As anticipated – and as underscored recently by both the president and his secretary of state — a renewed commitment to multilateralism will be a defining feature of the Biden-Harris administration. Much of the attention so far has focused on either announcing a welcome return to the multilateral institutions or frameworks that the United States abandoned during the Trump era – from the World Health Organization, to the United Nations Human Rights Council, to the Paris climate accord – or to working more closely with allies and partners to address the global pandemic, climate change, or threats posed by China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and other authoritarian regimes. All areas worthy of focus. One set of global challenges that has so far received less public attention in discussions about renewed U.S. multilateral engagement is terrorism and violent extremism. This probably should come as no surprise given the growing sense from many in Washington (and beyond) that these issues have attracted more than their fair share of attention over the past two decades, including at the U.N. and other multilateral venues, often at the expense of other pressing global challenges.
However, given the White House’s heightened interest in addressing the rise in right-wing violence at home and the transnational nature of that threat, as well as the likelihood of terrorist groups capitalizing on a post-pandemic world, where COVD-19 restrictions are removed and targets become more accessible, counterterrorism and countering violent extremism (CVE) is likely to become a fixture on the multilateral dance card, much like it was for the Obama-Biden administration.
The good news is that the multilateral landscape is replete with counterterrorism and CVE platforms, many of them developed under the leadership of the Obama-Biden administration. Although designed for a different threat environment and during a different geopolitical moment, they nevertheless provide the current administration the opportunity to address the today’s threats. However, they will need to be updated and strengthened to reflect three current realities: a threat environment that is more diffuse, varied, and localized than ever; a recognition of the need to focus more attention on the conditions (including poor governance, corruption, inequality, human rights abuses, marginalization, and exclusion) that terrorists exploit to recruit and radicalize supporters and many of which drive other forms of violence and conflict and fragility; and third, the increasing salience of local contexts and, thus, the critical role that local actors, including civil society and local governments, play in any effective response, including by helping to ensure efforts are framed around and sensitives to the concerns of and don’t stigmatize local communities.
Ensuring the multilateral counterterrorism and CVE architecture is fit for purpose 20 years out from 9/11 will require adjustments in the mandate and approach of numerous bodies and platforms. Here are a few changes to consider.
First, the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS should focus more attention on the grievances that ISIS and its affiliates use to recruit and radicalize supporters. The formation of the now 83-member Global Coalition was perhaps the signature counterterrorism achievement of the Obama-Biden era. It played a major role in defeating ISIS on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria. However, it has yet to focus sufficient attention on the political, social, and economic conditions and grievances that originally caused thousands of mainly young people from dozens of countries to embrace ISIS and its violent ideology, which remain largely unaddressed. In fact, ISIS has continued to spread its violent extremist ideology and operational reach by transforming local insurgencies and aligning with terrorist groups across the Sahel, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and beyond, leaving a threat that is more rooted in local grievances than ever.
To remain effective given the changed nature of the ISIS threat, the Coalition’s work should be more attuned to the local contexts – including by consistently including local actors and perspectives in its work — and committed to changing the conditions, including the predatory behavior of some States, that make the extremists’ propaganda attractive to recruits.
Secondly, the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) would benefit from a refresh. Launched in 2011, the GCTF was the first international body dedicated to building civilian CT and CVE cooperation and capacities, primarily of governments, with a particular focus on addressing jihadi violence. Given the changed environment, the GCTF’s approach and focus needs updating, both in terms of its focus and who should be at the table.
With the Forum set to celebrate its 10th anniversary next September, the GCTF should prioritize the involvement and take into account the requirements of local actors (including civil society and cities) who are regarded as essential CVE stakeholders today, but who were not given high priority when the forum was launched.
In addition, like so many other multilateral CT/CVE platforms developed during the post-9/11 era, the GCTF has focused a disproportionate amount of attention on facilitating cooperation between law enforcement and criminal justice professionals. This needs to change. The threat is increasingly localized underscoring a growing emphasis on prevention. This has broadened the range of practitioners and experts relevant to solutions beyond the traditional CT crowd. Today, youth, social, and health workers, educators, peacebuilders, and other development actors need to be at the table to share approaches and strategies and multilateral bodies, such as the GCTF, should be at the forefront in facilitating their involvement.
