Combating Terrorism: Looking Over the Horizon

Remarks
Sarah Sewall
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
SAIS, John Hopkins University
Washington, DC
March 10, 2015


Thank you, Ruth. It is great to be here at SAIS – a place that has always emphasized an interdisciplinary approach to international affairs and a place well suited for this discussion about the need to address underlying causes of violent extremism in order to support current efforts to defeat terrorist networks.

From Copenhagen to Cairo, from Paris to Peshawar, in Nigeria, Libya, and China, violent extremists have perpetrated bombings, kidnappings, and shootings this year. Violent extremism is spreading geographically and numerically, and every corner of the globe is at risk. No country or community is immune. Intelligence officials argue that terrorism trend lines are worse than at any other time in modern history; despite the tactical successes of our intelligence gathering, military force, and law enforcement efforts, terror networks are spreading and new threats are emerging around the world. Accordingly, the United States and its allies in the fight against terrorism must strengthen our comprehensive strategy to address the underlying drivers that fuel the appeal and spread of violent extremism. That is precisely why President Obama recently hosted the White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism. Joining with leaders of foreign governments, international organizations, the private sector and civil society, President Obama and Secretary Kerry launched a global effort to address the enablers of violent extremism in order to prevent the emergence of new terror threats.

It is worth putting this pivotal moment in historical context.

As we look back on the terrorist challenge of past decades, several broad phases are discernible. We saw terrorism in the 1970s, 80s, and even 90s largely in the context of political movements, nationalists and separatists, regarding terror as a tactic used most often for political gains. Our national and international organizations dedicated to addressing these movements were modest, and our response paired political, criminal justice and law enforcement efforts.

In the 1990s, however, terror attacks against U.S. targets at home against the World Trade Center and abroad against the U.S. Embassies started to shift our thinking about and approach toward terrorism. It was no longer seen only as a foreign political challenge. Of course, after the 9/11 attacks against the United States, the U.S. mobilized anew, developing extraordinary military and intelligence capabilities focused on better understanding, tracking, and where necessary, attacking terrorists and terror networks. Working closely with a small number of partners, we also developed intelligence networks and refined military operations to detect terrorists and foil their plots, and we enhanced border security, law enforcement, and other tools to protect the homeland. With the killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 and of countless other terror leaders, al-Qa'ida’s core was beaten back.

Yet despite the world’s devotion of enormous military and intelligence resources – as well as human treasure – the threat of violent extremism persists. Over the past 13 years, violent extremist movements have diffused and proliferated. Increasingly, they have sprung from within conflicts worldwide. And they have exploited grievances and divided societies in order to further their own aims. Weak, illegitimate, and repressive governments inadvertently created opportunities for terrorists to capitalize on popular resentment of governments make common cause with local insurgents, the discontented, and criminal networks, and operate in poorly governed territory. Additionally, terrorist methods and goals have diversified. They now control large territories in several regions of the world.

Let me offer specific illustrations of these dynamics: Tehrik-e-Taliban has long exploited local grievances in the tribal belt along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in order to sustain itself. Members of Al-Qa’ida’s network in East Africa blended with militants from the Council of Islamic Courts to create al-Shabaab. In the loosely governed expanses of the Sahel, extremists including AQIM associated with disenfranchised Tuareg tribes to expand its power base. In Libya, Ansar al-Sharia exploited post-Gaddafi factional violence to cement itself in the Libyan landscape. And the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Daesh today, dramatically expanded its reach and power by capitalizing on Sunni political disenfranchisement in Iraq. The rise of Daesh is on all of our minds, but it is only one manifestation of a trend that we have witnessed over the last decade. Violent extremist groups have been expanding their control and resonance in South Asia, the Sahel, the Maghreb, Nigeria, Somalia, and in the Arabian Peninsula.

Of course, the U.S. approach and that of our partners in the fight against violent extremism has been adapting as well. We continued to pursue military force to go after terrorist leaders plotting to attack the U.S. or its interests and continued to refine our intelligence capabilities. We proved adept at taking key terrorists off of the battlefield. We also adopted more comprehensive approaches toward terrorism and violent extremism, adapting to the evolving threats we faced. For example, we placed greater emphasis on building the capacity – including military, intelligence, and civilian – of our partners to address threats within their own borders and region, as well as expanding efforts to reduce the radicalization that was leading individuals to join terrorist groups. We strengthened the international counterterrorism architecture by working with our Western allies and Muslim-majority partners to launch the Global Counterterrorism Forum in 2011. This platform allows experts from around the world to share good practices and devise innovative civilian-focused approaches to addressing the terrorist and violent extremist threats freed from the politics and process of traditional multilateral bodies. That same year, the U.S. inter-agency Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication was created to more effectively counter the violent extremist narrative. And the U.S. sought to place greater emphasis on the role of law enforcement and the wider criminal justice system in preventing terrorism and bringing terrorists to justice within a rule of law framework, thereby strengthening the international cooperation that is so essential to addressing the threat. More broadly, from his first day in office, President Obama has made clear that to be successful, all of our efforts to counter terrorism and root out the violent ideology that underpins it, must be done consistent with American values and be rooted in respect for human rights.

