Remarks at the "9/11+15 Conference: A Strategic Review of the Fight Against Terrorism"

Sarah Sewall
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
National Defense University
Fort McNair, Washington, DC
September 8, 2016

Hello everyone and thank you Ambassador Yamamoto for the kind introduction, and for your distinguished service at the Department of State. After tours in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia, you’ve more than earned this nice perch.

And thank you to the National Defense University’s Center for Complex Operations – and your leader Dr. Joseph Collins – for organizing today’s conference. Joe and I played similar roles at the Department of Defense, and I’m grateful he’s still working to improve U.S. policy in this critical area.

I realize that you’ve had a busy morning and have just finished lunch, so my challenge is to sneak in a few points before your food coma sets in. Let me dive right in.

Fifteen years after 9/11, terrorism remains a significant and even growing concern for many Americans and foreign publics – perhaps to a degree that would have surprised observers five or ten years ago.

A recent CNN poll showed that Americans’ worry about a terrorist attack is at its highest point since 2003. Given the grisly headlines around the world, we can understand why.

The persistence of terrorist violence demands a frank assessment about the current nature of the threat and the effectiveness of our approach to date. I applaud NDU for convening everyone here to do just that.

Looking back at the post-9/11 period, we know the U.S. and its allies mobilized incredible resources to devastate core al-Qa’ida leadership on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Reeling from this pressure, the group’s highly centralized command structure devolved into less rigid and more adaptive forms. Its followers dispersed to new regions. Elements loosened ideological requirements to join to encourage new affiliates and lone wolf attacks, allowing them to tap into a much broader set of preexisting criminal or insurgent networks and a broader set of grievances and resentments around the world.

Now, an array of new groups – some linked to al-Qa’ida, some not – have emerged to threaten global security. These groups coexist, and sometimes overlap with, prior insurgencies such as Boko Haram. So we face threats that are essentially fused, that combine elements of insurgent and criminal groups with a global franchised terror movement that peddles a perversion of Islam around the world.

This month, as we mark the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, the U.S. once again leads a global coalition against a terrorist menace in the form of Daesh. Again, in the face of our military power, the group loses fighters and territory with each week.

The lesson of this period, and as I understand it, the subtext of this morning’s sessions, is that while military power can achieve tactical gains against terrorist threats, it cannot defeat the violent ideologies, nor address the grievances, that gave rise to terrorist networks – and its antecedents – in the first place.

I believe a key lesson of the last 15 years is the need to pair our efforts to defeat groups like Daesh with a comprehensive effort to prevent the next Daesh, or Daesh-like variants, by looking honestly – and being willing to push partners to address – the underlying factors that make violence seem like the only viable path for change.

Otherwise, we will remain stuck in what Secretary Kerry has called “counter-terrorism whack-a-mole.” And while this may be an obvious lesson, it is not easy to apply.

In May 2013, President Obama signaled his desire to see a deepening U.S. understanding of the terrorist challenge right here at NDU when he called for a comprehensive approach to address “the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism.”

Since then, the U.S. has taken important initial steps to realize that approach in our policies and programs around the world. We call it Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE, and U.S. efforts have anchored a parallel international effort which the U.N. often refers to as PVE or Preventing Violent Extremism. These terms are often used interchangeably.

CVE and PVE seek to prevent the next generation of terrorist threats by inoculating the most vulnerable people and places from terrorist recruitment and expansion by addressing issues of rights and governance and community resilience. In doing so, it seeks to convert our military gains against terrorist groups into lasting reductions in terrorist violence.

Even as this government-wide emphasis on CVE is only recent, it represents a much-needed shift in how the U.S. and the international community prevent terrorist threats of the future.

At the heart of CVE is the recognition that military defeat is not sufficient to kill an ideology – governments and communities must address the underlying issues exploited by violent extremists.


I’d like to discuss two lines of effort that reflect what we’re trying to do through CVE. First: improve governance and halt government policies that can fan terrorist radicalization. Second: build the resilience of communities most targeted for terrorist infiltration and expansion.

Let’s start with good governance. In February 2015 at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, President Obama kicked off a global conversation about the role of governance and human rights in fueling terrorist threats. The White House Summit launched a series of regional conversations that included civil society, sometimes for the first time ever in dialogue with government, about the role of political alienation, protection of human rights, and economic marginalization in reinforcing the appeal of terrorist propaganda.

Through our diplomatic engagement, the United States continues helping foreign governments consider how their policies and actions affect the scope of terrorist threats.

When terrorists strike, Americans understand the impulse to strike back. But we can urge foreign governments to avoid short-term, heavy-handed responses that can make the problem worse. We can explain how policies that condone or promote marginalization and bigotry, or that allow impunity for corruption, injustice, and disrespect for human rights, can provide terrorist groups sympathy and recruits.

We can remind governments how al-Shabaab has recruited by pointing to abuses by Ethiopian and Kenyan security forces, or how al-Qa’ida leader al-Zawahiri was radicalized to violence after being tortured in an Egyptian prison.

We share these examples, as well as our own research, intelligence, and experience, to help foreign governments end counterproductive policies.

For instance, outreach by U.S. diplomats, including with my own engagement, helped prompt the police chief in Mombasa to question whether widespread roundups were actually creating more terrorists than they caught. From North and West Africa to Central Asia, I’ve seen similar shifts in how government officials understand the role of governance and rights in the context of terrorism.

This does not mean, however, that their policies and actions have fully mirrored a more sophisticated understanding of the synergistic relationship of state actions and increased violent extremism.

