The South Asia Channel

Ten Recommendations for Obama’s CVE Summit

President Obama's Summit on Countering Violent Extremism begins today. Here are ten things the administration needs to keep in mind when formulating a strategy.

US President Barack Obama (C) walks alongside Saudi's newly appointed King Salman (C-R) at Erga Palace in Riyadh on January 27, 2015 following his arrival in Saudi Arabia. Obama landed in Saudi Arabia with his wife First Lady Michelle Obama to shore up ties with King Salman and offer condolences after the death of his predecessor Abdullah. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (C) walks alongside Saudi's newly appointed King Salman (C-R) at Erga Palace in Riyadh on January 27, 2015 following his arrival in Saudi Arabia. Obama landed in Saudi Arabia with his wife First Lady Michelle Obama to shore up ties with King Salman and offer condolences after the death of his predecessor Abdullah. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

In light of recent attacks in Ottawa, Sydney, Paris — and now Copenhagen — President Obama announced a White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) that begins on February 18 to discuss U.S. and international efforts to prevent violent extremists and would-be supporters from “radicalizing, recruiting, or inspiring individuals or groups to commit acts of violence.” The White House has said the summit will build on current White House strategy. However, the White House would be wise to keep in mind these ten recommendations derived from the field of international security studies:

  1. Convene international religious scholars at the Grand Mufti level to issue public statements that specifically identify what counts as Islamist extremism, how their own respective traditions and norms are different, and what we should do about rising extremism in our communities.

It’s time to move beyond the “Islam/not-Islam” dichotomy when it comes to extremist violence and realize that one key, authoritative counter-narrative against Islamist forms of extremism must come from religious authorities. As we have learned in our own recent visit to the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh at the invitation of Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, for our preparatory workshop, The Role of Shari’a and Islamic Laws of War in Contemporary Conflict, religious authorities in most Muslim-majority states are critical of any form of Islamic extremism, including groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Muslim societies are on the frontline of these acts of violence, and local communities are the victims.

Relatedly, religious authorities must make clear the distinction between religious conservatism, which is pronounced throughout many Arab and Muslim communities including in the West, and extremist precepts, practices, and organizations. Right now, Muslim religious authorities, even highly conservative ones, are rightfully concerned as they know (better than most) that their own publics are vulnerable to these ideologies and their destructive dynamics. Likewise, as recent Pew “Global Attitudes” surveys indicate, Muslim publics are increasingly concerned about extremism and their supporters.

  1. Get your facts straight.

Too much of the public discussion on extremism, terrorism, and nonstate political violence is unsubstantiated — based on little or limited data. The limits of good data in academic terrorism studies is the subject of a recent debate in the Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence and Marc Sageman’s “The Stagnation in Terrorism Research.”  Despite hefty government R&D funding, a deluge of academic newcomers, and no shortage of scholarly books and articles, we are no closer to building rigorous datasets to help answer basic questions, like: “What makes a person turn to political violence?” Or  “When and why is terrorist violence used as a preferred political tactic?” Although, some studies have tried to answer these questions, they are now outdated and the uptick in foreign fighters joining conflicts like those in Iraq and Syria deserves fresh attention.

Without an evidentiary baseline, false assumptions and notions take precedence, such as the idea that poverty causes terrorism — it doesn’t.  Given such concerns and building on the University of Maryland’s START data, and spin off data projects from the quantitative armed conflict literature, the U.S. government should fund more data scholarship, support more robust academic partnerships, and release more data for empirical study.

  1. Develop counterterrorism policies focused on Islamist strategy vs. Islamic values.

Too much policy and scholarly discussion of extremism invokes values-based religious discourse and not fact-based strategic inquiry. When people systematically kill others, especially civilians, the least pertinent issue on the table is religion — even when it’s used to justify such acts. The issue is power, who has it, and what they think they can do with it — including appealing to religious, apocalyptic discourse to maintain or establish that authority, as with ISIS. It is time to realize that if an armed group brazenly invokes religion, culture, history, or victim status to systematically kill and is successful at doing so, that indicates a pre-existing power problem. Too often religious discussions — while important to make distinctions (see #1) — distract from the fact of pre-existing power relations or fail to scrutinize such ideologies for strategic clues about countermeasures. A strategic approach to political violence must be advanced, both at the regional and domestic levels to understand the politics and strategic logic of groups like ISIS, and at the international level, to make sense of criminal-terrorist networks and to predict when violent organizations will throw their lot in with larger geopolitical alliances.