Still, the threat of violent extremism continues to metastasize in different dimensions. A new variant of terrorist threat is foremost on our minds today. Some of the most violent extremist groups, such as Daesh or Boko Haram, differ from Al Qaeda, because they are not similarly devoted to dogmatic treatise, militant hierarchy, or simply destroying existing state authority. Many of these new actors they seize land, resources, and population to consolidate geographic control and advance their apocalyptic visions. They violate human rights in the most egregious ways imaginable, exacerbate communal differences, and lure foreign fighters to incite violence around the world. These groups destabilize entire regions and inspire, if not actively plot, attacks on the US homeland and against our allies. They violate and undermine every aspect of the progressive norms and order that the international community painstakingly built from the ruins of World War II. They pose very real threats to U.S. interests and to international stability as they propagate and violently pursue their nihilistic goals.

The international community has responded accordingly. ISIL’s sudden and dramatic rise has animated a robust military coalition to defeat it, which the coalition will most certainly do. But physically dislodging terrorist safe havens requires a comprehensive and costly military effort, and removing violent extremists from the political landscape of failed states or failing communities is a long-term process. The most effective and useful way to address the metastasizing threat of violent extremism is to prevent its spread through less costly and destabilizing methods, to better enable the success of the our military efforts to defeat terrorism where it already has rooted. The long game lies in building an international coalition to prevent the rise of the next ISIL.

This requires a clear-eyed view of why these groups have been successful. It is not solely because of their extremist ideology, as important as it is to counteract the vitriolic incitement. These groups are more opportunistic and cynical. For example, Boko Haram exploits unrelated local grievances and decades of neglect of the Muslim north. Daesh, a successor to the former al-Qa’ida in Iraq, emerged from the inferno of Syria’s civil war and capitalized on Iraq's political difficulties. Al Shabaab drew its strength from Somalia's state failure, rampant corruption, and inter-clan rivalry for resources, and these conditions allow the group to continue governing rural parts of Somalia. As the group was militarily dislodged from city centers, it began seeking common cause with aggrieved minorities along Kenya’s coast, using attacks to stoke ethnic and religious tensions.

The adaptation of terror organizations highlights the need for us to continue adapting our approach to violent extremism. These realities demand thinking about violent extremism not simply in terms of individual radicalization but also in the context of dynamics that make entire communities vulnerable to radicalization, co-optation, or exploitation.

How can we most effectively do this? We know there are many forces that drive individuals to violence. Current research, including interviews with former violent extremists or rehabilitated terrorists consistently reveals that there is no single driver of violent extremism. Rather, there are a number of common ones including: boredom, intergenerational tensions, the search for greater meaning in life, perceived adventure, attempts to impress the local community, a desire for increased credibility, to belong or gain peer acceptance, and revenge.

Similarly, there is no one driver of community-wide radicalization. Participants in last month’s White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism cited social rejection, political disenfranchisement, and economic exclusion as underlying conditions conducive to the spread of violent extremism. Yet the phenomenon of political, economic, and social marginalization as a driver of violent extremism is not new, nor is it synonymous with any one region, religious tradition, or culture. Marginalization is a strong “push factor” for many individuals and groups, and it creates a vulnerability to ideological and charismatic “pull factors.” Extremist narratives therefore become more intellectually and emotionally attractive to these marginalized communities.

Support for violent extremism does not take hold only under illiberal, authoritarian regimes; it festers anywhere liberty is denied. Even in societies with legal frameworks that guarantee respect for human rights, extremists have found resonance by exploiting real or perceived social and economic discrimination. While we may not know the precise reasons why the Charlie Hebdo attackers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi resorted to terrorism, we can see how violent extremists seek to exploit discontentment. In the low-income housing projects outside of Paris where the brothers grew up, the youth unemployment rate stands at more than 25 percent, and residents often complain of unresponsive law enforcement in the face of soaring crime and blatant hiring discrimination.