As part of a wider effort to tackle the international phenomenon of white supremacist violence, the United States should launch a GCTF initiative focused on this form of extremism. Such an initiative would provide a mechanism for enhancing working-level engagement to share information and good practices between the United States and other Western countries, as well as to adapt relevant tools and lessons learned from CT/CVE efforts against jihadist terrorism. It would highlight the U.S. interest in and commitment to addressing all forms of violent extremism and learning from others as it grapples with how best to address the racially and ethnically motivated violent extremist threat it is facing at home.
The initiative could culminate with developing a series of recommendations for addressing the threat and laying the groundwork for a U.N. Security Council meeting and the adoption of a Security Council resolution on this issue. This could be modeled on the successful approach the Obama-Biden team followed when it sought to mobilize global support for cracking down on the flow of foreign terrorist fighters into Iraq and Syria in 2014.
Thirdly, the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF) should be scaled-up and repositioned as a global fund for preventing violence and addressing fragility. GCERF was launched in 2014 as the first pooled funding mechanism that provides grants to community-based organizations in fragile and conflict-affected states working to prevent violent extremism. Although small in size, the fund has developed a strong track record of support, including in Congress, which earmarked funding for GCERF in its most recent State Department budget. Building on these early successes, GCERF should now be transformed from a niche, “PVE” fund to one that allows for a silo-free, more integrated, and, ultimately, more cost-effective, smarter, and sustainable approach to supporting locally led efforts to address a range of challenges, including extremism and other forms of violence, as well as fragility.
In this context, the GCERF could serve as the multi-donor fragility fund included in the bipartisan 2019 Global Fragility Act. The GFA commits $25 million to such a mechanism that is aimed at mobilizing support from other public and private donors. Leveraging GCERF would not only save time and political capital, but would keep administrative and start-up costs lower. The updated/expanded GCERF could be rolled out at the pledging conference its new chair is planning to host on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly in New York this September.
The anticipated return to principled and strategic U.S. engagement and leadership across the multilateral counterterrorism and CVE landscape will be critical to ensuring the success of any of the above proposed reforms. More broadly, it will help reverse some of the negative trends of the past four years, which were exacerbated by the United States’ indifference to the multilateral counterterrorism and CVE architecture that the Trump team inherited.
As part of its commitment to promote human rights and democracy and push back against the rising influence of authoritarian regimes at the United Nations, in particular, one can expect the new administration to work with democratic allies and partners at the U.N. to diminish the rising counterterrorism influence of countries such as China, Egypt, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, who prefer counterterrorism approaches that undermine human rights and threaten democratic values and U.S. interests. This influence has been left unchecked during the Trump-era. In sharp contrast to its predecessor, the Biden-Harris administration can be expected to advance an agenda that reaffirms a commitment to human rights and the rule of law as the foundation for an effective approach that right-sizes counterterrorism efforts at the U.N. Rather than continuing with the seemingly unchecked growth of the U.N. counterterrorism program over the past few years, the new administration is likely to prefer situating it within the organization’s broader conflict prevention and peacebuilding activities and seek to reverse the worrisome trend of authoritarian regimes co-opting the UN’s counterterrorism and PVE framework to legitimize domestic practices that raise, at times significant, human rights concerns.
The summer 2021 review of the U.N. Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, where the above countries can be expected to try to further weaken its human rights pillar and diminish the role of civil society and emphasis on prevention, provides the Biden-Harris administration an early opportunity to emphasize on a global stage the importance of a more values-based approach, which embraces the role of independent civil society and other local actors, to address violent extremist threats at their roots.
In 2021, there will be opportunities to deliver this message to a wide range of regional bodies, from ASEAN to the African Union and the OSCE to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, that have important roles to play in setting norms and standards to guide national and local efforts, helping their members build their counterterrorism and CVE capacities, and facilitating the sharing of information and experience among officials and experts within their regions. Particularly given the recent events in United States, however, the Biden-Harris administration should do so with a sense of humility and demonstrate a willingness to listen and learn from its international partners as it seeks restore the credibility squandered and return to a global leadership role on preventing and countering terrorism and violent extremism abandoned during the Trump era.