Seventeen years ago today, we experienced the gravest attack on our nation since World War II. Everything we thought we knew about protecting the safety of American citizens and security of our shores changed overnight. Americans came face-to-face with an unfamiliar enemy: violent extremists.

Fighters, who joined a militia to help liberate the city of Mosul from the Islamic State, wait at their base near the Mosul Dam near Karaj, Iraq, Oct. 18, 2016. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)
Fighters, who joined a militia to help liberate the city of Mosul from the Islamic State, wait at their base near the Mosul Dam near Karaj, Iraq, Oct. 18, 2016. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the families of the victims, Congress and the administration rallied together to protect our country and defeat those who sought to harm us. As a part of this effort, we were tasked with convening a commission to understand the causes of the attacks on 9/11 and develop a strategy for preventing another attack on America.

The resulting 9/11 Commission Report, released 14 years ago, recommended three core goals for U.S. policy: attack terrorists and their organizations; protect against and prepare for attacks; and prevent the continued growth of Islamist terrorism.

Since 9/11, Extremism has Grown in Fragile States

In the intervening years, we have been successful in protecting our homeland. But we have not been able to prevent the continued growth of extremism abroad. In fact, terrorist attacks have increased, and violent extremist groups have spread in fragile states across the Middle East, North Africa, Horn of Africa, and the Sahel. These groups have gained footholds in 19 countries of these regions and used these footholds to expand their influence.

America now faces a new challenge. That is why Congress charged the U.S. Institute of Peace with convening the bipartisan Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States to study the challenge and propose a comprehensive plan to prevent the underlying causes of extremism in fragile states.

As chairs of the 9/11 Commission, we willingly agreed to lead the Task Force, seeing it as the necessary continuation of our previous work. Today we release the Task Force's first report, aptly titled "Beyond the Homeland: Protecting America from Extremism in Fragile States."

A New Strategy to Address Extremism Where it Starts

The report warns that we urgently need a new approach to address the root causes of violent extremism and previews a comprehensive preventive strategy that focuses on strengthening resilience against extremism in fragile states.

Like the 9/11 Commission, the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States began by seeking to better understand the extremist threat of today. The report finds: "We confront a different strategic environment than on 9/11. The Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel have become increasingly fragile. Extremists' strategies have evolved, and their focus is now on establishing a new political order. Meanwhile, America's rivals have seized on this disorder to grow their power and influence, preying on the weakness of state fragility."

Al-Qaida and the Islamic State have exploited weak governance in fragile states to seize territory, impose their intolerant, totalitarian rule, and try to show they can govern better than existing states. Since 2006, 30 countries in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel have become more fragile, providing ample opportunity for extremism to expand their influence. Extremism has fueled instability that spills across borders, weakens U.S. allies, triggers further crises, such as the unprecedented wave of refugees.

Early next year, we will release a follow-up report that will detail a recommended action plan to strengthen national security by reducing the conditions that fuel extremism in fragile states. This plan will pursue four broad goals in fragile states of the Middle East, Horn of Africa, and the Sahel:

  • Alleviating real and perceived injustice
  • Fostering political inclusion
  • Curbing the appeal of extremist ideology
  • Containing the spread of extremist groups

When we released the 9/11 Commission Report in 2004, we had widespread support for a new approach to combatting terrorism. We need such support now. It is tempting to think that because there have been no large-scale attacks on our shores in the last 17 years, the extremist threat has subsided. But it has not. And it will not as long as we allow extremism to grow. We need a new strategy for curbing the spread of extremism to protect our security at home and our interests abroad.

Read the full report (PDF)

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