New Frameworks for Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism

Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
Brookings Institution
Washington, DC
February 16, 2016

Thank you all very, very much. John, with that build-up, I think I can only disappoint. To those of you who are inspired by Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar at the Grammys, this may not be the followup that you are looking for.

But I do have to say that it is a great pleasure, as always, to be at Brookings. A great pleasure to be with a dear friend and dear colleague Strobe Talbott, who never fails to remind me that Deputy Secretaries had a lot more fun in his day. But then again, he also didn’t benefit from the strong bipartisan consensus we enjoy have today, so really it’s hard to say. But in all seriousness, Stobe has been an extraordinary friend and colleague and mentor for many, many years, and I think it is safe to say that I wouldn’t be here had it not been for that support and mentorship over the years.

And John Allen, I think, Strobe spoke very eloquently to you. I think there are few Americans to whom our fellow citizens owe so much—for the work you’ve done over so many years to keep us a little bit safer and a little bit more secure. When President Obama asked you to build a global coalition from scratch to degrade and ultimately destroy Daesh, you hit the ground running and you never looked back. In one year, John Allen put together a coalition of now 66 partners that has brought every political, diplomatic, economic, and military tool down to bear against Daesh—undermining the very foundations of its self-declared Caliphate and revealing its cause for the savage lunacy that it is.

We would not be where we are in this campaign without its architect and the original driver, John Allen, and it is always a great pleasure but also an honor to be here with you. Thank you very much, John.

A few days ago, I was in Djibouti City, and spent some time in a municipal library, where I sat with a dozen or so young civil society leaders to talk about violent extremism and the extraordinary ways in which this community is mobilizing in response. Situated along a corridor of flight for desperate young migrants and beleaguered refugees, Djibouti is increasingly focusing on preventing and countering violent extremism in a part of the world that is all too familiar with the tragic costs of famine, war, and terror.

We were sitting together, and I asked this extraordinary group of young people, “What is it that drives other young people to answer the siren call of violent extremism, and, maybe more important, why is it that so many more—the overwhelming vast majority not answer that call?”

And we had a rather extraordinary discussion, and their own answers, passionate and thoughtful, and they revealed the degree to which they are grappling with these very questions every day. In one week alone, this group hosted a dialogue between imams and mothers, organized poetry contests and skits, and brought together university scholars and religious leaders—all in this effort to better understand and counter the challenge of violent extremism.

If that extremism thrives in the shadows of personal, social, political, and economic marginalization—capitalizing on the grievances of those who feel cast aside, left behind, ignored, or repressed—these young leaders are determined to counter it with the bright light of education, inclusion, tolerance, good governance, and opportunity.

I walked away inspired by their commitment to understand and defeat what is a metastasizing threat—not as soldiers on the battlefield or even public officials in office, but as community leaders, as teachers, as entrepreneurs, as students who all have a stake in a peaceful future.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that just a few days ago, three young women arrived at a camp for those who had fled the ravages of Boko Haram in far northeastern Nigeria. There –in a sea of families—two of the girls detonated bombs they were carrying, taking their own lives and those of nearly 60 other people. The third young woman surrendered when she learned her parents and siblings were among the displaced persons in that camp—saving her own life and perhaps countless others.

This is just one of many excruciating reminders, as if one were necessary, of the challenge we face—a challenge that does not stop at borders or distinguish among its victims.

In response, the United States has mobilized countries around the world to disrupt and defeat these threats to our common security—starting with Daesh and al-Qaeda and including Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, AQAP, and a number of other groups. Now, the most visible part of this effort is the battlefield and our increasingly successful effort to destroy Daesh at its core in Iraq and Syria. Working by, with, and through local partners, we have taken back 40 percent of the territory Daesh controlled a year ago in Iraq and 10 percent in Syria—killing senior leaders, destroying thousands of pieces of equipment, all the while applying simultaneous pressure against key chock points and isolating its bases in Mosul and Raqqa. In fact, we assess Daesh’s numbers are the lowest they’ve been since we began monitoring their manpower in 2014.

We have a comprehensive strategy includes training, equipping, and advising our local partners; stabilizing and rebuilding liberated areas; stopping the flow of foreign fighters into and out of Iraq and Syria; cutting off Daesh’s financing and countering its propaganda; providing life-saving humanitarians assistance; and promoting political accommodations so that our military success is sustainable.

