The viciousness of the terrorist campaign being waged against Egypt and the region has catapulted counterterrorism to the very top bracket of the Egyptian government’s priorities. Egypt’s historical battle against the forces of extremism has played an instrumental role in the formulation of its national counterterrorism strategy, and has encouraged other countries with similar priorities to form counterterrorism partnerships with Egypt. Egypt’s approach to combating terrorism is one of comprehensive efforts against all facets of the threat, bypassing politics to place the focus squarely on how to mitigate and eliminate the threat of terrorism in a sustainable manner. Egypt’s insistence on isolating political considerations from counterterrorism efforts has unfortunately led some to claim that the Egyptian government’s counterterrorism strategy is narrow-minded or one-dimensional; this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The article titled “Egypt’s Theory of Terrorism” by Zack Gold and Elissa Miller, published in Foreign Affairs journal, illustrates this erroneous understanding of Egypt’s counterterrorism strategy. The article focuses on the repercussions of Egypt’s vision towards terrorism on US strategic interests, and asserts the presence of strong divergences between the American and Egyptian approaches to counterterrorism. The authors’ claim that Egypt focuses solely on the military/security aspects of counterterrorism is one that has recently been echoed by others in academic circles, but it overlooks several key factors pertaining to Egypt’s counterterrorism strategy as well as the phenomenon of terrorism itself and its evolution. Egypt’s approach is in fact focused on the ideological, security, and socioeconomic dimensions simultaneously, as well as countering radicalism in all of its forms and manifestations, reflecting a comprehensive vision for tackling the growing threat.
The article diagnoses the base roots of terrorism to be economic grievances and sociopolitical factors such as freedom of expression, which the authors believe to be at the heart of the US’s counterterrorism strategy. The argument presented is that political and economic dissatisfaction, bred by the allegedly ‘repressive’ policies of the governments of the region, constitute the central cause of radicalization and terrorist recruitment. This notion is increasingly being proven fallacious by global developments, in particular the widening of the social, socioeconomic, and geographical spectrum of radicalization, and the rising phenomenon of foreign fighters. The pool of potential recruits and sympathizers for terrorist organizations has grown exponentially not only in number but in diversity as well; terrorist are now able to infiltrate a myriad of communities in different countries, including Western countries, and indoctrinate individuals from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. Many of these recruits, some of whom have lived their entire lives in the West and have never set foot in the Middle East or suffered its allegedly repressive policies, have proven ready and willing to take up arms and give their lives for causes of terrorism and extremism.
This reality goes some way towards discrediting the theory that government policies in the Middle East exacerbate radicalism, leading to the growth of terrorist threats which are then exported to the West. If the socioeconomic and political conditions alleged to be prevalent in the Middle East by proponents of this theory did in fact establish the breeding ground for radicalism, we would not have witnessed foreign fighters flooding into the Middle East from abroad, including from the West, or terrorist recruitment networks operating and growing independently in the West, where such negative policies and conditions are purportedly absent. Yet these are sadly realities that cannot be ignored or dismissed.
The root causes of terrorism must thus be understood to go beyond simple anger and dissatisfaction with any given government as a result of alleged repression. There is no question that political and economic conditions do constitute a significant factor in the overall picture – a healthy society in which tolerance, prosperity and rule of law reign supreme is surely going to produce individuals less susceptible to radicalization and militancy. However, just as no organism can be fully immune from disease, no society can be fully inoculated from the plague of extremism and radicalism if the virus itself is not addressed at its core. Vulnerability to radicalization is affected by socioeconomic factors, but radicalism itself is an idea, a creed that must be confronted on both literal and figurative battlefields. That is exactly why Egypt’s counterterrorism strategy adopts a more comprehensive approach by placing equal focus on all aspects of the threat, including the ideology that lies at the core of the phenomenon, producing and regenerating its symptoms.
Out of this vision stems Egypt’s comprehensive approach to counterterrorism, taking into account the importance of a strong military response, the establishment of socioeconomic conditions conducive to prosperity, but perhaps most importantly going beyond the repercussions of the threat and addressing its essence: the radical thought and twisted interpretation of religion that preys on vulnerable youth and turns them into weapons. It is evident that terrorism represents an existential threat to modern civilization, as radicals are fundamentally opposed to the basic tenets of said civilization. This is a cornerstone of their ideology, and does not change with political considerations. The international community and its members must thus be careful not to allow their own political considerations to affect their engagement with this threat. At certain historical junctures, we witnessed states and governments attempting to exploit radicals and terrorist groups to gain advantage in larger conflicts, resulting in catastrophic long-term consequences as these groups predictably broke loose of any control and sowed chaos.