  1. Treat Muslim-majority states as partners in governance and capacity building.

Violent extremism can be fostered anywhere and has been spreading in a number of Western countries, thanks to ISIS recruitment methods. But treating it as a problem to be solved only by Western countries leaves vast resources untapped. Hence, Muslim-majority states — governments, such as they are, and communities — must be engaged as partners in efforts to curb extremism at many levels: in military, law-enforcement, and counterterrorism capacity building, and in reducing corruption and building effective governance.

Part of these efforts must contend realistically with public opinion among Muslim societies: while there is increasing contempt for extremism, there is also broad support for key precepts that extremists exploit. For example, the vast majority of Muslims surveyed (majorities in 32 of 39 countries) in the Pew studies said they “believe there is only one true way to understand Islam’s teachings,” not that “multiple interpretations are possible,” and significant majorities believe the Quran to be the literal word of god. Likewise, many Muslims surveyed overwhelmingly want Islamic law to be the law of the land, and many Muslims — most in Egypt, Tunisia, Afghanistan — found Islamic political parties to be “better” than others.

  1. Build on rule of law initiatives locally and internationally.

One of the best and earliest British terrorist scholars Peter Wilkinson recognized the role that the rule of law plays in combating terrorism: “I have discovered that, contrary to so much received opinion, it is possible for democracies to respond effectively to contemporary terrorism without undermining basic civil liberties and the rule of law, and that the protection of human rights, far from being an obstacle to effective counter-terrorism, is a vital part of an effective long-term democratic response.” Many terrorist organizations gain a foothold in countries where rampant corruption and challenged legal systems are the norm: the Islamic State in Iraq, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the Taliban in Pakistan.

Obama has said that the United States “cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war — through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating.” Yet the current strategy seems to be just that: U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Iraq and Syria have done little to battle corruption or bolster rule of law on the ground and despite a decade plus of drone strikes in Pakistan, extremist militant groups are still going strong. Instead of military-focused solutions, a better strategy would be to reroute more funds to programs that strengthen faltering or weak states through rule of law initiatives.

  1. Take U.S. counterterrorism failures as a cautionary tale.

It is critical to balance not only existing freedoms with security imperatives but to devise domestic and foreign policies that do not overreact to either general threats or to specific attacks. As John Mueller and others have shown, terrorists accomplish their goals — less from the initial violence — and more from government overreactions. It is now, in the post 9/11 moment, practically de rigeur that the national security state, when faced with an act of terrorism, will overreact. Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, some politicians, like British Prime Minister David Cameron, went so far as to suggest that the attacks could have been prevented if fewer communications were encrypted and proposed eliminating all “safe spaces for terrorists to communicate” to ensure that U.K. authorities could access everything. Part of Cameron’s knee-jerk reaction in an effort to prevent future terrorist attacks overcompensates with unnecessary and potentially unlawful security measures and is reminiscent of U.S. counterterrorism measures, including Section 215 of the Patriot Act which allowed the National Security Agency to collect the bulk telephone metadata of U.S. citizens.  As a report by New America showed, “surveillance of American phone metadata has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism and only the most marginal of impacts on preventing terrorist-related activity, such as fundraising for a terrorist group.”

Though democracies are often seen as soft targets for terrorists, eager to exploit their civil liberties and open cultures, ultimately,  democracies do a fairly good job walking the line between protecting civil liberties and eschewing overly draconian counterterrorism measures. In fact, a commitment to civil liberties is a “counterterrorism asset” because it  restrains democracies from adopting harsh countermeasures that would undermine public and international support needed to defeat terrorists.

