Unrest in the Middle East and North Africa: Implications for the International Terrorist Threat

Many claim that the revolutionary arc engulfing the Middle East will challenge terrorist groups and their narrative. But this ignores how groups might exploit the crisis to strengthen their positions and pose a more potent and sophisticated threat to the UK than they do at the moment.

By Mark Phillips for RUSI.org

The uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East raise important questions about the future of the international terrorist threat which has been the most significant national security priority for successive governments since 11 September 2001.  Many commentators argue that they mark the growing marginalisation and irrelevance of the Al-Qa'ida related threatSome in the UK government have argued that the uprisings are a huge opportunity for Western counter-terrorism because they both counter the attraction of violent extremism and weaken Al-Qa'ida's argument that democracy and Islam are incompatible.[1] However, the analysis and views expressed to date tell us very little about how the terrorist threat is likely to be affected by, or evolve as a result of, ongoing events - and in particular how certain groups may be able to exploit the current situation.

The evolution of the terrorist threat since 9/11

The character of the terrorist threat has, of course, already evolved significantly since 9/11.  Three trends have been evident in particular.

First, Al-Qa'ida Core' has come under significant pressure, principally as a result of drone strikes against key targets in the tribal areas of Pakistan and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.  These strikes have eroded its capacity for command and control.  Al-Qa'ida Core aimed for sophisticated, complex 'spectacular' events; previously it was able to support these attacks (or attempted attacks) with a significant infrastructure including training camps, logistics support and financing, but its ability to support new plots is now limited.  The operational significance of Al-Qa'ida Core is marginal today.

Secondly, the main locus of the international terrorist threat has shifted from the Afghanistan/Pakistan region to other countries, notably in North and East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and, increasingly, the Sahel.  Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria have become key priorities for the West.  It is notable that Al-Qa'ida now operates through proxy groups - groups with which shared interests can be found, usually because of difficult local conditions which encourage people to turn to violence and which provide a space for terrorist groups and organised criminals to operate with relatively little impunity.  Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb are high risk 'entities'.  Both have been implicated in training and operational planning against targets in the UK and the US.

Thirdly, while the focus of Al-Qa'ida Core was on delivering sophisticated support for plots, entities such as AQAP rely on high profile individuals to incite and inspire vulnerable individuals to commit terrorist acts - and instruct them how to commit those acts - often through the internet and other media.  The training and infrastructural support these individuals receive is relatively limited (sometimes nonexistent) and usually unsophisticated, though the groups have demonstrated a capacity for creativity and inventiveness.  The emphasis is on encouraging larger numbers of lone or lightly supported individuals to attempt to attack high profile targets.  The chances of successful attack are lower, but the high number of people involved - or potentially involved - means that public anxiety remains high, an attack is likely to be successful at some stage, and there a new challenges for the intelligence and security services - notably fewer opportunities to detect emerging plots in comparison to the number of trails that inevitably result from having networks or cells of people working together with external support.

Al-Qa'ida and local terrorist groups are increasingly undifferentiated as a result of these developments.

The effect of the uprisings on the international terrorist threat

The UK government says that the ongoing uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa caught international terrorist groups 'flat footed': they were not expecting them, they were unprepared and the apparent driver for the events - democracy - does not chime with their aims or ideology. [2][ii]  However, this tells us very little about how the terrorist threat is likely to be affected by, or evolve as a result of the current turmoil.  There are five possible - and not mutually exclusive - scenarios in the region for which the government should be planning:

