Terrorist and Extremist Movements in the Middle East

Anthony H. Cordesman

Terrorism and asymmetric warfare are scarcely new features of the Middle Eastern military balance, and Islamic
extremism is scarcely the only source of extremist violence. There are many serious ethnic and sectarian differences
in the Middle East, and these have long led to sporadic violence within given states, and sometimes to major civil
conflicts. The civil wars in Yemen and the Dhofar Rebellion in Oman are examples, as are the long history of civil
war in Lebanon and Syria’s violent suppression of Islamic political groups that opposed the regime of Hafez al-
Asad. The rising power of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) led to a civil war in Jordan in September
1970. The Iranian revolution in 1979 was followed by serious political fighting, and an effort to export a theocratic
revolution that helped trigger the Iran-Iraq War. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have both had civil clashes between their
Sunni ruling elites and hostile Shi’ites and these clashes led to significant violence in the case of Saudi Arabia.
There also, however, has been a long history of violent Islamic extremism in the region, sometimes encouraged by
regimes that later became the target of the very Islamists they initially supported. Sadat attempted to use Islamic
movements as a counter to his secular opposition in Egypt only to be assassinated by one such movement after his
peace agreement with Israel. Israel thought it safe to sponsor Islamic movements after 1967 as a counter to the
PLO, only to see the rapid emergence of violently anti-Israeli groups. North and South Yemen were the scene of
coups and civil wars since the early 1960s, and it was a civil war in South Yemen that ultimately led to the collapse
of its regime and its merger with North Yemen in 1990.
The fall of the shah led to an Islamist takeover in Iran, and resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan triggered
an Islamist reaction that still influences the Middle East and the entire Islamic world. Saudi Arabia had to deal with
an uprising at the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. The religious character of this uprising shared many elements
of the movements that arose after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Gulf War in 1991.
Algerian efforts to suppress the victory of Islamic political parties in a democratic election in 1992 were followed by
a civil war that has lasted ever since. Egypt fought a long and largely successful battle with its own Islamic
extremists in the 1990s, but Egypt has only managed to have suppressed such movements rather than eradicated
them. In the rest of the Arab World, the civil wars in Kosovo and Bosnia helped create new Islamic extremist cadres.
Saudi Arabia suffered from two major terrorist attacks before 2001. These attacks struck at a National Guard
Training center and USAF barracks at Al Khobar, and at least one seems to have been the result of Islamic
extremists. Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and Yemen have all seen hard-line Islamist
movements become a serious national threat.
While not directly part of the region, the Sudan has fought a 15-year long civil war that has probably cost over two
million lives, and this war had been supported by hard-line Islamist elements in the Arab north. Somalia has also
been the scene of a civil war since 1991 that has allowed Islamist cells to operate in that country.a

Terrorism and asymmetric warfare are scarcely new features of the Middle Eastern military balance, and Islamicextremism is scarcely the only source of extremist violence. There are many serious ethnic and sectarian differencesin the Middle East, and these have long led to sporadic violence within given states, and sometimes to major civilconflicts. The civil wars in Yemen and the Dhofar Rebellion in Oman are examples, as are the long history of civilwar in Lebanon and Syria’s violent suppression of Islamic political groups that opposed the regime of Hafez al-Asad. The rising power of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) led to a civil war in Jordan in September1970. The Iranian revolution in 1979 was followed by serious political fighting, and an effort to export a theocraticrevolution that helped trigger the Iran-Iraq War. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have both had civil clashes between theirSunni ruling elites and hostile Shi’ites and these clashes led to significant violence in the case of Saudi Arabia.There also, however, has been a long history of violent Islamic extremism in the region, sometimes encouraged byregimes that later became the target of the very Islamists they initially supported. Sadat attempted to use Islamicmovements as a counter to his secular opposition in Egypt only to be assassinated by one such movement after hispeace agreement with Israel. Israel thought it safe to sponsor Islamic movements after 1967 as a counter to thePLO, only to see the rapid emergence of violently anti-Israeli groups. North and South Yemen were the scene ofcoups and civil wars since the early 1960s, and it was a civil war in South Yemen that ultimately led to the collapseof its regime and its merger with North Yemen in 1990.The fall of the shah led to an Islamist takeover in Iran, and resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan triggeredan Islamist reaction that still influences the Middle East and the entire Islamic world. Saudi Arabia had to deal withan uprising at the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. The religious character of this uprising shared many elementsof the movements that arose after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Gulf War in 1991.Algerian efforts to suppress the victory of Islamic political parties in a democratic election in 1992 were followed bya civil war that has lasted ever since. Egypt fought a long and largely successful battle with its own Islamicextremists in the 1990s, but Egypt has only managed to have suppressed such movements rather than eradicatedthem. In the rest of the Arab World, the civil wars in Kosovo and Bosnia helped create new Islamic extremist cadres.Saudi Arabia suffered from two major terrorist attacks before 2001. These attacks struck at a National GuardTraining center and USAF barracks at Al Khobar, and at least one seems to have been the result of Islamicextremists. Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and Yemen have all seen hard-line Islamistmovements become a serious national threat.While not directly part of the region, the Sudan has fought a 15-year long civil war that has probably cost over twomillion lives, and this war had been supported by hard-line Islamist elements in the Arab north. Somalia has alsobeen the scene of a civil war since 1991 that has allowed Islamist cells to operate in that country.

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