The Conference of Arab Interior Ministers held its 25th annual
session in Tunis last week - and singled out terrorism as "the
principal threat" to the national security of the 22 countries of the
What took the ministers so long to understand what terrorism is doing to their nations?
In fact, their predecessors discussed terrorism at the inaugural
session a quarter-century ago; it has been a key item on every year's
agenda. The problem was, the Arab states couldn't agree on what
constituted terrorism. They shied away from a clear definition for fear
that it might apply to the various groups that they financed and armed
against Israel, India - or, at times, against each other.
were they willing to take a tough line on textbooks, media products and
mosque sermons that incited xenophobia, hatred and violence against
non-Muslims - and even, in some cases, against Muslims from different
"schools." They failed to realize that words have consequences in
deeds, that individuals brainwashed into hating "the other" might end
up trying to kill.
From the mid 1980s onward, almost all Arab
states set up special anti-terrorism units - for Arab countries have
been among the worst victims of global terrorism.
incident came at the end of 1979: Terrorists seized control of the
Ka'aba precinct in Mecca, in the heart of Islam, provoking carnage.
From 1979 to 2001, terrorism-related events killed an estimated 35,000
people in Egypt. In Algeria, the 1992-2003 terror wave claimed at least
Libya's war against terrorist groups in the
Jabal Akhdhar (Green Mountain) area and on the edge of the Sahara has
continued since 1994; Western sources say put the conflict's fatalities
at more than 4,000.
Morocco and Tunisia have managed to limit
the terrorists to victims in the dozens - but the threat of terrorism
has done much damage to each nation's economy. Lebanon, Syria and
Jordan have also seen terror victims run into the hundreds for the past
Starting in 2001, terrorism has claimed more than
1,400 lives in Saudi Arabia. Some 8,000 men have been arrested over
those seven years, often before they could launch terrorist attacks.
Over the same period, Yemen's government says more than 6000 people
have died in terror-related events. Authorities have sometimes had to
engage heavily armed terror groups in weeks-long battles.
course, Iraq has been the No. 1 victim of terrorism in the Arab world
since 2004. The nonprofit group Iraq Body Count reports at least 40,000
deaths from terrorism-related events in the last five years.
By some estimates, terrorism and measures aimed against it have
cost the Arab states 1.2 percent a year in economic growth since 2000.
In some Arab countries, the security industry has been the economy's
fastest growing sector. The average Arab anti-terror budget has
quadrupled since 2001.
And yet these nations often remain ill-prepared to defend themselves against terror.
The European Union has had a central database for terrorists since
1995; the Arab states still lack one. So a terrorist can move from one
country to another without being traced.
Last year, the
Moroccan authorities identified at least 100 Saudi terrorists who'd
fled Saudi Arabia and established themselves as "sleeping warriors" in
Morocco. Often, they had taken Moroccan wives and blended into society,
awaiting orders to strike.
There is also little coordination
among the various Arab anti-terrorism units, and a great deal of
jealousy. Often, vital information that could save lives is withheld or
offered only in exchange for money or favors from the governments
Most Arab states lack extradition treaties to cover
terrorism cases. So dozens of known and wanted terrorists continue to
live, and in some cases plot operations, in various Arab capitals
outside their original homelands.
The meeting in Tunis has
come up with a number of good ideas. It proposes a pan-Arab designation
of all pro-terror propaganda as a distinct crime of incitement.
Although it is up to every individual state to choose the wording of
the legislation required, it is clear that most Arab states wish to
clamp down on sermons, radio and TV programs and other media products
that encourage terrorism and violence in general.
importantly, perhaps, the ministers agreed to combat fund-raising for
terrorist operations. But this is easier said than done. No Arab state
has a proper legislation regarding the private religious charities that
are often used for money-laundering. A charity banned in one country
can appear in another, or even resume life "at home" under a new name.
The ministers realized that the War on Terror is global and that the
Arab states can't win without coordinating with other affected nations.
This is why they approved a Saudi proposal to set up an international
center to combat terrorism.
That, however, would require a
definition of terrorism acceptable to a majority of the members of the
United Nations, something that has eluded the Arabs for almost a
Eventually, nothing may come out of all these good
intentions. Nevertheless, the good news is that the Arab states are no
longer in denial.
They now admit that they are threatened by a terrorism they had believed concerned only "the infidel."