Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter noted that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has “seized the opportunity” provided by the recent collapse of the Yemeni government. Indeed, extremists are gaining territory and supporters amid the power vacuum created by civil war and widespread disorder. To anyone paying attention to Middle East history, it’s an all-too predictable outcome.
From AQAP’s forbearers in 1990s Afghanistan to Hamas to the Islamic State, extremists have always preyed on political and governmental instability. It’s what creates disillusionment among peace-loving populations. It’s what breeds anger among peoples seeking nothing more than basic freedoms and access to basic services. And it’s what enables terrorists to operate virtually unopposed in corners of the region where the rule of law is all but nonexistent.
Time and again, we’ve seen evidence that there is no more fertile ground for extremism than the failed state. Al-Qaeda was created in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – a period in which redevelopment was largely forgotten after the primary goal of ousting the invaders was achieved. Hamas thrives in an environment where myriad factors have undermined Palestinians’ ability to govern themselves. Likewise, Islamic State has leveraged the chaos that followed the Iraq invasion and Syrian civil war to claim as large an operational territory as any ever held by a terrorist organization.
And it isn’t just external forces that contribute to the region’s endless volatility. Since the collapse of empires that ruled the region prior to World War I, Middle East regimes themselves have not done enough to convince their populations that they have more to gain from order and stability than they do from violent opposition against whomever they see as their primary antagonists.
The rampant inequalities felt by many ordinary citizens of the Middle East breed the sense that they have no stake and no interest in maintaining the status quo. Before long, some see extremism as the only alternative that gives their lives any purpose at all. Now, Yemen is providing more evidence that instability and disillusionment are a deadly mix.
To break the cycle of violence and destruction, we all need to understand that there is more to the ultimate solution than military intervention. To be certain, those that threaten global security need to be dealt with. But we can’t keep deposing one threat, only to empower progeny that are more menacing than the predecessor.
Simply put, we need understand, collectively, that the real war begins when the fighting stops.
How will we finally develop national governments to which Middle East citizens feel real allegiance? How will we create security forces capable of combatting home-grown extremism? How will we facilitate economic and societal infrastructures that provide Middle Easterners with the sense that they are part of local, national, and global communities that truly values their rights, freedoms, ideas, and contributions?
There are no easy answers to any of these questions; but until we address them, a small minority of extremists will continue to undercut the interests of those who want nothing more than to be truly enfranchised citizens of nations they call home and, indeed, the world at large.
Yemen could be a turning point, or just another spoke in the wheel. The outcome depends upon learning lessons that have eluded us for far too long.
Dr. Habib is the Founder and Executive Chairman of UAE law firm Habib Al Mulla, which he established in 1984. He is one of the UAE’s most highly respected legal authorities with more than 27 years’ experience in UAE law and drafting many of the modern legislative structures in place in Dubai today.