An independent think-tank

Tribes and militants in the Arab world

In the Middle East, militant jihadi groups have proven quite good at providing a focal point for existing grievances, but have been quite bad at taking this to the next level and offering people something in return for their support, argued Sarah Phillips who is an Associate Lecturer at the Centre for Security Studies at Sydney University, Australia. She was addressing a session organized by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS)at islamabad on August 27, 2009. Other than a vehicle for dissent – something that the tribes are already capable of providing – al-Qa’ida has had relatively little to offer the tribes of the Middle East in the longer term. They can add their voice to the chorus of opposition against fragile regimes but as outsiders pursuing an elitist ideology, they are unlikely to be accepted as a vanguard for the tribe, she added.

Phillips discussed the nature of tribal/militant relations in the Middle East, particularly in Yemen, Iraq and Somalia. She argued that militant jihadi groups will continue to have difficulties traversing tribal norms of political autonomy in areas where tribes are an important part of the political landscape.

Al-Qa’ida affiliates have had considerable difficulties in marrying their internationalist ideologies to local political concerns, and this tension seriously undermined jihadis in Somalia in the early 1990s. Captured documents from that time reveal that the foreign mujahideen became so exasperated with Somali clan politics that some suggested waging jihad on Somali clan leaders once Western forces had been expelled from the country.

Tensions between local grievances and international ideology were also important factors in al-Qa’ida’s reversal of fortunes in Iraq’s al-Anbar province in 2007-8, when the tribal “Awakening Councils” paramilitary groups (al-Sahwat) successfully marginalised the jihadis. Al-Qa’ida in Iraq pushed too hard against the tribes that they relied on for support when they insisted on extracting oaths from the sheikhs that rejected tribal legal traditions – a blatant infringement of tribal traditions and autonomy. Al-Qa’ida’s attempts to wrest control of smuggling networks from the local tribes further aggravated animosity toward it, and also undermined an important source of local resource generation for the jihadis. As the al-Qa’ida network becomes more decentralised, the resources that support its cells must also be generated more locally, which puts them at greater risk of competing with the communities in which they are based.

Counter-radicalisation efforts must, therefore, disrupt attempts by al-Qa’ida groups to overcome this inherent weakness by addressing the legitimate grievances that the tribes have against the state. While this would require a significant change to the style of divide and rule patronage politics that are prevalent in the region, basic service delivery could be provided relatively easily and with considerable effect, particularly in Yemen, where “Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula” is now focusing its attention. Doing so would have the added bonus of highlighting the absence of tangible benefits on offer from militant jihadi groups.