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ICSR Panel Discussion: “Old and New Frontiers”

01/07/2010

The first discussion of the morning session brought together regional experts to discuss where the major terrorist threats are now emerging from, and what governments must do to counter them.  Moderated by ICSR Deputy Director Dr. John Bew, the panel participants were the former Prime Minister of Yemen, H.E. Abdulkarim Al-Eryani; Sabri Saidam, a senior advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; Dr. Robert Rotberg of Harvard’s Belfer Centre; and Ali Jalali, the former Afghan Interior Minister.  The audience was also given a brief welcome by Carrie Lemack, co-founder of Families of September 11 and the Global Survivors Network.

Dr. Bew began by asking Jalali if al-Qaeda’s recent forays into Somalia and Yemen signaled that they were being defeated in Afghanistan.  He responded by saying that he believed al-Qaeda are still a major threat with significant influence over the Taliban, who have in turn gained a lot of operational and tactical knowledge from the terrorist network.

Discussing al-Qaeda’s gradually increasing presence in Yemen, Al-Eryani reminded the audience that the government there has been combating global terrorists since 2000. He estimated that al-Qaeda’s current numbers in the region are around 700, and noted that they are strengthened by tribal protection in the Eastern mountainous regions.  He also specifically mentioned Anwar al-Awlaki as one of the main al-Qaeda members currently under tribal protection, but perceived him to have no base or major following in the region, instead appealing more to Western Muslims via the internet.   Although al-Qaeda does have a presence in Yemen, Al-Eryani did not assess that they had any capability to topple the current government, and he saw much of their influence to be outside of Yemen.

When asked by Dr. Bew whether or not US intervention in Somalia is exacerbating the situation there, Dr. Rotberg said he believed that to some extent it was creating further problem.  Although he also stressed the importance of working with the Somali people, particularly in the North of the country, where there is a smaller presence of militant jihadist groups.  He added that the al-Qaeda connected militants were mainly in the South of Somalia.

Dr. Bew then shifted the discussion to the importance of stable government in resisting terror networks, and what role ideology played in inspiring these movements.  Ahmed Jalali placed much significance on both of these factors, saying that many terrorist groups were motivated primarily by their ideology, and that they thrive in ungoverned spaces.  It is crucial, he argued, to gain control of these spaces using a combination of military force and political negotiation if countries are to neutralise terrorist groups.  Dr. Rotberg was similar in his assessment, claiming that the main focus must be on improving governance in regions where global jihadist networks are currently thriving.  He also stated that in order to achieve this, negotiations with militant organisations and others who “we wouldn’t normally talk to” was crucial. Saidam echoed this idea but warned the audience that democracy and good governance cannot be “parachuted in” – it must be cultivated and supported from within.

After the initial discussion, an audience member asked Al-Eryani about his views on the strategic benefit of drone attacks, and whether or not they were a necessary tool.  He argued that, although al-Qaeda propaganda benefits from civilian casualties often caused by drones, there are certain circumstances where they must be used.

This signaled the end of the first discussion of the morning, after which the audience was treated to an in-depth analysis of the Northern Ireland peace process by Lord David Trimble (click here for a summary of his speech and pictures).