Federal agencies for nearly two decades have prevented another 9/11 terrorist attack, but the “time has come for a new U.S. strategy” in the war against extremism spreading in the Middle East and beyond, says a congressionally mandated new task force led by the former chairmen of the vaunted commission that investigated the 2001 strikes on Washington and New York.
The U.S. government must do more to combat the “conditions that enable extremist ideologies to take root, spread and thrive,” the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States said in its inaugural report — released Tuesday on the 17th anniversary of the attacks that saw al Qaeda slam hijacked airplanes into the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
“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,” the report said, arguing that jihadi groups akin to al Qaeda are now “present in 19 out of 45 countries in these regions.”
The U.S. has “responded by conducting combat operations in five of the 45 countries and providing security assistance to 39 of them,” the document said.
“But to stop extremists from spreading,” it said, U.S. policy must offer more targeted help to so-called “fragile states [to] build resilience against violent extremism within their own societies.”
The report added that America’s status a great power on the global stage is at stake. “As long as extremism fuels instability, the United States cannot compete effectively against strategic rivals such as China, Russia, and Iran,” it said.
Congress mandated the new task force in last year’s appropriations bill, ordering the U.S. Institute of Peace to form the body. It is co-chaired by former New Jersey Republican Gov. Thomas Kean and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat from Indiana. Other members include former Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Mr. Kean and Mr. Hamilton, who are taking a lead in promoting the task force, worked together more than a decade ago heading the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States — informally known as the 9/11 Commission — and overseeing its widely praised final report.
Since [9/11], said Mr. Kean in a statement, “the U.S. has had much success in attacking terrorists and protecting the homeland, but we have not been able to prevent the spread of violent extremism.”
Mr. Hamilton added that “the nature of terrorism has evolved” and that “the world order has changed,” with Russia, China and Iran fueling instability that has bred fertile ground for extremist groups in the Middle East and several corners of Africa.
“We cannot effectively thwart these competitors without quashing extremism,” he said.
It’s a message that in some way builds upon the Obama administration’s attempt to reshape discussion around the war on terrorism toward a focus on “extremism.” The former administration drew praise and criticism in 2015 by hosting a broadly themed, three-day Countering Violent Extremism summit that brought local, federal and international leaders together in Washington to discuss “community-oriented approaches to counter hateful extremist ideologies.”
While the new task force is slated to release a “detailed strategic plan” in early 2019, Tuesday’s report asserted that an effective strategy “needs to tackle both the conditions that gave extremism a chance to take root in a society and the behavior of actors that spawned these conditions.”
“Such a strategy cannot succeed without strong U.S. leadership and sustained commitment,” it added, asserting that Washington must push national and local partnerships in fragile states from Tunisia and Libya to Yemen, Mali, Kenya, Somalia and more — in part through direct U.S. humanitarian assistance.
The report praised the Trump administration for pushing in Saudi Arabia last year for wider support from Arab powers against terrorist threats.
“As President Donald Trump said at the 2017 Riyadh summit, we should build ‘a coalition of nations who share the aim of stamping out extremism and providing our children a hopeful future,’” it said.
“Already, among the United Nations, the World Bank, the European Union, and the Arab Gulf States, opinions are converging on the importance of tackling extremism in fragile states. If we lead that effort, our partners’ resources can leverage our own,” the report said. “Moreover, preventive measures cost far less than military interventions — saving $16 for every $1 invested — and put fewer American lives at risk.”