ABU DHABI // The US-led anti-ISIL coalition’s new Sawab Centre to combat terrorism in the region went live from Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.
US undersecretary of state Richard Stengel attended the centre’s launch with Dr Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs.
The centre, named after the Arabic word for “the right and spiritual path”, will develop social media tools to tackle propaganda disseminated by ISIL among young Arabs.
“The centre will make an important contribution to the stability and security of the region,” Dr Gargash said.
“It will make a start in reclaiming the online space from extremists.”
Analysts said winning the war of ideas was a crucial strategic objective for the coalition and countering ISIL’s messaging online was vital to succeed.
“The centre is another manifestation of a broader US and coalition strategy to meet the ISIL threat at conventional and unconventional battlefields,” said Johan Bergenas, an Abu Dhabi security expert and deputy director of the Managing Across Boundaries Initiative at the Stimson Centre think tank.
Taufiq Rahim, a Dubai-based analyst, said the region and the broader Muslim world were facing an existential conflict.
“There are thousands of ISIL-linked accounts on Twitter that serve as tools for disinformation, recruitment and other propaganda,” he said. “We should not underestimate the reach of social media in cultivating followership for extremists, especially from young adolescents.
“It is vital that leadership emerges from the region to confront extremism, whether on the actual battlefield or the virtual one. ”
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, political science professor at UAE University, said the challenge was huge.
“We’re finding out by the day that ISIL is here to stay for a long time,” he said. “If that’s the case, then this is one more attempt that might or might not lead somewhere but at least something is going on,” he said of the new centre.
Mohammed Almarashda, an Emirati PhD researcher in homeland security, at Bournemouth University, said the initiative was a valuable step.
“This is the first step as a government to become a regional hub for this specific purpose,” he said.
“Such a centre as the Sawab Centre is considered a first building block towards creating an international group of expertise to refute radicalisation and violence.”
He said that social media had become the main part of the puzzle in radicalisation.
“Social media has always been the way in which terrorists employ their potential for propaganda, to promote their ideas and intellectual beliefs,” he said.
“So I think the centre comes at the right time.”
Danny Sebright, president of the US-UAE Business Council, said as the world and the Middle East grappled with the scourge of violent extremism, the centre could be a tipping point in efforts to offer alternative messages to youth and others swayed by terrorists.
“The UAE is to be applauded for its leadership role in working with others in the region and the US to spearhead this timely and vital effort,” he said.
More information can be found at www.sawabcenter.org and @SawabCenter on Twitter.