The War on Terror and the Arab State

By Ann Wainscott, St. Louis University

*This memo was prepared for the “Evolving Methodologies in the Study of Islamist Politics” workshop, January 29, 2016.

The War on Terror is reshaping Arab states in a variety of ways. This memo calls for more attention to the ways in which Arab states have responded to the War on Terror, and the long-term consequences of those policy responses. There is a particular need for studies that classify state responses to the War on Terror, and account for variation among them.

The onset of the War on Terror marked the beginning of an unprecedented expansion of state power around the world. Many observers have analyzed how the Bush Administration used the fear generated by 9/11 to push through a series of invasive policies that limit individual freedom and, in some cases, violate individual liberties. Other analysts have examined how American media and pop cultural institutions were complicit in supporting national security narratives.[1] Despite these U.S.-focused studies, there has been comparatively less attention to how states outside of the United States have capitalized on the fear generated by the War on Terror. Interestingly, scholars of African politics have completed more studies of the effects of War on Terror discourse than scholars of the Middle East.[2]

The War on Terror is a discourse embraced by governments to justify particular policy choices. Regardless of the claim that, “We are not at war with Islam,” Muslims have been the primary target of anti-terror policing, both in the United States and abroad. The targeting of Muslim populations puts Arab states in a difficult position. Many states in the Middle East and North Africa have Islamic identities. Even if they do not, their states are composed of a high percentage of citizens who identify as Muslims. In the midst of a discourse that demonizes Muslims, Arab states are under pressure to police their religious spheres and participate in the US-led Global War on Terrorism. Arab states have embraced a fairly consistent set of counterterrorism strategies. As Marc Lynch explained in an earlier issue of POMEPS Studies, “The currently favored strategy, which combines autocratic repression with the official promotion of ‘moderate’ Islam and the conflation of very different movements under the banner of ‘terrorism,’ is likely to make problems worse.”[3]

Scholars are right to be concerned about the use of the War on Terrorism as a concept. As Lisa Stampnitzky has documented, the use of the term ‘terrorism’ is meant to portray those who participate in violence as bloodthirsty and irrational in order to eliminate discussion of their grievances. In doing so, the discourse itself limits the policy options available for addressing ‘the problem of terrorism.’[4] In particular, those who argue for understanding the grievances of violent actors or negotiation with them may be maligned as complicit. At the same time, while scholars question the utility of the concept, states are deploying it to defend policy choices. Below I identify three ways in which the effects of War on Terror discourse are already visible in the politics of Arab states.

1. Broader definitions of Terrorism

The most popular response from states across the Middle East and North Africa to War on Terror discourse has been the codification of anti-terror legislation. During the War on Terror, states in the region tended to adopt anti-terror legislation immediately following a domestic terrorist attack. Jordan, for example, amended its anti-terror legislation, Law on the Prevention of Terrorism, in 2006 following a terrorist attack in Amman the year before. In addition to Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and Syria, have followed the general pattern of using the “opportunity” of a domestic terrorist attack to pass anti-terror legislation. Anti-terror legislation tends to share a number of similar characteristics including broad definitions of terrorism, extended periods of police detention without charge or access to a lawyer, expansion of the state’s security apparatus and the introduction of new penalties such as the death penalty for those convicted under the laws. These new laws effectively make martial law unnecessary. Particularly since the beginning of the Arab Uprisings, states have used anti-terror legislation against political opposition.

But terrorist attacks do not tend to lead to the development of new anti-terror legislation, they tend to result in the passage of pre-existing legislation that had stalled in the legislature. This pattern suggests that states are adopting laws that would not be acceptable to citizens in the absence of an attack. In such circumstances, fear functions as a mechanism of compliance. The attacks frighten citizens. States use the passage of new legislation to calm citizens and appear to be doing something. Parliamentarians who oppose the legislation sometimes do not speak out under such circumstances. In Tunisia, for example, two terrorist attacks in 2015 led to the adoption of anti-terror legislation that had been debated in parliament for over two years.[5] Those who originally resisted the bill abstained or did not attend the vote.[6]

2. Greater State control of religious institutions

Both secular and religious states in the region have responded to the War on Terror by incorporating religious institutions into the state. My work has documented a dramatic expansion in the budget and the number of employees in the Moroccan Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs since a domestic terrorist attack shook the region in 2003. By ‘bureaucratizing Islam,’ the state has greater control over religious elites who now more than ever tend to be on the state’s payroll. The state can also deploy religious institutions to shape religious beliefs and practice at home and abroad.