Unfortunately, today we see still witness an increasing capacity of terrorist groups to get hold of sophisticated weaponry, access adequate funds, and move freely across borders. This clearly suggests that there are certain entities facilitating the operations of such groups, repeating the same disastrous mistake. We must be firm in our confrontation against these terrorist groups, rejecting their base presence on principle rather than allowing any narrow-minded political considerations to get in the way.
The bloodthirsty and rigidly intolerant worldview that is adopted by terrorist groups is identical at its core, even if these different groups engage in differing degrees of violence and militancy. Those who propagate this worldview are openly promoting violence, conflict, and terrorism, whether they openly take up arms or not. Egypt’s approach to counterterrorism bypasses the false dichotomy of “violent vs. non-violent” extremism, recognizing that extremism by its very nature is a stepping stone towards violence and subsequently refusing to allow radicals to operate under different guises in service of the same goals. The source of the motivations and actions of radical groups is the same extremist ideology, and while it has produced many variants, it will produce countless more unless the concept itself is tackled, discredited, and defeated. The Egyptian approach relies on comprehensively and categorically refuting and countering all forms of extremism and radicalism, rather than making distinctions and categorizations which may lead to acceptance of and leniency towards radicals and extremists whose actions are less headline-grabbing but just as dangerous as any others. Contrary to many claims, Egypt does not bundle together moderates with extremists and jointly antagonize them; Rather, Egypt defines moderates as those who espouse the principles of accepting diversity and refraining from violence, not those who simply do not openly carry firearms.
Rather than accepting some radical groups simply because they do not carry out public beheadings like some of their peers, Egypt’s approach relies on outright rejecting all radical groups and their ideas, while countering their efforts by propagating and disseminating the moderate ideas of true Islam. Egypt’s efforts in this regard depend upon venerated religious institutions such as Al-Azhar and Dar Al-Ifta’, who work in partnership with moderate voices and communities throughout the world to discredit the logical and religious basis of extremist thought, and promote the values of tolerance and peace. Egypt prioritizes cooperation with international partners in this vein, working collectively to create a strong, viable counter-narrative with effective distribution methods.
An equally important factor in Egypt’s comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, but one that is often overlooked by many (including the aforementioned Foreign Affairs article) is the issue of Islamophobia. Terrorist groups rely on instilling siege mentality into their recruits and sympathizers, enforcing within them the belief that the entire world is inherently hostile to them and to their religion. This belief is a major element feeding radicalization, and the problem is sadly exacerbated by Islamohpobia, which is itself simply another form of radicalism. Hateful, inflammatory rhetoric and outright discriminatory behavior or policies only serve to confirm extremists’ claims of a world that views Islam as its enemy. Egypt has continually emphasized the need to combat Islamophobia in international fora, and continues to work with its counterterrorism partners to tackle a phenomenon which validates the very ideology we seek to discredit.
In parallel with efforts to combat extremist thought and radical ideology, Egypt’s counterterrorism approach emphasizes the importance of adequate military engagement with the militants that constitute the manifestation of this ideology. Intense counterterrorism operations are carried out by Egypt’s military, as Egypt recognizes the importance of a resolute military confrontation to prevent territorial expansion by terrorists and protect civilians from their brutal acts of violence. To ensure that such operations are as effective as they can be, Egypt cooperates closely with partners, including the US, on enhancing counterterrorism efforts. Despite claims of dramatic differences in approach between the US and Egypt when it comes to counterterrorism, most recently in the Foreign Affairs article, the US and Egypt continue to cooperate effectively in this field, working towards the same core goals. Political differences are inevitable between any two states, and these political differences are the ones alluded to in the article, such as Egypt’s refusal to accept intervention in its internal affairs. But as stated earlier, counterterrorism is among the top priorities of Egyptian national security, and as such the Egyptian government has insulated its counterterrorism approach from politics, allowing partnerships in this field such as the one with the US to flourish despite any political differences. The US government itself recognizes the importance of Egypt’s counterterrorism efforts to achieving shared goals, as US officials have consistently stated.
Egypt’s counterterrorism strategy is based on a comprehensive approach which focuses on combating and dismantling the core ideology which constitutes the threat itself, confronting the different terrorist groups which are its manifestations, and working to create an environment conducive to the rejection of radical thought, so as to prevent the resurgence of the threat. While political considerations may lead some to falsely perceive Egypt’s approach as the narrower one, it is in fact a more comprehensive vision that seeks to target the phenomenon as whole, rather than focusing on its more theatrical, attention-grabbing offshoots.