In attacking Kuwait the way it did, Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is forcing the hand of the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — they must fashion a collective response truly reflective of the threat they face.
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have all too often mourned victims of homegrown terrorism. By contrast, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE have, remained largely free of the carnage bloodying their neighbours. A multiplicity of factors has kept them safe. Chief among them perhaps was that most terrorist attacks had their root causes in domestic dynamics. If there is one thing that the attack in Kuwait demonstrates, however, it is the decreasing relevance of these domestic factors.
Daesh did not target Kuwait because of a particular grievance against the government there. In fact, Kuwait has largely been the quietest in its foreign policy following the 1990 Iraqi invasion. Daesh targeted Kuwait because it could. A theme of attacking Shiites in the Gulf is clear, but the point is not unique to Kuwait. If possible, a similar attack could be launched in Oman or the UAE.
For Daesh, these are merely different fronts in a war against the GCC as a whole. Ultimately, Daesh sees the Arabian peninsula, with its natural resources, anti-Iran constituency and holy sites (Makkah and Madinah) as a much more valuable third front than Libya or Sinai. A common threat necessitates, then, a common response, for it makes little sense to see borders where your enemy does not. The necessary, but long-term, work of addressing theology should not be discounted. It is a foundational aspect of any successful counter-terrorism strategy, and it is encouraging that some governments and religious leaders have recently displayed a commitment to it. However, there are steps the GCC should take over the next several months in light of the growing threat of Daesh and its allies.
Daesh does not just view the GCC as a singular entity; indeed it treats it as such. This approach benefits from the ease of cross-border travel and the political, economic, social, religious and cultural proximity of the six states. Daesh, determined to establish a foothold in the Gulf, identifies disparate points of weakness and modifies its strategy accordingly. For the Gulf states to effectively counter the threat of Daesh and groups like it, they need to similarly view their counter-terrorism strategy as parts of a single whole.
Indeed, at various times, the GCC seems to have recognised the need for a coordinated response. The bloc has concluded a joint security agreement in 2014, which ostensibly built on the counter-terrorism agreement of 2004. In this vein, and due to the evolutionary nature of the terror threat, the impulse for a common response should be far more pronounced, visible, and dynamic. GCC leaders must not reactively reassure their citizens after the bombings, but beforehand. There will probably be more attacks. Citizens across sects and affiliations need to be made aware that this is going to be a long battle that will be fought in streets, apps and minds.
Highly presumptuous questions
There’s been praise for the resilience, so far, of Gulf society in response to the Saudi and Kuwaiti bombings. But, how resilient will the Gulf communities be after the 20th bombing? What if Daesh starts bombing Sunni mosques and doesn’t claim responsibility for them the way it has with Shiite mosques? How soon before someone wonders if the Gulf’s Shiites are retaliating? And that they are funded by Iran? What then? These are at once difficult and highly presumptuous questions. But the pursuit of resilience and the last four years’ experience requires that such questions are taken seriously.
Indeed, if former Iraqi president Saddam Hussain broke Arab unity and hammered the final nail in the proverbial coffin of pan-Arab nationalism, what can Daesh, a metamorphosis of Baathism and jihadism, do to the Gulf? Today, recruiters benefit tremendously from disparate laws and definitions of ‘extremism’ or ‘hate speech’ across the GCC. They exploit loopholes to spread speech that denigrates and excommunicates large swathes of fellow citizens; defines relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in inherently hostile terms and couches geopolitical conflicts in religious language. These messages actively create a breeding ground for potential recruits.
In response, the GCC needs to formulate an elementary set of minimum standards of speech. A significantly upgraded Anti-Terrorism Committee can disseminate these standards to across the six states and jointly monitor and intervene when necessary. This monitoring should include mosques, lecture circuits and traditional media, and also the far more pervasive social media channels exploited by extremists. Financiers also benefit from differences in terror finance laws across the six states. If there was ever a time to clamp down on them, and collectivise the approach, it is now. The conflict in Syria has demonstrated that terrorist networks overcome strong financial checks in one jurisdiction of the GCC by exploiting vulnerabilities in another.
