Five lessons ignored in the Trump administration’s new counterterrorism strategy

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Last week, the White House released its long-awaited national counterterrorism strategy, the first such U.S. strategy since 2011. The initial commentary has been largely complementary, or neutral at worst, with some breathing a sigh of relief that the document did not include President Trump’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and populist rhetoric. Instead, it reflected more continuity with previous administrations than one might have expected.

Some aspects are noteworthy, such as the inclusion of domestic terrorism, the focus on strengthening counterterrorism partnerships with countries around the globe, the emphasis on intervention and rehabilitation and reintegration programs, and the pledge to work with civil society and other local actors.

However, the strategy is light on details on the “how”—it offering no insight on, for example, the division of labor among the dozens of relevant U.S. government departments and agencies, and says little about the comparative advantages of possible foreign government and multilateral partners. As such, it falls short in a number of important ways.

Although the strategy reflects one of the important lessons of the past 17 years of counterterrorism practice—that military and intelligence operations, in isolation, do not end terrorist movements and that complementary (and enhanced) civilian-led efforts are required—it gives short shrift to a number of equally important ones.

1The first is that the most effective strategy for fighting terrorism and violent extremism is one that avoids backlash, backsliding, and other unintended consequences through policies and practices that protect the basic rights and freedoms of citizens.

Over the past nearly two decades—whether in Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, the Philippines, Yemen, or elsewhere—and as confirmed by study after study, heavy-handed counterterrorism tactics have created serious grievances against the state and its security forces, undermining future efforts and diminishing societal resilience against violent extremism. In fact, the data on what drives support for terrorism and violent extremism is clear: State violence against its own population is among the single largest factors in support for terrorist or violent extremist organizations. Excessive and routine police brutality are among the key sources of grievance within communities that violent extremist propaganda exploits.

Beyond the violence itself, overly broad definitions of terrorism or violent extremism—particularly across the Middle East, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa, but increasingly in the global North—are too often used to criminalize the legitimate actions of opposition groups, civil society organizations, and human rights defenders. Again, this can generate grievances against the government that terrorist recruiters exploit. It also generates challenges in building partnerships with the community-level actors that the strategy acknowledges are so critical to preventing local recruitment and radicalization to terrorism.

Moreover, the new strategy fails to reference human rights: The furthest it seems to go is a call to ensure partner countries conduct their counterterrorism operations “effectively and justly.” This represents a sharp departure from the policies and rhetoric of the previous administration and an approach that seems more suitable for Moscow than Washington.

2The second, and related lesson, is to avoid a narrow and short-term security lens to anoint countries as “good” counterterrorism partners, while overlooking human rights violations and bad governance, or at least acknowledge the tensions that exist in developing, let alone sustaining, security partnerships with the likes of Egypt, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia.

The priority in the new strategy seems to be on the number, as opposed to the quality of the partners, which is not surprising given that among the goals seems to be to reduce reliance on U.S. assistance. The call “on our capable and well-resourced partners to increase their support to countries lacking resources and capabilities” seems to point the finger at wealthy countries in the Gulf to take on more of the counterterrorism burdens—a potentially ominous sign for human rights advocates.

3A third lesson is the importance of addressing the underlying conditions or grievances that can give rise to terrorism and violent extremism in the first place. These include governance challenges such as the alienation and marginalization of many people around the globe, and issues of inequality, including in relation to gender, which have contributed to attacks in places as diverse as Belgium, France, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, and Tunisia.

Although the document does mention the need to mitigate conditions in a few instances, it does not offer any insight into what those grievances might be and signals that the United States will work only “with local stakeholders and civil society to mitigate” them. This, of course, leaves out the critical role that national governments have, at times, played in generating (particularly structural) grievances—such as inequality before the law, economic and political exclusion and marginalization, governance and trust deficits, corruption, and uneven resource allocation and service provision—that have led to rising levels of violent extremism.

4A fourth lesson is that is that interventions to prevent and counter violent extremism—or what the strategy seems to equate with “countering terrorist radicalization and recruitment” or “terrorism prevention”—have too often been defined by political and other considerations, leading to a preference for short-term, risk-averting measures, based on assumptions rather than evidence. Counternarratives, which the new strategy prioritizes, are prominent examples of this flawed approach.

Particularly given the Islamic State’s sophisticated media capabilities and dissemination of slick digital content to accelerate recruitment, the United States and other donors have invested heavily in counternarrative and other communicative programming. This typically involves identifying local civil society organizations (CSOs)—often youth, women, or religious leaders with “credibility” in the relevant community—and providing these grassroots actors with the information and technical skills required to develop communications campaigns that often emphasize the development and delivery of a “counter-narrative” or “alternative narrative.” The new strategy embraces these efforts.

The problem is that although the programs are popular, including on Capitol Hill, there is little proof that counternarratives in isolation are effective in reducing the threat of violent extremism. In fact, the available research does not suggest that online terrorist propaganda is a causative factor in extremist violence. A recent European Parliament study on counternarratives concluded, “the concept itself is rather underdeveloped and lacks a thorough grounding in empirical research.” Further, existing counternarrative programs rely on questionable metrics and limited empirical foundations, lack a fully articulated theory to underpin their impact, and often fail to differentiate between radicalization and recruitment to violence. As a result, the above study concluded that “there is a need for greater research in this area and effective monitoring and evaluation of current counter-narrative projects in order to be able to ensure that lessons are learned.” Yet, rather than putting a break on the “counter-narrative” pedal, the White House seems to have stepped on the gas.

Among the reasons for the continued global popularity of these initiatives is that it allows the focus to remain on the behavior and ideology of the violent extremists—a point of emphasis in the new strategy—and not on the behavior of governments towards their citizens and the grievance-generating structural issues in a society. This is among the reasons why there has been an overemphasis on the role that ideology emanating from outside of a country or society plays in violent extremism, leading to the neglect of structural, material, and psychological factors. The new U.S. strategy simply reinforces this approach.

5A fifth lesson that does not appear reflected in the new strategy is that efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism work best when they are led by local actors, such as municipalities, schools, and civil society since “they know the local context and what motivates some people to commit horrible acts.” The willingness of these local actors to engage in this space—and the depth of their involvement—is very much linked to how the issue is framed and what terminology is used. Careful attention needs to be paid to avoid instrumentalizing local actors for purposes of a global counterterrorism agenda. A bold new U.S. strategy that calls for the United States—making no mention of other governments (whether national or local), let alone the United Nations—to lead efforts to create a “global [terrorism] prevention architecture with the help of civil society, private partners, and the technology industry” is unlikely to resonate with the local stakeholders that are essential to creating, let alone sustaining such an architecture.

In the end, the new strategy is a lot better than some feared it would be—there is much continuity from the previous two administrations to welcome—and the career counterterrorism experts across the U.S. government no doubt deserve a lot of credit for minimizing the damage. However, by failing to learn five important lessons from the past 17 years of counterterrorism practice, the strategy falls short in a number of ways, thus undermining its effectiveness.

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