Expressions of hostility towards the West across the Middle East and North Africa are likely to persist into 2024, but the impact of actions will probably be low
This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 27 November 2023.
- Regional hostility from the public, activists and militant groups appears to largely focus on the US, the UK, France and Germany
- Harassment of Western travellers to the region will probably remain rare, but vandalism of Western diplomatic and commercial interests during protests in the coming months is likely
Public expressions of anti-West sentiment across the Middle East and North Africa are very likely to remain visible and widespread into 2024. Such hostility currently appears overwhelmingly focused on the US and, to a lesser extent, the UK, France and Germany. Based on our monitoring of regional press, social media and conversations with contacts in several countries, public opinion is near-unanimous in its opposition to these countries for their perceived ‘unconditional’ support for Israel.
Attacks against Western nationals and organisations will probably remain uncommon. But we anticipate acts of violence targeting some Western interests, particularly in Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkiye during protests and by armed groups are probable over the coming months. And so too are continued calls for boycotts of a growing list of Western brands.
Travel risks to remain mostly low
We do not anticipate a rise in xenophobia against Americans and Europeans; harassment of Western travellers to the region will probably remain rare. This is largely because the recent resurfacing of anti-West hostility appears to be focused on Western establishment (government and media) support for Israel. Still, even before the latest Gaza war, there have been incidents of Westerners being harassed (verbally and physically) over specific issues, such as Palestinian rights, as well as free speech and religion in Turkiye and Iraq.
Physical attacks targeting Jewish travellers by Islamist-inspired extremists in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco are probable over the coming months, as has been the case in Egypt and Tunisia since October. For example, hundreds of pro-Palestine protesters, reportedly chanting Islamist slogans, set fire to a historic Jewish site in the Tunisian city of Al Hammah on 17 October. Entrenched anti-semitism and widespread association of any Jewish person with the state of Israel means such attacks are also probable in places like Morocco, where there is a small Jewish community.
Pro-Iran militias in Iraq are likely to be particularly motivated to kidnap US nationals; our kidnap risk level for Iraq is severe. Pro-Iran militias in Iraq have mounted rocket and drone attacks against US military bases since the Gaza war began and will very probably continue to do so. There have also been several cases of these groups kidnapping Americans in response to actions by the US government. Most of these have occurred in central and southern Iraq, particularly in Baghdad’s southern districts. While the primary targets are usually US diplomats and soldiers, there have been examples of civilians being misidentified as officials or military personnel in the past.
Established grievances to resurface
Such hostility is not new. There are established entrenched and widespread public grievances aimed at the US for its military actions in the region and other Muslim-majority countries. Animosity towards the UK and France is due to their past colonial role in the region, particularly their policies that facilitated the establishment of Israel in 1948. However, tourism, high levels of migration to Europe and the US, and cultural exchange over the years mean much of this sentiment has usually only surfaced during global events such as the war in Gaza, but also issues relating to free speech and religion.
Still, we have noticed that regional anti-West sentiment has probably reached its highest level for decades. US Embassies in the region appear to share this view. A diplomatic cable published by CNN on 10 November claims US Embassies have warned that ‘[Israel’s actions in Gaza are] losing us Arab publics for a generation’. And although US missions have issued similar warnings in the past, such as in 2018 when Donald Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, recent public anger seems also to be directed at other Western countries, such as the UK, France and Germany.
To help clients build a clearer picture we have identified a number of countries where we assess the risk of anti-West hostility is particularly pronounced. These are shown in the table below. These countries were selected based on our assessment of the baseline level of anti-West sentiment, past incidents targeting US and European people/businesses, and the presence of Israeli (and Jewish) interests.
A detailed explanation of the methodology behind our terrorism threat can be found on our platform. The other indicators in this table derive from our monitoring of the region, our experience there, and from publicly available opinion polls over the past few years.
In our assessment, the currently high intensity of anti-West feelings across the region will probably peter out after the conflict in Gaza ends. This is because the current situation appears to be directly tied to the conflict. However, it seems to have reached a new high in several countries in the region, namely Egypt and Jordan. This will probably mean the intensity of anti-West feelings would resurface quicker during future global and local events involving Western countries.
Misinformation inflaming already angry populations
Much of the recent opposition to the West appears to be driven by genuine support for Palestinians. But it is very likely being inflamed by mis- and disinformation campaigns online. A UK-based online investigative service has claimed that on several occasions, it has concluded that false reports about events of the conflict on the ground online are being pushed by pro-Iran and pro-Russian groups in English and Arabic. The extent of these campaigns has led some major Western media companies to inadvertently use false footage in their reporting. We have also seen regional online Islamist accounts sharing images from other conflicts claiming them to be events in Gaza.
