Report: Counterterrorism Should Pivot To Strengthen Fragile States

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A new report says U.S. counterterrorism efforts need to focus much more on the long-term goal of supporting fragile countries and preventing extremism from taking root.

The report, sponsored by the nonpartisan U.S. Institute of Peace, says that after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the U.S. response was to protect the homeland and pursue terrorists abroad.

Now, the authors say, the U.S. should emphasize the stabilization of countries where groups like al-Qaida and Islamic State can establish a foothold.

"The threat has evolved," the report says. "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 [northern Africa]."

"The priority for U.S. policy should be to strengthen fragile states — to help them build resilience against the alarming growth of violent extremism," the report adds.

The new report was led by the same two men in charge of the highly regarded 9/11 Commission Report, former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, a Republican, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat. That 2004 report was a comprehensive study of the 2001 al-Qaida attacks.

Helping weak states

"Fragile states are the incubator of extremism," Hamilton told NPR's All Things Considered. "It's a very tough challenge, because what you're fundamentally trying to do is to remake societies."

Kean said his team, formally known as the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States, supports the effort despite the difficulty.

"As rich as we are, we're limited in our resources," he told NPR. "What we're proposing here, which is strengthening these fragile states, is an awful lot cheaper than using our troops."

The report avoids partisanship and does not comment on President Trump's approach toward combating extremist groups.

The president says he wants to crush terrorist organizations like the Islamic State. However, he has not presented detailed plans or a comprehensive strategy.

While his tone is in sharp contrast to that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, Trump has continued with some of the same policies, relying on limited U.S. forces to battle extremist groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

Trump has at times contradicted his own hard-line rhetoric by expressing the desire to withdraw U.S. troops from these countries. A number of top U.S. military commanders say the American forces are still needed to provide stability and prevent the resurgence of extremist groups.

Relatively few attacks

The U.S. has suffered terrorist attacks at home since the Sept. 11 attacks, but many analysts say the country has been broadly successful in limiting them compared to what was feared in the wake of the al-Qaida strikes.

Radicals Islamists have carried out 13 deadly attacks claiming 104 lives in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001, according to New America, a think tank in Washington.

"We've had some considerable success," said Hamilton. "The core of al-Qaida has been devastated. The number of attacks from terrorists has been sharply reduced."

The report also notes that the Islamic State has been largely defeated in Iraq and Syria. But it says the U.S. can't simply declare a military victory and then leave.

"The United States should move quickly both to consolidate its gains against ISIS before ISIS has a chance to reemerge and to prevent violent extremism from taking root in new territory," it said.

The report also said U.S. rivals, such as Russia and China, could undermine American efforts with their destabilizing actions.

"Moscow is by far the largest weapons supplier" in Africa, the report notes. And China is "Africa's largest single-country trade partner and its biggest creditor," leaving a number of states increasingly dependent on China.

In the Middle East, the intense rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia often takes the form of proxy battles in other countries. Both are involved in Yemen's devastating civil war, creating chaotic conditions and a humanitarian disaster in a country where al-Qaida has a strong presence.

Even in less volatile states, Iran and Saudi Arabia spend large sums on religious schools and religious television stations that can provide a platform for extremists.

Kean and Hamilton said they have been consulting with the Trump administration and described the response as encouraging, though they didn't offer specifics. The pair acknowledged that this report is an overview with broad policy recommendations. They said their task force plans to release a second report in January 2019 and will provide details on implementing the policies they've raised.

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