3. Security Rent Seeking

Classification as an ally in the War on Terror has material consequences that allow states to strengthen their investment in the security sector. The case of Yemen is worth noting here. Aid has fluctuated wildly to the country, depending on how the United States has judged its centrality in the War on Terror. In 2006, US aid dropped to the “new low” of 4.6 million USD, but the change in American administrations and AQAP’s increased involvement in the territory led to the highest aid package in history to the country in 2009 and 2010. Though paused in 2011, aid was restarted in 2012, with another all time high aid package of 337 million USD.[7]

While Yemen is an extreme example, it points to the financial incentives for Arab states to align with the War on Terror. Prior to the Casablanca bombings in 2003, Morocco had not embraced America’s War on Terror as it was unpopular among Moroccan citizens. After the bombings, Morocco took a number of steps to align itself as an ally in the war. In response, the country was rewarded with a Free Trade Agreement, signed in March 2004 and ratified by Congress in July after fifteen months of negotiations.[8] Further, the US designated Morocco a non-NATO ally in June of that year.[9] The timing of the agreements suggested that Morocco was being rewarded.

When considered in concert, these three changes in anti-terror legislation, state control of religious institutions, and security rent seeking, it is hard not to conclude that the War on Terror has retrenched authoritarianism in the region in profound (and frequently measurable) ways. I urge scholars to turn their attention to this important subject and analyze how the War on Terror is shaping Arab states.

Ann Wainscott is an assistant professor of political science at St. Louis University, where she specializes in Middle East and North African politics, particularly the politics of opposition in autocratic regimes.


[1] Hatem, Mervat F. “Discourses on the‘ War on Terrorism’ in the US and Its Views of the Arab, Muslim, and Gendered‘ Other.’” The Arab Studies Journal, 2003, 77–97.

Croft, Stuart. Culture, Crisis and America’s War on Terror. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Jackson, Richard. Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counter-Terrorism. Manchester University Press, 2005.

[2] Waal, Alexander De, and Salam, H. Abdel. “Africa, Islamism and America’s ‘War on Terror.’” In Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa, edited by Alexander De Waal. Indiana University Press, 2004. Rüdiger, Seesemann. “‘Kenyan Muslims, the Aftermath of 9/11, and the ’War on Terror”.” In Islam and Muslim Politics in Africa, edited by Benjamin F. Soares and René Otayek, 157–76. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Gutelius, David. “Islam in Northern Mali and the War on Terror.” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 25, no. 1 (January 1, 2007): 59–76. Schmidt, Elizabeth. Foreign Intervention in Africa: From the Cold War to the War on Terror. Cambridge University Press, 2013. Kieh, George Klay, and Kelechi Kalu. West Africa and the U.S. War on Terror. Routledge, 2013.

[3] Marc Lynch. 2015. “Introduction.” In Islam in a Changing Middle East: Islamism in the IS Age. 17 March. POMEPS STUDIES 12. Project on Middle East Political Science, p.5.

[4] Stampnitzky, Lisa. Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented “Terrorism.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[5] Al-Naṣūṣ Al-Qānūniyya Al-Manẓima Li-Qiṭā’ Fī Tūnis. Vol. 2015/22, 2015.

[6] “Tunisia Passes Anti-Terror Laws after Deadly Attacks.” Al Jazeera English, July 25, 2015.

[7] Johnson, Gregory. “Losing Yemen.” Foreign Policy, November 5, 2012.

[8] The negotiations began in January 2003, prior to the Casablanca bombings. Nevertheless, the language of final agreement suggests the United States saw it as an opportunity to reward an ally.

[9] White, Gregory W. “Free Trade as a Strategic Instrument in the War on Terror?: The 2004 US-Moroccan Free Trade Agreement.” Middle East Journal 59, no. 4 (Autumn 2005): 597–616.

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