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Orli Avior,a Jewish Israeli US soldier in Afghanistan,
courtesy of Orli Avior

Mr. Nasser al-Bahri, the former bodyguard of al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden
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Gwynne Dyer at U of W fires Salvos at Arab States, argues terrorism is NOT a security threat to the West and there's “nothing” we can do about it

by Barry Friesen, special to the Winnipeg Jewish Review, March 27, 2016



Gwynne Dyer is a political columnist with a long record of writing from the political left. He has not written extensively about the Israeli Palestinian conflict, but it is clear he is no fan of Israel’s current or past Likud governments. He tends to see Netanyahu and Hammas as two sides of the same coin, both doing whatever necessary to avoid any political accommodation around a two state solution. Having just read a handful of his most recent articles on the middle east, I would place him just to the left of Thomas Friedman in his views on the Israeli Palestinian conflict. So it came as a surprise to me that at his talk at the University of Winnipeg Middle East Peace Week Dyer had only a few (mostly benign) words for Israel, but offered a withering criticism of Arab governments and Arab society in the Middle East.


Much of Dyer’s talk entitled "Don’t Panic: Islamic State, Terrorism and the Middle East”was devoted to tracing the arc of humiliation in Arab society, from the golden age prior to the 13th century to the 1970’s. He outlined how various groups, including the Mongols, Turkey, Iran, and the Ottoman Empire, conquered, suppressed, and humiliated Arab societies. Arab society was economically dispossessed for the interests of the colonizers, and was also largely insulated from the major technological and intellectual advances that were taking place around them. The ottoman empire was replaced by the colonization of the Western European nations after the first world war, with the further humiliation of being ruled by “infidels” rather than fellow Moslems.

When the Arab nations finally began to achieve their independence after world war 2, the rulers that emerged were largely secular military officers who at times adopted the cloak of Marxist/socialist ideology. They were not capable of modernizing their new countries, and ultimately proved to be fairly inept militarily as well, as evidenced by 5 failed attempts to attack Israel. The Arab world failed to advance economically. Educational advancement was poor as well, with over ½ the women in the Arab world functionally illiterate. Lacking popular support, these military leaders began to oppress their populations, and evolved into police states.


By the 1970’s there was significant dissatisfaction with these leaders in Arab countries. Because the leaders, like Nassar and Assad, to some extent espoused socialist ideology, and because western democracy and capitalism was the tainted ideology of their previous oppressors, opposition began to coalesce around a new ideology, Islamism. This insisted on strict adherence to the tenants of the Koran, arguing that the reason the Arab world has suffered is that it has drifted from the teachings of Allah. According to Dyer, this has been the dominant revolutionary ideology in the Arab world since the 1970’s.


As to why this ideology began to express itself in terrorism, Dyer argued that terrorism is the weapon of the weak. He argued that the original, (and current) goal of the Islamists was to overthrow Arab governments. Terrorist acts were a tactic designed to  provoke an overreaction on the part of the police state, some of which would spill over to the general population, thereby creating publicity for their cause and radicalizing the population, turning it against the state.


But by the end of the 1990’s, after 20 years, all the governments remained in power, with no Islamists in control of a single Arab state. Into this failure of Islamism and terrorism stepped Bin Ladin. His time spent fighting the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980’s, which ended with an Islamist government (the Taliban) in power, convinced him that the way to an Islamist state lay in provoking a foreign infidel government to attack an Arab country. This would lead to many casualties among the population, increasing resistance, and eventually the infidels would flee, as they did in Afghanistan, leaving behind an Islamic group in power.


According to Dyer, the various terrorist acts, culminating in 9/11 were designed with this aim in mind. Far from being motivated by a desire to defeat the US, the goal was to goad the Americans into attacking an Arab country, which he hoped would eventually lead to an Islamist government. Unfortunately for Bin Ladin the US elected to aid the Northern Tribes in Afghanistan, and resisted a full-fledged invasion of the country. However, in 2003, Bin Ladin and Al Quaeda got their wish when George Bush launched a full fledged invasion of Iraq.

