Lone-wolves in the UAE: the blueprint of an evolving threat

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On December 1st, a single assailant turned global attention to the security situation in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). An Emirati woman stabbed and killed an American school teacher in the female bathroom of the Boutik shopping mall[i]. What appeared to be a violent criminal attack has in fact been dubbed by local security officials a ‘lone terrorist act’[ii]. The perpetrator had also conducted reconnaissance in the area of the personal residence of an American doctor residing in Abu Dhabi and placed a low-grade explosive device in front of his home. The makeshift bomb did not detonate[iii].  The school teacher and the doctor were explicitly targeted because of their nationality. Since then, the perpetrator of these terrorist acts has been detained by local security forces, while the foreign ministries of the United Kingdom and the United States warned their citizens to exercise heightened caution in the country.

The December 1st attack came as a shock to foreigners in the UAE and to Emirati nationals since the country has so far been spared from lone-wolf attacks. In addition, authorities managed to foil organized attempts to destabilize the local security situation. However, the dramatic event that unfolded in Abu Dhabi marks an evolution of the threat posed to the overall operating and living environment in the UAE and more generally in the Gulf. This comes against the backdrop of an ever-strengthening anti-terrorist posture taken by the Emirati government. In fact, following the 1996 and 2001[iv] period during which the country maintained an ambivalent stance by recognizing Sunni extremist movement like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the UAE took a leading role in the regional and global fight against Islamist terrorist movements. This evolution toward a pro-active military and security role in the region was embodied by the operations led by Major Mariam al-Mansouri, the Emirati fighter pilot who conducted air combat operations against the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IS) in September 2014[v]. The UAE’s position in the fight against IS and international radical Islamist movements has ultimately resulted in the implementation of the Federal Law n°7 in November 2014 that led to the definition of a list of 85 organizations based in the UAE, the Middle East, Europe and the United States as terrorist groups sent a clear signal. This legislative move effectively bans all financial and logistical support by Emirati nationals and companies as well as and people residing and institutions based in the Emirates to organizations classified as terrorist groups. Emirati authorities are determined to conduct a far-reaching fight against all those providing financial, political and operational support to Sunni extremist groups[vi].

As the Emirati policy is evolving, threats posed to the country’s security environment are also being reshaped. The attack in Abu Dhabi is part of a current trend of fragmentation concerning terrorist actors. This trend has recently been exemplified by attacks in Canada, France and Australia.

The most publicized terrorist plot against the UAE dates back to 2009. More than 45 suspects were arrested for allegedly wanting to target the world’s tallest tower, Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The suspects were allegedly linked to Iranian operatives[vii]. While large-scale plots may still represent an underlying threat in the country, local and international public and private authorities assessed that December’s killing and failed bombing are the mark of the most pressing security issue faced by foreigners and nationals alike in the UAE. In fact, this new wave of small-scale attacks is inspired by the call issued by Abu Mohammed al-Adnani[viii], spokesperson of IS, rather than the bypassed theories linked to spectacular attacks delimited in al-Zawahari’s Knights under the Prophet’s Banner. In September 2014, al-Adnani did not call for massive terrorist attacks but exhorted IS followers and supporters to conduct numerous small-scale murders of Western personnel throughout the world as possible. This marked a clear understanding of the strategic environment in which IS is operating: a single murder can act as an exponential amplifier of the perceived reach of the Syria and Iraq based organization.

For the UAE, this comes as a nerve-wracking development. In fact, the country has made some accommodations with respect to its political, financial and social environment without compromising Islamic values in making it attractive for foreign investment. As a consequence, the UAE is renowned as a regional and global commercial hub. This has led the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi to become areas in the Gulf with an unparalleled amount of Western, Iranian and Asiatic interests placed side by side. In light of the most recent developments, the cultural and economic richness of the UAE may become the country’s weakness in the current international effort against IS as it offers a plethora of potential targets both in Dubai and Abu Dhabi that may attract the attention of lone-wolf attackers. Given the fact that the country built its success on political stability and security for all its residents, even the smallest incidents are likely to exponentially affect the way global actors perceive the local operating environment. In addition, outside the financial and political hubs of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, areas in Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah and in al-Ain have large Shiite minorities leading to the risk of future attacks staged by IS sympathizers against Shiite religious and social assets, such as leisure clubs and educational structures. Any sectarian motivated attack would be a potential trigger for further speculations over the political stability of the country.

The incidents in Abu Dhabi are part of a wider trend of lone-wolf terror attacks in the Gulf followed by the failed assassination attempt of a Danish national in Riyadh on November 22nd [ix] that was claimed by the IS. Single Sunni extremist elements are assessed as one among the most imminent threats to foreign operations in the UAE and throughout the Gulf region. The implications of this evolution are twofold. On the one hand, it highlights the need for local intelligence and security services to adapt their current posture. In fact, while foreign operatives should still be monitored as a potential threat to the UAE, internal security measures should be privileged in order to facilitate intelligence gathering targeting local extremists and to implement tighter prevention measures. On the other hand, there exists a dire need for the expatriate community to consistently revise its security measures in the country and remain appraised of the latest developments in regard to the terrorist threat. While the current threat level remains low, the risk of further attacks is present and warrants additional mitigation measures.


[i] The Guardian, “Abu Dhabi stabbing: female suspect arrested in murder of American teacher”, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/04/abu-dhabi-stabbing-suspect-arrested

[ii] ABC News, “UAE : stabbing of US teacher a ‘lone terrorist act“,

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/04/abu-dhabi-stabbing-suspect-arrested

[iii] GulfNews, “Abu Dhabi bomb threat : Doctor recounts ordeal“,

http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/crime/abu-dhabi-bomb-threat-doctor-recounts-ordeal-1.1422974

[iv] The Times of India, “Recognizing Taliban govt in Afghanistan was blunder: Musharraf”,

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Recognizing-Taliban-govt-in-Afghanistan-was-blunder-Musharraf/articleshow/45380308.cms

[v] The National, “UAE’s female fighter pilote leads airstrikes against ISIL”,

http://www.thenational.ae/uae/government/uaes-female-fighter-pilot-leads-airstrikes-against-isil

[vi] Gulf News, ”UAE sends clear signal on fighting terrorism”,

http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/government/uae-sends-clear-signal-on-fighting-terrorism-1.1415740

[vii] Ynet News, “Wave of arrests follow plot to blow up Dubai tower“,

http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3777251,00.html

[viii] The Independent, “ISIS urges more attacks on Western ‘disbelievers’“,

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-urges-more-attacks-on-western-disbelievers-9749512.html

[ix] Reuters, “Islamic State followers say they were behind Riyadh shooting“,

http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/12/02/us-saudi-security-idUSKCN0JG0AF20141202

Photo credit: ABU DHABI POLICE

About Author

Riccardo Dugulin

Riccardo Dugulin is a contributor at the International Security Observer. Riccardo is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in high threat areas by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. He is bilingual in Italian and French, fluent in English, he has a working knowledge of Spanish and an elementary knowledge of Arabic and Russian.

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