American foreign policy for the past decade has been dominated by a focus on countering the threat of global terrorism. As a 21-year-old, I hardly remember a time before the Global War on Terrorism, roving warrants, drone strikes, and paranoia of Arabs, Middle Easterners, and Islam especially. Ten years into the counterterrorism push, religious terrorist groups are operationally weaker than they were in 2001. Al-Qaeda has been incapacitated by restrictions on communication, forcing local cells to operate as splinter groups. Its leaders are continuously targeted in a sometimes strained but still functioning partnership between NATO and Pakistan. The absence of a unifying central command hurts recruitment, morale, and planning. Splinter groups like AQIM (Islamic Maghrib) and AQAP (Arabian Peninsula) lack the capacity to launch major strikes even near the scale of 9/11.
Despite these developments, terrorism in the Middle East is alive and well. In fact, the new era of terrorism poses a more difficult hurdle to American policymakers than its predecessor. The fall of religious terrorism organizations has introduced a new wave of state terrorism.
State terrorism (when a state uses violence or the threat of violence to create fear among its citizens) is clearly at play across the Middle East. Bashar al-Assad’s regime is brutally targeting a popular uprising to demolish political opposition. In Egypt, security forces threaten citizens who speak negatively about the military to the press and the SCAF cracked down on protests calling for immediate transition to civilian rule. A leaked American military memo predicts a return to Taliban rule in Afghanistan and the repression that will ensue. In Yemen, just this morning a story surfaced that the military opened fire on political protestors.
The United States has painstakingly reevaluated its role in each country as crisis after crisis emerges. It is time for the United States to fundamentally reexamine its role in the region and American policymakers will inevitably continue to face the uncomfortable truth: as the self-defined defender of democracy and freedom, we must bring the same zeal that went into countering religious terrorism to ending state terrorist regimes. I am not advocating sending Assad to Guantanamo, but rather that it is morally imperative that we call a spade a spade and at least level the playing field.
(Danielle Angel is an intern in Al Arabiya’s Washington, DC bureau and can be reached at Danielle.email@example.com)