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Tribes and Terrorism: Myth and Reality

Khaled Fattah on why the link between tribes and terrorism in the Middle East needs to be reexamined.

By: /
18 October, 2012
By: Khaled Fattah

With the recent stepping up of controversial U.S. drone attacks in tribal areas of Yemen, and post-Arab Spring confrontations with militant jihadist groups in tribal areas of Egypt, Libya, and North Africa, a number of misconceptions surrounding the links between tribes and terrorism in the Arab Middle East continue to plague press coverage and policy reports. The first of these misconceptions is that tribal areas are lawless, ungoverned spaces – a modern-day Wild West. Another misconception is that the ultra-conservative culture of Arab tribes is fertile ground in which to root the violent ideology of transnational terror cells. The truth is that much of the current commentary about tribes and tribalism in the Arab Middle East reflects the Pentagon’s experiences so far in the American-led “War on Terror.” This war has now shifted from boot-heavy invasions to ghost wars in which drones hover over countries with significant tribal populations: Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Mali. The War on Terror is now primarily carried out via “open secret” predator drone missions that increasingly target exclusively tribal areas.

Tribal Areas Today Are Not the Wild West

Over the last 10 years, many comparisons have been drawn between the fabled “Wild West” of America toward the end of the 19th century, and present-day tribal areas of the Middle East. The “Wild West” conjures up images of adventurous cowboys facing off in a dusty street in front of a gambling den or brothel, pistols drawn. The image suggests a lawless era in U.S. history, where violence prevailed in American frontier towns, might made right, and the weak were punished for crimes they did not commit. The Wild West was an anarchic social world shaped by outlawed individuals and their henchmen. This period in American history bares little resemblance to life in the tribal areas of the Arab world today, which are highly socialized, with clear normative controls. The association of tribal areas in the Middle East with the Wild West is simply an attractive analogy to intermittent foreign observers and army generals.   

It is true that a majority of tribal populations in the region retain only nominal loyalty to the centralized state governments under whose control they officially reside. However, it is unsurprising for tribespeople from Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, or Algeria to place their trust not in the corrupt, unresponsive, exclusive, and manipulative authoritarian Arab state systems, but with their extended families, clans, and tribes. State-tribe relations in the Arab Middle East reflect the chronic absence of the periphery’s trust and confidence in the centre. It is the failure of Arab authoritarian regimes to establish true popular legitimacy – not the “primitiveness” of tribes – that has weakened the notion of citizenship among inhabitants of the region’s tribal areas. Decades after the establishment of independent Arab monarchies and republics, communal and familial ties – not citizenship rights and nationalism – continue to provide much-needed security for many tribal populations in frequent times of upheaval and instability. Tribal ties also serve as a blueprint for the resolution of conflicts, provide a network of socio-economic opportunities, and function as a protective barrier against state authoritarianism. Tribal structure is a natural and more accessible mode of governance to the sedentary, semi-nomadic, and nomadic tribal communities of the Arab Middle East – much more so than the artificially constructed nation states drawn by the British and French governments in the colonial era.  

The tension between tribal identity and national identity for tribespeople results mainly from the fact that each identity requires the loyalty of its members, but each represents alternative institutions of power and social control and has its own exclusive definition of governance. The absence or weakness of formal, state-administered security and juridical governance institutions in tribal areas in countries like Yemen, for instance, does not mean that these areas are lawless and ungoverned – there is a remarkable legalistic “customary law” in tribal areas of the Middle East to which all members of tribal populations are subject, regardless of status or social position, referred to locally as urf. (The Arabic word translates to “what is commonly known and accepted.”) Tribal law is a set of traditional legal codes and institutionalized procedures aimed at protecting human life and property and maintaining community cohesiveness and order. The tribal justice system has proven to be both effective and popular among the tribal populations in Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and North African nations. In Iraq, tribal law was the preferred institution in the security and judicial vacuum left by the overthrow of Saddam’s regime in 2003, gaining the upper hand over civil law. The popularity of the tribal justice system in many tribal areas of the region reflects its ability to defuse social tension in a holistic, consensual, flexible, and efficient manner, and its independence from a sluggish, corrupt, and frustrating state bureaucracy.

Non-dictatorial Tribal Leadership

Tribal areas in the Middle East are not administrated by powerful gangs, bandits, or warlords, but by representative local leadership. The authority and power of local sheikhs in Arab tribes are dependent on the consent, respect, and support of their constituents. Tribal leaders are sacked and replaced if they lose the respect of their tribesmen. Unlike the highly centralized and hierarchical Turkic and Central Asian models of tribalism, Arab tribes tend to be relatively egalitarian social organizations. Although political manipulation by the colonial and post-colonial regimes created disparities in wealth and power within and between tribes in the region, tribal sheikhs continue to perceive one another as equals endowed with certain social and material privileges. Unlike hard to reach government officials, a sheikh’s door is open to all – every tribesman is free to enter and express his thoughts, complaints, and requests while tea and coffee simmers (and, in Yemen, as khat – an evergreen plant whose leaves are used as a stimulant – is chewed). 

