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9/11 Commission leaders: Turning the tide on extremism in fragile states

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Act (HR 5273) with a large majority but little fanfare. Buried under news about party and committee leadership races, the legislation signals an important bipartisan consensus on the need for a different approach to tackling some of our most pressing national security challenges.

Over a decade and a half ago, as chairs of the 9/11 Commission, we called for a strategy that would prevent the creation of a new generation of terrorists, in addition to safeguarding the homeland and defeating organized terrorist groups. Nearly 20 years later, we are still waiting for both this strategy and necessary preventive actions.

Our nation has devoted trillions of dollars to protecting the homeland and confronting insurgencies since 9/11, yet the threat of violent extremism to the U.S. is greater than ever before. Violence has increased, and new generations of terrorists have emerged in fragile states across the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. In these fragile states — many of which lack adequate governance, effective and responsible security forces, and other basic services — extremist groups are easily able to recruit fighters, hide out and, worse still, capture and hold territory.

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The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) grew out of fragile states. Although it has lost much of the territory it once held, thousands of active foreign terrorist fighters remain in Iraq and Syria. ISIS is also capitalizing on local insurgencies and aligning with other terrorist groups across the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. Extremist groups have now spread to 19 of the 45 countries in these regions and, for the foreseeable future, terrorism will continue to pose a threat to regional and international security.

Congress has recognized the urgent need for a comprehensive, strategic approach to preventing the scourge of terrorism in fragile states. That’s why, in 2017, it called on a group of experts to take on this challenge. Having called for such a strategy in the 9/11 Report, we are now leading the effort to deliver it through the bipartisan Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States, supported by the U.S. Institute of Peace.

We are encouraged by the bipartisan thinking that Congress has dedicated to confronting extremist threats, including new policy approaches such as the Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Act and the recently passed 2018 BUILD Act (S.2463), which helps mobilize private investment to fuel growth in fragile states.

The Task Force released its preliminary report on September 11 of this year, calling for a new approach to prevent the spread of extremism in fragile states. It is now devising specific proposals to put a preventive strategy into place.

We have identified five key elements of a successful strategy to reduce fragility and violence.

  • First, any strategy must be comprehensive, including top-down and bottom-up approaches to strengthen resilience and reinforce successful approaches:
  • It must be contextual, shaped by the context in which it is applied.
  • We have found that strategies are successful when they are committed; with long-term engagement that holds partners to account but enables us to walk away from those that do not share our determination.
  • We have found that too often U.S. interventions have differing objectives, making coherence across such endeavors essential to their success.
  • Finally, these approaches must be coordinated, across U.S. government initiatives and with international partners and the private sector.

Our Task Force’s final report, to be released in February, will present a strategy that puts these five elements into practice. We believe this strategy can form the backbone of a re-imagined approach to countering violent extremism in fragile states — an approach defined by careful prioritization, shared frameworks for action, and effective partnerships.

The report will outline a holistic approach for effectively addressing and solving today’s global security challenges.

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Rather than reinvent the wheel — and because time is of the essence — it will complement bipartisan approaches like those in the Global Fragility and Violence and BUILD Acts. It will also build upon existing measures adopted by policymakers in Washington and our allies abroad, including the White House National Strategy for Counterterrorism; State-USAID-DOD Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR), which promotes interagency coordination in stabilizing conflict-affected areas; UN Pathways to Peace Report, which called on the World Bank and UN to support inclusive governance to reduce conflict; and a commitment by the World Bank for $14.9 billion in aid to fragile states.

To get ahead of the terrorist threat, it is imperative that we commit ourselves to preventing the conditions in which extremism festers. As key U.S. security partners face sustained and growing challenges to their stability, it is in America’s interest to adopt a new comprehensive, strategy that tackles these problems at their source.

Thomas H. Kean co-chairs the United States Institute of Peace Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States and the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Program. He served as governor of New Jersey from 1982 to 1990 and was the president of Drew University from 1990 to 2005. Kean also served as chairman of the 9/11 Commission from 2002 to 2004.

Lee H. Hamilton co-chairs the United States Institute of Peace Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States and the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Program. From 1965 to 1999, he served Indiana in the House of Representatives, where his chairmanships included the Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran. Hamilton also served as vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, which issued its report in 2004.