Despite counterterrorism efforts that have “thwarted dozens of plots and thoroughly disrupted terrorist capabilities,” we “cannot rest” in our efforts to prevent violent extremism, said Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats Tuesday night at an event at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

From left: USIP President Nancy Lindborg; Governor Thomas Kean; Senator Kelly Ayotte; USIP Board Chair Stephen J. Hadley
From left: USIP President Nancy Lindborg; Governor Thomas Kean; Senator Kelly Ayotte; USIP Board Chair Stephen J. Hadley.

The event, co-hosted by USIP and the Bipartisan Policy Center on the 17th anniversary of 9/11, recognized 9/11 Commission chairs Gov. Thomas Kean and Rep. Lee Hamilton for their work leading the Commission and for continuing this work through the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States. On Tuesday, The Task Force released its initial report on the challenges of preventing extremism today—as well as a framework for solutions.

A panel discussion focused on the work of the Task Force and included Gov. Kean as well as Task Force members Nancy Lindborg, president of USIP, and former Senator Kelly Ayotte. USIP Board Chair Stephen Hadley, also a member of the Task Force, moderated the conversation. 

A “New Phase” of Fighting Extremism    

In 2004, the 9/11 Commission put forth three recommendations to address the threat of terrorism in the wake of the attacks: to destroy terrorists and their organizations, protect against and prepare for future attacks through intelligence and defense measures, and prevent the continued growth of terrorism. 

“The first two we’ve done pretty successfully,” asserted Gov. Kean. “The last, not so much.”

Seventeen years after the 9/11 attacks, said Rep. Hamilton, “We’ve strengthened our homeland protections. We’ve gone after the terrorists effectively. We’ve killed and eliminated a lot of bad actors.” But, the third goal remains elusive. 

As such, said Gov. Kean, the Task force on Violent Extremism is “really, in a sense, a continuation of the 9/11 work.” 

Furthermore, although the United States faces a threat that today is “global, less centralized and in many cases harder to detect” than it was on 9/11, explained Coats, it is “simply a new phase in the post-9/11 counterterrorism fight.”

Fragile States Breed Terrorists

A successful strategy to fight the spread of extremism today, said Lindborg, focuses on the conditions in places that serve as its incubators: fragile states.

“Fourteen years ago,” said Lindborg, “Tom and Lee foresaw the need … to develop a comprehensive strategy that goes beyond responding to violent extremism and focused on preventing its rise in the first place … in the words of their report, ‘a preventive strategy that is as much or more political as it is military.’”

Without this strategy in place, extremism has continued to spread; the number of terrorist attacks worldwide has increased fivefold since 2001. 

“Extremists have, in particular, gained a foothold in the fragile states where the social contract between government and their people is fundamentally broken,” explained Lindborg. 

“There they find fertile ground for recruiting aggrieved, disenfranchised societies, and, in particular, youth.” They earn public support by “providing the services that their governments in those countries do not.”

Coats reiterated this, saying that “these activities remind us of the importance of using nonmilitary levers, including economic assistance and humanitarian aid, to counter terrorist influence and undermine their presence.” 

“While we must maintain our counterterrorism pressure, it will be our efforts to address the underlying drivers of terrorism that will ultimately yield success in this generational struggle.”

The Task Force is focusing on addressing the conditions in fragile states that allow extremism to take root and spread. 

Its initial findings “underscore the interlocking nature of the challenges posed by fragility and extremism,” said Lindborg, and will inform “very specific concrete proposals for how to turn a decade of learning and scholarship into action that matters.” 

Bipartisanship is Essential

Concrete action will require bipartisan—and international—cooperation, said Task Force members.  

Several speakers reminded the audience that political tensions were high when 9/11 Commission was convened. 

Yet, said Bipartisan Policy Center President Jason Grumet, “Tom and Lee understood the importance of consensus as well as the courage required to actually achieve it.”
Bipartisanship will similarly be crucial in accomplishing the Task Force’s work today, said Gov. Kean. “When you’re dealing with national security issues, partisanship seems to disappear. Keeping America safe—that’s something we should all be working together on.”

Moreover, Sen. Ayotte reinforced the report’s findings that not just internal but international cooperation will be fundamental to the Task Force’s success. “[Extremism] is obviously a threat to us, but it’s a threat to our allies, it’s a threat to the world,” she said. “One of the things we are focusing on in this Task Force is coalitions that can be built, not only with our NATO partners, but with the Arab nations and others.” 

“I have a firm belief that U.S. is the indispensable nation when it comes to leading in this regard,” she maintained. “But we do need partners and we should seek out partners. We should not have to do this alone … we’re not going to be effective if we try to go alone.” 

Additionally, local partners on the ground are a key ingredient to any strategy to fight extremism. “We need that commitment from the local partners … to be effective, rather than just thinking that, as the United States, we can solve it all ourselves,” Sen. Ayotte pointed out.

Turning the Task Force recommendations into bipartisan, multilateral action may be difficult, said Gov. Kean, but not impossible.

“I think if we can really get their attention,” said Gov. Kean, “If the administration and Congress understand that this is very much in the public interest first of all, that it’s much less expensive than any strategy we’ve been following so far, and thirdly that it is deeply, deeply in the interests of the future of this country … then I think we can get it done.”

“We should all join on this 17th anniversary of 9/11 and let the memory of those who lost their lives that day recommit us to work together to ensure that this country never suffers such a loss in the future,” said Hadley, a former national security adviser for President George W. Bush, at the conclusion of the event. 

Read the interim findings of the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile states.

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