What to do 2017: Terrorism and extremism

Terrorism continues to challenge US policy and US national security. Before there can be any comprehensive strategy to counter terror, it’s important for allies and adversaries alike to accept a single definition. Policymakers should recognize that the motivation for terror lays not only in grievance but also ideology. While the military can be used to deny safe-havens, it cannot alone delegitimize the ideology—religious or otherwise—motivating trans-national terror.
What are we solving, and why does it matter? 
The attacks on September 11, 2001 propelled terrorism to the forefront of US national security concerns. Not only do al Qaeda, its affiliates, and the Islamic State continue to attack American interests abroad, but each has sought to recruit Americans and stage attacks inside the United States. How to contain and defeat the challenge will be a primary question for the new administration. Nearly 15 and a half years after 9/11, there is no consensus on whether the US government should treat terrorism as a criminal or military matter; whether terror motivation lies more in grievance or ideology; the degree of the threat to the United States; and even on basics such as the definition of terrorism.
The US government’s primary responsibility is to protect its citizens and homeland. Terrorism threatens the security of Americans at home and abroad, can cripple the economy, and impacts the balance between security and civil liberties. Two lessons of the pre-9/11 era are that terrorist safe-havens pose a threat to the US homeland and the US cannot dismiss terrorist threats as empty rhetoric. Terrorists have sought to strike at the United States since 9/11: The 2009 airplane underwear bomb and the 2010 Times Square car bomb, for example. Their failure was luck, not the success of current US strategies.
What should the strategy look like? 
The US strategy must be multifold:
  • The US and like-minded democracies should agree on a single definition of terrorism and require its formal acceptance as a prerequisite to counter-terrorism assistance. This counters the “we’re against terrorism unless we agree with its cause” problem we see across the Middle East and South Asia.
  • Don’t sacrifice national security upon the altar of political correctness. There can be no third rails when addressing religion and culture. Just because the United States separates religion and state does not mean the rest of the world does. The US government should shift responsibility for determining state sponsors of terrorism from the State Department to an independent body to prevent diplomatic niceties undercutting reality.
  • While diplomacy might mitigate certain grievances, it is crucial to recognize that successful strategies have a military component to neutralize ideologues.
  • The US should encourage moderate allies (like Morocco and Indonesia) to promote interpretations that delegitimize more extreme exegesis, and support the efforts of countries like Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt to regulate religious study and teaching.
We must also keep in mind…
  • The Geneva Conventions do not apply to terrorists, and Constitutional protections apply only to American citizens.
  • The tools—diplomatic, economic, military, and intelligence exist. Public diplomacy and influence operations lag. The biggest problem is lack of strategic coherence.
  • It is essential to resource the US military to keep it the best in the world. The intelligence community, however, must address its human intelligence deficit. Media outreach and enough operators fluent in strategic languages and dialects remain major weaknesses.
  • Democracies are natural partners. If democracies form a united front on counter-terror assistance, it is possible to coerce moderate Arab states to join without multilateralism becoming synonymous to the lowest common denominator. Holdouts must abandon their terror sympathy or risk becoming pariahs.
  • Polls suggest the America people would embrace a more forceful military response to terrorism. The biggest holdouts would be Islamist advocacy groups which frequently obfuscate links between Islam and terrorism. These should be ignored in favor of those groups which do recognize that the battle is one of interpretations within Islam.
  • The benefits of a comprehensive counter-terror strategy far outweigh the costs. Diplomatic anger on the part of partners like Turkey and Pakistan shamed as state sponsors by an independent body can be offset by channeling their anger toward substantive reform.
  • This strategy might be opposed by extremes of both left and right. The left might refuse to see the ideological basis for Islamist terrorism and instead want to redress grievances, whereas some on the right will blame Islam as a whole. Moderate Muslims are key to neutralizing both as they acknowledge the ideological component and repeatedly put themselves on the front line battling radicals and terrorist groups.

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