Last week, I had the opportunity to travel to
Manama (my first visit to the Middle East/Persian Gulf) to attend the Bahrain
Security Forum and Exhibition (BSFE) co-sponsored by the Ministry of Interior
and the Royal United Services Institute
(RUSI). Fifty-eight speakers and several hundred participants from all around
the world were invited for an international dialogue on security, with particular
attention paid to border security issues.
The opening plenary session can only be described as surreal. We were welcomed
by Bahraini Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa followed by
an opening address by Interior Minister Shaikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al-Khalifa.
RUSI's chairman, Sir Paul Lever, also spoke.
The secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation
Council (GCC), Abdulrahman Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, then proceeded to harangue
Iran over its dispute
with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) over the status of three islands by stating:
- "Iran has been acting as an occupying force, which is impermissible
with Islam and international law."
- "We have been asking Iran to set back, curb its aggressive tendencies,
but that has certainly not been the case."
- "To redress these hostile declarations and irresponsible policies,
Iran needs to take clear positions at the highest level of leadership coupled
with procedures to respect sovereignty of other countries."
Al-Attiyah was followed by an unscheduled surprise speech by Iranian Interior
Minister Sadeq Mahsouli, who was in Bahrain to defuse tensions caused by Iranian
statements that Bahrain used to be Iran's 14th province and that Iran had sovereignty
over Bahrain. He largely refused to take the bait, claiming, "The crisis
between Bahrain and Iran is over, but there never really was what you could
properly called a crisis." But he also claimed, "Tehran condemns
foreign interference in the matter of Iranian islands. The islands are Iranian."
(The previous day, Mahsouli reportedly told Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa,
"The relationship between the two countries is a warm and sincere one
and will not be hurt by the mischief of enemies.")
After Mahsouli's impromptu speech, the former secretary of the Department
of Homeland Security (DHS), Michael Chertoff, gave a short speech completely
unconnected to the previous two – mostly about trying to find a common definition
of terrorism. I knew I had to be in some bizarre parallel universe, because
I could not imagine witnessing what I had just seen and heard in the United
Batting cleanup in the opening plenary was INTERPOL President Boon Hui Khoo
from Singapore, demonstrating the truly international flavor of the forum.
I'm not going to report on the whole event, but I want to offer some observations.
First and foremost, it should be apparent that Islam is not a monolith. The
Sunni-Shi'ite divide is real, as witnessed by the tensions between the Gulf
states and Iran. So the biggest mistake we can make is to lump all of Islam
together – particularly when it comes to terrorist acts of violence perpetrated
in the name of Allah and Islam. And we should not continue to conflate threats.
Sunni Arab terrorists represented by al-Qaeda and their ilk attacked the United
States on 9/11, but groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah are not direct threats
We also need to understand that all homeland security is local. So while the
United States sees Iran as a threat, we need to appreciate that the Gulf states
have their own selfish reasons to try to make Iran a security partner (even
in the same breath that they give Iran a tongue lashing). And local in the
Middle East also means that friendly Arab nations and unfriendly Iran alike
see Israel as a security problem, with concerns about Israel's nuclear weapons
and the still unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. None of the speakers
from the region were shy about denouncing Israeli military action in Gaza or
putting the burden of carving out a Palestinian state – a prerequisite for
security in the Middle East – on Tel Aviv.
Tellingly, Michael Chertoff unintentionally demonstrated why the United States
is not winning hearts and minds in the Muslim world. Previously, Sir Ian Blair
(former commissioner of police in London) had made the case that the concept
of a "war on terrorism" has been unproductive because it has resulted
in emphasizing a military approach rather than treating terrorism as a criminal-justice
problem to be solved by police. Chertoff countered that there were times when
a military approach was appropriate and other times when a police approach
was the best course of action. The example for the former was a high-value
terrorist target in Afghanistan. Even if that target might be among non-threat
targets, Chertoff argued that calling in a bomb would be the correct way to
be certain of eliminating the threat. However, if that same high-value terrorist
target was in New York City, then calling in the police would be the right
thing to do.
To begin, the example of a high-value terrorist target raises the question
of whether the intelligence identifying the target is reliable and can be corroborated.
But more importantly, Chertoff's example ignores the very real effects of collateral
damage. Even if a threat is real and correctly identified, if innocent civilians
are victims of an attack then the end result is more reasons to hate the United
States and for people to become terrorists. And the implication is that it's
OK to drop a bomb in a foreign country because collateral damage is acceptable,
i.e., it's OK if foreign civilians are killed to protect Americans.
But if Chertoff's high-value terrorist target is such a severe threat, why
wouldn't we use the same "take no chances" approach in New York City?
The message isn't lost on a foreign audience.