There are better ways to fight radicalization than tweets and travel bans
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Last June, I stood on the sidelines of a community field under a bridge as young boys played soccer in Vilvoorde, Belgium, a small village outside of Brussels. The young people on the field were normal teenagers who were thinking about future jobs, balancing homework and sports, and complaining about parents and siblings. It could have been any soccer field in the U.S.  

After meeting with local officials, I was surprised to learn that Vilvoorde at one point had an unusually high rate of foreign terrorist fighters traveling to the conflict in Iraq and Syria, and that the bridge above this field had been a primary recruitment venue.  


Who were the people traveling to these conflict zones and how were they inspired to do so? How do we prevent individuals, particularly young people, from radicalizing to become terrorists? And with a new administration beginning, how can President Trump and his national security team ensure their policies and rhetoric — including tweets — are advancing our counterterrorism objectives?


For years, I worked on national security policies in the most secure offices at the White House, rarely moving outside of the presidential bubble during foreign travel. Being in a community like Vilvoorde was a new experience for me. Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryA presidential candidate pledge can right the wrongs of an infamous day Equilibrium/Sustainability — Dam failures cap a year of disasters Four environmental fights to watch in 2022 MORE had recently appointed me to serve as the first U.S. diplomat focused on a relatively new component of counterterrorism policy: countering violent extremism (CVE). I was charged with developing and executing this policy, and learning as much as I could about what triggers and spreads violent extremism.

This was no easy task: the radicalization process is complex, and experts around the world are working to better understand it. The available research cites many potential factors that lead to radicalization, including segregation, a lack of career and educational opportunities, discrimination, among others — all of which are exploited by recruiters from the Islamic State and other such organizations.  

The young people I spoke with in Vilvoorde noted that friends, family members and acquaintances who had been radicalized and had traveled to Syria and Iraq had listed racial segregation in Belgium, the banning of religious clothing, and aggressive police tactics like unwarranted arrests or searches as some of their justifications for doing so.

Of course, these concerns are shared by many young men and women, but why are some radicalized and recruited while most are not? In Vilvoorde, before the soccer field was built, a top terrorist recruiter was often seen bringing young people together to exploit these concerns in “religious” lectures, ultimately recruiting a number of them to fight.  

As we know all too well, recruiters also exploit the Internet and social media platforms to convince young people to join the Islamic State and similar organizations in order to leave behind perceived wrongs in their home society and fight for an “honorable” cause in Syria and Iraq. I saw these same scenarios play out across Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Since 2015, the United States has made it a priority to figuring out what it takes to prevent individuals around the world from becoming terrorists in the first place. We needed to better understand the factors leading people to violent extremism – no two neighborhoods or individuals are the same — through enhanced research efforts. 

After identifying these unique local factors, we needed to develop programs that could help communities, including parents, teachers, local leaders, law-enforcement and civil society groups, prevent radicalization in the first instance or intervene if an individual was already going down that terrible path.

Of course, these programs were different in each location. In Kenya, I visited a program run by a civil society organization that helped young men and women who had begun the radicalization process, but wanted to reintegrate into society before it was too late. This organization provided counseling services for jobs and education. In exchange for this assistance, the individuals were required to renounce violence and be accountable to officials. 

In Germany, a country with a long history of right-wing extremism, a civil society organization established a counseling hotline for families to contact if they suspected a loved one was being radicalized and needed help. This gave families an alternative to immediately notifying law-enforcement, which they were often reluctant to contact since it could result in arrest even if a crime had not been committed.  

In a number of European cities, local police improved their relationships with the communities they served by better understanding cultural norms and building trust with the citizens. In each case, collaboration between government, civil society and citizens was critical – a whole-of-community approach to rooting out radicalization to violence.

Violent extremism is a unique foreign policy challenge because it often begins as a community-level problem and cannot be addressed easily through traditional diplomatic channels. As a result, a significant component of the U.S. CVE diplomatic strategy has been to convince other national governments and the UN to prioritize this threat internally. Additionally, the U.S. has helped established initiatives that foster partnerships between state and local governments and civil society organizations in order to share best practices. Given the local nature of CVE, we need diverse international partners more than ever.

One of the principal reasons the United States has been successful at galvanizing international attention to and action on violent extremism is the credibility we have from our long-held values and legal system. When I would meet with European, African or Middle Eastern counterparts to discuss how we saw an issue and what solutions we recommended, my counterparts knew that my advice was grounded in our fundamental principles of human rights and the rule of law.

President Trump and his team have an opportunity to advance and strengthen our counterterrorism strategy, including CVE policies, but the administration needs to be thoughtful and careful about its approach. 

To continue to be effective on CVE diplomacy, the administration should take the following three steps: First, ensure our domestic and foreign policies reflect our national values, so we can have the strongest diplomatic case possible when urging other governments to change their sensitive policies related to counterterrorism and violent extremism. 

President Trump’s recent immigration executive order was a step in the wrong direction.  In addition to sending the wrong message about our values, it may also inspire other governments to take similarly unhelpful actions.  Second, rhetoric matters.  Americans may view some tweets from the White House as bluster, but people around the world take the U.S. President at his word.  Phrases like “radical Islamic terrorism” only add fuel to the fire.  At the end of the day, we must focus on results and not contentious rhetoric.  

Third, the administration should demand that Congress commit new resources to preventing violent extremism and terrorism around the world. We need to identify the root causes of violent extremism, develop innovative community programs to mitigate the threat, lead an international coalition to implement these programs, and develop clear metrics to measure success.  

If President Trump doubles down on countering radicalization and recruitment to violence, we could have more kids around the world learning, thinking about their futures, and playing soccer, rather than paying any attention to ISIL and organizations like it.  That would be an important achievement.

Michael R. Ortiz (@MichaelROrtiz) is a former senior advisor to national security adviser Susan E. Rice and deputy counterterrorism coordinator at the Department of State.

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