To Prevent Violent Extremism the Next Administration Should Think beyond the Military

I was lost in an episode of This American Life when my up-armored SUV was knocked sideways on the highway between Fallujah and Ramadi. It was 2010, and I had been in Iraq as a civilian for over a year, attempting to build a grassroots foundation for democracy post-Saddam Hussein. Though I will never know for sure, informal channels suggested to me afterward that the misfired improvised explosive device pointed in my direction that summer morning was triggered by violent extremists targeting what they believed to be an unlawful foreign military presence.

Myriad lists detail push and pull factors in violent extremist recruitment. Most experts agree the descent into violence results from a lack of access to opportunities afforded to youth, a desire for adventure, a need to feel part of something bigger than oneself, and/or mischanneled kinetic energy, especially among young men. Most also agree that misguided security and political actions are a bigger part of the problem than the solution.

Nonetheless, U.S. efforts to address violent extremism since 9/11 have disproportionately focused on “creating security space,” i.e., relying on responses by military forces, intelligence assets, drone strikes, and law enforcement. At best, these approaches eliminate tactical threats and secure people, places, and assets. At worst, they exacerbate grievances, are used to justify violence, and are tools of recruitment for bad actors who facilitate the radicalization of individuals and communities. In other words, creating security space can very well produce more violent extremism than it counters. Though the evidence varies in the details, one overarching theme is abundantly clear: preventing the sense of aggrievement that turns extremists violent requires tools not typically found among security actors.

A Better Approach

A better approach would focus efforts on why people act on extreme views, what issues trigger extremist violence, and what the evidence shows works best to prevent this from happening. Prevention requires offering a more appealing alternative model, one characterized by inclusive and equitable societies where human rights are upheld and where youth see a future for themselves beyond violent extremism. Truly bending the curve on violent extremism trends requires micro-targeted ways to give people purpose and agency over their futures. Achieving this requires civilians to be given the time and resources to deploy non-kinetic tools, to periodically fail, and ultimately to study and scale what works in support of local partners.

In my experience, longer-term solutions for drought-stricken Somalis are different than those needed by climate change-displaced Bangladeshis. Both places have people—particularly youth—susceptible to recruitment by violent extremist organizations (VEOs) unless presented with a better approach and more sustainable future, but each place requires tailored tools and approaches. A better approach would reflect the dynamic nature of each challenge—from drought-depleted camel herds in Al Shabaab’s backyard to flooded farmland in an emerging breeding ground for VEOs—and focus on more than just the most susceptible by engaging societies at all levels in the prevention effort.

Prevention requires healing. For my Iraqi friends and colleagues, healing meant learning how to engage with democracy and community activism while they were transitioning out of the Saddam years, during which doing so was tantamount to treason. I received a barrage of messages in 2013 when The Atlantic published evocative photos of 1960s Afghanistan. For my Afghan colleagues, healing meant knowing that they were doing their best to create a more stable, inclusive, and better-governed society. Against all odds, they are determined to achieve this in their lifetimes despite the best efforts of the Taliban and other violent extremists standing in their way.

Policies that empower these types of activities require resources for development, without which people feel less invested in their futures and without which violent extremists exploit governance vacuums where people’s needs are unmet. I personally witnessed thousands of excited South Sudanese people returning from exile on barges moving slowly down the Nile to the world’s newest country in July 2011. The euphoria of independence was short-lived as returnees started experiencing the myriad humanitarian, governance, and human development challenges that independence alone was unable to address. The subsequent descension into sectarian tribalism—accentuated by a return to open conflict in late 2013—was to some a natural biproduct of the lack of development progress post-independence. It is in such environments that violent extremists like Joseph Kony find fertile ground for recruitment.

The good news is that leaders—from flag officers to diplomatic and development leaders to former secretary of defense Bob Gates—accept the evidence, increasingly realizing that prevention should be the focus and that prevention requires softer and smarter tools. The bad news is that this acceptance has not turned into doctrinal and institutional change fast enough.

Constraints to Reform

The case is not made often enough—and almost never done so in a compelling way to voters outside of Washington, D.C.—that soft power tools are more effective than hard power ones when it comes to violent extremism. The politics of violent extremism—and the policies that result from politics—are based more on anger and trauma than evidence and affirmative vision.

I worked in New Hampshire politics during the last presidential cycle; I know how difficult it is to explain convincingly to voters of all political persuasions that preventing violent extremism requires fewer soldiers and more civilians. Voters fed a regular diet of fear do not want to hear that it will take time, bilateral cooperation with like-minded allies, and leadership in the multilateral system to produce demonstrable and durable results. These political realities result in elected representatives appropriating most of the government’s resources and manpower to more hard security-focused agencies, including (but not limited to) the Departments of Defense (DOD), Homeland Security (DHS), and Justice. Even though evidence suggests that taxpayers could get more durable outcomes for less money from civilian-led approaches than hard security ones, politicians are forever afraid of the perception that they are advocating for less security and military spending.

