On 3 November 2015, I gave expert testimony to the UK Parliament. Ahead of the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review, I briefed the UK Defence Select Committee on potential threats from North Africa and the Middle East.
Below is a record of my opening remarks.
Phil Wilson MP: What specific threats to the UK and its interests are posed by the instability in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen? Are there other current or future potential threats that might emanate from the Middle East?
Dr Brahimi: If we take Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen together, what is happening right now is that you have this multi-pronged challenge to the integrity of the state. That is occurring mainly through the militarisation of what are fundamentally political problems, whether local, domestic or regional. In these cases in all of these countries, there are similarities.
The first is that if you look at the terrorist threat picture globally, the main drivers of terrorism at this point in time are actually poor governance and armed conflict. They are present to a considerable extent in all of these cases. In the case of all but Libya, what straddles the two is a sort of sectarian agenda. The drivers of terrorism are very much present in these countries. It is also worth flagging that there are growing separatist currents within these countries, which increases that centrifugal force. There is the eastern federalist movement in Libya around Ibrahim Jadhran. In Yemen the Houthi are seeking greater autonomy, and there is also the re-emergence or the rearing of the head of the southern separatist movement, which seeks independence.
There is talk now of both Iraq and Syria looking different in the future than they have in the past, whether that is allusions to a potential Alawi rump state in western Syria, or the view from Iraqi Kurdistan that Iraq is not a viable project and we should support their independence. There is the emergence of Rojava, the Kurdish semi-autonomous territories in northern Syria, and even former military commanders from the US are intimating that the solution to Iraq’s problems might be partition. So there are these separatist currents.
Also, all of these areas are both an effect and a cause of wider regional instability, whether through fighters, money, ideas or the movement of very desperate people. We hear a lot about foreign fighters from north Africa in Syria and Iraq, but it is worth considering that there are hundreds of foreign fighters in Libya, up to 300 of whom are being held in custody by various groups. There is also the recent spotting of French and British nationals around Sirte, the Islamic State’s stronghold in Libya. These conflicts have all yielded considerable fighters and operating spaces for ISIL—and not only for ISIL, but also for other terrorist groups which we must not discount. However, ISIL in particular now has an unprecedented capability to make good on its intentions, whether from its heartlands in Syria and Iraq or in Sirte in Libya, which is only a few hundred miles off the coast of southern Europe, and also in Yemen.
Yemen of course has long been a stronghold for al-Qaeda’s branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and we should never discount the threat from AQAP in Yemen. ISIL is now making an advance in Yemen: its sleeper cells have emerged and there have been bombings in Sana’a and Aden. With Syria and Iraq in particular, there does not seem to be any ground force that is willing or able to take on Islamic State—at least not one that is not allied to al-Qaeda or an ideological militia, in which case you end up taking a step forward in the battle but two steps back in the war. In Libya and Yemen, we are not there yet. There are still fighting groups capable of taking on ISIL, but the window is closing.
Phil Wilson MP: What do you see as the potential future threats coming from the Middle East?
Dr Brahimi: The main one is actually just an increased strengthening of ISIL. That is the principal threat. ISIL has the intention to attack our allies, our counter-terrorism partners. There is very much the intention to attack the West and its interests. In addition, its ideology has a marked millenarian component, which is different from the Islamist terror groups which we have seen in the past. This lends it no obvious restraints in its choice of weaponry. I believe that there is an internal push and pull within the movement, between more rational actors such as former Ba’athists who are more interested in amassing property and power, and a segment within the group that is interested in hastening the arrival of the redeemer and is obsessed with Armageddon. We are dealing with less of a rational actor than we were with al-Qaeda when it comes to intention.
The capability is obvious. The state-building enterprise has yielded it considerable operating spaces that are far from the reach of the western intelligence services. We also have to think of our vulnerability. Currently we have no fully functioning and effective counter-terrorism partner in the Middle East and north Africa. Also, there is the unprecedented scale of the flows of foreign fighters. As Andrew Parker noted last week, MI5 has disrupted six terrorist attacks in the UK in the last year, and the threat it faces today is on a scale and a tempo which our security services have not seen before. The main threat continues to be from ISIL, but there is a second: the spreading of armed conflict.
That is challenging enough for the UK and its interests, but it is the spreading of armed conflict at the expense of reform that is probably one of the biggest threats to the UK and its interests—it is about the link between the two. Whether in Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Syria, you see militarisation being used almost as a distraction, a placeholder or a delaying tactic for reform and political evolution in a context where the status quo might not be sustainable. Those two realities together present a challenge to the UK.
The received wisdom regarding the Gulf has always been that its people prefer evolution to revolution, but if there are no or very few markers of evolution in the next five years, will there be a default towards the revolutionary model? That is perfectly possible. I do not want to single out Saudi Arabia, but if you look at its position now vis-à-vis a decade ago, when it faced a sustained assault from al-Qaeda in 2003, 2004 and 2005, you see that it is in a very different position in terms of financial resources, with the IMF predicting that it will run out of financial assets in five years because of not only its costly defence policy in the region but the oil price slump. Also, its standing in the region is changing and weakening slightly. There is a perceived element of choice in the war in Yemen, which does not help it, but also internally there is an unprecedented emergence to the public of domestic disputes within the royal family. So, the internal stability of the UK’s allies is more precarious at a time when the threat from terrorism is rising.