  1. Try not to give terrorists the war they want—but be willing to protect core political cultural values.

In a recent interesting piece in The Atlantic, Graeme Wood reports interviewing an Australian ISIS recruiter, who implies what has now become a well-known cliché of extremist asymmetric strategy: “death by a thousand cuts,” as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross puts it. The idea is that al Qaeda and other Islamist strategists opt for many, low-level, nonconventional attacks against strong states’ soft targets to bleed a country like the United States slowly. In short, what Islamist extremists often want is a war –preferably a direct confrontation, boots on the ground — so as to hike both economic and political costs and to convey the idea (in the counter-response) that the rag tag team of Islamists are worthy adversaries and warfighters.

Such strategic provocations abound lately in ISIS behavior toward its neighbors: most recently, Jordan, but also Saudi Arabia, Shias in Iraq, among others. In this respect, U.S. national security policymakers must isolate the grand strategy behind ISIS political violence (and other affiliated or splinter groups) and build regional partners who can work with the U.S. toward countering and containing that strategy. In the process, Obama must be the communicator in chief — explain relentlessly to international and U.S. public what we’re doing and why and how it comports with our law-based, political cultural traditions.

  1. Leverage international law — notably U.N. Security Council Resolution 2178

U.N. Security Council, resolution 2178  creates collaborative law enforcement and international security mechanisms to combat the dynamic, international flow of foreign fighters to and from armed conflict zones. UNSCR 2178 not only inveighs against rising extremism or expanding recruitment networks, it offers some distinctive tools. First, it addresses individuals, not only organizations, “who travel to a State other than their States of residence or nationality for the purpose of the perpetration, planning of, or participation in terrorist acts” or training; and second, in that context, all states must get their domestic legal systems up to snuff to provide for the criminal prosecution of travel for terrorism, related training, financing, or facilitation. States must also prevent individuals with terrorist-related intentions from transiting through their territories. The resolution links and strengthens domestic rule of law initiatives with international counterterrorism standards.

  1. Use it judiciously in ways that recognize geopolitical and geostrategic realities, alliances, and consequences.

John Lewis Gaddis in a now famous lecture pointed out that when in 1998 a NATO briefing team came to Yale to make the case for the Clinton administration’s new policy of expanding the Alliance to include former Eastern bloc countries, a colleague asked whether such moves might create problems for Russia, given then President Yeltsin’s attempts to democratize the country, even “driving Russia into some new form of cooperation with the Chinese, thereby reversing one of the greatest victories for the West in the Cold War, which was the Sino-Soviet split.” After a moment of “shocked silence,” one briefer erupted: “Good God! We’d never thought of that!” After this glaring example of what General George C. Marshall called “theateritis” — the tendency of military commanders to look only at the needs of their own theater of operation, and not at the requirements of fighting the war as a whole — Gaddis felt creating a graduate course on grand strategy was not only necessary but urgent.

This vignette — and the same potential theater blindspot we see at work in Iranian nuclear negotiations — in some ways encapsulates the post-9/11 wars and U.S. (among others) use of force in ways that were not fully cognizant or reflective of strategic realities and political implications across the region. This time, we need to get it right, know ourselves and our own limitations, especially if we are once again contemplating a proxy war approach to ISIS and al Qaeda splinter groups and affiliates.

  1. Empower women in the fight against extremism.

On the issue of women’s empowerment, governments need to expressly and emphatically part ways with conservatives — of any stripe. It has been 15 years since the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 which recognized the importance of women’s active participation in all dimensions of the conflict, peace, and security domains — including conflict resolution and peacebuilding. The recent U.N. Security Council Resolution 2178 likewise spells this out in CVE efforts: encouraging the role of women in “developing strategies to counter the violent extremist narrative that can incite terrorist acts” and to “address the conditions conducive to the spread of violent extremism, which can be conducive to terrorism.” Yet, women cannot play this role if their position of cultural, legal, or structural subservience is tolerated by cooperating states.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Corri Zoli, Director of Research/Assistant Research Professor, Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism (INSCT), College of Law/Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University.
Emily Schneider is a program associate in the International Security Program at New America. She is also an assistant editor of the South Asia channel. Twitter: @emilydsch

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