The Struggle Against Terrorism: Lessons Learned & Next Steps

Sarah Sewall
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for International Studies
Cambridge, MA
November 22, 2016

Thank you John and to MIT’s Center for International Studies for bringing us together this afternoon. It’s always wonderful to be back among familiar faces in Cambridge.

I want to make sure we have plenty of time for questions later, so let’s dive right in.

Two months ago, we marked the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. For a decade-and-a-half, the United States has engaged in a far-reaching effort to protect American citizens and allies from the threat of terrorism. We have devoted hundreds of billions of dollars to develop new military and intelligence capabilities, enabling the U.S. to strike terrorist operations and leaders in distant lands and prevent untold violence against people across the globe.

But few would argue that, despite all of that effort, the threat of terrorism has receded. Indeed, many Americans feel no safer today than they did fifteen years ago. That is an unsettling reality, and it demands that all of us in the field of international security take a sober assessment of our approach.

If we compare where we are now with the period right after 9/11, the parallels are striking. Fifteen years ago this month, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan was well underway. Today, the U.S. once again leads a multinational coalition against a terrorist menace – this time in the form of Da’esh. And once again, in the face of our military power, the terrorist group loses fighters and territory each week.

Pressure from our 68-nation coalition has caused Da’esh to lose over half its territory in Iraq and over 10,000 square kilometers in Syria to date. Its flow of new recruits has dropped to its lowest level since the conflict began, and it’s been forced to resort to conscription to fill its ranks.

Our progress is clear, but that is also how it felt at the height of our efforts to root out al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan. To avoid repeating history, we must remember a key lesson from the post-9/11 period: military power can achieve tactical gains against terrorist threats, but it cannot defeat the violent ideologies, or address the grievances, that gave rise to terrorist networks in the first place.

In other words, we must pair military efforts to defeat groups like Da’esh with a comprehensive, civilian-led effort to prevent the next Da’esh. 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.

It begins with understanding how terrorist threats have evolved over the last 15 years. Following 9/11, the U.S. and its allies devoted extraordinary resources to devastate core al-Qa’ida leadership on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. As the U.S. targeted al-Qa’ida, the group decentralized and dispersed, adopting new strategies to reconstitute its recruits, resources, and safe havens. Al-Qa’ida remnants began portraying themselves to communities as protectors from ethnic, sectarian, or tribal opponents, as saviors from an abusive or corrupt government, or as providers of basic services and employment.

Elements loosened ideological requirements to encourage new affiliates and solo attacks, allowing them to tap into preexisting criminal or insurgent networks and a broader set of grievances around the world. Consequently, an array of new terrorist groups emerged over the last fifteen years – some linked to al-Qa’ida, others maintaining a more independent character.

Violent groups with roots in local conflicts and grievances began to coalesce and affiliate with a global jihadi movement. In 2006, a violent Salafist group rooted in the Algerian civil war united to form al-Qa’ida in the Maghreb, or AQIM. In 2009, terrorist outfits in Saudi Arabia and Yemen fused into al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula. And in 2012, al-Shabaab announced its allegiance to al-Qa’ida – broadening its violent ambitions beyond Somali to East Africa.

Around this time, al-Qa’ida remnants in Iraq stoked Sunni anger over abuses and neglect under the former government, along with the chaos of the Syrian civil war, to reconstitute, seize territory, and declare a so-called Islamic State, or Da’esh. In doing so, Da’esh emerged as a second pole in the global jihadi movement, and many terrorist groups across the globe rebranded to affiliate with this new entity. Boko Haram, for example, pledged allegiance to Da’esh in 2015. Now we see instances of Da’esh competing with al-Qa’ida for affiliates, which has led to divided loyalties and even splintering among some terrorist groups.

Stepping back, we see violent groups born of local resentments – whether resistance to foreign occupation and Western education, or perceptions of abuse and marginalization by government – begin to see themselves in the context of global jihadi movement. And with that broader affiliation came a broader and more dangerous set of ambitions – to seize territory, topple regional governments, attack Westerners, and organize attacks in distant countries. Consequently, many of these groups now combine elements of an insurgency with that of a global terrorist network. As policymakers, our efforts must reflect this changed reality.

The U.S. has taken critical, albeit initial, steps toward a more preventive approach to terrorism. We call it Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE, and U.S. efforts have anchored a parallel international effort which the UN often refers to as PVE, or Preventing Violent Extremism. These terms are often used interchangeably.

At the heart of CVE is the recognition that military defeat of today’s terrorists is not sufficient to kill the ideology or address the broader factors needed to prevent new terrorists from emerging. In essence, CVE seeks to prevent the next generation of threats by helping the most vulnerable people and places resist terrorist recruitment and expansion and – equally important – by pushing governments to address the underlying grievances violent extremists exploit.

