Start Small to Stop the Next ISIS

One year on from the defeat of the Islamic State, the new U.S. Congress should draw on lessons learned from efforts to counter violent extremism.

Iraqi men flash the victory gesture from inside a car during the Hashed Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) paramilitary forces' celebrations marking the first anniversary of victory over the Islamic State (IS) group on December 10, 2018. (Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi men flash the victory gesture from inside a car during the Hashed Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) paramilitary forces' celebrations marking the first anniversary of victory over the Islamic State (IS) group on December 10, 2018. (Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images)

Though it has been a full year since the defeat of the Islamic State, the United States has yet to define how it will prevent the return of the militant organization and the emergence of other violent extremist groups. This task merits top consideration for the new U.S. Congress this January: Islamic State strongholds are reportedly regrouping in Syria and Iraq, and more localized extremist groups remain committed to violence in Somalia, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. Further, across the Sahel, extremists are still exploiting the upheaval caused by unprecedented displacement, climate change, and economic disadvantage in order to regroup and recruit.

Through our programs and research at Mercy Corps, we have seen how a long-term strategy to prevent violent extremism depends on addressing the socioeconomic, institutional, and political factors that determine whether these groups form and are able to recruit in certain communities.

Since Sept.11, 2001, the U.S. government has invested in preventive tools to combat terrorism, including development and diplomatic programs to reduce the appeal of, and prevent supporters from joining, extremist groups. Every administration since George W. Bush’s understood that kinetic force alone could not counter this threat. And, on paper, the Trump administration’s October National Strategy for Counterterrorism seems to agree: The strategy mentions the centrality of prevention and a role for local civil society in countering radicalization, even as it eschews the term countering violent extremism (CVE), favored in the past to describe these activities.

The new Congress should exercise strategic oversight and evaluate 15 years’ worth of global CVE work in order to determine the most effective future investments in the field. To his credit, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who chairs the subcommittee responsible for the foreign assistance budget, commissioned a task force to study the underlying causes of violent extremism in fragile states. It released its initial findings this past Sept. 7, calling on the United States to build upon local governments’ CVE efforts and recommending preventative civilian CVE tools as a cost-saving imperative.

But to get there requires work. Addressing three specific policy questions that have lingered, unresolved, over the CVE enterprise for over a decade will help this Congress determine the right strategy.

First, they must understand which types of foreign assistance investments counteract insurgent mobilization, radicalization, and violent extremism. It’s not always immediately obvious.

In Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s, while U.S. policymakers hoped that development assistance could counter the terrorists’ narrative and mobilization, these aspirations fell short for a number of reasons. For example, in some cases in Afghanistan, when aid was delivered in contested areas, there was an increase in bombings against civilians and troops by extremists. Often commanders and senior officials felt pressure to spend large amounts of development money—building large infrastructure projects, for example—without much strategic guidance or oversight. Nonetheless, a 2017 systematic review conducted by Christopher Zürcher at the University of Ottawa found that reconstruction funds and other forms of aid in Iraq and Afghanistan reduced insurgent violence when the infrastructure projects were small and there was already a degree of stability in the community receiving the assistance. For example, examining data from the Commander’s Emergency Response Program in Iraq from 2003 to 2008, researchers found that when reconstruction projects were less than $50,000 and therefore more locally determined, insurgent violence decreased by fivefold.

This year, Mercy Corps researchers found that when individuals participate in our foreign assistance programs as well as programs in other sectors, they report a decrease in support for armed opposition groups. As a result of a randomly controlled trial in Afghanistan, we saw that a combination of vocational training and cash foreign assistance reduced recipients’ stated support for such armed groups by 17 percent. And in Somalia, we found that when youth enrolled in both secondary education programs—a critical development intervention—and they participated in civic engagement programs, such as community service programs for high school students, their support for local armed groups diminished by 65 percent. In both cases, these programs improved perceptions of local government, a potential explanation for this shift in support.

In an evaluation released earlier this year of large counter-extremism programs implemented in numerous cities in the United States, political scientist Tamar Mitts of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs wrote that in communities benefiting from a higher concentration of community-based CVE efforts the number of individuals participating in pro-Islamic State chatter on Twitter decreased. In Lebanon, researchers from Stanford University and the University of Brasília recently found that when refugee households benefited from foreign assistance, fighting-age males in these households were less likely to return to Syria to fight with extremist groups.

Thus there is increasing data-driven evidence confirming the effectiveness of CVE programming—but the evidence is not complete. Congress should incentivize the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department to analyze their own in-house data to reach a more nuanced, contextualized understanding of which foreign assistance programs work, and in which scenarios. The bipartisan Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Act passed out of the House in November with 376 affirmative votes. It aims to prophylactically strengthen the State Department’s and USAID’s capacities to identify risks of violence and conflict earlier in the lifecycle, and it has a good chance of passing the Senate in 2019.

Second, policymakers must look to address the problem of community-level terrorism recruitment.

We believe the most effective efforts address the broader community at risk. That’s because extremists succeed when they can operate at scale.

Among CVE professionals, efforts have long focused on targeting at-risk individuals. However, it is often not possible to predict those specific individuals who will join extremist groups. Therefore, we believe the most effective efforts address the broader community at risk. That’s because extremists succeed when they can operate at scale—for example, recruiting in certain communities with the permission of community leadership, political actors, or elders. The best CVE programs connect communal interventions with outreach to local and ultimately national leaders, so that government policies support rather than undermine community efforts. Further, development and diplomatic programs focused on the community can broadly consider the shorter-term security and economic needs of the population, as well as long-term grievances due to marginalization and exclusion, which provide extremists a powerful recruiting narrative.

We know that violent extremism will continue to emerge where state capacity is weak, limited, or nonexistent; where governments at the national and local level prevent service delivery and do not govern inclusively; where authoritarians limit religious expression and other forms of cultural identity; and where citizens fear the security sector as predators, rather than protectors.

The Islamic State group’s origin offers the greatest cautionary tale. The organization began appealing to those Iraqi communities where Sunni Arabs were marginalized by the national government, with limited access to basic services. In the years before the Islamic State’s rise, young men from these same parts of Iraq were often subject to abuse by police and other state officials. The Islamic State became an attractive alternative, quickly seizing territory and taking over key institutions such as banks and oil refineries, until the Iraqi government and the multinational coalition pushed back the Islamic State from its strongholds, culminating in the recapture of the city of Mosul by the Iraqi government in the summer of 2017 and a formal announcement of the Islamic States’ defeat a year ago this week.

Congress should also work to improve U.S. foreign assistance programs that help local and national governments become more legitimate, inclusive, and fair. But any efforts to improve America’s CVE strategy will be impossible if Congress allows the further weakening of the U.S. State Department, particularly the diplomatic capacities that are dedicated to preventing conflict and extremism. Efforts by the Tunisian government to reduce the flow of foreign fighters, as well as efforts in Minneapolis to prevent young Somali-Americans from joining al-Shabab, demonstrate that public diplomacy and diplomatic influence can limit the appeal of extremism and put pressure on partner governments to change local policies. These messages focus on specific local changes that could mitigate the appeal of extremist messages or recruitment efforts and urge partners to rein in corruption and ensure that the government is more responsive to communities.

The defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq cost $14.3 billion in military spending alone, and it is unclear how long this defeat will hold. Instead of waiting for the next crisis, Congress should seize this oversight opportunity to focus on prevention.

Dafna H. Rand is vice president for policy and research at Mercy Corps. Twitter: @dafnahrand

Rebecca Wolfe is director of evidence and influence at Mercy Corps, and affiliate at New York University Steinhardt School. Twitter: @rebeccajwolfe

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