One, uniform law across the GCC, enforced by a single supranational authority will make it significantly harder for Daesh, Al Qaida and other groups to use loopholes to their advantage. It also has the added benefit of simplifying cooperation on anti-terror financing with partners around the world. A common cause of frustration for foreign intelligence organisations has been the different laws governing terror financing across the bloc. A “single address” would go a long way in terms of addressing that problem. If empowered by a GCC summit, this organisation would have a legal enforcement mechanism. Compliance-assurance would overcome the problem created by the voluntary nature of the Middle East North Africa Financial Action Task Force (MENAFATF). It would also address the unique situation in the GCC, as opposed to the far larger and unwieldy MENAFATF.
The GCC should also unify the way it deals with foreign fighters returning from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere. Conservatively, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) puts the figure of GCC foreign fighters in Syria alone at more than 2,600. Sharing intelligence on those fighters would decrease their ability to recruit, finance, build sleeper cells or launch lone-wolf attacks.
Unifying the de-radicalisation and re-education programmes would also significantly prevent recidivism in each of the six GCC states. Similarly, a “single address” here would make it easier for intelligence organisations in the countries from which the fighters return to cooperate with GCC states and more effectively stop their flow. Underscoring the common nature of the threat would reinforce the importance of streamlined effective cooperation. This virtuous cycle of mutually-beneficial talent and resource-sharing would help smooth over political differences, eliminating the potential for disagreements to adversely impact GCC security. In other words, cooperation begets cooperation.
Additionally, by establishing a “single address”, foreign partners would be cooperating with the GCC as a whole, and not separate countries with which political disagreements may exist. This would eliminate unnecessary duplicity, misalignment and the potential for political disagreements to weaken regional and global counter-terrorism efforts.
The withdrawal by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain of their ambassadors from Qatar signalled the importance of a unified GCC approach to matters of regional security. It was clear that GCC states are cognizant of the fact that on some critical matters, it is intolerable for even one member of the bloc to be operating outside a common framework. Since the return of the ambassadors last November, inter-GCC cooperation seems to have strengthened, but more work is needed. Currently, the Gulf states face no bigger threat than extremism and terrorism. The attack in Kuwait underscores that differences in counter-terrorism efforts can have lethal consequences. They should prompt the bloc towards further cooperation and integration. In the US, a common refrain to encourage active involvement by Washington in the region says: “If you don’t visit the Middle East, the Middle East visits you.” On counter-terrorism and the GCC, the slogan should be a vulnerability in one state means a vulnerability for all states.
Let us preemptively acknowledge that this is not just about Daesh. It is equally about Iran and by association the GCC’s ambitions of being recognised as a relevant policy and narrative shaper in the region. If the GCC cannot provide a credible response to extremist Islamists, then it has little chance of balancing its northeastern neighbour and reaching some kind of detente of equals. It must be the one that defeats Daesh and not just in the Gulf but also in Iraq. Daesh represents the Sunni constituency that lost its standing after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Of course large elements were complicit in the Saddam regime, but without representation of that constituency Daesh will remain or be reborn under a different name and iterated ideology. Breakthroughs are hard and they require a long view. Only then can it have the eventual ‘understanding’ with Iran on spheres of influence.
Finally, cooperation is hard. It ultimately requires a leap of faith. Just look at Europe. After centuries of war and two global ones less than a 100 years ago, the future of the European Union, its ultimate project to arrive at what Immanuel Kant called perpetual peace, seems in doubt. The GCC states must ultimately realise that on existential matters, the whole is much larger than the sum of its parts. Malaysia isn’t a global player, but the Asean is. Even Brazil can only fully realise its global ambitions via its Brics membership. Yes, each state has competing priorities, circumstances and capacities, but cooperation is the triumph of generational aspiration over temporal anxieties. History will remember how the Gulf states dealt with this moment. Virulent jihadism, a hegemonic Iran and a new American posture are all serious challenges, but these are challenges that can reinvigorate the GCC and allow it to reinvent its purpose and common ground.
Mishaal Al Gergawi is the founder and managing director of the Delma Institute. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/algergawi. Muath Al Wari is a senior policy analyst at the Centre for American Progress in Washington DC. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/muathalwari