In my view, this represents a profound and much-needed shift in how the U.S. and the international community think about the challenge of terrorism. I’d like to discuss two aspects that reflect what we’re trying to do with CVE. First: improve governance and halt state policies that fan radicalization to violence. Second: build the resilience of communities most targeted for terrorist infiltration and expansion.

Let’s start with governance. When governments fail to protect their citizens and respect human rights, they breed anger and resentments that violent extremists exploit. Examples abound: Boko Haram gained traction after Nigerian security forces suppressed peaceful protests and executed the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, without trial. Al-Shabaab exploits heavy-handed tactics by Kenyan security forces to win over new recruits. And in Afghanistan, the Taliban rails against government corruption to replenish fighters each year. How governments treat their citizens has a profound impact on the scope of terrorist threats.

This is not “idealistic values talk” but a hard assessment of realities and interests. And look, it’s easy to get foreign governments to agree to a less militarized approach in the abstract, but it is very hard to change practice. U.S. counterterrorism policy therefore must include pushing partner states toward more accountable and inclusive governance in order to limit grievances that can fan radicalization to violence.

And at a more technical level, the U.S. and other partners can train police, security forces, and the justice sector to be more responsive, protective, and less corrupt – so people trust those institutions enough to flag potential threats. Similarly, we can help reform government policies that make the problem worse – like indiscriminate police sweeps that marginalize entire communities, foreign funding that amplifies voices of bigotry, unlimited detentions without charge, or abuse in prisons.

From Abuja to Astana, I’ve seen hopeful shifts in how government officials understand the impact of governance and rights in the context of terrorism. Sometimes I’ve been able to contribute to that change, as in helping the police chief in Mombasa reexamine widespread, indiscriminate roundups that likely created more terrorists than they caught.

But the United States cannot be the sole source of persuasion or capacity building in the global struggle against violent extremism. Fortunately, a range of international actors have moved toward a more holistic approach to counterterrorism. Earlier this year, the U.N. General Assembly endorsed the Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, which emphasizes respect for human rights, good governance, and anti-corruption as powerful antidotes to terrorism. Now, countries around the world are developing national CVE actions plans designed to reflect these elements, and bodies like the UNDP and UNESCO are partnering with countries on implementation of their action plans.

These steps are nascent. They are tentative. But they represent a widespread recognition that it’s not just ideology that leads individuals to violence – but also the broader political, social, and economic factors.

Of course, states alone cannot fully address the array of factors that fuel violent extremism. That’s why, as I mentioned before, CVE emphasizes building the resilience of vulnerable communities.

Communities resilient to violent extremism are those in which local leaders, parents, and peers know how to spot and address signs of terrorist radicalization. In which mentors or institutions can offer powerful counter-arguments or provide alternative paths for those at risk. Where citizens, law enforcement, and local officials are bound by trust and cooperation. Where the vulnerable 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. Where communities build such resilience, terrorists groups will struggle to find new followers and safe havens.

U.S. CVE efforts seek to build resilience in vulnerable communities around the world. For example, U.S. foreign assistance supports networks of women and girls in South Asia to act when they see signs of terrorist radicalization in their neighborhoods. The United States helped establish the Strong Cities Network to connect mayors and local leaders across the globe to exchange what works – and what doesn’t – in stifling terrorist recruitment. And the U.S. Global Engagement Center is empowering a broad 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, evoking principles and practices associated with counterinsurgency and stabilization operations, or with what many consider the fundamentals of effective governance or healthy communities. And that is because, although we brand the terrorist threat differently, it lives on a spectrum of conflict. The last 15 years show clearly that the political, social, and economic aspects of conflict extend to terrorism. And as much as we would like to treat terror as a unique threat, violent extremists often exploit the same underlying discontents that fuel insurgencies, civil wars, and interstate conflicts. Therefore, an effective response must address these causes and not just the symptoms.

Some CVE critics hear the words “root causes” and dismiss the approach because they assume, erroneously, that it demands remaking the world. Obviously no combination of interventions – whether by USAID, the Department of State, the EU, World Bank, or UNDP – can immediately address every factor potentially contributing to terrorism.

From a counterterrorism perspective, the keys are (1) prioritizing the most vulnerable communities, (2) identifying the particular social, educational, political, economic, or security drivers of radicalization at the local level, and (3) addressing the key drivers in an integrated way, including changing government actions that may exacerbate radicalization to violence.