Tribal sheikhs serve as community leaders, mediators, intermediaries, and power-players in provincial and national politics. Speaking to me in an interview, an influential Yemeni tribal leader made the following remarks regarding his job as a sheikh:

I am not the President of the tribe. Luckily, tribes have no Presidential chairs. I am a Speaker of Parliament who provides order during debates, a judge who listens to all parties and a Minister of Interior, Foreign Affairs, Social Services, Justice and Culture who serves his constituency. My success and failure are measured not only by the material benefits I bring to my people, but also by my capacity and skills to preserve the honor and dignity of my tribe.

Tribes in the region are not lawless entities that challenge the survival of distant, weak central governments. Rather, they carry out traditionally defined state functions and act as a deterrent to authoritarian hegemony of political elites in capital cities.

Tribal Areas: Hideouts, Not Power Bases

Why do suspected terrorists and militant jihadists shelter themselves in tribal areas? Back in 1996, in an often-quoted interview with Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor-in-chief of the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi, Osama bin Laden made the following explanatory statement:

I can never return to Sudan. Not because I am not interested in Sudan, but because mountains are our natural place … Iraq is not on the cards. The choice is between Afghanistan and Yemen. Yemen’s topography is mountainous, and its people are tribal, armed, and allow one to breathe clean air unblemished with humiliation.

Throughout human history, high, rugged mountains, dark caves, and generally harsh and remote desert and semi-desert areas, often along porous borders, have provided natural shelter to criminals, fugitives, rebels and individuals and groups persecuted for their beliefs. Not surprisingly, the majority of religious and ethnic minorities in the predominately Arab Sunni Middle East (e.g. Kurds, Berbers, Alawites, Maronites, Druze, Zaydis, Ibadis) have historically been mountain dwellers. Inhospitable terrain characterizes many of the politically unstable and economically volatile provinces and districts of the Middle East in the 21st century.  Communities beyond the full writ of central authorities, where traditional leadership structures have buckled under acute socio-economic and political pressures, present ideal environments to al-Qaeda operatives and other types of armed non-state actors looking to manipulate local politics and culture to their advantage. Violent extremist groups in the Middle East can find backers in these communities by brokering agreements with a few local “angry men” or marginalized tribal leaders who have been excluded from the state government’s patronage system.

Other tactical measures to manipulate the advantages provided by the alternative socio-political order of tribalism include the following:

  1.  Entering into mutual-interest-based alliances with illicit groups operating in tribal areas (e.g. smugglers and insurgents). These alliances provide terrorist cells with logistical services off the national grid, and therefore often beyond the reach of government counterinsurgency measures.  

  2. Marrying local tribal women. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian militant ideologue and current leader of al-Qaeda, is married to a Pashtun tribal woman from Bajaur, a tribal district along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. In Iraq and Yemen, militant jihadists use marriage with local tribal women to integrate themselves into the fabric of tribal society, which, in turn, provides them with blood-tie protection and the privileges of tribal membership.

  3. Mediating tribal disputes. Al-Qaeda operatives and other violent extremist groups have gained a foothold in tribal areas – particularly those where disputes over scarce natural resources prevail – by playing the role of impartial religious third-party arbitrators. To assume this role, they can invoke the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad and the descendants of his noble tribe, the Quraysh, who acted as arbitrators among feuding tribes prior to the advent of Islam in the 7th century.

  4. Providing missing essential public services. The wide political and psychological distances between corrupt officials in capital cities and people in remote tribal communities allow these radical groups to step in to fill the void and provide much-needed basic social services (such as repairing broken water well and constructing water tanks). In an October 2010 interview with Asharq Alawsat, a London-based Arabic newspaper, Sheikh Nasser al-Sharif, a Yemeni tribal leader from the Khawlan area, made the following remarks:

[T]he handing over of wanted suspected terrorists sheltering in a tribe depends on the nature of the relations between sheikhs and heads of the tribe and the central authority. If these relations are good, and there are development projects and governmental social services are regularly provided, then the tribe hands over the wanted person. If not, then there is no handing over.

