Hard and Soft Strategies: The UAE’s Approach to Counterterrorism

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 9

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and UAE military forces (Source: The National)

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) represents an interesting case study in counterterrorism, having suffered no jihadist attacks, despite being a stated target for Islamist extremists. The UAE considers its implementation of both so-called “hard” and “soft” strategies to tackle potential security threats as the key to its success. However, while there have been no major attacks, the overall threat-level in the UAE remains elevated and a number of small instances have occurred that hint at a larger problem.

From a counterterrorism perspective, the Emirates can be divided into two distinct groups with Dubai and Abu Dhabi—home to thousands of non-Muslim Westerners—on the one side, and the five remaining emirates of Sharja, Ajman, Ras al-Khaima, Fujehira and Umm al-Qaywayn on the other. Both groups might be chosen as targets, albeit for different reasons.

Most expatriates reside in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Along with the incessant flow of tourists, this population—with the concomitant hotels and tourist attractions—represents a potential target for jihadists. In the jihadist worldview, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are emblematic of sin and deviation on Muslim soil, in the Dar al-Islam. By contrast, the poorer and less populous emirates offer fewer obvious targets but have less pervasive security measures, making them potentially more vulnerable.

In December 2014, Ibolya Ryan, an American teacher living in the UAE, was stabbed to death by an Emirati woman in Abu Dhabi’s Boutik Mall (The National, December 1, 2014). After stabbing her, the munaqqaba (a woman wearing niqab), planted a bomb, which failed to detonate, in front of the home of an Arab–American physician. The Emirati authorities classified the murder as a lone wolf attack inspired by terrorist ideology acquired online. The woman was later executed.

Separately the following year, the authorities rounded up an Islamist cell that was planning one or more terrorist attacks on shopping malls and hotels, probably with characteristics similar to those of the 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi (The National, November 16, 2015).

Going in Hard

In adopting “hard” counterterrorism measures, the UAE has cracked down on al-Islah, the Emirati branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, arresting members of the group. More broadly, where possible, the last few years have seen the authorities carry out a high number of precautionary deportations. In September 2015, two men from Kerala, India who posted pro-Islamic State (IS) comments on Facebook were expelled from the UAE (The Times of India, September 16, 2015).

This year, five suspected IS operatives of Indian origin, aged between 20 and 25, were deported from Abu Dhabi. Intelligence agencies had reportedly intercepted communications in which the group appeared to discuss plans to recruit followers and carry out attacks. They were said to be in touch with senior IS leaders (The Times of India, March 1).

The UAE also actively participates in the international coalition against IS and cooperates with its allies to monitor and dismantle terrorist networks. Of particular importance in this regard is the UAE’s efforts to tackle terrorism financing—the Gulf has historically been a hub of private fundraising for Islamist causes.

The UAE is home to significant regional banking infrastructure, with the potential risk of money laundering. Disrupting the informal flows of money from the region to old and new jihadist networks is now a priority for all Gulf States, albeit one that has sometimes been tackled with mixed results.

Partnerships such as the Joint UAE-U.S. Financial Counterterrorism Task Force have enhance cooperation and information sharing to shut down terrorist financing networks and cut off the flow of funds to extremists (The National, October 27, 2014). The UAE has made public few details about the taskforce, but its main focus is likely to be on blocking financial flows from individuals and commercial activities such as black-market oil sales, as well as preventing access to the international banking system.

The UAE has supported increased monitoring of charitable fundraising and further examination of money flows across the region with the Anti-Money Laundering and Suspicious Cases Unit (AMLSCU). Set up by the Central Bank, it is a member of the Egmont Group of Financial Intelligence Units.

Notoriously, formal and informal charities and dawa (the preaching of Islam) groups represent a danger. Television commercials produced by the Emirati government and aired during periods of religious observance warn citizens and residents to refrain from donating money through unapproved channels— including religious centers—as the funds could “unknowingly” support terrorist causes. From a Western perspective, this might appear to be odd and potentially ineffective. However, in a country with less than 10 million inhabitants—only 10 percent of which are native Emiratis—direct appeals from the government to its citizens appear to have a greater effect than in large democratic countries.

The UAE has also taken steps to prevent its nationals from joining extremist groups in Syria and Iraq through regional policing efforts, although these have been largely ineffective. In 2014, the UAE joined efforts to establish a regional force (known as GCC-Pol) based in Abu Dhabi, and a joint naval force based in Bahrain, to foster regional cooperation (The National, December 9, 2014). Beyond some initial enthusiasm and a few official visits with bodies like Interpol, these new initiatives see little regional cooperation. Such lack of cooperation is resistance toward the inevitable pooling of sovereignty required, and the situation has worsened significant since the UAE and Saudi Arabia began their blockade of Qatar in June 2017.

Softly, Softly

In the field of “soft” counterterrorism strategies, the UAE focuses on monitoring and influencing the role of religious institutions and centers, as well as countering radical propaganda disseminated online.

Prominent Emirati officials and religious leaders continue to publicly criticize radical ideology and highlight the dangers of radicalization. To prevent violent extremists from preaching in religious centers, the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqāf) claims to be working closely with local religious leaders to monitor possible violations.

The UAE is also home to Hedayah, the Global Center for Excellence in Countering Violent Extremism, a state-funded think tank that was inaugurated in Abu Dhabi in 2012, with the support of members of the Global Counterterrorism Forum. In May 2015, Hedayah launched its STRIVE Program (Strengthening Resilience to Violence and Extremism), a four-year European Union-funded project intended to train “frontline officials” in counter-radicalization strategies.

Another project is Sawab (Arabic for “doing the right thing”), a joint initiative in support of the global anti-IS coalition started in 2015 with the United States. It combines long-term campaigns aimed at debunking IS online narratives with immediate reactive messaging intended to amplifying moderate regional voices.

Overall, the recent deportations of suspected Islamist extremists suggests the authorities view attacks perpetrated by individuals arriving in the UAE from other countries as a greater threat than the emergence of Emirati cells. That may be an accurate assessment as the UAE’s close monitoring of its society, and in particular domestic groups at risk of radicalization, has thus far been an effective barrier to the establishment of homegrown terror cells.