Four countries of the Middle East and North Africa have seen their state structures crumble. Another is clawing its way through a transition and appealing for support. And thousands of young fighters from near and far are flooding the region to take up arms. Experts probed the intricacies of these currents this week by playing roles and then analyzing the results, in a search for effective ways of countering violent extremism.

peace game

The forum was the fourth biannual PeaceGame, an exercise devised by USIP and FP Group, which publishes Foreign Policy magazine and the eponymous website. The goal is to focus the same kind of seriousness and attention on creating peace as so often is applied to waging war. 

“We’re in it for the long game.” – al-Qaida role player

The discussion often became an uphill climb against complexity: How to strengthen constructive players on the ground without fueling the conflict? How to calibrate justice and accountability for past abuses with the need for stability and preserving vital institutions? How to craft big-picture approaches with the need to tailor solutions for specific conditions from the local to the national, regional and global? And why can’t Saudi Arabia and Iran just get along?

“It reflected the complexity of having these macro-level conversations when we’re dealing with so many affected countries and regions,” USIP President Nancy Lindborg said. “The challenge is bringing it down to some evidence-based approach of what works.”

David Rothkopf, chief executive officer and editor of FP Group, urged participants to focus on what could be done rather than the difficulties inherent in any particular step.

“Frequently in Washington and in other capitals, we see complexity being the enemy of action,” Rothkopf said. “There are so many things we have to do that we either do tiny, incremental things on all of them, or we don’t do anything at all.”

Farah Pandith, a senior fellow at the Kennedy School of Government and a former government official in three administrations, said one of the biggest myths in dealing with violent extremism is that “we can’t beat this.”

Evidence of What Works

“That’s a real stumbling block, and it really prevents us from being imaginative in dealing with what’s coming down the pike,” said Pandith, whose most recent government post was as the first U.S. special representative to Muslim communities. “Over the course of the last years since 9/11, [we] have pilot-tested a wide variety of things online and offline that we know can work.”

The question is how to dramatically expand the use of solutions that have been proven successful, she said. The U.S. has shown that it can be influential as a convener, a facilitator and an intellectual partner for ideas generated on the ground in areas affected by conflict, Pandith said.

Tunisia, for example, has determinedly pursued its transition to democracy through multiple elections without widespread violence. Yet its economy is struggling, leaving too many young people unemployed, and a continuing tension between secularists and Islamists emerges occasionally in bursts of violence such as the recent bombing at the Bardo National Museum. Both factors likely contribute to the fact that some 3,000 Tunisians have gone to fight with the radical Islamic State militant group in Syria and Iraq.

Former National Security Advisor and current USIP Board Chairman Steve Hadley just returned from Tunisia, where his meetings included one with an advisor to new President Beji Caid Essebsi, who spoke at the Institute on May 20.

“His comment was, `Tunisia has run the course of the national narrative and vision for the country that was established in the 1950s, and we need to come up with a new national narrative,’” recalled Hadley, who set the scene for the PeaceGame role players. “`What is uniquely Tunisian? And what is the role Tunisia is going to play in the region that gives our people a reason to invest in the future of their country?’”

Real Problems Underneath

The narrative of the self-styled “Islamic State,” also known as ISIS or ISIL, that it is establishing a caliphate to restore the greatness of Islam, is a powerful message that must be overcome, Hadley said. Compounding that argument is a “grievance narrative” that focuses on socio-economic injustices and the real problems that often underlie the message. Even more than Tunisia, the four regional countries currently at war have either exhausted their own national narratives or never had strong ones to begin with, Hadley said.

Discussions of narratives, however, raise the question of terminology, said Georgia Holmer, USIP’s interim director of rule of law programs, who played the role of law enforcement. She noted the distinction between alternative “narratives” that address underlying issues and can be persuasive enough for young people to prevent them being lured by extremist causes, on the one hand, and countering immediate propaganda with tactical messages when militancy is already at hand.

Misunderstandings of the role of extremist narratives also can be problematic.

“The ideological narrative is the hook that draws the fighters in, but the narrative is how they are recruited, not why,” Holmer wrote in an article this week on The Peace Channel, a joint project of USIP and FP. Government-run de-radicalization programs in Singapore and Indonesia, for example, “showed limited success because these programs failed to address the reasons individuals engaged: search for meaning, belonging, or identity that came with being part of the cause, the opportunities membership offered, or a desire to seek justice or revenge for real and perceived grievances.”