Adding to the political challenge is the fact that change has been stymied within existing institutions. Some doggedly hold onto the belief that hard security is the most effective way to address violent extremism. Others opportunistically maintain the status quo because, for example, DOD and DHS’s counterterrorism, countering violent extremism, or prevention of violent extremism (PVE) resources currently dwarf those in other parts of the U.S. government. Still others benefit greatly from the long-standing military-industrial complex. Efforts are being made to expand the civilian toolkit, for example at the Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization (CPS) at the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) and the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources (F) at the Department of State, the U.S. Development Finance Corporation (USDFC), and even at the Pentagon’s Office for Stability and Humanitarian Affairs. I have worked with experts from all these government agencies and know how focused they are on innovation and adapting their tools to meet the challenge and promise of prevention. But their efforts often come despite comparatively limited resources. Imagine the impact that CPS, CSO, F, and the USDFC could have with increased resources (including staff), mandates, and authorities to prevent violent extremism.

Many who might otherwise agree with increased civilian resources ask from where such resources would materialize. This is the wrong question. The issue has for too long been incorrectly framed as civilians trying to “take away” authorities and resources from the military. The goal of increasing civilian efforts is to complement the critical work of security actors. Not only aware of the merits of softer approaches to preventing violent extremism but troubled by the mission creep it takes to achieve them, some military leaders are even trying to bequeath resources and authorities to their civilian colleagues. More focus on soft power tools is not the only answer, but it is a key piece that is often overlooked and chronically underfunded.

How to Achieve the Better Approach

Whoever occupies the White House in January 2021 has an opportunity to change these stubborn political and institutional realities. The next president should prioritize civilian PVE efforts as significantly as hard security responses and should ensure close coordination of all efforts in the interagency. Congress should support this by appropriating more of the right “color of money” to civilian agencies doing PVE. Both efforts would result in necessary investments in civilian capacities that would cost the U.S. taxpayer far less than hard security approaches and result in more durable outcomes and more effective national security policy (in part thanks to more and stronger democracies), all while putting fewer U.S. troops in harm’s way: a veritable “win-win-win.” Even so, PVE right will require dogged political leadership and longer-term dedication. Leaders must be willing to utilize evidence above political expediency in their decisionmaking, championing an affirmative vision of what should be produced, not just removed, even if doing so carries short-term political consequences.

Doing PVE right will require all the tools in the U.S. interagency toolbox, properly deployed and coordinated to meet whatever the challenge may be. Counterterrorism should not be used to define entire government efforts, but when “kill or capture” is the primary goal this should naturally be led by security forces with information sharing to civilians also operating in theater. Preventing violent extremism should be civilian led with communication to security forces whose physical presence is ideally absent from community view. No matter the challenge and the corresponding tools deployed, actors should be careful not to let short-term security objectives impede longer-term prevention goals.

Doing PVE right will require humility. The United States does not prevent violent extremism well inside its own borders, where white supremacists pose a significant and growing threat. Civilian efforts to prevent violent extremism abroad also become harder when values are compromised at home, especially when mostly ignoring relevant efforts across the multilateral institutions seems to have become a national pastime.

Doing PVE right will require a willingness to learn and adapt. A former boss and Harvard economist has demonstrated that evidence is critical for smart policy, but only when actually used by policymakers. For example, some may suggest that Islam naturally leads to jihadist terrorism when the evidence actually points to the opposite—participation in the annual Hajj has been shown to reduce, not increase, extremist views. Nonetheless, it is difficult to say exactly what works in PVE because programs have been too small in scale to truly understand their impact, and evidence collection and impact evaluation is rarely (if ever) properly prioritized and resourced. To the extent civilian efforts have been evaluated, they show promise. Doing this better will require abandoning counterproductive (security-only) policies in favor of those based on more and better evidence. PVE will require listening to the people we want to influence and designing and executing policies based on the lived experience of civilian professionals and those steeped in the evidence.

I think often of that summer morning in Iraq. In the immediate aftermath, I was grateful for the armored plates that saved us, not to mention pure luck. My base instincts were to let anger and fear transform into a desire for retribution. But today I think more about how closer relationships with communities, better local governance, productive outlets for young men, and other positive outcomes of evidence-based, civilian-led efforts are not only a better use of my tax dollars, they also could very well have prevented the act of violence in the first place.

Erol Yayboke is deputy director and senior fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Erol Yayboke

Erol Yayboke

Former Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program