  1. Egypt and Tunisia are likely to transition to democracy peacefully even though they are still unstable.  However, the international community relied on the previously strong state security apparatuses in these countries to pursue any perceived terrorist threats (without addressing the drivers of terrorism).  These security services will either no longer exist, not be allowed to operate in the same way, or have reduced capacity.  The new indigenous governments will have little capacity to recover from recent events and improve constitutional and domestic socio-economic conditions while simultaneously tackling threats to Western interests that might emerge from within their borders.  The UK and others should start preparing to invest in substantial security sector reform in these countries.  This support will only be successful if the new governments are perceived to be legitimate by the population, otherwise it will reinforce rather than alleviate domestic tensions and also generate further hostility to the West.
  2. Terrorist groups have tended to target autocratic regimes (the so-called 'near' enemy) and those who supported them (the 'far' enemy such as Western governments).  There is, therefore, a (temporary) convergence of interests between populations and terrorist groups where protests and uprisings are unsuccessful and the risk of attacks against these regimes will be high, for example in Jordan.  Where countries such as Egypt and Tunisia are able to transition to democracy, there will be a divergence of interests between the population and terrorist groups provided the new governments are able to meet the expectations and demands of citizens; although terrorists targeted autocratic regimes, they do not have a vision for democracy.  Democratic governments are therefore at some risk of attack.  However, terrorist groups would risk alienating themselves to a significant extent; there are likely to be more productive approaches from their point of view to both increase support and challenge government authority (see points below, and in particular point 3).
  3. Terrorist and extremist groups could follow the example of Hamas and deliver social and essential services in countries across North Africa and the Middle East.  It is notable in this context that factors like food price inflation and unemployment are aggravating factors in the uprisings.  Although these are not necessarily the primary drivers, citizens will certainly expect better socio-economic conditions to result from their calls for democracy.  In countries where there is a successful transition to democracy, if governments cannot deliver services and improve conditions quickly this gap will be exploited by others.  Even if new regimes do start delivering on these services, non-state groups might well set themselves up in competition with the government to try to increase popular appeal and support and develop an alternative power base.  Much commentary has pointed to the poor showing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but this route provides the organisation with an opportunity to extend its existing parallel services if it is not included in the political process.[3][iii]  In countries such as Libya where conflict is likely to persist, the Hamas model is particularly pertinent.  The model will also be pertinent in countries where regimes survive but social discontent continues, such as Yemen and Morocco (exploiting patronage networks), and perhaps even Oman and Bahrain.
  4. In countries such as Libya and Yemen where the likelihood is of a long-running civil war and, at a later date, federalism or partition, conflict and chaos will create new space within which terrorist groups (and other non-state actors such as organised criminals) can move, operate and gain easy access to arms and other equipment useful for attacks.  In relation to Libya specifically, the move in September 2009 by leading members of Libyan Islamic Fighting Group to distance themselves from Al-Qa'ida (due in large part to the Qadhafi International Charity and Development Foundation brokering reconciliation) could be stalled.  Moreover, despite its rapprochement with the international community over recent years (including renouncement of terrorism) the Qadhafi regime is likely to have retained residual contact with at least some of its former terrorist clients and contacts.  Depending on Qadhafi's personal position, he could call on these as part of a civil war and/or to attack Western interests in response to any actions and interventions taken against him by the international community.  Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) could exploit the current situation to build a more extensive footprint.
  5. The chaos in Libya and Tunisia in particular creates new opportunities for the trafficking and transit of people and weaponry.  The refugee crisis could be exploited by terrorists to travel to other countries including within Europe, avoiding known human trafficking and transit routes and exploiting the lack of capacity within the international community to deal with the weight of people trying to leave the region.  If the refugee crisis spreads to other parts of Africa, which is particularly likely if Europe starts to deal with the flow of people adequately, this could provide terrorist groups and individuals operating in the region with the opportunity to strengthen by destabilising countries and providing new resources on which these groups can call.  AQIM is very likely to exploit the current situation to build up a stronger infrastructure base and further unrest in Algeria is likely.  A flow of people and instability to the Sahel would also give new opportunities to groups there, and in particular have an effect on the threat emanating from Nigeria which is already of concern to the UK government and perhaps Somalia (resulting in an increase in piracy over the medium term as more people become involved, greater financing of Al-Shabaab from piracy, and greater people resources for Al-Shabaab to draw on or exploit).

Implications for the terrorist threat to the UK

The results of these possible developments for the direct terrorist threat to the UK are mixed.  In the immediate and medium term, international terrorist groups are likely to focus their attention on the Middle East and North Africa.  They will challenge regimes which survive and are likely to try to set up alternative power bases to new governments.  They will exploit the opportunity provided by the unrest and uprisings to regroup, consolidate and perhaps build up a better infrastructure - an infrastructure more characteristic of Al-Qa'ida core than that exhibited to date by, for example, Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula - and across a wider swathe of territory.  It is possible that they will increase their support base by providing social services if new governments fail to meet the expectations of their citizens. 

In the future, therefore, the groups could certainly pose a more potent and sophisticated threat to the UK and its interests.  All of this points to the requirement for government to provide substantial security sector reform assistance and to engage with civil society intensively in affected countries if it wants to try and reduce the prospect of a more difficult threat.  The current scope [4][iv] and funding (£5 million over four years) for the Arab Partnership Initiative is unlikely to be insufficient and should be reviewed.  This type of work also needs to be undertaken in co-operation with a wider range of international partners and institutions, not least because of resource constraints faced by the UK.  It should also form the basis for a long-term Prevent Strategy abroad.

Over the short term, the UK is likely to notice a reduction in the worrying propaganda and incitement activity that has frequently emerged from regional groups such as AQAP and high profile individuals such as Anwar al-Awlaki - activity which has already done much to radicalise individuals in the UK and US.  However, home-grown radicalisation is not reliant on this activity and the level of UK-based threat is likely to remain constant, albeit with less external support and encouragement - unless regional groups are able to exploit the uprising and unrest to transit people and material under the guise of the growing refugee challenge. 

Moreover, the government must be careful that activities abroad do not help drive radicalisation at home because of unhappiness with the Coalition's stance and approach; the government must still develop an appropriate Prevent Strategy and as part of this it will face the challenge of managing its foreign policy within a domestic context.  Successive governments have been reluctant to admit that foreign policy can have a domestic impact but diaspora communities have already taken significant interest in (and supported) unrest in the Middle East and North Africa.  The government should engage not least because there is likely to be a mismatch between its approach and position and the expectations (and demands) of communications.  Dialogue and the creation of understanding are key; foreign policy can contribute to grievance on the part of individuals, and ideology is then used to retrospectively justify violent behaviour in response to those grievances.  To date, and even under the Coalition Government, British foreign policy has nominally supported democracy but actually favoured stability above that; if successive governments had heeded advice and engaged properly with civil society in the region, bringing civil society and autocratic governments closer together to achieve gradual and stable reform, managing the current foreign policy crises in a domestic context would be less challenging.  Managing the conflicting demands for both democracy and stability will now be difficult, and particularly so at a time when the UK has very little influence with new - and even existing - regimes in the Middle East and North Africa.

Mark Phillips is Head of RUSI's Land Capabilities and Operations. He was formerly Chief of Staff to Baroness Neville-Jones, Minister of State for Security.

The views expressed here are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


1. See 'Arab revolts can boost anti-terrorism fight', Reuters, 17 February 2011.  The Security Minister, Baroness Neville-Jones, is quoted as saying: 'It should be regarded in my view as a huge opportunity... It does pose precisely the kind of ideological challenge back to the terrorist, (to) the sort of philosophy that has been promoted by the terrorists with their very deeply authoritarian, ideological and deeply conservative ideology, of the kind which really doesn't give people personal freedoms'.  See http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/02/17/us-protests-security-britain-interview-idUSTRE71G5KA20110217 .

2. See 'Arab revolts can boost anti-terrorism fight', Reuters, 17 February 2011.  The Security Minister, Baroness Neville-Jones, is quoted as saying: 'It should be regarded in my view as a huge opportunity... It does pose precisely the kind of ideological challenge back to the terrorist, (to) the sort of philosophy that has been promoted by the terrorists with their very deeply authoritarian, ideological and deeply conservative ideology, of the kind which really doesn't give people personal freedoms'.

3. Western foreign policy is sceptical about including groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in political processes.  The tension between achieving democracy and stability will need to be managed carefully.

4. To be successful, tailored strategies would need to cover:

  • partnerships to modernise and reform the institutions of the state and public bodies;
  • partnerships to develop and modernise the framework of economies (capital markets, corporate governance, skills training, other forms of technical assistance);
  • much more investment in developing all forms of media;
  • locally tailored educational programmes at all levels of the curriculum;
  • two way cultural and educational exchange;
  • efforts to bring civil society and new governments closer together;
  • development of regional confidence building measures.


Mark Phillips

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