United Arab Emirates
Disruption of alleged plot to attack beach bar in Umm al-Quwein shows jihadist threat will remain limited
An Emirati citizen and a Palestinian were convicted on 18 January of planning an attack on a beach bar in the northern Emirate of Umm al-Quwein. They were also found guilty of propagating Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda material online, and were jailed for five and three years respectively. In two other separate cases, an Emirati and a Pakistani national were accused of joining the Islamist militant group, Ahrar al-Sham, in Syria. Two further individuals from the Comoros and Egypt were convicted on 1 February of promoting IS online.
The relatively light sentences given to the two individuals for the beach bar plot, and the lack of any reports that weapons were found in connection with the men, suggest that the authorities likely arrested them while the attack was still in the initial planning stages. This demonstrates how the security forces are able to detect and disrupt plots early on, likely through extensive monitoring of email, telephone and social media use. Similarly, the conviction of two other individuals for joining Ahrar al-Sham, which only engages in militancy in Syria, does not indicate a security threat to the UAE. Instead, the authorities were likely using the trials to warn Islamists against supporting any foreign militant group, even those that do not seek to target the country.
The developments nonetheless underline the continued presence of both domestic and foreign jihadist sympathisers in the country, especially in the more conservative northern Emirates. As such, there remains a risk of isolated attacks by militants, and particularly by IS supporters, who will seek to target locations that they view as un-Islamic or associated with the West, such as bars and nightclubs. However, the trials have not revealed any evidence of sympathisers gaining increased access to weapons or training, or being in direct contact with militant leaders abroad. This, together with the security forces’ robust intelligence and counter-terrorism capabilities, will further ensure that the jihadist threat remains limited.
An attack on Western-associated targets in the UAE would win jihadists some support from conservatives, who resent foreign influence in the Arabian Peninsula. However, the country has no sectarian or ethnic tensions that they could exploit to create widespread instability and ultimately seize territory. In addition, any violence would prompt a major retaliatory crackdown by the UAE’s effective security forces, as well as in neighbouring Gulf states. The UAE will therefore remain a low priority for IS and other jihadist groups in the coming months, and so the country will remain secure. That said, the risk of one-off low-level attacks against Western and security targets will rise in response to significant military setbacks for IS, such as the loss of Mosul.