The most dangerous and troubling of the terror attacks in the past week in Tunisia Kuwait, France, Egypt and Yemen are probably the Kuwaiti and Egyptian attacks.
The bombing of a Shiite mosque in Kuwait City by a young Saudi man and the assassination in Cairo of the Egyptian public prosecutor showed the ease with which ordinary citizens in those countries can move about, cross borders and kill at will. They also affirmed that heavy security and spreading the wealth by munificent governments are unlikely to check the spread of the terrible new scourge of violence by ISIS and others.
Equally troubling is the simplistic response of British Prime Minister David Cameron after 30 British citizens were killed in the Tunisia attack, signaling a continuing lack of appreciation among leading Western governments of the full spectrum of reasons why ordinary young men suddenly turn into vicious killers. This is mirrored in the policies of other Western powers such as the United States and France. They cannot seem to grasp the connection between the time and effort their leaders put into selling or giving arms to Arab autocrats and the parallel continued expansion of anti-Western militancy by militant criminals such as those who carried out the recent attacks.
As long as Western and Arab power structures refuse to delve fully into the long but clear causal cycle of political and socio-economic factors that transform ordinary young men into global terrorists – including some of the policies of those same Arab and Western powers – then we are all destined to suffer more and more attacks in the years ahead.
This reality is also likely to perpetuate the trend we have witnessed in the past two decades or so: the steady retreat of the reach, relevance and legitimacy of central governments across much of the Arab world. Government authority has been replaced by a range of other organizing forces – religion, tribalism, ethnicity, civil society, private wealth and others.
So, ungoverned areas of Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and small bits and pieces of Lebanon, Egypt, Bahrain and Sudan are not wild aberrations of a stable Arab status quo. Rather, they point to the expected new normal where sustained indigenous autocracy, expanding domestic socio-economic distress and runaway Western militarism corrode the foundations of existing states and expose the frailty of those foundations that had been camouflaged for half a century.
The Kuwait and Cairo attacks are especially troubling for several reasons. The man who bombed the mosque in Kuwait has been identified as Fahd Suliman Abdel-Mohsen al-Qabaa, a Saudi in his early 20s who flew to Kuwait via a connection in Bahrain last Friday morning. The real worry is multifaceted: He was a Saudi national, was not on anybody’s watch list as a potential terrorist, moved around the Gulf region at will, entered the mosque easily, and deliberately targeted both the Shiite Kuwaitis in the mosque and the modern legacy of Shiite-Sunni coexistence that has always been evident in Kuwait.
The history of terror actions and counterterrorism in Saudi Arabiaover the past 35 years, since that homegrown attack on the Great Mosque in Mecca, includes waves of attacks by terrorists and retaliatory massive moves by the state to contain and eliminate this threat. The Kuwait attack should set off major alarm bells about the continued radicalization and sectarian extremism of youth in some Gulf countries, and the need to understand more precisely why this happens.
This is especially perplexing in wealthy states that have recently suffered anti-Shiite mosque bombings such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where state policies provide for citizens’ needs and open many opportunities for a good life.
Similarly, the assassination of the public prosecutor in Cairo, on the eve of the second anniversary of the overthrow of former elected President Mohammad Morsi, suggests that the tough anti-terror measures introduced by the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during his year in office have not adequately contained political violence in the country. The combination of military and security measures in an already squeezed political system that leaves little room for voices other than those in or near the ruling elite, while economic stress continues to pervade most Egyptian households, bodes badly for Egypt. Indeed, it would do so for any state that applies a similar approach to quelling terrorist attacks.
The timing, location and target of the Cairo killing should help focus state attention on finding a better way, through inclusive democracy and an expanding economy that is not skewed to the military, to safeguard Egypt and its people.
This also requires identifying honestly the factors that drive ordinary citizens into the arms of killers. This same challenge has stumped Arab and Western authorities for decades, though any Arab teenager could explain in five minutes what ails them and pushes them into committing criminal acts.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.