Nearly 20 Years Later: It’s Time to Reset Our Approach to Countering Terrorism

This week’s gathering of the global counter-ISIS coalition in Washington, D.C., comes at an opportune moment. With the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi another terrorist leader has been taken off the battlefield, but while a notable military and intelligence success, the threat posed by the Islamic State – as well as the local conditions and the dogma that fuels it — are far from eliminated. On this, counterterrorism experts agree. Even the U.S. general who briefed the media from the Pentagon after al-Baghdadi’s death said that ISIS is “an ideology, you’re never going to be able to completely stamp it out.”

The data is revealing: Despite the United States spending more than $5.9 trillion on a military-dominated approach to countering terrorism since September 2001, the violent extremist movement has metastasized to the point where the number of deaths from terrorism in 2017, although lower than the previous two years, was still three times the number in 2001. And, the number of Islamist extremist fighters in 2018 was 270 percent higher than 2001. Just last week, Russell Travers, the acting head of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, remarked that “there are far more radicalized people out there now than there were 18 years ago.”

Particularly given the uncertainty around the depth of the Trump administration’s commitment to its allies and partners, as well as its long-term commitment to Syria and Iraq (let alone any international coalition), representatives of the 75-member counter-ISIS coalition are likely to be left with no choice but to focus their attention on how to address some of the more pressing short-term challenges, increasingly on their own, leaving no time to reflect on the long-term strategy. Many of these challenges are the result of President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to largely abandon the Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria.

If past is prologue, progress on any or all of these challenges alone, while important, is unlikely to have a durable impact on global efforts to minimize terrorist threats over the long term. What’s required is a re-balancing between the military approach that has dominated since September 2001 and one that places more emphasis on addressing the political, social, economic and confessional conditions and grievances that originally caused thousands of mainly young people from dozens of countries to embrace ISIS and its violent ideology. This approach is known as “preventing and countering violent extremism” – P/CVE. For example, as Shadi Hamid, the Brookings scholar recently wrote in the Atlantic, “ISIS didn’t come out of nowhere. There were reasons it was able to capture as much territory as it did. And the ‘marginalia’ of governance was part of that story,” and thus needs to be a central part of efforts to prevent a re-emergence of ISIS.

Yet, whereas P/CVE has featured prominently on the global agenda for much of the past decade, it has largely been treated as a niche issue – distinct from “CT” – or even simply an after-thought among counterterrorism policymakers and practitioners. This was acknowledged recently when Travers noted that the U.S. strategy is “not just about capturing and killing,” but that there is an “eye on prevention, too.”

With the longstanding barriers to cooperation between the security and development worlds being lowered, the development community is increasingly willing to engage, if not lead on P/CVE. Although increased interest in P/CVE from the development community should be welcomed, this is not a substitute for national security officials also taking a lead.

In fact, unless and until addressing the context-specific conditions and grievances that have fueled terrorist recruitment become a greater priority for political leaders and practitioners, we are unlikely to break the nearly 20-year cycle of battlefield and other military counterterrorism successes that don’t lead to a reduction in the pool of terrorist recruits and, therefore, do little to reduce terrorist threats long term.

What needs to be done?

First, while international cooperation will remain essential, one can’t expect that P/CVE will receive the attention it requires so long as the primary objective of such cooperation remains maintaining and deepening traditional security and intelligence partnerships. Continuing to prioritize partnerships with authoritarian and other regimes who consistently commit human rights abuses, often in the name of “counterterrorism,” and fail to uphold the rule of law, only helps to generate grievances that fuel terrorist recruitment, even if they achieve short-term security objectives. The international coalition to defeat ISIS is a case in point: It was initially formed with a short-term, military objective in mind. It overlooked the lack of inclusive governance or any other grievance-generating behavior of coalition members toward local populations.

Second, a better approach involves resourcing and otherwise implementing recommendations to double-down on violence prevention, such as those from the United States Institute of Peace’s (USIP) bipartisan task force on preventing extremist violence, but doing so with both counterterrorism and development policymakers and practitioners actively involved. The USIP recommendations include calls for placing more emphasis on local governance, inclusion, and trust-building; pursuing more agile programming that responds to the needs of local communities rather than donor capital interests; better alignment between U.S. security and prevention priorities; and breaking down the longstanding silos within the U.S. government’s diplomacy, development, and security bureaucracies to enable the United States to engage more systematically and strategically on prevention on the global stage.

