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The Middle East and Regional Transition, Terrorism, and Countering Violent Extremism: What the Next President Will Face

Edited by: Rand Beers, Richard A. Clarke, Emilian Papadopoulos, and Paul Salem
Vol. 668, November 2016

The next president will face enormous challenges in dealing with terrorism—a threat to global stability and national security that has changed considerably over the course of the Obama Presidency. This volume of The ANNALS is a briefing for the next president on violent Islamist extremism and what can be done to combat and contain it.

Our analysis is in two parts. First, we give a careful accounting of terrorism as a force that is riling the nation states of the Middle East and Africa, where terrorists are fighting a civil war within Islam. The high water mark of ISIS control of cities and lands will have passed by the time the next president takes office, but the well spring of ideology and discontent into which it taps will still be strong. Nations in the Middle East region lay in shambles, with millions in refugee camps. Rebuilding from the recent spasm of civil wars would cost hundreds of billions of dollars even if funds were available, political settlements seem far off and failed, factionalized states seem likely to continue for the foreseeable future. We assess the causes and consequences of this state of affairs and explore pathways forward.

Second, we examine terrorism as an issue of domestic security for the United States and its Western allies, particularly in Europe. Here, we focus on the relatively new but promising field of CVE—countering violent extremism—in which institutions of government and private actors are learning what it takes to de-radicalize individuals, de-escalate movements, and promote peace in the citizenry.

Part 1. The Middle East: The dynamics of terrorist groups in the region and what will be necessary to confront and defeat them. Articles here include:

  • An analysis of the full or partial collapse of Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq that shows the links between state failure / civil war and the enabling of terrorist organizations. Among other things, the author argues that “the next president will face strong pressure to escalate U.S. involvement in these wars, especially in Syria. … This temptation should be resisted…” Rather, U.S. time and treasure would be better spent de-escalating wars and making investments in rebuilding.
  • An examination of the conditions that have led to the collapse of regional order in the Middle East and the escalation of proxy conflicts between Iran and the Gulf Arab countries. The author argues for U.S. intervention that emphasizes 1) explicit leadership in establishing a new regional order, 2) lower-key diplomacy to disentangle regional actors from proxy conflicts, and 3) economic intervention that would build intraregional ties and interdependence.
  • An examination of the internal dynamics of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The author shows the growing competition between the two groups and how the competition strains and strengthens them, and explores how the United States and its allies in the war on terror can exploit points of weakness and rivalries between them.
  • A thoroughgoing examination of the ideological worldviews of ISIS and al-Qaeda, as they are seen by their adherents. The central argument here is that understanding the draw of these groups enables us to assess their self-image, suggesting policies that can weaken their internal cohesion and dampen their appeal to extremists around the globe.
  • A summary of lessons learned from the U.S.-led alliance’s experience fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and the Middle East by Gen. John Allen. He provides policy guidance for the next president for building on America’s large anti-ISIS coalition and crafting policies and priorities that would more effectively weaken and defeat terrorist groups. He is unambiguous that only the United States can take the lead in building and maintaining a successful coalition, and careful to point out the importance of serious-minded implementation.

Part 2. CVE: Preventing recruitment and radicalization to extreme violence. In this section, we provide a comprehensive overview of post-9/11 efforts in CVE in the United States, and draw on European experiences in CVE to enrich the analysis. Specifically included are:

  • An investigation of radicalization to extremism that lays out a specific plan for “political warfare” in the West to combat ISIS propaganda. The strategy includes, for example, highlighting the hypocrisy of ISIS, suspension of their social media accounts, and publicizing ISIS atrocities against Sunnis.
  • A thoroughgoing analysis of the ways in which extremist organizations use the Internet to ensnare new recruits, including an analysis of the implications of cyber recruitment on existing counterterrorism techniques. The author suggests ways in which the U.S. government can work with Internet service providers and corporations to better address the threat.
  • An examination of community-based programs that complement local law enforcement, emphasizing behavioral risk assessment, community-level pattern recognition, and public-private partnerships that detect and contain potentially violent behavior.
  • A case study of an exemplar CVE program in Montgomery County, Maryland, that analyzes political, economic, ideological, and other grievances that can lead to radicalization and that suggests practical steps for public-private partnerships that combat radicalization.
  • A case study of a competitive university-based CVE curriculum that uses peer-to-peer interaction as a point of departure for developing better understandings of radicalization and strategies for combating extremism online.
  • A review of European CVE strategies that highlights the importance of eight key aspects to successful de-radicalization efforts, including interagency cooperation, long-term financial and organizational investments, direct engagement with nascent extremist groups, and early intervention.
  • Reviews of efforts led by the Muslim World to counter violent extremism locally, regionally, and globally, then analyzes what is needed to support the Muslim World in its efforts. Clearly, the author concludes “mainstream, moderate, and progressive Islam is the true antidote to radical Islam,” but the Muslim World cannot face the threat alone—Muslim CVE efforts must be integrated with ongoing CVE programs globally.

This volume reveals how “terrorism” has been the result of 1) socioeconomic and political turmoil in the Middle East, interacting with 2) the alienation of Muslims in the West while refugee flows have risen sharply, and 3) a strong, violent and anti-Western ideological movement that is battling for control of Sunni Islam. The next president needs a strategy that will be adaptive but keep the administration and allies focused in turbulent times. Even if ISIS is defeated, violent Islamist extremism will persist, and the administration will need local partners to rebuild and even to resettle the cities that ISIS once called its own.

The duration and depth of the current instability might be reduced by pursuing bold initiatives such as major economic investment and trade, and some authors here suggest such large-scale efforts. We also present show how effective CVE programs could have dramatic impact if scaled and resourced properly—the volume demonstrates the promise of CVE, but it will need to be nurtured with continuous, senior-level government involvement and support.

Finally, active and creative leadership by the United States is necessary to address the regional challenges and mitigate the security risks discussed in this volume—U.S. leadership is inescapable, but it will still be insufficient to the achievement of significant and lasting results.

From the Archives

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Terrorism: What the Next President Will Face

Special Editor: Richard A. Clarke
Vol. 618, July, 2008

Terrorism was a word hardly uttered in the 2000 presidential campaign in America, despite al Qaeda’s attack of a U.S. navy warship during the candidates’ final month on the road. By 2002, 2004, and 2006, terrorism was among the most discussed topics in the campaigns for Congress and the presidency. Already in 2007, terrorism featured prominently as a topic in the race to replace George W. Bush. Whoever does succeed him will turn his or her attention to terrorism early in the life of the new administration, not as President Bush did, waiting until attacked again to pay serious attention to the issue. But what should the new American administration do?
The American Academy of Political and Social Science asked us to pull together a panel of scholars and experts to prepare a detailed background and agenda for the new president to read between election day and the inauguration. We have been pleased and privileged to have most of the leading experts in the phenomenon of violent Islamist extremist terrorism, as defined below, participate in the creation of this volume. It is an unclassified work, but it does not suffer because of that fact. Much of what a president or citizen needs to know about the threat of terrorism is publicly available from the work of scholars such as our panel members and the diligent investigation of journalists, prosecutors, and legislators.