Why Countering Violent Extremism Needs a Whole-of-Government Approach

January 27, 2016 By David Stein

It’s no wonder that foreign policy has taken center stage in the 2016 presidential race. The crisis in Syria rages on, with over 13.5 million people currently in need of humanitarian assistance. ISIS and other violent extremist groups have carried out devastating terror attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, and more recently in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Somalia.

In December 2014, only 9 percent of Americans cited foreign policy as the country’s most important issue. A year later, that number had jumped to 32 percent, with 18 percent citing terrorism concerns.

There appears to be a consensus among presidential candidates that a military component will be required to counter violent extremism, at least in the short term. But what’s equally vital, and much less often discussed, is a long-term strategy that utilizes all the tools of American leadership – including strategic investments in development and diplomacy.

Recent research by Mercy Corps found that the principal drivers of violent extremism are rooted in feelings of injustice and marginalization. According to the report, “When marginalized groups begin to believe the government is going to be more responsive and fair, support for armed violence decreases.” That’s why U.S. investments in good governance and civil society are so critical in fragile states. When coupled with investments in economic development, the U.S. can help create an environment in which the messages of ISIS and other extremist groups fall on deaf ears.

The U.S. can also use its non-military tools to counter extremist messaging directly. In order to do this effectively, the U.S. needs the rest of the world – especially the Arab world – on its side. According to Rick Stengel, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, “95 percent of ISIL messaging is in Arabic.” The next most common language? Russian. And French is third.

It’s precisely for this reason that the State Department created the new Global Engagement Center to bring together partners who can counter the disinformation produced by violent extremist groups. This new center will work alongside existing efforts like the Middle East Broadcasting Networks and Voice of America to counter terrorist propaganda in both traditional and social media platforms.

In less than a year, a new president will enter the Oval Office. Regardless of who he or she is, it’s imperative that their national security strategy recognizes there isn’t a simple or quick solution to counter violent extremism. It will require a comprehensive approach that harnesses all the tools of American power.

As Admiral James Stavridis, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, recently wrote, coordinating the civilian tools necessary to defeat ISIS isn’t going to be easy. However, “compared to the alternative – simply relying on bombs or guns to defeat the Islamic State – it will be more efficient and effective, especially over the long term.”

Photo Source: Flickr, USAID