To date, however, most of the discussion on how to implement these recommendations has been spearheaded by the peacebuilding, conflict prevention, and development communities, with the counterterrorism community generally on the sidelines. This, despite the fact that the task force co-chairs explicitly framed the report and its recommendations in the context of the rising number of violent extremists since 9/11 and the need for a new counterterrorism blueprint.

Third, it requires the United States to increase funding for P/CVE and elevating P/CVE issues in what have historically been, even before the Trump administration’s decision to cozy-up to authoritarian regimes and throw human rights under the bus, more security-oriented, counterterrorism dialogues with international partners.

On the former, for example, while the soon-to-be-announced new USAID policy framework on CVE — which is more focused on interventions that directly address the local drivers of violent extremism than the prior USAID approach — is a welcome development, it needs to be complemented with a significant increase in USAID funding for CVE. The State Department/USAID budget request for 2020 included only $74 million attributed for CVE (in a request of over $40 billion), with less than 10 percent of the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau’s budget to be allocated for CVE: the overwhelming majority of funds go to support law enforcement and other security-related issues.

Further, the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF), a multilateral fund set up in 2014 (with the United States and Switzerland leading the diplomatic charge) to mobilize and pool resources from donors to support local, community-level initiatives aimed to strengthen resilience against violent extremist agendas, merits a significant infusion of resources. It works in partnership and consultation with governments, civil society, and the private sector in fragile and conflict-affected states—including Bangladesh, Kosovo, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, and Tunisia—to address the local drivers of violent extremism.

Modeled on the Global AIDS Fund, GCERF has been able to attract funding from more than 15 donors, including the United States, but at levels far below (around $85 million since its launch) than what the threat merits and a pittance compared to what other global funds set up to mobilize resources from a cross-section of donors to address a global priority have raised. For example, the Green Climate Fund has raised more than $5 billion and the AIDS fund spends some $4 billion per year on projects in over 100 countries.

In terms rebalancing the diplomatic engagement around counterterrorism, it is instructive that almost three years into the Trump administration the position of undersecretary of State for civilian security, democracy, and human rights – overseeing both the Department’s counterterrorism and human rights branches, and well-placed to spearhead the rebalancing outlined above — remains vacant. In fact, the person serving as acting undersecretary is a senior counterterrorism official who has asked Congress for approval to remove “CVE” from his bureau’s’ title.

Finally, all of the above efforts need to be part of a new, more balanced, U.S. counterterrorism strategy than the one the Trump administration rolled out last year. While remaining unwavering in the government’s commitment to use military, intelligence, and law enforcement tools to take terrorists off the battlefield and streets, a new strategy should be informed by the lessons learned from the past 18 years of practice, and properly resourced.

These lessons include: 1) avoiding a narrow and short-term security lens to anoint countries as “good” counterterrorism partners, while overlooking human rights violations and bad governance; 2) the importance of scaling up targeted investments to address the underlying conditions or grievances that can give rise to terrorism and violent extremism in the first place; and 3) recognizing that P/CVE efforts work best when they are led by local actors, such as municipalities, schools, and civil society since “they know the local context and what motivates some people to commit horrible acts,” and that national and international actors need to work harder to empower and energize rather than undermine – whether intentionally or not – these efforts.

Perhaps the most widely acknowledged lesson is that killing terrorist leaders, while important, will not reduce the threat over the long term without the necessary investments in preventing young people from being radicalized and recruited in the first place. With the killing of al-Baghdadi, it is time to get serious about developing and implementing a broader strategic counterterrorism effort, one that is more balanced, cost effective and realistic about the threat and more likely to reverse the steady increase in the number of violent extremists since September 2001 rather than the current approach.

Eighteen years is far too long of a learning curve.

Image: Men, suspected of being affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) group, gather in a prison cell in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakeh on October 26, 2019. Kurdish sources say around 12,000 IS fighters including Syrians, Iraqis as well as foreigners from 54 countries are being held in Kurdish-run prisons in northern Syria. Photo by FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Eric Rosand

Director of “The Prevention Project: Organizing Against Violent Extremism” in Washington, D.C. and a Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Program. Follow him on Twitter (@RosandEric)

Alistair Millar

President of the Fourth Freedom Forum and Adjunct Professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University