Over the past few weeks, the international community has been stirred to action against the rising threat of extremism. This is the most destabilising and dangerous global force since fascism. From Libya to the Levant and from Iraq to Yemen, violent religious extremists are overwhelming the popular will and menacing those committed to moderation and tolerance. It may not yet be a new world war, but it is already a raging war of competing world views.
In Iraq, Yazidi girls become war prizes for the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (Isil). In Syria, “infidels” are beheaded in the streets. In Egypt, rampaging jihadists massacre police recruits. In Libya, extremists launch the country towards anarchy. In Nigeria, Boko Haram kidnaps 200 schoolgirls.
In the UK, university students are recruited online to take up jihad. Islamic extremism has long been a problem for the Middle East, but it is now the world’s problem, too. It is a transnational cancer that has spread into Sub-Saharan Africa. Radicalised fighters returning home present a security threat to every country from the Americas to Asia. US President Barack Obama and other western leaders have described their interests in this struggle. But no one has more at stake than the UAE and other moderate countries in the region that have rejected the regressive Islamist creed and embraced a different, forward-looking path.
Now is the time to act. The international community needs an urgent and sustained effort to confront a threat that will, if left unchecked, have global ramifications for decades. Any action must begin with a clear assessment of the enemy. Isil may be the most obvious and dominant threat at present, but it is far from the only one. An international response must confront dangerous Islamist extremists of all stripes, including the Al Nusra Front in Syria, Ansar Al Sharia in Libya and Tunisia, Ansar Beit Al Maqdis in Egypt, Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap) in Yemen and Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) in North Africa.
Second, there must be a clear plan for direct intervention. It must include strengthening local forces on the ground that are already engaging with the extremists directly. This means training, weapons, logistics and communications. It also means supplementing local forces with assets such as air support, surveillance and special forces. It is a role the UAE has taken on before in international counter-terrorism and peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Somalia.
Third, the coalition must confront not just the fighters but the support networks, too. A successful campaign to defeat Islamist extremism in the long term must confront the transnational networks and organisations that breed and support hatred and violence in the name of religion. Backing these support networks and organisations is an ideological, financial and communications complex that includes countries, charities, companies and individuals. It uses social media, religious centres, banks and false fronts. It must be choked off through a programme of better intelligence, more aggressive law enforcement and tougher sanctions.
Promote the voices of compassion
Fourth, if we have learnt anything from the recent transitions in the region, it is that proselytising ideology is no substitute for creating opportunity. Young people need hope and jobs, but stagnant economies, high unemployment and poverty fuel radicalisation. Extremist groups prey on these vulnerabilities. Perhaps most importantly, radical Islam is an existential threat to those of us who believe in the true nature of Islam as a religion of peace. We must do more to promote the voices of compassion and respect over shouts of hatred and fanaticism. In this spirit, the UAE has built a model of tolerance and moderation in a region of extremes.
Over the past generation, the country has undergone massive change without violence or radicalism, establishing itself as a haven in a very tough neighbourhood. It is a way of life and a set of values we will fight to protect. Noting the rapid rise of Isil, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said that “extremists are defeated only when responsible nations and their peoples unite to oppose them”. We agree and are ready to join a coordinated international response. However, to be effective, the fight must be against more than Isil. And it must be waged not only on the battlefield but also against the entire militant ideological and financial complex that is the lifeblood of extremism.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2014
Yousef Al Otaiba is the UAE’s ambassador to the US.