In each of these areas, we are making real progress. These hard-fought victories undermine more than Daesh’s fighting force. They erode the narrative it has built of its own success—the perception of which remains one of Daesh’s most effective recruiting tools. For the danger from violent extremism has slipped past war’s frontlines and into the computers and onto the phones of citizens in every corner of the world. Destined to outlive Daesh, this pernicious threat is transforming our security landscape, as individuals are inspired to violent acts from Paris to San Bernardino to Jakarta.

So even as we advance our efforts to defeat Daesh on the frontlines, we know that to be fully effective, we must work to prevent the spread of violent extremism in the first place—to stop the recruitment, radicalization, and mobilization of people, especially young people, to engage in terrorist activities.

And that’s what I want to talk about today.

So here is what we know.

There is no single type of violent extremist; no single method of recruitment; no single source of motivation or support. There is no single story, no easy synonym for one region, religious tradition, or culture.

Some violent extremists believe that they are pious. Others are not. Some are misinformed and misled. Others are educated and knowledgeable. Some are beyond reach. Others will still listen.

Some are more focused on what they’re running to; others more driven by what they’re running from. Some become disillusioned. Others become very, very dangerous.

In short, the nature and range of possible drivers of violent extremism can vary greatly—from individual psychological factors to community, sectarian, and religious divisions—and these persist across different ethnicities and cultures.

But while there is no single cause, we do see common denominators—common factors that breed or help accelerate violent extremism, including feelings of alienation and exclusion, exposure to vile and rampant propaganda, a lack of critical thinking skills, and experiences with state-sanctioned violence, heavy-handed tactics by security services, and the systematic denial of opportunity.

Of course, there is no grievance so bitter, no disadvantage so deep that it ever justifies murder, rape, and slavery.

But if we are going to actually win, in a sustained fashion, the fight against violent extremism, it will not be through combat alone. It will not be exclusively by sending American troops into every dark corner of the world—intervening in every country where a radical ideology takes root. Security operations are absolutely necessary, but they are not sufficient.

As Secretary Kerry has said, this is a fight that over time will be won in the classroom. In houses of worship. On social media. And community centers. At sites of culture heritage. On the sports field. And within the homes of people in every corner of the planet.

It is a fight that will be determined by our ability to come together as leaders and as nations to reach those at risk before terrorist recruiters do. It will be determined—in other words—by a comprehensive approach that tackles this challenge from every angle, harnessing every tool at our disposal and mobilizing every community leader as our partner.

Since President Obama first issued a call to action at the United Nations in 2014 and hosted a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism one year ago this month here in Washington, a movement has grown of country leaders and company CEOs, municipal officials and young people, clerics and parents united by their commitment to fight the ideologies of hate, to defeat agents of terror, to destroy networks of financiers, propagandists, and recruiters, to strengthen our own ability not only to counter—but to prevent—radicalization in the first place.

To help deliver on this commitment, Secretary Kerry has directed the State Department to lead the efforts of the United States abroad in coordination with the whole of our government—to reach out and work with foreign governments, organizations, individuals to prevent and counter violent extremism.

Today, I am able to announce that in consultation with Congress, we are increasing the resources and personnel devoted to this mission—to be led by a renamed Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism—in order to embed this priority into the core of our foreign policy and ensure it is sustained through a more proactive and integrated approach.

We believe this step is critical to effectively confronting the shifting threat landscape we face, and that’s why we have also asked Congress for expanded resources in the President’s budget request. But I want to emphasize that these resources will be additive to our existing counterterrorism efforts.

Our approach is governed by five core priorities that were first shaped by our discussions at the White House Summit a year ago and now are being refined into the first-ever joint USAID and State Department strategy on preventing and countering violent extremism. Let me briefly walk through the core elements of that strategy.

First, we are expanding partnerships to develop the expertise to better understand violent extremism and its drivers at the international, regional, national, and local levels. The phenomenon of violent extremism is, of course, not new, but its manifestations in this century are—its tactics, its tools, its reach, especially, of course, through the internet and social media.

We are developing the research and evidence base to shape rigorous and targeted initiatives tailor-made to the communities in which they will be implemented. Since President Obama’s summit last year, we have helped establish an independent network of local researchers around the world dedicated to exactly this task. By examining violent extremism in their unique contexts, we are improving our ability to vigorously measure the effectiveness of our politics and our work—to ensure that we understand exactly why something works or why it fails.

