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CAIRO – This week's revelations about the CIA's harsh treatment of terror suspects in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks have been met with a collective shrug in the broader Middle East, where they merely reinforced a long-held view of American brutality rooted in decades of conflict.
The Senate Intelligence Committee report's revelations about the CIA's post-9/11 detention and interrogation program shocked Americans and reopened debate over waterboarding and other practices widely seen as torture. In the region from which nearly all of the targets of such methods hailed, the U.S. has warned of demonstrations or attacks in response to the report's findings — but nothing immediately materialized.
Here are a few reasons.
For many in the Middle East, the report merely fleshed out the brutal images of America's War on Terror from a decade earlier — the rows of orange-suited inmates at Guantanamo Bay and the naked detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, huddled before snarling dogs and stacked in crude human pyramids.
"Arabs were angry about U.S. torture in Iraq 10 years ago, so if anything this seems rather quaint, that the Americans are having a real public debate about this 10 years after the fact," said Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy.
"This seems like run-of-the-mill stuff in the sense that this is what people expect of the U.S. They would be surprised if it wasn't the case, and that's a product of years of deep anti-American sentiment," he said.
Abu Ghraib stoked outrage in part because the abuse there was captured in vivid images that were plastered across the covers of every major newspaper. The staid language of the Senate Report is less explosive, and the descriptions of prisoners being waterboarded or confined to stress positions seems less shocking in a region awash in horrific online images of beheadings and bombings in Syria and Iraq.
Over the long term, the report could feed into recruiting efforts by jihadi groups, which have long used abuses at Guantanamo Bay as a rallying cry. The Islamic State group, for example, dressed its victims in Guantanamo-style orange jumpsuits when it beheaded a string of Western hostages in recent months. Already, the militant-monitoring SITE Intel Group reported several jihadi sympathizers tweeting calls for retaliation in reaction to the Senate report.
THOSE IN GLASS GUARD TOWERS
Arab governments might have been expected to seize on the report, but their reaction too was muted. That's in part because many U.S. allies in the region were directly complicit in the rendition and interrogation programs. Also, nearly all Arab governments have long employed similar brutality against their own political prisoners.
"Clearly everyone's disgusted by it, and I'm sure the extremists will leap on it as evidence of American perfidy," said Theodore Karasik, a regional expert who serves as senior adviser to Dubai-based Risk Insurance Management. "But at the same time it's serving as a moment of self-reflection in the region ... about how these kind of measures are used by particular states, which has been ongoing for decades."
In Syria, where tens of thousands of people have disappeared into prisons where rights groups say torture is endemic, the Senate report made the front page of the ruling Baath party's newspaper but was buried inside other dailies. In Egypt, which has jailed thousands of Islamists and other activists in the wake of last summer's overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi, local press coverage was focused more on a recent closure of Western embassies than the findings of the report.
At least one leader, newly-elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, spoke out against the "shocking" violations documented in the report. "The Afghan government condemns in the strongest language the inhuman and unjustifiable practices detailed in the report," he said in a press conference.
But his decision to speak out says as much about today's Afghanistan as that of 13 years ago, when U.S. and allied forces snatched dozens of suspects, many of whom later wound up in the secret prisons described in the Senate report.
Ghani, who faces a virulent Taliban insurgency, has signed security agreements to keep U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan past the official conclusion of the 13-year combat mission on Dec. 31. His political survival depends on convincing his increasingly fractured country that the brutality described in the Senate report is a thing of the past.
The Bush administration, its War on Terror and the 2003 invasion of Iraq ignited fury across the region and left a legacy of deep mistrust among Arabs and Muslims. But in the years since President George W. Bush left office, the region has been convulsed by Arab Spring protests, a bloodbath in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State group, which has gleefully released photos and videos of massacres far bloodier than anything in the Senate report.
Egypt is today engaged in its own "War on Terror," the slogan pro-government media have adopted to describe its fight against jihadi insurgents in the Sinai Peninsula and its sweeping crackdown on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. Syria has invoked similar language to describe its fight against rebels, and Iraq to describe its war on Sunni militants, including the Islamic State group. Gulf states have unveiled or expanded their own lists of groups banned for terrorism, which not only include al-Qaida and the IS group, but also the Muslim Brotherhood and more moderate Islamist organizations.
The United States for its part abandoned the practice of apprehending terror suspects and flying them around the world to secret prisons. Nowadays U.S. drones strike them from the air in places like Pakistan and Yemen, where such attacks have killed civilians and stoked far more discontent than the findings of the Senate probe.
Associated Press writers Adam Schreck in Dubai and Lynne O'Donnell in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this report.