It is campaign season; which of course means many people talking about public policy issues, very few of them being actual experts.  A report recently noted that media coverage of the economy during the first quarter of 2016 only included commentary by one economist.  We recently did something that might seem a little strange to the political world – we got a group of experts in peace, conflict, and terrorism together and actually asked them how violent extremism should be countered. The results may surprise you.

Starting with opening video remarks by United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki Moon, and followed by DHS Secretary Johnson and Senator Cory Booker, the Countering Violent Extremism Symposium– hosted by the International Peace and Security Institute and Creative Associates International – gathered 380 experts.  Participants were from across the spectrum of peacebuilding, military, private sector, and terrorism prevention – from Special Operations Command to United Nations to Peacetech Lab.   What we learned from the experts captured what Secretary Johnson meant when he said, “We can kill an enemy but not necessarily defeat an enemy.” 

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Several key points echoed throughout the two-day event. Here is what those experts said about efforts to prevent support for groups like ISIS:

No one is born a terrorist.  People don’t become terrorists because of religion or innate evil, and most individuals turn to terrorism because of some community-based affliction. Symposium experts were virtually unanimous in citing human rights violations, political marginalization, lack of good governance, and systematic barriers to economic opportunities as the primary drivers of radicalization to violence. We must recognize extremism is fueled through disenfranchisement and exclusion of populations in their home communities, not that they were born evil. Now, that does not mean that community-based affliction somehow justifies extremist actions that target civilians for political reasons: certainly, individuals joining groups like ISIS expressing barbaric and tragic behavior may already be too far gone. Our focus should be working towards inclusive governance and human rights, thus preventing the next ISIS. As the participant from Amnesty International noted, countering the next generation of terrorist recruits means “making a safe place for dissent… built from the ground up and with civil liberties at its heart.”

We know what works, but we need more data to prove it.  There have been a range of activities, particularly since 2011, that have aimed at reaching out to disenfranchised communities, creating economic opportunities, and countering the message of groups like ISIS.  However, many of these programs have not been properly funded nor adequately designed, and given their role straddling different sectors, it is difficult – and expensive – to gather comprehensive enough data to prove when programs are effective.  The experts agreed that new efforts be based in evidence, which includes  collection and sharing of data across silos and agencies. That data must move also beyond Washington-driven lessons learned discussions and papers and rather turn into feasible and practical program designs, metrics, and tools. The good news is that many in the peacebuilding and international development community already are bridging this data gap by researching and creating practitioner tools that help map, measure, and implement programs for vulnerable communities. Just as we invest in medical science to collect data in order to prevent supplying incorrect prescriptions, the same investment is needed to better tackle the political and social root causes of extremism. There is an eager development and peacebuilding community ready to help design the metrics of effective prevention programs, if only Congress or donors will provide the resources to do so. As one of your authors, Ryan, noted during his Symposium presentation for the impl. project, our industry is thirsty for “a data revolution.”

The pace of recruitment to violent movements far outpaces the resources we put forth to prevent it.  ISIS is spreading its message through brutal content that becomes viral and is reaching a huge number of people through social media.  A recent University of Maryland study noted a precipitous drop in the time it takes an individual in the United States to radicalize to a terrorist cause: on average, it took about a year and a half in 2002, dropping to less than 10 months last year.  The experts at the Symposium were overwhelmingly skeptical that military action like airstrikes will create any sort of long-term solution, with ISIS members killed only replaced by new recruits.  Yet, with the current counter-ISIS military campaign costing taxpayers $11.6 million per day, activities to prevent the radicalization process are similarly funded - only not per day, but alarmingly over the course of an entire year.  During the Symposium, Secretary Johnson proudly shared that DHS will have program funding for prevention activities for the first time, costing approximately $10 million total.  The State Department received significantly more funding this year for terrorism activities, but Congress chose to earmark the funds for support to law enforcement overseas, not for the boost in engaging governance, livelihoods, and outreach to marginalized communities that will break the cycle of terrorist recruitment.  Vice President Biden is famous for quoting his father, “Don't tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value.”  Listening to the experts, it seems like we need to better align the two.

There is cause for optimism, however.  For one, that there are a wide variety of patriots who have dedicated their lives to the effort of forging holistic approaches to preventing extremism .  In fact, the Countering Violent Extremism Symposium garnered over 4 million Twitter impressions in three days.  Now, to be clear, that includes when ISIL supporters used our hashtag to troll us, but, to channel an old West Wing quote:  if they’re shooting at you, you’re doing something right.  If our message is bothering ISIL enough to harass us, we are onto something. The tweets captured a range of issues urging policymakers to look to the role of political freedom and inclusion, livelihood support, mental health assistance, vulnerable youth programming, public-private partnerships, and leveraging data and evidence in prevention approaches. 

However, to accomplish these efforts, funding is shockingly scarce – a recent report shows private foundations invest only six percent of charitable funding to such violence prevention activities, and from the government standpoint, only six percent of funds to counter terrorism go to the diplomatic and development communities, under eight percent of which are used for prevention efforts.  As Congress considers the upcoming budget, and presidential campaigns begin to outline platforms, we and our colleagues are keeping a close eye on the priority given to prevention efforts, and whether the action will match the rhetoric.

Because when it comes to countering the next ISIS, a holistic prevention approach works.  We know – we asked the experts.


Kevin Melton is a Senior Advisor for the International Peace and Security Institute and a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project.  Kevin formerly served for USAID in Afghanistan.

Ryan B. Greer is CEO of Vasa Strategies, a countering violent extremism consultancy, and Deputy Executive Director of the impl. project, an international development non-profit.  Ryan is also a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project.  Ryan formerly served as a Policy Advisor in the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau, addressing ISIS and related issues.