Success in the fight against violent extremism “will be determined by our ability to come together as leaders and as nations to reach those at risk before terrorist recruiters do,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a speech at Brookings this week. “It will be determined—in other words—by a comprehensive approach that tackles this challenge from every angle, harnessing every tool at our disposal and mobilizing every community leader as our partner.” Blinken spoke on the topic of countering violent extremism in an event hosted by the Foreign Policy program at Brookings.
Blinken described recent U.S. efforts in leading the fight to “disrupt and defeat these threats to our common security,” noting that “Working by, with, and through local partners, we have taken back 40 percent of the territory Daesh controlled a year ago in Iraq and 10 percent in Syria.” He added that “we assess Daesh’s numbers are the lowest they’ve been since we began monitoring their manpower in 2014.” Watch:
Blinken also said that although there is no single cause of violent extremism,
we do see common denominators—common factors that breed or help accelerate violent extremism, including feelings of alienation and exclusion, exposure to vile and rampant propaganda, a lack of critical thinking skills, and experiences with state-sanctioned violence, heavy-handed tactics by security services, and the systematic denial of opportunity. Of course, there is no grievance so bitter, no disadvantage so deep that it ever justifies murder, rape, and slavery.
“Security operations are absolutely necessary, but they are not sufficient,” Blinken continued. “It is a fight that will be determined by our ability to come together as leaders and as nations to reach those at risk before terrorist recruiters do.”
The deputy secretary of state laid out five elements, or five core priorities, that grew out of a White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism last year “and now are being refined into the first-ever joint USAID and State Department strategy on preventing and countering violent extremism.” These five elements are:
- “Expanding partnerships to develop the expertise to better understand violent extremism and its drivers at the international, regional, national, and local levels.” This includes a research and evidence base to shape targeted initiatives for communities.
- Working with partners at the national and local levels “to actually adopt more effective policies to prevent the spread of violent extremism,” including a Strong Cities Network for “those on the frontlines to learn from each other.”
- “Strengthening local partnerships to address the underlying political, social, and economic factors that put communities at high risk and make young men and women susceptible to the siren call of extreme ideologies.” Blinken spoke of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund, which will be making grants to vulnerable communities in such countries as Nigeria, Bangladesh, Mali, Burma, Kenya, and Kosovo.
- “Engage and amplify locally credible voices that can expose the true nature of violent extremism, its savagery, and its denial of human dignity.” This element focuses especially on challenging online and print propaganda. “In just over the last year,” Blinken said, “we have seen the space and tolerance for extremist propaganda begin to shrink. Twitter alone recently suspended 125,000 accounts for threatening or promoting terrorist acts. In corners of social media that were dominated just over a year ago by Daesh, the equation has flipped.”
- “Strengthen the capabilities of our partners to prevent radicalization to violence in prisons and help ensure that former fighters are rehabilitated and reintegrated back into society whenever possible.”
In a Q&A session following his remarks, moderator Senior Fellow Tamara Wittes, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, asked Mr. Blinken to offer updates on the situations in Iraq and Syria. Although calling the two “fundamentally joined” in “one large battlespace,” Blinken noted progress and challenges in each.
For Iraq, he said,
We’ve seen very significant progress in pushing Daesh back. … Over the past year, the groups that we’re supporting—the Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga, some of the militia, Sunni tribal fighters—increasingly working together with our very strong support and support of the coalition, have taken back 40 percent of the territory that Daesh controlled a year ago. Daesh has not been able to engage in any offensive operations since last spring. And what we’re seeing is that not only are we taking back territory but we’re doing it in a strategic way, cutting off lines of communications, increasing the chokehold on Mosul, which is their base in Iraq. And I think we have great confidence that we will succeed in that theater.
But it’s not enough, as he explained. After liberating a town, you have to stabilize and rebuild it. And then comes what he called “the really hard part,” achieving a sustainable political accommodation. Otherwise, he said, “the environment that created such a fertile ground for Daesh risks remaining.”
On Syria, Blinken asserted that “There, too, we’ve actually made real progress against Daesh.” He explained that “virtually all of the border between Turkey and Syria that was under the control of Daesh now under the control primarily of Kurdish Syrian forces with the support of the coalition.” However, “we also know that we won’t be able to fully defeat Daesh in Syria unless we also deal with the civil war and particularly with Assad. Because as long as he is there he remains the most powerful magnet for foreign fighters and recruits to Daesh that you can have.” Watch:
In his opening remarks at the event, retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, now a senior fellow and co-director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at Brookings, called the rise of extremist organizations “one of the greatest threats we have experienced since the end of the cold war,” and that the instrument of American power best suited to the long term solution of this crisis is American diplomacy.” Watch: