Arab Autocrats Aiding Resurgence of Terrorism

The rising specter of terrorism in Syria shows that by clinging to power and refusing to implement meaningful reforms, Arab autocrats in Syria, Bahrain, and elsewhere are indirectly contributing to the resurgence of terrorism in their societies. Arab protests started peacefully, but almost in every country regime repression and torture ultimately pushed popular revolts toward violence.

This cynical calculus allowed Arab autocrats to claim that protests were directed from the outside and resistance was the work of terrorist groups. In Egypt and Tunisia, regimes fell while popular protests were still peaceful.

In Yemen and Libya, regimes refused to leave and instead used bloody repression. While they failed to quell protests, some opposition groups were forced to militarize. In Bahrain and Syria, regimes have changed the narrative from human rights and reform to sectarianism, using the divide and rule approach. Their self-fulfilling prophecy of terrorism has come to pass because of their conscious policy to discredit the opposition and shore up their legitimacy.

While successful in the short-run, this policy is destined to fail in the long run. Domestic terrorist groups that could emerge from the opposition would not only target regime assets; they will go after U.S. and other western economic interests and personnel in those countries.

In Bahrain, for instance, Sunni vigilantes and even some government officials are encouraged by elements within the ruling family to direct their anger against Americans for their perceived support of pro-reform dissidents. Some regime conservatives increasingly view the Americans, the Shia majority, and Iran as an unholy alliance undermining the Khalifa rule.

The recently appointed minister of information Samira Rajab is anti-Shia, anti-American, and a fan of Saddam Hussein. She blames foreign media and outside provocateurs for the problems in her country—a similar narrative to that of the Assad regime in Syria.

The traditional faction within the Bahraini ruling family, including the Prime Minister, is turning to Saudi Arabia for support. The king and his son the crown prince Salman are committed to an independent and more inclusive country. Unfortunately, they have been marginalized by the older members of the family council and their younger xenophobic Sunni supporters.

By inviting Bahrain’s crown prince to Washington last week, the administration was sending a signal to the conservative faction that it still supports the king and his son and their plan to seek meaningful dialogue with the opposition. The other part of Washington’s message is that the resumption of some arms shipments that were halted after last year’s uprising applied to the coast guard and would not be used against the Bahraini people. It gave Salman something to take back, but indirectly signaled to the old guard that the young prince, not his great uncle, is the preferred interlocutor with Washington. Of course, to save face the old guard has touted the release of the arms as a sign that they are still in Washington’s graces.

It’s clear that Saudi Arabia is trying to expand its hegemony over the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), beginning with Bahrain. The Prime Minister Khalifa and his supporters within the ruling family no longer seem to care about the sovereignty of Bahrain or its historically liberal tradition. Their main concern is their own survival. In the 1980s I wrote a book on the GCC and highlighted some of the challenges that would face the organization down the line. I’m afraid, it’s coming home to roost.

If the proposed Saudi-Bahraini federation is concluded, Bahrain would cease to exist as an independent state and would become a province under Saudi suzerainty. The Saudis and their Khalifa quislings would expand their repression of the Shia community and Sunni human rights activists in the name of fighting Shia and Iran. The opposition will likely arm, and domestic terrorist groups would emerge in both countries.

In Syria, human rights protests similarly started peacefully but have been forced to defend themselves with arms confiscated from the military and obtained from the outside. The Assad regime continues to kill and torture civilians. Like Bahrain, Assad is blaming foreign provocateurs and terrorists for the bloodshed. The regime’s acceptance of the Kofi Annan plan is a rouse to placate the international community and buy the regime more time.

The Annan plan is doomed to fail because the regime views the domestic situation as a zero-sum game. It believes its survival can only be assured through continued repression and control. Negotiating with the opposition is a fantasy that Assad cannot afford to indulge in if his Alawite minority rule is to survive.

Since 9/11 Arab autocrats have cooperated closely on counterterrorism with the US and other western countries. At the same time, they branded domestic dissidents and pro-democracy activists as radicals and urged western governments not to fret over their harsh tactics against their citizens.

Arab regimes mistakenly thought that autocracy, not democracy, was critical for fighting terrorism and that Western support for human rights in Arab countries would dilute such an effort. Because Arab autocrats were pliant partners, western governments, unfortunately, became addicted to autocracy, which in turn helped autocrats become more entrenched.

Arab rulers seem to forget that many non-Western democracies, including Muslim Indonesia and Turkey, also have been strong partners with western governments in fighting terrorism. The fall of the dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya would not preclude these countries from fighting terrorism.

Arab Islamic autocrats co-operate in the fight against terrorism to preserve their rule; whereas democracies do so to protect their societies and way of life.

Washington and other Western capitals should make it clear to the remaining Arab dictators, in word and in deed, that the game is up. They must implement genuine political reform or step aside. The world cannot tolerate a resurgence of terrorism because of their repressive rule and sectarian politics.

Dr. Emile Nakhleh is the former director of the CIA Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program, a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico and a National Intelligence Council Associate. He is the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing Society.

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. What a distorted view. I agree with half of what he wrote and disagree with half. He suffers a terrible parallax. Perhaps he’s too close to the CIA to know what the hell is actually going on.

    His analysis is terribly flawed, if his conclusions aren’t fairly accurate. I have serious doubts that the Syrian revolution is in anyway like the Bahraini revolution–and how does he dare compare them without mention of the US’s 5th fleet, stationed in Bahrain? How does he not make comment about the absurdity of an Iranian/US alliance? How does this go unexpounded upon?

    Bahrain is regressive compared to Syria. Bahrain is a monarchy that, as he accurately reports is tightening ties with Saudi Arabia. He fails to mention the tight cooperation between Saudis and the US. The joint intel officers, the coordination in the Syrian effort.

    He talks of democracy, but what Arab nation is democratic that is an ally of the US? What fairy tale does he tell himself to think this started after 9/11? He’s right about the difference between democracies’ approach to terrorism versus dictatorships. But, again, what democracies do we like? Iran? Lebanon? Egypt now? Do we openly work more with democratic Algeria, or Morocco? We do plenty with Algeria but it’s all hush, hush. That’s because we are so controversial in the ME that we’ve lost all credibility. We squandered a great reputation for flagrant greed and impetuous action. Not for threats of terrorism, but for other reasons.

    What’s going on in Syria? I’m not sure we’re getting good information. I believe the difference between Syria and Bahrain is that we know the West is getting arms and mercenaries into Syria, that Turkey is being put in an awkward situation, that Salafists are driving a violent revolt.

    So, when the terrorists are Western backed, as in the case of the MEK, the Kurds in Iran, Syria, Salafists in Syria, what do these gov’ts do? “Just because you’re paranoid, don’t mean they aren’t after you,” how did we treat the Branch Davidians in Waco? They had arms, but had never used them. We’ve armed and moved mercenaries into Syria, why would we expect anything different?

    I wrote repeatedly a decade ago that we needed to earnestly embrace the neo-con’s rhetoric and embrace democracy. Our allies are the dictatorships, or were the one’s ousted. I believe Libya and Syria to be Western backed insurrections. (see for a fair argument to that point–you argue with b.) Certainly, Western news and other news sources seem to show a different picture than we are given here. I know it’s a radical notion to the denizens of this blog that there is often a different picture painted in the media than facts and diligent reporting might suggest. (Jim, you should direct more attention to Syria, and divining what is happening there)

    But, the fact remains that the prescription the author intends needs to be delivered to our allies, not our foes. That confusion really makes me think he’s like a broken clock, right that true democracy is a better deterrent to terrorism, wrong on the audience–he needs to take this message to his peers, and our allies. And right to decry Bahrain, though wrong to assume the US is being vilified in the abuses there, when we have a hand in the razing of mosques, oppression and suppression of a minority this blog is very diligent in reporting our disdain for.

  2. “Washington and other Western capitals should make it clear to the remaining Arab dictators, in word and in deed that the game is up. They must implement genuine political reform or step aside.”

    This is extremely unlikely to happen. Given that Washington seeks to maintain military supremacy throughout the Middle East, it’s extremely unlikely that it would suddenly start supporting reformers, after decades of supporting repressive autocrats. From Iran under the Shah to Egypt under Mubarak to Bahrain’s monarchy today, Washington has consistently been on the wrong side of history. Unless and until it gives up the desire for complete domination of the region – which will almost certainly not happen – the author’s prescription will be certain to fall on deaf ears.

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