Win the Battle, Lose the War: How the U.S. Can Sustain Counterterrorism Gains

After enduring years of terrorist brutality, citizens of places like Mosul, Mogadishu and Maiduguri can finally enjoy a semblance of normal life, after recent successes in countering terrorism. That makes the U.S. and its international partners in the fight safer too. This week’s first global meeting of heads of national counterterrorism agencies at the United Nations likely will celebrate these success, while at the same time understanding that the threat is far from eradicated. In 18 countries, for example, the self-styled “Islamic State” has shifted from its failed state-building to insurgencies and affiliation with local terrorist groups.

U.S. global leadership and action has been a driving force behind many of the counterterrorism successes since 9/11. That kind of robust engagement is needed more than ever to consolidate these gains and prevent the re-emergence and spread of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. That means ensuring a comprehensive U.S. counterterrorism strategy and a cadre of seasoned senior officials and diplomats who can promote it internationally.

The absence of such a strategy and key U.S. government leadership on the issue threatens long-lasting consequences. Already, Russia is stepping into the breach, playing an increasingly conspicuous and worrying role in global counterterrorism. Now that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the new national security team at the White House are in place, they should move fast to prioritize production of the new – and long-delayed — strategy and the appointment of necessary leadership.

Lessons from the Fight

Inspired in part by the lessons learned from nearly two decades of counterterrorism practice, a growing number of countries are updating their strategies, or developing broader national strategies on countering violent extremism (CVE) to complement traditional counterterrorism approaches. In the U.S., Congress asked the White House in standard defense authorization legislation adopted in early 2018 to produce the first comprehensive CVE framework by the end of this month. But there are no indications of when it will be delivered to Congress, let alone implemented, and there is no new national counterterrorism strategy.

On a more practical level, with so many senior diplomatic posts vacant, the United States is hampered in its engagement on these issues in multilateral forums and foreign capitals. The recent news that Pompeo is trying to fill the dozens of vacant senior leadership positions offers some hope. But it is anyone’s guess when the reinforcements will arrive in their posts.

Seventeen years after 9/11, among the foremost lessons are that military operations alone do not end terrorist movements, and that the most effective strategy for fighting terrorism – one that avoids backlash, backsliding and other unintended consequences — protects the basic rights and freedoms of citizens. Now is the time to ensure that these lessons are not forgotten and to build on the recent progress in promoting whole-of-government and whole-of-society approaches.

Too many American lives have been lost and too much American treasure has been spent in the fight against terrorism to risk ignoring what we know about what causes violent extremism and how best to address it. Today, we have research on what fuels radicalization and recruitment, such as underlying governance deficits in places like Iraq, human rights violations in West Africa, historic conflicts, and marginalization and injustice from Somalia to Afghanistan. Our responses need to be informed by these findings if we hope to reduce the radicalization of young people.

Prioritizing and sustaining a comprehensive approach that extends well beyond the battlefield and into cities and communities around the globe calls for a different set of objectives than has been the norm since 2001. It also requires new partnerships with government and non-governmental actors alike. It must begin, however, with the United States continuing to demonstrate in rhetoric and deeds that it is committed to such an approach.

Here Come the Russians

The Russians, in particular, are seeking to fill the void in the multilateral arena, with alarming, but simple messages: terrorism will be defeated by military operations and repression; ideology, above all else, fuels terrorist recruitment; civil society cannot be a trusted partner; and the UN’s preventing violent extremism (PVE) agenda is simply “a pretext to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign states and destabilize legitimate governments.” Rather than learning counterterrorism lessons from the past, Russia is leading the charge to disregard them. For example, Moscow is building support for cracking down on extremism — with the attendant infringements on freedom of speech and expression — rather than focusing on the violence.

Russia is reaching out to potential allies in this outlook. Note the recent call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates on forming an international coalition to combat terrorism and extremism “based on the respect for the sovereignty of states.” That’s a phrase used by governments that want to reinforce a state-dominated approach to security that rejects concerns over how governments treat their citizens in reducing recruitment to terrorism.

And with support from countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela, Russia sought to remove all references to PVE and the Secretary-General’s Plan of Action on PVE from the latest U.N. General Assembly resolution (adopted this week) that renewed the 2006 U.N. Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. The core pillars of the Secretary-General’s action plan call for whole-of-society approaches and for addressing marginalization, and other government-linked grievances that can fuel terrorist recruitment.

The effort to erase these principles from the renewed U.N. counterterrorism strategy threatens to roll back much of the most effective multilateral work since 9/11 that was built on a respect for human rights. Although Russia and its allies didn’t succeed in getting these sections removed, they were able to dilute the references to the role of civil society and include language that calls into question the efficacy of the PVE agenda.

Further, Russia threatened to boycott the high-level U.N. counterterrorism conference in New York June 28 to 29 for heads of counterterrorism agencies if civil society is allowed in the room. Meanwhile, letters from high-level officials in Canada, Norway, Switzerland, and the European Union to the secretary-general and the Russian U.N. under-secretary general for counterterrorism stressed the importance of including civil society.

In the spirit of compromise, the U.N. decided to invite civil society to the second day of the two-day event. But the fact that civil society representatives are being kept out from any part of this major U.N. conference is a win for Moscow and its allies.

Yesterday, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley rightfully condemned the move to exclude civil society. But this would have been more effective had it been reinforced by sending a high-level representative – something the Trump administration was unlikely to do in any event – to make this point in person, and by actively siding with civil society actors overseas as they get harassed by authoritarian regimes, often in the name of counterterrorism, rather than seeking to cozy up to these governments.

U.S. Leadership in a Global Fight

The advocates of effective, sustainable counterterrorism efforts that are based on evidence and respect for human rights and that involve all of government and society are right to worry about Russia’s efforts. Moscow’s persistent, coordinated, and consistent message, combined with the lack of a robust U.S. counterweight (evidenced by its absence from multilateral forums, including the recent withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council), and the global rise of authoritarianism raises questions about whether the counterterrorism lessons of the past 17 years have, in fact, been learned. And that means U.S. national security remains vulnerable to the dangers of terrorism.

While military cooperation continues to produce security gains, these tactical successes will be fleeting unless the U.S. champions broader efforts beyond the battlefield. In addition to a strategy that reflects lessons learned, the diplomats necessary to lead on the global stage, and sustained, high-level, strategic counterterrorism engagement in forums such as the U.N., Global Counterterrorism Forum, and the G7, the U.S. should extend its involvement to regional bodies and bilateral relationships. That should include organizations such as the African Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and foreign capitals from Abuja to Ankara and Rabat to Riyadh.

The U.S. also must remain engaged with independent civil society organizations and individuals, and do more to push back against political and legal restrictions being placed on them around the globe. Often, these groups and community leaders are the first to identify signs of radicalization in their communities, and they are best-placed to steer vulnerable individuals away from violence.

Without such engagement, constructive U.S. influence on the direction of global and regional counterterrorism agendas will be diminished. That, in turn, risks ceding the space to countries like China, Egypt, Russia, and Saudi Arabia that continue to prefer to double-down on state-centric, security-focused approaches to counterterrorism. Evidence shows that won’t achieve their goals – or international security – in the long run. 

About the Author(s)

Eric Rosand

Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings, Director of “The Prevention Project: Organizing Against Violent Extremism” in Washington, D.C.

Leanne Erdberg

Director of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Previously held several positions in the U.S. government including senior advisor to the deputy assistant to the president and deputy homeland security advisor on the National Security Council staff at the White House.