Terrorists kill tourists, but the real target is the state

ISIS and its ilk are actually contributing to the electoral gains and increasing memberships of extremist groups in the West

Sharif Nashashibi

Published: Updated:

Friday’s deadly attack against tourists in Tunisia, claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is shocking but should come as no surprise. Terrorist groups have long seen the benefits of attacking tourist attractions and resorts, particularly in countries whose economies are dependent on tourism revenue.

Attacking such targets is far easier than security forces or government institutions. Fortifying tourist attractions nationwide is not only logistically difficult, but people are less likely to visit such places if they end up looking and feeling like security compounds. As such, tourism can be viewed as the soft underbelly of countries that rely on that industry.

Foreigners may be the immediate victims of such attacks, but the real target is the state. Terrorist groups seek to sow public disaffection toward governments for failing to provide security, for enduring draconian anti-terrorism measures that impinge on fundamental freedoms, and for presiding over faltering economies.

All these issues affect society at large, so they - either individually or in combination - have the potential to destabilize the state, with terrorist groups taking advantage of the resulting vacuum.


However, there are more far-reaching consequences of such attacks that are largely over-looked in subsequent analyses. There is already a widespread view in the West that equates Arabs, Muslims and Islam with terrorism and violence. Targeting citizens of Western states greatly heightens that misperception because Arabs and Muslims are then seen as a direct threat. This of course discourages Westerners from visiting Arab and Muslim countries.

ISIS and its ilk are actually contributing to the electoral gains and increasing memberships of extremist groups in the West that would rather see the backs of all Arabs and Muslims

Sharif Nashashibi

However, it also jeopardizes Arab and Muslim communities in the West, which feel increasingly disenfranchised and demonized amid rising anti-immigration sentiment and the increasing popularity of far-right parties. Arab and Muslim immigrants are seen as potential security threats, and those who are citizens of Western states are viewed as fifth columns that cannot be trusted.

As such, ISIS and its ilk are actually contributing to the electoral gains and increasing memberships of extremist groups in the West that would rather see the backs of all Arabs and Muslims, regardless of whether they are fellow citizens. In this increasingly toxic and segregated environment, it is increasingly easy to radicalize members of society when they do not feel part of it.

Some may end up moving to jihadist-held territories where they are led to believe that they will feel more welcomed. Others may carry out atrocities in the West on behalf of ISIS or similar groups. That will feed the vicious cycle of radicalism and racism that benefits extremists on both sides, who are making not-so-strange bedfellows.

It is unclear whether groups such as ISIS are thinking that far ahead in their motivations for attacking tourist sites, but when the issue of immigration is increasingly blurring the lines between domestic and foreign policy issues, the possibility must be considered.

As such, it is vital that Western governments and communities not react in a knee-jerk fashion and thereby fall into a trap that may be deliberately set. Doing so will not only bolster the ranks of jihadist groups, but allow them to brag about the far-reaching effects of their actions, the influence they are achieving, and the fear they are sowing in the hearts of their enemies at home and abroad. This is turn will further boost their popularity.

Fostering partnership

It is crucial that Arabs and Muslims are viewed as partners against terrorism rather than the cause of it, because they are its biggest victims. This is often overlooked amid the impassioned debate in the West about how to deal with terrorism.

However, government initiatives and calls to encourage greater cooperation from Arab and Muslim communities are unlikely to succeed if the latter feel they are unfairly targeted or discriminated against by the state, or not adequately consulted or sufficiently protected.

Furthermore, calls for these communities to do more to monitor and curb extremism, and demands that they apologize for and condemn the actions of terrorists, implies a misplaced notion of collective responsibility, and shows wilful ignorance of these communities’ regular denunciations of terrorist acts and ideologies.

Extremist groups thrive by encouraging division. The response must be to come together and realize that tackling terrorism is a common goal, because to extremists, anyone opposed to their ideology is an enemy, regardless of race or religion.

Should tourists desert countries such as Tunisia (which they are already doing), and should Western governments put up internal and external barriers against specific communities, ISIS would be handed a victory, a victory no one wants except ISIS.

Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

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