A move in one of the PeaceGame scenarios was the failure of the U.N. to take significant action in response to widespread barrel bombing in Syria. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, represented the Islamic State in the game and noted the “obvious” propaganda value of the U.N.’s inaction. He laid out a plan that would position the group as the courageous heroes taking revenge for the destruction by capturing and executing forces fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  

Part of what makes violent extremists so powerful is their critique of the prevailing global order and conditions, and only way to counter that effectively is to examine it for truth and address those points, said Katherine Brown, a lecturer in defense studies at King’s College, London.

Shutting Off Propaganda Channels

The chief executive of a data science startup, Jonathon Morgan, proposed a more radical solution in his role representing the technology industry. Citing the industry’s place as “the conduit for this message,” he said, “we’re in a position where we can take action.” He proposed shutting down accounts of extremists to limit their outlets. But others noted the trade-offs – closing off access to those who might still be persuaded to turn away from violence, and eliminating potential sources of information that the intelligence community can use for analysis and early warning.

A United Nations counter-terrorism strategist, Thomas Parker, expressed skepticism during the PeaceGame of the effectiveness of counter-messaging when underlying socio-economic conditions remain poor. The U.N., he said, instead focuses on improving living conditions in fragile countries to prevent a range of ills, including radicalization.

Yet potentially effective civilian-focused efforts often are starved of resources in favor of military approaches that are an easier sell with Western lawmakers eager to appear tough on terrorism or to support the jobs created with weapons programs, some players said.

It’s “easier to vote on the F-16s and the counter-terrorism strategy” than on more long-term but potentially more sustainable approaches, said Toni Verstandig, chair of Middle East programs at the Aspen Institute.

“It’s the legacy of Charlie Wilson’s war, frankly,” she said, referring to the 2007 film of that name. The movie ends with the U.S. losing interest in Afghanistan and withdrawing even the most meager development aid after the Soviet Union withdrew its troops. The decision left the country to collapse into the haven it ultimately became for al-Qaida.

Piecemeal Approaches

The current budget for diplomatic and development initiatives requires too much of a piecemeal approach with disparate efforts to cobble together funding from a range of public and private sources rather than allowing a comprehensive strategy that includes political, economic and other civilian-based approaches alongside military operations.

Verstandig proposed a “merged national security budget” that would combine funding for defense with that of civilian efforts. Hadley and Lindborg said variations of that had been attempted on a smaller scale and the results had raised other issues. But both agreed with the underlying premise. “I think we’ve got to have a broader understanding of what is our national security interest and what are the tools we need to protect that interest,” Hadley said.

Hard-power and soft-power approaches must be integrated and “given the money and the resources – and here’s the most important part: the respect,” Pandith said. “When you talk about soft power, CVE ideology, the war of ideas, eyes glaze over.”

Manal Omar, USIP’s acting vice president for Middle East and Africa programs, said the international community needs to set an example if it wants to encourage more emphasis on non-violent resolutions in the region. Specifically, she denounced the tendency to only invite armed groups to the negotiating table and to sideline civil society.

“We tend to really marginalize those groups and see them as ineffective,” Omar said.

Omar also injected one of the game’s frequent moments of levity to break the tension. Representing Syria with a gaming partner who played Assad, Taufiq Rahim, she announced halfway through that, as a military general, she was defecting to the opposition. She then reveals a strategy the Assad regime has pursued successfully -- distracting the international community with all the talk of the purported “clash of civilizations.” “It is something that concerns me as I see my people dying, as this strategy continues to work,” Omar said, playing her role.

Jokingly and seriously, Rothkopf noted the problem of short-term thinking and the international community’s pattern of focusing on the latest scourge, in this case, the Islamic State, which has origins in a previous obsession, al-Qaida. Once driven to the margins, it re-emerges elsewhere and/or in another form, largely because of a failure by the U.S. and others to commit to a fight as long as it takes to achieve a permanent resolution.

Rothkopf joked with Nada Bakos, a former analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency who was playing the role of al-Qaida: “You’re yesterday’s terrorist group.”

Bakos shot back cleverly -- and eerily, “We’re in it for the long game.”

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