There is an increasing realisation in the United States policy circles that violent extremist groups have proliferated across the Muslim countries and one of the main reasons for this situation has been the presence of weak and unpopular regimes in many of these countries. This is a very important finding which must be central to the analysis of conflicts that have arisen due to the activities of extremist and terrorist groups in various Muslim countries.
Unfortunately, Muslim countries themselves shy away from having a realistic analysis of the dynamics underlying the conflicts that unfold due to the activities of extremist and terrorist groups. These regimes know that it is because of their own weaknesses and unpopularity due to which groups like Taliban, Islamic State, al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabab and numerous others have emerged and strengthened. In a nutshell, expansion, control and influence of the extremist groups using the name of Islam have much to do with weaknesses of states and illegitimacy of regimes in these regions.
The realisation that weak and unpopular regimes provide conducive conditions for radical and violent groups to thrive, within the US has been reflected most recently by US Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, Sarah Sewall, who argued that weak and unpopular governments also create feelings that encourage terrorism.
In a recent presentation on the long-term US strategy for combating terrorism at the School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, she noted that over the past 13 years violent extremist movements had diffused and proliferated, despite continued efforts to eliminate them. “Weak, illegitimate and repressive governments inadvertently created opportunities for terrorists to capitalise on popular resentment.” She argued that in a repressive setup, extremists “make common cause” with local insurgents, the discontented and criminal networks, and operate in poorly governed territory.
There is no denying the fact that violent extremist groups have proliferated and have strengthened over the last decade. For instance, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and Boko Haram in Nigeria. If one looks at the example of the IS in Iraq and Syria, it has been the unpopular regimes and their repressive policies which created the contingent conditions for the rise of the IS there.
The most important cause of the sudden emergence of the ISIS was the reign of terror, which Bashar’s regime unleashed on the Syrian population including large number of Sunnis. Yet another important reason for the rise of ISIS has been the Shiite-led regime of Iraq, whose policies under, now deposed prime minister, Nuri Al Maliki, marginalised the large Sunni population of Iraq. In fact, the sectarian policies of Iraq have brought the country to the verge of collapse as the Kurd-inhabited areas in northern Iraq had already pronounced their independence. The resultant political vacuum and chaos in both Iraq and Syria provided the enabling environment for the ISIS to emerge and thrive by winning supporters and recruits.
Likewise in Nigeria, although the regimes may not have been as repressive as it has been in Syria, the extensive and profound corruption by successive regimes and the civil service and military there left the states and its apparatus extremely weak and unpopular fuelling popular resentment. Out of this chaos emerged groups like Boko Haram, which by staging mass massacres and loathsome kidnapping of hundreds of young girls, terrorised the whole region.
If we even look at our own Taliban they emerged for the first time in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). It is well known that FATA has been a stateless region, where the writ of the state has never been strong. Corruption by public officials headed by political agents and his subordinates has been extensive. Noticeably, FATA has been the only region of Pakistan where there never existed any elected local governments or regional assembly to debate local issues and take measures for their solution. The resultant weakness of administration, state writ and unpopularity of the government apparatus allowed Taliban to exploit the grievances of people.
The insurgents put their message across to the dwellers of FATA that the corrupt, decadent and elitist state apparatus could not address their woes and they are the God-sent messiahs. The deprived, dispossessed, impoverished and gullible residents of FATA having suffered ineffably at the hands of government officials and local tribal chieftains, started supporting Taliban to end their miseries. But the latter with their own agenda only used the residents of FATA as a stepping stone to create their emirate(s).
Sarah while elaborating her argument also rightly pointed at East Africa, where members of al Qaeda’s network blended with militants from the Council of Islamic Courts to create Al Shabab. Especially in the loosely governed expanses of the Sahel, extremists associated with disenfranchised Tuareg tribes to expand its power base. In Libya, Ansar al-Sharia exploited post-Qadhafi factional violence to cement itself in the Libyan landscape.
Now when it has been well established that weak, illegitimate and unpopular regimes across Muslim lands have allowed radical and terrorist groups to emerge and thrive, we need a strategic approach to counter extremism and terrorism. The problem is that many Muslim regimes are themselves part of the problem, which is evident from their unelected, authoritarian, elitist and thus unpopular nature and orientation. In such a situation these regimes cannot be expected to be part of the solution. The only hope is Muslim intelligentsia to lead the way forward. Otherwise the only superpower already seems to have its policy in place.
According to Sarah Sewall the US now places greater emphasis on building the capacity — including military, intelligence, and civilian — of its partners to address threats within their own borders and region. However, there is inherent contradiction in this US policy as when illegitimate and authoritarian Muslim regimes are part of the problem how come their capacity could be built. The US needs soul-searching as its unflinching support to undemocratic, whimsical and absolutist Muslim regimes in the Middle East, Arab and Northern Africa has been instrumental in keeping these illegitimate and unpopular regimes afloat.