UAE stabbing arrest sends a message to its opponents

UAE stabbing arrest sends a message to its opponents
Abu Dhabi police have released footage of the raid that captured the suspect in the murder of an American teacher.
5 min read
04 December, 2014
A still from the video shows the arrest operation in action [YouTube]

The United Arab Emirates is a country known for its love of showboating.

So when an American teacher was stabbed to death at an Abu Dhabi mall in an attack which bore the hallmarks of armed militias such as the Islamic State group, the case was handled with typical bombastic style.
Dubbed "the Reem Island ghost", after the name of the shopping mall in which the victim was murdered, Abu Dhabi police released two videos in connection with the event.

Both are professionally edited and accompanied by eerie and dramatic background music.

The first film shows the suspect dressed in an abaya and niqab, fully covered in black, entering the mall, and heading to the bathroom. An hour later, the video shows a panicked crowd fleeing the scene, along with the suspect who proceeds to leave the mall on her way to the home of an American doctor, where she supposedly planted a crude explosive device. 

The second clip shows a raid on the suspect's home by scores of armed police. Bloodstains were seen on the steering wheel of the suspect's car; bomb-making materials found in the villa, along with a two-way radio.

A search of the house is made; suspects are roughly handled by police and bundled into a police car.

"The Reem Island ghost" had been apprehended, announced Interior Minister Sheikh Saif bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The 38-year-old Emirati woman was inspired by extremist ideas "alien" to the UAE, he said.

"We are witnessing an unprecedented, heinous crime in the UAE," the interior minister concluded.

Abu Dhabi's choice to release the video doesn't appear to serve any purpose other than proving to the world that the UAE is willing and able to tackle domestic terrorism. It seemed remarkably similar to the approach the UAE authorities took when Hamas military chief Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was assassinated in his Dubai hotel room by Israeli agents.

Neil Partrick, an associate fellow with the Royal United Services Institute and a writer on Gulf affairs, said that the crime was an opportunity for the UAE to advertise its security capabilities to reassure both nationals and foreigners - and that high-profile videos of robberies have been released before.

The stabbing took place on the same day a recording was released, attributed to Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, a spokesman of the Islamic State group, that urged Muslims to attack Westerners by any means, even if only to "spit on their faces".

Partrick said that the crime appeared to be connected to the UAE's involvement in the coalition fighting the Islamic State group.

"The Islamic State group would like to target westerners wherever they can, including in any of the Gulf states," he told al-Araby al-Jadeed. "Not being a high profile part of the US-led anti-IS coalition does not ensure immunity."

If there is an "extremist motive" behind the killing, then it would follow a pattern emerging in the Gulf region since airstrikes against the Islamic State group began in Syria and Iraq.

A Danish man was shot in the Saudi capital recently, while a Canadian was also stabbed in a Saudi mall a week ago.

It seems to be part of a growing trend of attacks on foreigners in the kingdom, and something that is reminiscent of the al-Qaeda inspired attacks in Saudi Arabia during the 1990s and 2000s. 

On 27 October, the US State Department also issued a warning to its citizens in the region following postings on a "jihadist website" encouraging attacks against international schools in the region and US-expat teachers. Jeddah and Maadi in Egypt were mentioned as particular targets.

"It is also not clear how much the attack in the UAE, and recent ones in Saudi Arabia, are part of an IS group plot or just individuals conducting quite limited acts in support," added Partrick.

David Hartwell, managing editor of Middle East Insider, said that the UAE's reputation as a stable, tourist-friendly, pro-West capitalist country, pushes authorities to make "loud noises" when security issues come under the spotlight. 

"It is partly to send a message to the international community that the UAE is taking a tough case against terrorism and partly a message to Emiratis that the state is not going to stand for these type of activities," he said.

Abu Dhabi's history as a safe but authoritarian state is largely to do with its social contract with the people, based on shared tribal values. The state provides its citizens with security and a high standard of living while the royal family rules with almost complete impunity.

Hartwell says that it is a system that most subjects appear happy with, and the gridlock and disputes in the Kuwait parliament are often shown by supporters of the UAE's authoritarian-monarchic system as an example of why democracy doesn't work in the Gulf.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been one of the most recent threats to this system, and the movement was recently designated a "terrorist organisation" by the UAE.

Hartwell believes that the PR-heavy investigation into the US teacher's killing was also an indirect way of authorities showing that it is capable of quashing groups or individuals it sees as risking the country's stability.

"The UAE is sending out a message that it is capable of handling threats to the country and [they have] foiled an attack. They have displayed their capabilities and will be relatively happy with the operation," said Hartwell.

"From their point of view, it justifies their involvement in the coalition against the Islamic State and their decision to clamp down on other Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood."

Despite some in the UAE overplaying the Islamic State group connection, Hartwell believes the killer was inspired by the extremist ideology and, like other "lone wolf" attacks it is difficult to predict future violence in the Gulf.

"The authorities will be on their guard in case of further attacks and more arrests seem likely to be made in the future," he said.