These false reports have a high potential to motivate people across the region to protest at short notice. This is especially the case after high-casualty incidents in Gaza, regardless of whether that information has been confirmed. This was the case on 17 October when an explosion at Gaza hospital prompted hundreds of thousands of people to protest across the region, despite conflicting information about who was behind the attack.
False or misleading reporting on alleged Israeli atrocities against civilians in Gaza and the West Bank, and the use of footage from other conflicts (such as the war in Syria) being presented as images from Gaza would be the most likely content to prompt spontaneous protests in the coming weeks and months.
Violence against diplomatic and military sites
We assess that US, UK, French, and German embassies (in descending order) will likely continue to face a high threat of violent attacks into 2024. This is in line with our forecast for the conflict in Gaza, which we anticipate will continue for two more months at least. As has been the case since October, most attacks will probably involve opportunistic vandalism during protests tied to events in Gaza. But in Iraq, pro-Iran groups have launched rockets at the US embassy in Baghdad on several occasions in the past.
Countries where we assess there to be a high likelihood of violence targeting Western diplomatic missions during protests (in alphabetical order):
The conflict in Gaza also appears to be motivating jihadists and sympathisers to recruit and carry out acts of violence against Western interests. France, Germany and the UK, among others, have warned of a heightened risk of terrorist attacks across the region, including in Gulf countries, where the terrorism threat level is generally low or moderate. There have also been calls for such attacks by various jihadist groups. For instance, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State (IS) have issued several statements since October, calling on followers in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to ‘stand up to support [their] brothers’.
Islamist militants would be most likely to try to target Israeli (and Jewish) and US interests. The former is most notably present in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, the UAE and Turkiye. Diplomatic sites and staff from countries perceived as being close allies of Israel, such as Germany and France, are also at risk of being attacked by extremists, most likely in a stabbing or shooting. Some perpetrators will probably have direct links with extremist groups, although it is equally likely that others will be unaffiliated. In Egypt on 8 October, a police officer killed two Israeli tourists and their Egyptian guide in Alexandria.
Commercial interests targeted by protests and boycotts
Some protesters in the region also appear intent on attacking US businesses. Based on recent and past incidents, people will probably mostly target retail and food sites during protests. This is largely because most online boycott campaigns have focused on suppliers of consumer goods rather than services. As such, most attacks are likely to continue to be spontaneous and opportunistic. On several occasions this month, shop fronts of prominent brands were vandalised in Beirut and Istanbul, regardless of local franchise ownership.
Countries where we assess there to be a high risk of Western commercial interests being attacked (in alphabetical order):
Online calls for boycotts of Western brands (mostly US) perceived to be supportive of Israel will probably continue into 2024. But we doubt these will have a significant impact on the operations and distribution of Western products across the region. This is largely due to the lack of locally-produced alternatives for many consumer products.
Although we have seen online campaigns promoting local goods, such campaigns are not new in the region and often resurface during conflicts in Gaza and other issues. We have also not seen any evidence that activists have previously attempted to target production facilities or the transportation of goods.
While limited, calls for anti-West boycotts are likely to gain most traction in Turkiye, Algeria, and Tunisia. This is largely due to the availability of domestic products as alternatives, particularly in Turkiye and Algeria. But also because there is a strong precedent for boycott campaigns led by civil society groups and encouraged at a state level in these countries. The Turkish parliament this month banned serving Coca-Cola products over MPs’ perception of the company’s support for Israel. The Algerian government has previously cut trade with countries during diplomatic spats. And in Tunisia, parliament is debating a bill that would criminalise dealings with Israel.
Direct actions – such as sit-ins or disrupting supply chains– against Western brands by civil society groups remain plausible during the conflict in Gaza. But they do not appear likely. This is largely because such actions in general are rare in the Middle East and North Africa. But also because we have not seen evidence of a coordinated regional direct action or boycott campaign emerging. So far these have been organised and promoted at a local level, with the Palestinian BDS (boycott, divest and sanction) National Committee mostly dictating which brands are ‘supporting’ Israel.
Image: An Iranian demonstrator holds an anti-Israeli placard during a rally in front of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, marking the 44th anniversary of the seizure of the US embassy by militant Iranian students. Photo by Hossein Beris/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images.