Thanks to the work of many partners, including Muslim-majority nations, the Global Counterterrorism Forum will release a toolkit this coming September of best practices and strategies that address the complete life cycle of radicalization to violence—from prevention to intervention to rehabilitation and reintegration.

We’re still learning. It was only a year ago that this conversation really began, and we put that conversation front and center on the global agenda. It is now the core of our engagements—on a bilateral basis, on a multilateral basis—with countries as diverse as France, Djibouti, and Tajikistan, virtually around the world.

We may not yet have full fidelity on the impact of our efforts—it’s a work in progress—but we are putting in place the structures and resources to carry forward this effort in tailored, targeted, data-driven, and results-oriented ways.

Second, we are working closely with our partners—at the national and local level—in Europe and around the world to actually adopt more effective policies to prevent the spread of violent extremism.

One example—we have something now called the Strong Cities Network, connecting local officials around the world to share their experiences and, importantly, their best practices. For the first time, there is a global platform for those on the frontlines to learn from each other.

We can learn from communities in Tajikistan that have created “mothers’ schools” to help mothers recognize warning signs of radicalization to violence and act to protect their children before it is too late.

We can learn from cities like Dakar, Senegal, where a collaboration of 19 district mayors supports roughly 500 youth volunteers, again, to help identify and address local concerns in partnership with police.

Or from cities like Vilvoorde, Belgium, a small town that had, per capita, the highest number of foreign terrorist fighters leave for Syria and Iraq. A little over a year ago, in 2014, a delegation from Vilvoorde came to the United States to learn about community engagement and policing techniques, including law enforcement and community advisory groups, diversity training, and student exchanges. After he returned, the mayor instituted new programs modeled on the ones he had seen here in the United States. In the time since, the rate of recruitment has fallen significantly. Although the lure of Daesh remains, the Mayor reports that nobody has left for Syria or Iraq since the summer of 2014.

Third, we are strengthening local partnerships to address the underlying political, social, and economic factors that put communities at high risk and make young men and women susceptible to the siren call of extreme ideologies.

In many environments where the risk of violent extremism is high, development has failed to take root, governance is weak, access to education limited, and unemployment common.

Together with State, USAID is bringing its development expertise to bear in precisely these environments—harnessing the full range of analytic tools to design, support, and measure programs that reduce the vulnerabilities of local communities.

In Gao, Mali, where the rate of recruitment was particularly high during occupation by violent extremists in 2012, AID piloted a program to reduce the isolation and marginalization of target communities. After fostering trust by responding to basic needs, the program quickly pivoted to activities that built ties between communities through things like soccer tournaments, dialogues, youth conferences. A social network analysis conducted during the program found that community integration had already increased by 11 percent and led, in particular, to more tolerant views on the rights and role of women in society. So these programs work, they can be effective, and we’ve seen it on the ground in the field.

Thanks to the leadership of Secretary Kerry, we’re mobilizing public and private sector support behind these efforts through the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund. We have the first round of grants that will be made shortly to local communities in Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Mali—followed by a second round to Burma, Kenya, and Kosovo.

Fourth, we will engage and amplify locally credible voices that can expose the true nature of violent extremism, its savagery, and its denial of human dignity. Every day, in state-of-the-art propaganda videos, in glossy magazines, in a relentless flood of tweets and posts, Daesh and its supporters warp ideology, traffic in lies, glorify violence. We are fighting back hard in this space, in the press, in social media—pointing out the reality of what these terrorists are doing to their fellow Muslims and anyone else who stands in their way.

Through the recently announced Global Engagement Center and digital communications hubs in places like Abu Dhabi and Kuala Lumpur, we’re helping to tackle propaganda and recruitment efforts head on by empowering independent, positive voices from the region—voices that represent the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation is also working to set up its own messaging hub, to raise the voices of its scholars and clerics on the importance of multiculturalism and inclusion.

In just over the last year, we have seen the space and tolerance for extremist propaganda begin to shrink. Twitter alone recently suspended 125,000 accounts for threatening or promoting terrorist acts. In corners of social media that were dominated just over a year ago by Daesh, the equation has flipped. Now the space is overwhelming populated by anti-Daesh messages, and it is beginning to have an impact—measured not only in tweets and followers, but the falling numbers of foreign terrorists fighters and the growing networks of researchers, young people, and city leaders inspired now to positive action.

