The recent territorial victories against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are a significant achievement. However, terrorist groups like ISIS are not traditional enemies, and their strength cannot be assessed on traditional metrics. Thousands of fighters remain, and ISIS is intent on regrouping.

A police officer mans a checkpoint in Raqqa, Syria, on June 13, 2018. Despite the liberation of Raqqa from ISIS, the group remains a potent threat. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
A police officer mans a checkpoint in Raqqa, Syria, on June 13, 2018. Despite the liberation of Raqqa from ISIS, the group remains a potent threat. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

The complex battle against ISIS is a useful microcosm of the terrorist threat at large. Territorial defeats have not led to long-term destruction of terrorist groups. The number of extremists has actually expanded over the last decade.

Graph depicting estimated number of Jihadi-Salafist fighters, 1980-2018 (Seth Jones et al./ CSIS)

Despite extensive counterterrorism efforts, at a cost of $6 trillion and 60,000 killed or injured, the number of terrorist attacks worldwide each year has increased five-fold since 2001. Sunni Islamist militant groups have grown nearly four-fold and are now present in 19 countries in the Middle East, Horn of Africa, and Sahel. Global terrorist groups in parts of Africa and Asia have expanded their abilities to strike local U.S. citizens, interests, and allies, stoke insurgencies, and foster like-minded networks in neighboring countries. Extremist groups are exploiting grievances and societal instability, and straining security forces to gain power.

Nearly all relevant U.S. policy tools, both hard and soft, are focused on dismantling terrorist networks, thwarting attacks, or stopping individual radicalization. These responses, even when successful, do little to prevent and often inadvertently help lay the groundwork for extremists to grow and thrive. This costly, reactive approach has diverted U.S. attention and resources from greater priority national security challenges. As long as the terrorist threat persists, our focus on responding to it will diminish our ability to respond to efforts by our competitors like China, Russia, or Iran in the region.

In this environment, Congress charged USIP with convening the bipartisan Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States, chaired by former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean and former Representative Lee Hamilton, to design a comprehensive new strategy for addressing the underlying causes of violent extremism in fragile states.

And next week, it will release its final recommendations to Congress and the administration outlining its proposed policy approach.

The recommendations are built on the following tenets:

  • Extremism is inherently a political and ideological problem. Preventing extremism requires supporting local partners in addressing citizens’ needs while mitigating risk from outside actors.
  • A successful preventative strategy does not include nation-building. The strategy relies on empowering local partners to safeguard their nations’ security and sovereignty.
  • Extremism is a global problem and requires a global solution. The U.S. is well-positioned to lead efforts to focus the international community’s attention on prevention and catalyze donations. But a successful approach will require the participation and contribution of the international community and the private sector.
  • Preventing extremism is less expensive than fighting terrorism. The proposed approach aims to reduce the need for costly and reactive strategies and tactics that are necessary once extremists take hold.

In 2004, after studying the circumstances leading up to the September 11 terrorist attacks, the 9/11 Commission, also led by Rep. Hamilton and Gov. Kean, concluded that future counterterrorism and homeland security efforts must be guided by “a preventative strategy that is as much, or more, political as it is military” in order to be successful in protecting against future terrorist attacks.

The military aspect of this strategy has long been realized. Fifteen years later, this report aims to lay the groundwork for fulfilling its political promise.

Related Publications

Amid Rising Sahel Violence, Burkina Faso Builds a Response

Amid Rising Sahel Violence, Burkina Faso Builds a Response

Thursday, May 16, 2019

By: James Rupert

A perfect storm of violence is breaking upon Africa’s Sahel. Since late 2018, communal conflicts—many over access to food, water or productive land—have produced thousands of deadly attacks. Across the region, nearly 4,800 people died in conflicts from November to March, according to the violence-monitoring group ACLED. The greatest surge in bloodshed is in Burkina Faso, where communal militias or religious extremists killed 500 people over five months. But amid the dire headlines, governments and civic groups in Burkina Faso and other Sahel countries cite progress in stabilizing communities with a basic step that simply has seldom been undertaken: broad, local dialogues among community groups, police forces and officials. Community leaders and government officials say they are now expanding those dialogues to improve national security policies to help counter the tide of violence.

Fragility & Resilience; Justice, Security & Rule of Law

Congressional Oversight for Effective Foreign Policy

Congressional Oversight for Effective Foreign Policy

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

By: USIP Staff

As leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s new panel on oversight and investigations, Representatives Ami Bera (D-CA) and Lee Zeldin (R-NY) agreed that examining the nuts and bolts of diplomacy and development work is a critical—and often unfulfilled—job for Congress.

Fragility & Resilience

Amid North Africa’s Turmoil, Tunisia’s Steady Transition Moves Forward

Amid North Africa’s Turmoil, Tunisia’s Steady Transition Moves Forward

Friday, May 3, 2019

By: Adam Gallagher

From Algeria to Libya to Sudan, North Africa has been roiled by protests and fighting in recent months not seen since the 2011 Arab uprisings. Those uprisings were sparked in Tunisia, which has continued a steady, if uneven, democratic transition in the years since. Despite the challenges posed by this regional turmoil, the small Mediterranean nation must continue to focus on domestic problems, said Tunisia’s defense minister, Abdelkarim Zbidi, this week at the U.S. Institute of Peace. What happens in Tunisia in the years to come will be important for the entire region.

Democracy & Governance; Fragility & Resilience

Fragile States and Violent Extremism: New Ideas for a Policy of Prevention

Fragile States and Violent Extremism: New Ideas for a Policy of Prevention

Thursday, April 25, 2019

By: Fred Strasser

On April 21, suicide bombers in Sri Lanka reminded the world that the end of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” by no means marked the defeat of violent extremism. Indeed, despite trillions of dollars spent and tens of thousands of lives lost, terrorism is spreading. The urgency of checking the ideology behind terrorism, particularly where the ground for it is most fertile, has never been greater, said members of the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States this week at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Fragility & Resilience; Violent Extremism

View All Publications