We must rebalance the State Department's lopsided counterterrorism strategy

We must rebalance the State Department's lopsided counterterrorism strategy
© Greg Nash

Debates on the role of the police in keeping communities safe and the value of shifting resources away from police departments towards community-based institutions have intensified dramatically in recent months. Foreign policy and international security experts should ask the same questions about global counterterrorism strategy. There is growing consensus in the United States on the need to end the “forever wars” in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Despite estimated expenditures of $6.4 trillion and successes in killing and capturing terrorists, the unfortunate reality is that the military-dominated approach that has characterized international counterterrorism efforts since 9/11 has not led to a reduced global terrorist threat. 

The number of Islamist extremist fighters in 2018 was 270 percent higher than in 2001, and,  according to the Global Terrorism Index of the Institute for Economics & Peace, 2018 was the “second worst year on record for the number of countries suffering at least one death” from terrorism. The COVID-19 crisis — which has killed more than 670,000 in less than seven months, compared with 15,292 terror-related deaths in all of 2018 — will require significant investment to address its devastating consequences on communities around the globe. Not only has the post-9/11 counterterrorism paradigm not reduced the global threat, its return on investment is too low to sustain in a COVID-19 world.   

A more cost-effective approach to addressing terrorism is long overdue. This requires investing more in diplomatic and developmental tools to address the causes, and not just manifestations, of violent extremism.  

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A recalibrated approach means investing more in local efforts to reduce young people’s susceptibility to recruitment and radicalization, and to rehabilitate and reintegrate people seeking to exit terrorist groups. Tactical counterterrorism cooperation with front-line states should no longer take priority over addressing human rights abuses, governance deficits and political repression in those countries; these exacerbate the very threat that cooperation is intended to diminish. And reforming U.S. counterterrorism policy must start with rebalancing resources, not only between the Departments of Defense and State, but also within the State Department, to enable the United States to better help countries move beyond securitized responses to terrorism.

Operationalizing this approach, with a more empowered State Department at the forefront, will require a president who promotes this vision and a Congress willing to resource it. For too long, Congress has continued to fund the same stale approach, appropriating counterterrorism-related foreign assistance that is overwhelmingly weighted to strengthening interior ministries and other security institutions in foreign countries.   

In fact, 95 percent of the State Department Counterterrorism Bureau’s fiscal year 2020 funding — nearly $322 million — can be spent only on capacity-building programs linked to law enforcement, a yearly amount that has remained remarkably consistent for a decade. These resources typically have been used to develop counterterrorism units in national police or interior ministries, establish specialized courts to try suspected terrorists, train border security officials, strengthen capacities to counter terrorist financing, and improve travel document security. 

For FY20, this leaves less than 5 percent ($15 million) for the Counterterrorism Bureau, in what is known as Economic and Support Funds (ESF), to enable community-led efforts to prevent terrorism. These scarce resources for supporting non-security actors are vastly insufficient to  meet the challenges of preventing violent extremism, interrupting radicalization, and rehabilitating and reintegrating former terrorists. (Although other parts of the State Department do receive limited funds for addressing violent extremism, the department’s Inspector General recently found they were not spent with goals of countering violent extremism.)

From its current capacity-building budget of more than $320 million, the Counterterrorism Bureau has been able to allocate only $1 million to help countries develop community-led programs to support the reintegration of ISIS family members returning from northeast Syria and those looking to exit terrorist groups. This resource imbalance undermines the promotion of non-securitized solutions to violent extremism with our foreign partners. 

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The Obama administration tried to correct this significant disparity. In 2016, it asked Congress to allow 50 percent of the State Department Counterterrorism Partnership Fund allocation to be spent on non-security oriented assistance to support critical community-led initiatives in front-line countries. Although some in Congress supported reform, the House rejected this request, insisting the entire allocation go to security projects. Nevertheless, in a supplemental appropriation that year, Congress gave the department a one-time, $50 million allocation for non-law enforcement-related programs to address the ISIS threat.  

Despite calls in its 2018 national counterterrorism strategy for developing an international prevention architecture, the Trump administration has shown no appetite for addressing the strategic counterterrorism funding imbalance, let alone giving greater attention to addressing the drivers of violent extremism.  

The need for a new approach to addressing violent extremist threats motivated the work of the 2019 USIP Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States, and some of its recommendations found their way into the Global Fragility Act (GFA) that became law last December. These initiatives rightly focus attention on the critical role of the State Department in implementing them, but neither focuses on counterterrorism policy and resources, and the current State Department counterterrorism officials have shown little appetite for participating in GFA implementation discussions. Further, neither addresses the massive resource imbalance within the State Department’s counterterrorism budget. 

Congress can help reform the State Department’s hyper security-orientated approach by fixing the resource disparity, starting by increasing the Counterterrorism Bureau’s ESF appropriation to $80 million. Accompanying this funding should be a requirement that the State Department put in place a coordination mechanism that facilitates Counterterrorism Bureau cooperation with other State bureaus and USAID, to ensure all activities and resources relevant to countering violent extremism are aligned around a unified strategy that complements and reinforces GFA implementation. 

Finally, Congress should establish the independent, National Commission on U.S. Counterterrorism Policy, as recently called for by the House. This independent body would assess and provide recommendations to Congress to ensure that U.S. counterterrorism efforts, including those at the State Department, “are effective and balanced at a time when the U.S. faces a growing number of other security challenges and domestic priorities.” 

Reforming the State Department is necessary if the United States hopes to move beyond the nearly two-decades-long approach to counterterrorism that has produced success on the battlefield, but so far has failed to reduce terrorist recruitment and radicalization. 

Eric Rosand is the director and founder of the Prevention Project, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and former senior counterterrorism official in the Obama administration’s State Department. Follow him on Twitter @RosandEric.

Richmond Blake is director of policy and advocacy at Mercy Corps. He previously served as a foreign service officer and policy adviser to the under secretary of State for civilian security, democracy and human rights, and as deputy director of the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. Follow him on Twitter @richmondpblake.