims, and stops reporting the Muslims to its government, we will be attacking U.S., and I plead guilty to that.”
Whether these thoughts reflect a rational or an irrational mind is secondary, given the overriding importance of Shahzad’s violent reaction to his perception of predatory American military and political acts against Muslims.
This same reaction surfaces repeatedly in other cases of young Muslim men and women who become angered, then radicalized, then criminalized by their reaction to American foreign policies in Muslim-majority countries (just as an earlier generation reacted to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — indicating that a core driver of terror is not anti-Americanism, but anti-foreign militarism against Muslims).
The Carnegie Endowment paper, by Alistair Harris, is a timely contribution to the analysis of how local factors connect with transnational movements like Al Qaeda and global dynamics like invading foreign armies.
It makes the important points that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (A.Q.A.P.) “has been remarkably adept at exploiting the grievances of ordinary Yemenis. …
“A.Q.A.P. employs targeted messaging that is consistent with the core tenets of Al Qaeda’s ideology but infused with themes that resonate locally within Yemen. According to A.Q.A.P., Muslims are suffering at the hands of foreign powers that prop up illegitimate and corrupt local regimes that have failed to provide for their citizens.”
This blending of perceived global threats with daily experienced local grievances seems to be a critical mental and political fulcrum in the making of terrorists, whether they are successful financial analysts in New York or tribal farmers in Yemen.
Two elements recur over and over again, and cannot be ignored if we are serious about trying to understand the causes of terrorism in order to reduce or eliminate it: The humiliation of ordinary citizens in their home countries in the Arab-Asian region due to purely local reasons, and the humiliation of entire societies by invading foreign armies.
The tribes of Yemen and the would-be terrorists of Times Square both remind us of this hard reality, which we ignore at our peril.
Rami G. Khouri, editor-at-large of The Daily Star and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.