The invasion led to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, the fracturing of Iraq along sectarian and religious lines, the eventual withdrawal of US troops, and ultimately the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq among the Sunni population. Eventually, they carved out a swath of territory for themselves, and in 2006, the Islamic State of Iraq was declared. Following a rise in opposition to Assad in Syria, initially peaceful, but ultimately violent in response to viscous suppression by Assad, Al Qadea gained a foothold in Syria as well among the Sunni majority opposing Assad. The movement eventually fragments in |Syria, with some resisting being subservient to the Caliphate in Iraq, and breaking off to form a Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra.


Dyer himself asked the question: If the Islamists now control territory and an Arab government, which was their goal, why do they still engage in terrorism in the west? His main answer is that it is a recruiting tactic, that there is a struggle for supremacy in the Arab Islamic world and for recruits among competing factions, and that large and violent acts of terrorism in the western world, such as the attacks in 2015 in Paris, are a way of building the caliphate’s brand. The main goal continues to be the overthrow of Arab governments, and attacks on the west are only a means to this end. He asked the question: What can the west do to reduce Islamic terrorism, and answered “nothing”.


He concludes by arguing that terrorism is really not a true threat to the security of Canada or the west. He points out that only two Canadians have been killed in Canada in terrorist acts, but that over 150 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan, and their deaths have had no appreciable effect on Canadian security. In his eyes, the only rationale for military involvement of Canada in the middle east might be humanitarian, depending on the circumstances, and the populations threatened. He argued that the importance of the Middle  East in western media is inflated and that with the reduced dependency on Middle Eastern oil, particularly in North America, the Middle East will become increasingly less relevant to us. (Along similar lines it is interesting to note that surveys of law enforcement agencies in the US cite right wing extremists as a larger perceived threat than the Jihadists.)




I enjoyed Dyer’s talk. He is entertaining, has a good sense of humour, and managed to conflate 800 years of history into 60 minutes, while admittedly simplifying things somewhat. I am somewhat skeptical about two of this claims however.


Firstly, I am not convinced that the motivation for terrorist attacks in the west is to simply spur recruitement to ISIS, or polish the ISIS brand, but rather that they are multi factorial.  Most of the attacks since 9/11 have been so called “lone wolf attacks”, and the motivation has often obscure, and when apparent, seems to be varied. Other motivations cited in some studies include the marginalization of young Moslems in Europe economically and culturally, leading them to strike out at the West. In addition, it seems likely the acts are designed to drive a wedge between the indigenous Moslem populations  of the west and their societies, in part through the repercussions of government crackdowns and increased xenophobia among the non-Moslem majorities. Finally, some of these acts most likely are in part designed to punish certain countries for their military involvement in fighting ISIS, and force them to re-calibrate their cost benefit analysis of this involvement.


Secondly, in trying to minimize the security risks of terrorism to the West, I think Dyer went too far. Although only 2 Canadians have died due to terrorist attacks in Canada, and deaths in the west represent a tiny fragment of worldwide deaths due to terrorism (37 deaths in 38 western countries in 2014, 18 of which were in the US,  representing only 0.11 % of all terrorism related deaths) the fact is that it has had a significant effect on our way of life in the West, how we travel, cross borders, and see our own Moslem communities .And the point is not necessarily the sheer number of deaths, but the sense of insecurity that comes as a result. As well, terrorism causes enormous economic consequences for the west, estimated at 52.9 billion dollars in 2014, and up 61% from 2013.


Dyer's point that overreaction to the attacks may cause more harm than the acts themselves is worth considering however, especially after the debacle following Bush’s invasion of Iraq. And yet, I suspect that Dye'rs view that there is nothing that we can do would find little support among Western governments or their citizens, particularly as the number of terrorist acts, and concern about them among the population, continues to increase.

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