Arabs see Daesh, Houthis as biggest security threat

In the past four years, there has been a substantial decline in terrorist activity in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Regional and international anti-terrorism efforts have significantly dented the capacity of Salafi-jihadist organizations, such as Daesh and Al Qaeda, to carry out sophisticated attacks and hold territory – especially in the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. Nevertheless, Arabs remain concerned about extremism, particularly since other terrorist organizations, such as the Houthi movement in Yemen, continue to consolidate their territorial gains, increasing the threat to Yemen and neighboring countries.

Read time: 6 min.
arrow-symbol arrow-symbol download report

A public opinion poll commissioned by the UAE-based Sawab Center and carried out by Zogby Research Services has found that 60 per cent of respondents across the region are concerned about Islamist extremism. The survey also indicated that concerns about the presence of extremist groups are significantly higher in the Arab Gulf and West Asia, at 75 per cent and 71 per cent, respectively. 

The high numbers in these two regions could be explained by the fact that groups such as Daesh, Al Qaeda and the Houthis are still active in conflict zones here. In contrast, only 34 per cent of those surveyed in North Africa expressed some concern about terrorist activity. 

Unlike armed groups operating in conflict zones in the Gulf and West Asia, terrorist organizations in North Africa have a limited capacity to plan and execute complex operations. They have struggled to reactivate their logistical networks, mobilize new fighters and generate resources. Still, Al Qaeda and Daesh affiliates in North Africa remain active and retain the capacity to carry out attacks against civilians and security forces whenever an opportunity presents itself. 

When asked about the most dangerous extremist groups operating in the region, 43 per cent of the respondents said Daesh while 32 per cent said it was the Houthi movement. Despite its territorial defeat, Daesh continues to carry out a low-level insurgency in some parts of the region and mainly operates in the rural and remote areas in conflict zones. It also functions as a decentralized organization, retaining small but active cells. These cells have enough operational capacity to conduct hit-and-run attacks and, occasionally, high-profile assaults against local authorities and tribal leaders aimed at spreading fear and confusion. Although Daesh has lost most of its ability to control territory and recruit foreign fighters, its brutal tactics and heinous crimes against local populations and minorities are still widely seen as a key threat to societies and governments. 

The survey found that in the Arab Gulf, 52 per cent of respondents see the Houthis – and not Daesh – as the most serious threat to stability. For years, the movement has not only jeopardized efforts aimed at ending the war in Yemen, but has also fired dozens of cruise missiles and explosives-laden unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at several cities and oil refineries in the Gulf. 

Gulf Arabs see the human rights violations carried out by the Houthis, and their efforts to monopolize power in Yemen and change the nature of the state in line with their sectarian agenda, as a threat to regional social and political stability. 

Surprisingly, the Houthis are also seen as a major threat to regional stability by 36 per cent of those surveyed in North Africa. The movement comes after Daesh (43 per cent) and before Al Qaeda (25 per cent), which has been operating in North Africa for decades and is responsible for dozens of deadly attacks against civilian and government targets. The Houthis’ crimes in Yemen, and the magnitude of their attacks against neighboring countries as well as their willingness to use cruise missiles and UAVs to target civilian populations, are likely the reason respondents in North Africa consider them a significant threat.

Results of the Sawab Center poll also highlighted the growing threat of online extremism. A majority of respondents across the region said the internet was a major facilitator of radicalization. To escape counter-extremism pressure in the physical world, today’s extremist groups use the internet to generate new resources, network and coordinate between jihadists from different regions, share knowledge and ideological training, and mobilize fundamentalists to conduct attacks. For transnational terrorist groups, internet-based platforms are the most effective way to communicate and access new audiences while decreasing financial costs and physical risks.

The results show 53 per cent of those polled believe social media is the most important source of spreading extremist ideas and recruiters from terrorist groups view it as a highly effective tool. On social media platforms, extremist organizations and individuals can easily interact with sympathizers and identify potential members to expand their support base.

Forty two per cent of Arabs said websites are also effective means used by terrorist groups to radicalize individuals. Nevertheless, according to the survey, the online space is not the only way extremist ideologies find their way into people’s minds as 24% of respondents said preachers in mosques are also responsible for the spread of extremism.

While results are similar in North Africa (32 per cent) and West Asia (33 per cent), only 7 per cent in the Arab Gulf region believe preachers are behind the spread of extremism in local mosques. In the MENA region, with the exception of the Gulf, the poll findings suggest extremist organizations are still effectively exploiting mosques to spread violent ideologies and recruit individuals. Although counter-terrorism and counter-extremism have been the focus of security forces in the region for the past two decades, winning the war against fundamentalist indoctrination in places of worship still remains a challenge. What is needed is greater engagement between religious preachers, policymakers and security institutions to ensure that mosques can become a bulwark against Islamism.


Arabs see Daesh, Houthis as biggest security threat

arrow-symbol download


Collaborate. Give Feedback. Ask Questions.



Get updates on our latest research