That’s the approach we’re piloting this year in East Africa to prevent the spread of al-Shabaab recruitment and infiltration. Before launching our pilot, experts from across our government partnered to conduct extensive research, develop a common diagnosis of drivers, and design truly integrated programs to address the particular issues enabling radicalization to violence in the specific places their research identified as most vulnerable to al-Shabaab recruitment. At the same time, we have engaged in intensive dialogue with governments in the region about their policies and actions to ensure that, at a minimum, they’re not making the terrorism problem worse. And we’re trying to reinforce impact by coordinating efforts with partners like the World Bank. We hope this becomes the model for CVE efforts going forward.

More than a decade after 9/11, the United States has begun moving beyond reliance solely on military force and reactive measures. By articulating and implementing a more proactive, preventive policy for containing the spread of violent extremism, the U.S. has also prompted the global community – from U.N. and national development programs to the World Bank to UNESCO – to dedicate non-military resources toward addressing the underlying factors that render individuals and communities vulnerable to violent extremism.

This is real progress, but it is tentative – a beginning. Like any policy that relies on funding from Congress and Executive branch leadership, it will face renewed scrutiny in the years ahead. And because CVE is not a panacea, but a path forward, its proponents and practitioners must continue working to address questions about its effectiveness and impact.

Many CVE skeptics, focused on achieving short term, measurable results, question whether we can justify – or even measure – the impact of preventive efforts. But we should not equate counterterrorism – intelligence, law enforcement and military responses to active terror threats – with CVE. They are distinct, and CVE cannot deliver the same “results” as military force. But we cannot win a fight against terrorism if the pattern of the last decade repeats itself – that is, wherever we find military “success” the enemy moves and regroups and reforms and rebrands and returns on a larger scale to threaten U.S. interests.

We cannot afford to do nothing to prevent the next generation of terrorism. Skepticism about how to do CVE more effectively is appropriate and useful, but skepticism about the need to complement military efforts with non-military efforts is self-defeating.

I am confident we can get CVE right. In the East Africa pilot I mentioned earlier, we’ve embedded rigorous monitoring and evaluation, and we have made it a priority to strengthen M&E in our broader CVE efforts going forward.

We are mindful that our success hinges in large part on rigorous research and analysis, which are critical to ensuring that we mobilize the right tools for the right problems in the right places. Given the highly local dynamics of radicalization to violence, 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 local researchers to identify best practices for building resilience to violent extremism in their communities. I hope MIT can contribute to that effort.

Second, although we’ve begun increasing CVE funding at State, resources remain limited. Over the last year, kinetic operations against Da’esh in Iraq, Syria, and the Levant cost around $4 billion dollars. By contrast, last year, State spent less than $200 million on CVE programs worldwide. Now, I recognize that this is somewhat of an “apples to oranges” comparison – but it still underscores the staggering imbalance.

With respect to resources, I see tremendous opportunity to better align global investments on development with CVE. Each year, the international community spends billions to build roads and hospitals, train law enforcement, and promote human rights. Don’t get me wrong: those investments are essential; they make the world a better place. But many in the development community insist on a bright line between their work on the one hand, and CVE on the other. They do not want development assistance determined by considerations of security, fearing it will undermine the independence and humanitarian character of that work. I understand this reasoning, but I strongly disagree.

The threat of violent extremism is too great, global resources too scarce, and links between development, governance, and terrorism too clear, for these efforts to remain separate. By building schools, expanding opportunity, and empowering civil society in areas most vulnerable to violent extremism, the international community is investing in a positive, proactive response to the nihilist lure of violent extremism.

Given the relative costs of prevention compared to the exorbitant costs of military responses after terror networks expand, we owe it to U.S. taxpayers, and communities around the world under threat, to invest more in prevention.

Finally, there is a risk that CVE could be conflated with countering a religion – rather than countering violent ideologies and those who act in their name. Painting all adherents with a broad brush would both deprive us of the very partners we most need to help prevent the spread of violent extremism and risk becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy by fueling division along religious lines.

To strengthen credible groups and leaders outside government, we must reject needlessly fueling a “clash of civilizations” framing of the terrorist challenge. Portraying the struggle as one against “radical Islam,” for example, risks forging common cause not simply among disparate terror groups, but potentially across a broader swath of peaceful adherents of a venerated religion who experience this framing as a threat to their faith.

We must not forget the lessons of the post-9/11 period. After fifteen years of fighting al-Qa’ida, Da’esh, and offshoots, the international community has begun to reckon with the limits of military force and move toward a smarter and more holistic approach. But that shift remains fragile.

Terrorists will continue to murder and maim, and the temptation may grow to ignore past lessons in favor of short-term “success.” We owe it to every serviceman and woman who has served and sacrificed in the fight against terror – and to all the young people here who will live with the consequences of today’s policy choices – to remember that preventing the next generation of terrorists is every bit as important as defeating the current threat.

Thank you very much.