When the UAE enacted Federal law No. 7/2014 earlier this year, it left an important question unresolved. The measure curbs terrorist activities within the UAE and abroad (when UAE nationals or interests are threatened) by criminalising and punishing individuals who join or support a terrorist organisation anywhere in the world.
But an important detail was conspicuously absent. There was no clear definition of a “terrorist organisation”.
That’s why the UAE Cabinet recently released a list of more than 80 groups that are now officially deemed “terrorist organisations”.
It covers a variety of well-known names, including Al Qaida, Daesh (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), Al Shabab and Boko Haram.
It also includes organisations that are not defined as terrorist in other countries, or even in the countries where they are most active.
There are even two American groups on the list; the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim American Society.
While several groups operating in Europe are noticeably absent from the list, some observers believe that it may cast a wide net and that it leverages a liberal definition of “terrorist”.
That has led to new questions as to the UAE’s methodology and parameters it used to define the range and scope of activities that can be defined as “terrorist”.
The official statement to the media did not offer specific information about specific groups on the list.
That said, the UAE’s reasoning is not hard to understand. Clearly, it has focused on those groups that pose the greatest danger to the UAE and its citizens — and it isn’t taking any chances that a threatening group or individual could slip through a bureaucratic loophole.
Not only is that the UAE’s right, it is also its responsibility.
Critics need to remember that the compilation of such a list is a sovereign act to which any independent state is entitled.
Every country has the right to protect its own citizens from a growing and evolving terrorist threat. It is also important to remember that the UAE list has only a territorial effect — meaning it only applies within the UAE.
It is not intended to be a guideline that other states necessarily need to follow. It does not call for any extraterritorial action. It only forbids UAE citizens from joining or supporting these organisations, and bars these organisations from acting within UAE borders.
Still, some will continue to question the philosophy that the UAE has adopted in compiling its list.
Here, again, the UAE is on solid ground. For years, the conventional approach to dealing with terrorist organisations was to label them as such and take action only once they committed a terrorist act.
In today’s world, this framework has proven to be far too unreliable — and risky.
How can a country be expected to wait until a horrific attack has happened before it takes action?
As such, the UAE’s list takes the more precautionary approach of including organisations whose activities are controversial, not just criminal.
For example, the American group CAIR has never been charged with any criminal activity. It was, however, named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the 2007 US case against the Holy Land Foundation in Texas, which was later found guilty of diverting funds to Hamas.
CAIR’s inclusion on the list was justified not just by common sense, but by the fact that the UAE’s new approach mirrors that now utilised in the US and myriad other nations around the world.
The US declared Jabhat Al Nusra a terrorist organisation in the early days of the Syrian revolution — before it ever carried out a terrorist attack. The group’s bloody history since has amply proven America correct in its assertion.
In ensuring that all potential threats to the UAE and its citizens are mitigated, the UAE is correct as well. After all, the goal is prevention, not punishment after the act.
Dr Habib Al Mulla is a Dubai-based attorney, specialising in arbitration. He created the concept of financial free zones in the UAE and was the architect of the legal framework establishing the Dubai International Financial Centre.