Although not the sole driver of violent extremism, marginalized and alienated groups provide “seams of vulnerability” for terrorists to exploit in their efforts to recruit and seek support. Simply put, people who think that they have nothing to lose and that playing by the rules of the system provides no avenue to opportunity or success become more susceptible to being drawn to violent radical actions to upend the status quo. We must therefore anticipate and monitor, if not ideally stitch up, these seams of vulnerability. This is the concept of preventing the rise of violent extremism before it becomes a terrorist threat. To execute this prevention strategy wisely, we need to refine how we think about policies and programming to enhance our understanding of what makes communities vulnerable to radicalization, co-optation, or exploitation by violent extremists, and we need a strategy to prioritize the allocation and alignment of resources to address first those seams most vulnerable to terrorist exploitation.

This preventive approach requires policymakers and experts to expand their focus beyond today’s dangerous threats. They must look to include communities that have not yet become terror safe havens or active conflict zones but that show susceptibility either to ideological radicalization or simply to making common cause with foreign terrorist organizations. Effective prevention requires us to work not in violent extremism “hot spots,” safe havens, or in active conflict but at the periphery – the places that terror networks will seek to penetrate as they expand their spheres of influence or as they are displaced from their current safe havens.

Prevention through addressing vulnerabilities on the periphery of terror networks broadens available interventions to include diplomatic, political, and economic tools. These approaches are possible in non-crisis environments, where bilateral cooperation is stable, development professionals have access to target populations, civil society organizations exist, youth can attend school, and adults devote their energies to economic activity, not fighting - all necessary conditions for development assistance and related interventions to take root and lead to improvements in governance and long-term economic growth.

A focus on broader interventions to address underlying factors on the periphery creates new opportunities for success in the struggle against violent extremism. Not every potential partner can participate in a military coalition, and many states are committed to international assistance programs that can be tailored to this particular challenge. A prevention approach further enlarges the coalition of effective interveners to include civil society and the private sector, who find it challenging to work in crisis zones. Civil society organizations, especially local voices, actors, and networks are essential, since they have intimate knowledge and authentic credibility to mediate disputes and misunderstandings, among communities or with state actors. Civil society organizations are especially well-suited to partner with women and youth, two groups critical for successful community resilience. For example, during last month’s White House Summit, a civil society leader from a West African country described the long, difficult process she undertook to earn the trust of a group of local imams in order to start a book club program to teach critical thinking and reasoning skills at several madrassas. Only a local actor could have won the imams’ trust, underscoring why one of non-state actors are so critical for prevention work.

The private sector can also play a role on the periphery. Building alliances with the private sector strengthens community resilience, by providing more economic opportunity to citizens and showcasing new innovation, growth, and connectivity. More private sector growth can offer another way to dampen the appeal of extremism and stabilize communities.

President Obama hosted the Summit to draw more attention to the importance of addressing the broad enablers of this extremism and to highlight the role of local communities and civil society in this effort. The President defined the Summit goal as “preventing [violent extremist] groups from radicalizing, recruiting or inspiring others to violence in the first place,” and he challenged the international community, to come up with a positive, affirmative antidote to the nihilism that terrorists peddle: “If we’re going to prevent people from being susceptible to the false promises of extremism,” he said, “then the international community has to offer something better.” The event may well prove to be a pivotal moment in the global struggle against violent extremism, opening the way to a more comprehensive, affirmative, and far-reaching effort to prevent the spread of terrorist networks.

The meeting convened an unprecedented diversity of stakeholders from more than 65 governments, civil society leaders from more than 50 countries, and two dozen private sector institutions, who engaged in an honest, straight-forward discussion about the broader enablers of violent extremism and its effects on their communities. “We know that poisonous ideologies do not emerge from thin air,” United Nations Security General Ban Ki-moon declared, as he pointed to “oppression, corruption, and injustice” as drivers of violent extremism. He cautioned that “all too often counterterrorism strategies lack basic elements of due process and respect for the rule of law.” Dr. Peter Neumann of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization cited evidence that social and political marginalization render people receptive to violent extremism. Jordan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Nasser Judeh addressed the role of Islam and called for an interfaith unity. “Religious authorities representing all religions on the face of this earth,” he said, “must unite on a narrative that discredits extremist ideology, dispels its foundations, and preaches moderation and interfaith harmony.”

The delegates outlined an ambitious, affirmative action agenda to address violent extremism. Governments, civil society, the private sector, and multilateral bodies committed to take action, both collectively and independently, in eight broad areas:

  • Encouraging local research and information-sharing;
  • Expanding the role of civil society, especially the role women and youth;
  • Strengthening community-police and community-security force relations;
  • Promoting the counter-narrative and weakening the legitimacy of violent extremist messaging;
  • Employing educational approaches and amplifying mainstream religious voices to build resilience;
  • Preventing radicalization in prisons and rehabilitating and reintegrating violent extremists;
  • Identifying political and economic opportunities for communities vulnerable to radicalization and recruitment;
  • Providing development assistance and stabilization efforts.