Just this past December, when the leader of Daesh asked Muslims everywhere to join the cause, we saw in social media a global backlash. “Too busy being part of a civilized and functioning society,” wrote one. “Also, Sherlock season 4 starts in just a few days.”

A few weeks ago, the White House dispatched some of its most senior national security leaders to Silicon Valley to discuss what more we can do together to elevate positive and diminish negative voices—while of course respecting some of the differences in our approaches.

Our challenge today is not the small number of violent extremists online. It’s their virulence. More organized, sophisticated, and technologically savvy than moderate voices, they succeed in inspiring an extremely tiny segment of the global population to violence.

We’ve understood, in the United States, we cannot be effective messengers on our own in this space. We have to empower those who are—local voices, including disillusioned returnees, religious leaders, women, and young people.

This past year, in response to a call from the State Department, 45 university teams from 17 countries participated in a competition to produce credible and persuasive campaigns against extremism. In their final presentation, the winning team described the fear and frustration of growing up in neighborhoods where classrooms must be protected by snipers and school buses by police. As university students from Lahore, they know better than anyone the value of ensuring that messages of tolerance resonate with those who need to hear them most.

Fifth, and finally, we will strengthen the capabilities of our partners to prevent radicalization to violence in prisons and help ensure that former fighters are rehabilitated and reintegrated back into society whenever possible. We know, from experience across the globe, that prisons can be hotbeds for recruitment, especially when terrorist leaders or captured foreign fighters are housed together with non-extremist offenders.

The urgency of this challenge has been bought into sharp relief in recent years. Two of the three perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attacks may have been radicalized in prison. The same is likely true of the terrorist who shot and killed four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in 2014. And it is also likely true for the gunman responsible for the attack in Copenhagen in 2015.

As a result, our partners around the world are increasingly embracing innovative ideas to mitigate prison radicalization. In one frontline state, we’re working with a local NGO that provides pro bono legal assistance and vocational training to inmates, including juveniles, who have been detained for low-level, non-violent offenses. By facilitating the release and reintegration of these prisoners, we help remove them from a setting where they are vulnerable to the recruitment efforts of violent extremists.

But prisons can also be effective environments to target rehabilitation and reintegration programs, in part because prison is a time when individuals can be cut off from negative influences and contacts of the past, if it’s done right. Today, we are working with experts around the world to develop tools to assess the attitudes of prisoners to terrorism over a period of time to help both separate terrorist recruiters and ideologues from vulnerable inmates and identify good candidates for rehabilitation and reintegration.

Ultimately, at the heart of our strategy—at the center of each of these five pillars—is a commitment to the principles that have underwritten an unprecedented era of greater peace and prosperity over the last seven decades. Principles of good governance and pluralism. Of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms. Of human rights and human dignity.

Governments that stoke the flames of sectarianism and religious animosity or leaders who use counter terrorism laws as an excuse to crack down on protestors, journalists, or civil society only deepen the fissures and grievances that can help fuel extremism.

Those who advance these tactics would have us believe that societal tolerance, civil society, and an active press lead to violence and disorder, and societies are more stable with the strong-arm of centralized power and the safety blanket of control.

But as President Obama has said, “The essential ingredient to real and lasting stability and progress is not less democracy. It’s more democracy.”

It’s continuing to invest in a world where the vast majority of people recoil at the actions of terrorists and reject the ideology of violent extremists with every fiber in their being. We need to keep it this way, while reaching the very small pool of people who don’t.

At a time when two young women saw no choice, no hope, no chance but to detonate themselves in crowded haven for vulnerable families, there can be no doubt, no confusion about the gravity of the risk we face or about the firmness of its grip.

But what makes these tragedies so agonizing is not our despair at the alternatives. It is our great confidence in them. No child is born to hate, and no child is born to kill. They all reach their arms out when they want to be carried, and they all ask questions when they want to know answers. They grow up wanting to be accepted, to learn, to contribute, to fulfill their potential. They are doing their part. We have to do ours.

So, on behalf of Secretary Kerry, let me say in conclusion how we’re grateful for the support and engagement so many of you in this room have lent to this work in classrooms, community centers, and think tanks like Brookings. It is not hard to see that—in their very acts of terror—violent extremists are precipitating exactly what they hope to destroy: a world more closely bound together in defense of dignity, justice, and peace. Thank you very much.