Despite the fact that some al-Qaeda operatives and offshoot groups have found shelter in some of the tribal areas in the Arab Middle East, their capacity to establish and maintain large pockets of influence remains – and will continue to remain – very limited. Unlike tribal areas of the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderlands, none of the volatile tribal areas in the Arab Middle East has turned into a large melting pot for transnational militant jihadists, and there has been no rise of a Taliban-like force to upset the political balance in tribal areas of the region. For now, tribal areas in the Arab Middle East remain hideouts for suspected al-Qaeda fugitives and radical militant jihadists, not power bases that can be used to project onto a global stage. 

Grievances and Tribal Youth

The ability of suspected terrorists and transnational militant jihadists to shelter in tribal areas is not related to the appeal of their violent and radical ideologies. (In fact, the hyper-reductionist religious views of Islamist extremists clash with a number of tribal beliefs and customs, which al-Qaeda ideologues perceive as ignorant and sinful pre-Islamic traditions.) Rather, their presence in tribal areas is linked to their ability to manipulate and mobilize socio-politically disfranchised tribal men in impoverished local communities. That ability is related to how their message – a fiery cocktail of complaints regarding corrupt and immoral national and local officials, social injustice, unemployment, Arab governments’ ties to Washington, the Israeli occupation of Arab lands (with an emphasis on Jerusalem), unconditional American support for Israel, and the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq – resonates with locals.

In places like Yemen, the extremely limited (or total absence of) delivery of basic social services encourages locals, mostly frustrated youth, to turn to non-state actors for help. Tribal youth are the most vulnerable and likely to fall victim to the psycho-political and emotional mobilization of militant radical groups. In addition to disconnection from the state, which has failed abysmally to provide employment and social mobility, and resentment at their related inability to get married – the traditional passageway for young people in Middle Eastern societies to move into adulthood and obtain social acceptance – Yemen’s tribal youth lack recreational and sport facilities. Nearly three-quarters of Yemen’s 24 million people are under the age of 25, and the median age of the population is estimated to be between 17 and 18 years old, but there are only 322 sporting clubs for the entire youth of the country. Most of these small, sparsely equipped centres lack funding allocations to maintain any adequate level of activities, and the majority are far beyond the reach of tribal youth.

The multifaceted frustrations of tribal youth can be easily hijacked by militant jihadists and transformed into radicalized militancy. This hijacking is made even easier when militants can deliver their message against a background of outrage-triggering events, such as the burning of the Koran by an American pastor in Florida and at a NATO base in Afghanistan, the publishing of crude cartoons denigrating Islam’s prophet, and the recent release of an inflammatory and disgusting anti-Islam film on YouTube.

Drones, Drones, and More Drones

The use of drone strikes over suspected tribal areas has become very popular in Washington, to the extent that U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has described them as “absolutely essential for defending Americans.” In addition to being relatively inexpensive – a drone costs between five and 10 per cent of the cost of an F-16 fighter jet – proponents of drones laud both their effectiveness and the minimized political risk that comes from being able to carry out attacks without putting American pilots in danger.

Despite ongoing criticisms and troubling questions about the accountability of these types of attacks, and the potentially negative consequences of the new norms of warfare they may engender, Washington insists on continuing to use drones. The U.S. administration shows no sign of decreasing its dependency on quick-fix militarized solutions in the form of aggressive “signature strikes.” The Pentagon does not seem to be paying much attention to the immediate negative consequences of the strikes, or to how these strikes fail to address the root causes of radicalization and insurgency in countries where many local communities teeter between mere survival and utter despair. The drone strikes reflect the saying that, “To a man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

Aside from the serious damage of these strikes when it comes to core human-rights values and fundamental principles of international law, striking homes and public spaces, and the “collateral” deaths of innocent tribal children and women, boosts the efforts of militant jihadist groups to radicalize tribal and non-tribal populations. U.S. politicians’ tendency to concentrate on narrow, short-term strategic and political objectives, exacerbated by the pressure of the electoral cycle, leads to avoidance of the wider, longer-term issues at stake in the Arab Middle East. Such avoidance contributes significantly to the expansion, in scope and reach, of transnational militant jihadism.

Fighting terrorism is not about hunting down those on a Wild West-style “wanted” list. Militant jihadism is not anchored in a particular socio-ecological context (tribal, rural, or urban). Terrorism and transnational militant jihadism in the Middle East are complex phenomena stemming from a deep collective sense of humiliation, frustration, and desperation. The most effective, sustainable way to delegitimize al-Qaeda and reduce the appeal of extremist messages is to isolate terrorists and militant jihadists. This can be done by restoring the dignity of the people in the region – tribal and non-tribal – by creating outlets for the political voices of their youth, and improving their economic agency. The deficit of human dignity in the Middle East cannot be separated from the material conditions that have impoverished local populations, the corrupt political regimes that have betrayed and brutalized them, and an international community that ignored decades of gross human-rights abuses and continues to sanction further violations.

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