How U.S. Counterterrorism Goes All Wrong

The only way to address terrorism is to turn the current approach on its head.

An unmanned U.S. Predator drone on Jan. 31, 2010, flies over Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan. The U.S. had suspended drone strikes in Pakistan for almost six months ahead of attacks Wednesday night and Thursday morning on suspected Taliban hideouts.

Drone strikes won't solve anything.

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Boko Haram continues to pillage and kill in northeastern Nigeria, Taliban militants stage a brazen attack on Karachi international airport in Pakistan and the al-Qaeda linked ISIS takes control of Iraq’s second largest city. Meanwhile, U.S. counterterror policy seems to be stuck in a fruitless spiral of throwing good money after bad even as the number of violent extremist groups have spiked over the last decade.

Too much blood and money has been poured in an overly militarized approach to tackling violent extremism. A systemic understanding and rethinking of our approach to countering violent extremism would consider the following.

First, it is important to remember that violent extremism does not rise up in a vacuum. Its growth is fostered in an environment of discontent, both political and economic. A recent report from the U.S. Institute of Peace states, for example, that Boko Haram’s growth is fueled by “poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and weak family structures” as enabling elements for youth recruitment. Young men join extremist armed groups because it offers a way to express their frustration with the state. And in a context like northeastern Nigeria, where the state security forces are often the only central government presence and are regularly involved in abusive behavior, recruitment into armed groups becomes an easy task.

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The only way to address terrorism is to turn the current approach on its head. Targeted killings, drone strikes and special forces operations should immediately end, and, instead, officials must work to find political and economic solutions to a crisis that is inherently rooted in political and economic discontent. Cutting off recruitment of young men into groups like Boko Haram or al-Qaida requires addressing the source of the frustration – provide education, jobs, economic security and democratic governance. This will take away an important rationale for recruitment into armed groups.

Second, local communities are on the frontlines of confronting violence and extremism. While much of the counterterrorism agenda and policies are set in far off capitals, civil society actors are the frontline responders to violent actions and crises. These civil society actors in hot spots around the globe are risking their lives to address the root causes of violence. Their knowledge, wisdom and expertise in countering terrorism in a nonviolent way should be central to any response.

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Too often the current counterterrorism approach only sees local knowledge as sources for intelligence on insurgent activities. Rather than extracting information from the local community, programs should seek to empower local civil society and religious actors rather than undermine their nonviolent efforts to address the crisis.

Third, recognize that there are no quick fixes. The violence that we see from Nigeria to Pakistan to Iraq arises from complex, deeply entrenched conflicts. No effort will yield overnight results. Too often policymakers engage in a military-first approach in hopes of dislodging armed groups and gaining easy wins. This approach has failed. More than a decade of seeking military solutions to violent extremism has only yielded in a steady increase of extremist violence as noted in a recent State Department report.

It is important to take a long view. The building of open and free democratic states that truly serve the needs of their citizens is a long-term process. Rolling out the “government in a box” approach, such as the one that's been used in Afghanistan, will not work. It is a process of working to understand the local cultural, religious, and political contexts and basing any intervention on that understanding and knowledge.

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Finally, while the rhetoric of “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” may play well for scoring political points during an election cycle, it does nothing to build long term peace and security. America’s counterterrorism doctrine needs a paradigmatic shift from “isolate and kill” to “engage and transform.” Communities where extremist or fundamentalist ideology persists become more entrenched when they are attacked. An approach that upholds the rule of law, human rights and inclusivity is the only way to undermine extreme ideologies. There are certainly plenty of examples of this approach here in in the United States, where extremist ideologies of groups like the Ku Klux Klan were undermined by seeking to engage and transform rather than isolate and kill.

Violent attacks and the cost in lives and dollars will continue to increase unless we change our approach. It is time for policymakers to understand and respond to conflicts as complex systems rather than continue down the futile road of quick fixes.