Where governments do recognize these issues, U.S. foreign assistance and development aid can directly strengthen governance. We can help train police, security forces, and the justice sector to be more responsive to the communities they’re charged to protect, so people trust those institutions enough to flag potential violent extremist threats. And we can expand opportunity in vulnerable communities and promote critical thinking in classrooms so young people can better resist violent ideologies.

At the multilateral level, the international community has taken major strides toward emphasizing good governance in the context of terrorism. Earlier this year, the U.N. Secretary-General released a Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, which emphasized respect for human rights, accountable governance, and anti-corruption as powerful antidotes to terrorism. On July 1, the U.N. General Assembly endorsed the Plan’s recommendations, placing issues of rights and governance squarely in the security conversation. Now, countries around the world are developing national CVE actions plans, and entities like the UNDP and UNESCO are partnering with countries to implement them.

But states cannot address the complex drivers of radicalization to violence on their own. That’s why, as I mentioned before, CVE emphasizes building the resilience of communities most targeted by terrorists for recruitment. By resilient communities, we mean communities where men and women know how to spot and address signs of terrorist radicalization, and can offer or point to powerful counter-arguments or alternative paths. Where citizens, law enforcement, and local officials are bound by trust and cooperation; where those on the margins have outlets to enable a sense of purpose, community, or dignity; where local voices – including women and youth – take the lead in speaking out against violent ideologies and propaganda. In such communities, terrorists groups will struggle to find new followers and safe havens.

Our CVE efforts seek to build that resilience in vulnerable communities around the world. For example, the U.S. supports networks of women and girls in South Asia to develop the knowledge and self-confidence to act when they see signs of terrorist radicalization in their neighborhoods. We helped establish the Strong Cities Network, a new platform to connect mayors and local leaders from around the world to exchange what works – and doesn’t – in building resilience to terrorist recruitment. And our Global Engagement Center is empowering a global network of positive messengers – non-governmental organizations, religious leaders, and even former extremists – who can serve as credible, local voices against violent ideologies.

Some of these approaches will sound familiar to many of you. They may evoke the civilian building blocks of stabilization operations or COIN best practices. That is because the political, social, and economic aspects of conflict extend to terrorism. And that, I think, is a key insight of the last 15 years. As much as we would like to treat terror as a sui generis threat, adherents of violent Salafist ideologies exploit the same underlying discontents that fuel insurgencies, civil wars, and interstate conflicts.

In truth, we’ve used the CVE acronym for several years. But in my view, efforts at AID, and later State, were modest and largely consisted of piecemeal programs scattered across the globe. They were often not informed by deep analysis, nor conducted on a viable scale, nor were they nested within a broader policy framework of engagement with government or other foreign partners.

Today, we’re piloting a fundamentally new approach in East Africa. This year, experts from across the U.S. government came together to pool at least $50 million in funds, conduct extensive research, develop a common diagnosis of drivers, and design truly integrated programs to address the specific forces enabling radicalization to violence in the specific places identified as most vulnerable.

What’s new, and extremely important, is that these efforts are coupled with intensive dialogue with foreign governments about their policies and actions. They are also complemented at the international level, as we work to coordinate and improve CVE assistance with multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the Global Counterterrorism Forum.

Even today, mindful as we are of the need for a more preventive approach, it is still tempting to reach for familiar, usually military, tools that we can understand and measure. So we tout the kilometers of territory seized and the number of terrorists eliminated. Military force remains critical to defeating groups like Daesh, but the lessons of 9/11 include the need to increase global non-military efforts to prevent new terrorist threats.

When we talk about CVE, we must acknowledge that there is no singular cause for radicalization to violence. That’s why rigorous research and analysis are critical to ensuring that we mobilize the right tools for the right problems in the right places. At State, we’ve invested in making the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations the locus of our CVE research and analysis, and AID has a similar component for analysis.

Given the highly local dynamics of radicalization, however, intensive, micro-level research is essential. To strengthen that front, we helped establish the RESOLVE Network (which stands for Researching Solutions for Violent Extremism) to connect independent researchers, practitioners, and policymakers to identify ways to build resilience to radicalization in their communities. I hope NDU can participate in that effort.

Even though we’ve significantly increased funding for CVE at State, resources remain limited. Over the last year, kinetic operations against Daesh cost around $4 billion dollars. By contrast, State spent less than $200 million on CVE programs last year around the world. That does not constitute a comprehensive approach.

While CVE efforts remain in an early stage, we have confidence they can work. We have data from programs targeting neighborhoods in Pakistan that show an integration of community engagement, counter-messaging, youth mentorship, and women’s empowerment, and outreach by religious leaders can result in a significant decline in sympathy for terrorist groups.

Another challenge is identifying and supporting the right partners on the ground. Those with the greatest influence over vulnerable individuals and communities often look very different from the partners the international community has grown accustomed to working with.

Moreover, those best positioned on the ground rarely have the means to apply for and maintain funding from international donors. And current law makes it difficult to provide material support to groups that, for example, do critical work rehabilitating former terrorists or that work in prisons to prevent radicalization to violence. So we have to look closely at this issue and consider how to better make use of third parties, like the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund, or GCERF, to empower those on the ground.

Finally, we can say and do all we want to promote good governance and community resilience, but foreign government partners must be convinced to take their governance seriously. We can’t guarantee this outcome. Nor can we hope – even with the growing cooperation of international donors and financial institutions – to eradicate all the underlying factors that fuel popular discontent or add grist to terrorist propaganda. But we are not powerless.

We owe it to every service member who has sacrificed in the name of fighting terrorism to devote more intellect, resources, and effort to reducing the need for future military action.

We all hope there will be no need for a 9/11+30 Conference. But the future will depend in part on whether we learn a key lesson from the past 15 years – that preventing radicalization to violence is every bit as vital as defeating the current danger.

Thank you.