This interim report of the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States explains why such a preventive strategy is needed and what it might entail. In 2019, the Task Force will propose a comprehensive preventive strategy to mitigate the conditions that give rise to violent extremism.
This report begins by reviewing the new strategic environment that has emerged since 9/11— the increased fragility, the evolution in extremist strategy, and the rise of strategic competition that plays out in fragile states—and argues for a new understanding of the threat posed by extremism in fragile states to U.S. interests. The threat is based not only on the possibility of attacks against the homeland but also on the ability of the United States to compete against its adversaries globally. The report then examines the conditions and actors that contribute to the emergence of extremism in fragile states. Finally, it considers what a preventive strategy might look like by identifying the strategy's key objectives, highlighting the challenges for implementation, and reviewing evidence of what sorts of approaches can make a difference in fragile states. Ultimately, this report argues that the United States urgently needs a new strategy to strengthen fragile states and help them build resilience against extremism. Such a strategy would be difficult, but not impossible, to put in place. The current political winds are favorable to its adoption and successful implementation.
(b) COMPREHENSIVE PLAN.—Funds made available pursuant to subsection (a) shall be transferred to, and merged with, funds appropriated by this Act under the heading "United States Institute of Peace" for the purposes of developing a comprehensive plan (the Plan) to prevent the underlying causes of extremism in fragile states in the Sahel, Horn of Africa, and the Near East.
Since the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, law enforcement has stopped many terrorists from entering the United States, and U.S. armed forces have eliminated large numbers of terrorists overseas.
Seventeen years later, the threat has evolved. Violent extremism has spread across a wide arc of instability stretching through fragile states in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel. These groups are present in 19 out of 45 countries in these regions and have held and governed territory in 10 of them. The United States has responded by conducting combat operations in 5 of the 45 countries and providing security assistance to 39 of them. But to stop extremists from spreading further and roll back their gains, we need a new strategy, one that focuses on the incubators of extremism: fragile states. Congress has charged this Task Force to devise such a strategy.
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.
As a result, the threat that extremism in fragile states poses to the United States has also changed. The dangers of extremism now extend beyond our homeland. Violent extremism dulls America's ability to compete on the world stage. It undermines U.S. regional influence and the open, rules-based international order by fueling chaos that destabilizes neighboring countries, weakens U.S. allies, and triggers further crises, such as the unprecedented wave of refugees.
As long as extremism fuels instability, the United States cannot compete effectively against strategic rivals such as China, Russia, and Iran. Nor can the United States confront extremism without addressing the ways our rivals exploit and contribute to this threat.
The time has come for a new U.S. strategy. We need not only to defeat individual terrorists but also to mitigate the conditions that enable extremist ideologies to take root, spread, and thrive. Going forward, the priority for U.S. policy should be to strengthen fragile states—to help them build resilience against the alarming growth of violent extremism within their own societies.
This interim report assesses the threat posed by extremism in fragile states, analyzes the conditions that fuel extremism, proposes a new set of strategic objectives for U.S. policy, and examines what we know about how to achieve these objectives. The Task Force will issue a final report in early 2019 to propose a comprehensive strategy for reducing extremism in fragile states.
As the 9/11 Commission recommended in 2004, we need not only to attack terrorists and protect against their attacks but also to prevent the continued growth of violent extremism. A preventive strategy is a cost-effective and sustainable way to keep America safe.
We have, thus far, lacked a common understanding of how to stop the spread of extremism. But a consensus is growing on what conditions fuel extremism; political will is building in the international community to act; and recent success stories give hope that we can make a difference.
Extremism emerges through the confluence of poor and undemocratic governance in fragile states and extremist ideology and organization. These conditions arise from the actions of regimes in fragile states, violent extremist groups, and international actors. In fragile states, governments lack legitimacy, and institutions struggle or fail to provide basic public goods—security, justice, and services. An effective strategy to combat extremism needs to tackle both the conditions that gave extremism a chance to take root in a society and the behavior of actors that spawned these conditions in the first place.
Such a strategy cannot succeed without strong U.S. leadership and sustained commitment. The United States needs to build productive national and local partnerships in fragile states for strengthening the resilience of their societies, including through humanitarian assistance; secure the political cooperation and financial support of international partners; dissuade countries from abetting extremism, corruption, and repression in fragile states; and unite disparate American and international efforts behind a common goal. As President Donald Trump said at the 2017 Riyadh summit, we should build "a coalition of nations who share the aim of stamping out extremism and providing our children a hopeful future."1
This approach does not call for the United States to undertake expensive attempts to remake far-off societies with very different cultures and histories than our own. We cannot. But we can work with partners to identify and target the discrete local conditions that fuel extremism.
Cooperation to prevent extremism is an effective and sustainable strategy that will lower the costs that the United States bears. Already, among the United Nations, the World Bank, the European Union, and the Arab Gulf states, opinions are converging on the importance of tackling extremism in fragile states. If we lead that effort, our partners' resources can leverage our own. Moreover, preventive measures cost far less than military interventions—saving $16 for every $1 invested2—and put fewer American lives at risk.
A preventive strategy is neither passive nor naive. The United States always reserves the right to use force and should do so to confront imminent threats posed by terrorism. The bigger challenge before us is to prevent future threats from emerging. We want to foster resilient societies in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel that are capable of resisting the growth of violent extremism, so that we not only defeat today's terrorists but also alleviate the conditions that spawn tomorrow's.
1 President Trump’s Speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit, May 21, 2017.
2 United Nations and World Bank, Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2017), 11.