Several delegations have already pledged commitments in support of this comprehensive agenda. The United Nations will convene a special event this year to bring faith leaders from around the world together to promote mutual understanding and reconciliation. Japan announced a $15.5 million contribution to build capacity in the Middle East and North Africa to counter terrorism and violent extremism, including by strengthening community resilience. The European Union will create a Round of Eminent Persons from Europe and the Islamic world to encourage intellectual exchanges and promote dialogue on the cost and ramification of terrorism in our societies and to launch additional programs on how to link education and countering violent extremism. Norway will significantly expand its support for education training programs targeting populations at risk of radicalization and contribute $600,000 to the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund, and the Republic of Korea will engage IT companies to develop new initiatives to counter violent extremism.

Several delegations pledged support for counter-messaging initiatives. With European Union support, Belgium is establishing the Syria Strategic Communications Advisory Team to develop a communications strategy to provide subtle counter-narratives. The African Union has pledged to work through the Network of African Journalists for Peace to launch a continent-wide, counter-violent extremism messaging campaign, and through its Against Violent Extremism Network, Google Ideas is challenging the terrorist narrative, by leveraging and trumpeting the testimonials of more than 500 rehabilitated former extremists from 40 countries.

In addition, many countries and organizations, including Albania, Algeria, the African Union, Australia, Denmark, Djibouti, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Norway, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, are already planning to host follow-on regional or thematic summits in an effort to involve more countries, civil society organizations, and companies in this process.

The Summit’s commitment to preventing violent extremism widens the aperture on the problem and invites deployment of development and broader foreign assistance programs to those communities particularly vulnerable to radicalization to violence.

The United States’ is committed to this multilateral action agenda. The U.S. is already working through the Global Counterterrorism Forum to support community-oriented policing in South Asia, the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and elsewhere; nurturing entrepreneurship and strengthening innovation in emerging markets through our Global Entrepreneurship Summits and the Global Innovation through Science and Technology program; and rallying our partners across a broad array of sectors—including heads of the entertainment and technology industries, philanthropists, and policy makers—to expand economic opportunities for vulnerable and marginalized communities. In addition to the $188 million in programs that the State Department and USAID are already dedicating to implementation, President Obama has requested nearly $400 million in additional resources in the 2016 budget for the State Department to support a wider range of counterterrorism partnerships, including programs to address violent extremism.

Stay tuned for progress on this effort. President Obama invited Summit participants to reconvene at a leaders’ summit on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in September, when heads of governments, organizations, and corporations will announce the programs and policies they have undertaken to address the drivers of violent extremism and implement the action agenda. The Summit agenda ultimately promises to identify areas of greatest risk to violent extremism and help prioritize the deployment of resources and expertise to prevent terrorism from taking hold.

Several Summit participants called the meeting a milestone in the global effort against violent extremism and a turning point for the U.S. in moving toward a holistic approach that embraces Muslim and marginalized communities, as well as the role of civil society and the private sector. The challenge now is to build on this momentum so that it produces practical and tangible outcomes. It is an opportunity to supplement, expand, and innovate for the next generation. We can complement a counterterrorism strategy that has had success in addressing immediate threats with a more comprehensive approach to prevent the emergence of new threats. This preventive approach is affirmative: by employing a broad range of tools, including diplomatic, political, development, and communications levers, it seeks to empower individuals and their communities to resist extremism without the risk of further alienating them. This approach may also prove more sustainable in employing a wider array of actors and interventions to prevent terrorist threats from expanding or emerging in the first place.

Although preventing violent extremism entails harnessing a broader toolkit than intelligence gathering, military force, and law enforcement has built to date, it does not mean that development assistance or strategic communications will replace security interventions in countering terrorism. The United States government will continue to defend the American people and its interests abroad by targeting and eliminating current terrorist threats. The President’s commitment to comprehensively preventing violent extremism will advance new tools to complement and enhance, not replace, current counterterrorism efforts.

The White House Summit already has spurred new investments and innovative programs to address the underlying drivers of violent extremism. Yet realizing this approach will not happen overnight, even here in the United States. It is, by definition, a generational effort. But the United States and our partners have embraced the need to look over the horizon, to get ahead of the next violent extremism challenge.

At the Summit, Secretary Kerry announced: “We can send a clear signal to the next generation that its future will not be defined by the agenda of the terrorists and the violent ideology that sustains them; we will not cower, and we will prevail by working together....Our collective security depends on our collective response.” When world leaders reconvene on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in New York this September, they will have a historic opportunity to consolidate this more comprehensive approach to counterterrorism.