9/11 Commission leaders: Time for a new strategy to stop spread of violent extremism

9/11 Commission leaders: Time for a new strategy to stop spread of violent extremism
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After nearly two decades, the global fight against terrorism has reached a critical phase.

The eviction of the Islamic State from territory it once held in Iraq and Syria and the beginning of negotiations in Afghanistan are significant achievements. Yet these tactical victories should not be construed as strategic success. We are defeating terrorists, but extremism thrives.

To declare victory now would only condemn us to repeat history – sending our troops to fight in foreign lands when the terrorist threat resurfaces. And resurface it will. Despite the courage and skill of our military, intelligence, diplomatic, and development professionals, since 2001, the number of Salafi-jihadist groups has more than doubled; their membership has tripled; and they are present in more countries than ever.

To stop endless wars and to protect America a new approach is needed – one that seeks to prevent extremism from taking root in the first place by addressing the conditions that enable it to spread.

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To address this need, Congress tasked the U.S. Institute of Peace to “develop a comprehensive plan to prevent the underlying causes of extremism in fragile states.” We were honored to lead this effort. We worked with a bipartisan Task Force comprised of fifteen talented foreign policy and private sector professionals. All of us understand the importance of the problem as well as the difficulty of a solution.

Our principal recommendation is both simple and daunting: we need a high-level political commitment to prevention. Our goal should not be to topple governments or install new ones, but to strengthen vulnerable states and societies so that they can better defend themselves. Open-ended military intervention and nation-building are neither effective nor sustainable. Prevention is a counterterrorism policy for the long haul. 

The challenge is not that we lack the tools for preventing extremism. We have capabilities and expertise spread across the government. Rather, our past efforts have been disjointed, piecemeal, and lacking in urgency. To successfully get ahead of the extremist threat, we must align, coordinate and prioritize prevention.

First, we must bring to an end political disagreements over the nature of terrorism. Nearly two decades of research and experience make clear that, while the specific factors that drive individuals to violence vary widely, extremism is fundamentally a political, economic, and ideological challenge. Extremists’ attempts, in the Middle East and Africa, to establish an absolutist state ruled by a rigid and twisted interpretation of Islam resonate most in societies where the existing state has failed its people.

Stopping extremists from exploiting grievances, provoking instability, and establishing themselves in fragile states thus requires strengthening and reforging the contract between citizens and their government. This, however, is not a task for the U.S.. Rather the U.S. should adopt a government-wide focus on identifying, encouraging, and building partnerships with leaders in fragile states – nationally and locally, in government and civil society, with women, youth, and the private sector – who are committed to improving the political conditions in their states and societies.

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Second, building and sustaining such partnerships, particularly in environments as challenging as fragile states, will require coordinated engagement. That is why we recommend that Congress should authorize and fund, and the Executive Branch implement, a Strategic Prevention Initiative to give U.S. agencies the resources, and authorities they need to operationalize this shared framework for the long haul. In particular, government agencies would benefit from a clearer division of responsibility, more flexible-longer term funding and robust efforts to ensure that all assistance, including security cooperation, is aligned with efforts to address extremism.

Finally, the U.S. need not – and should not – shoulder the burden of preventing extremism alone. Other countries are also menaced by the continued spread of extremism and are spending significant resources to confront the threat. We should ensure that these efforts are coordinated in pursuit of the same objectives. Therefore, we recommend that the U.S. use its unparalled convening power to launch a Partnership Development Fund, a vehicle to rally and align international political support and resources behind a prevention strategy.

With this strategy in place, rather than create dependent clients, we can strengthen the sovereignty of weak states and the resilience of vulnerable communities so they can withsatand extremist onslaughts. If we help leaders govern inclusively, empower women, and create opportunities for youth, the next time the Islamic State attempts to establish a caliphate, it will be the people, and not our troops, who will turn them away.

This is the right moment for a new approach. The Islamic State’s weakening creates an opportunity to get ahead of the threat; an opportunity we must seize. We must not only defeat today’s terrorists but also alleviate the conditions that spawn tomorrow’s. Our policy should be prevention. Our future security depends on it.

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.