The Trump Administration Needs a Counter Extremism Strategy for the Middle East

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump spent months of his campaign decrying the actions of what he labeled “radical Islamic extremists.” He vowed to prioritize the fight against them if he won, and promised to do away with what he saw as an overly soft approach to countering terrorism under the Obama administration. One year into President Trump’s term, a US policy to broadly counter violent extremism remains notably absent, overshadowed by a military-only counterterrorism policy with a specific focus on ISIS.

This is counterproductive. Without a clear roadmap on how to combat extremism through a comprehensive policy that addresses the very drivers of radicalization that helped give birth to ISIS, the US will find itself combating the next ISIS in the near future. The Trump administration, therefore, must emphasize that the end of major combat operations against ISIS does not mean the enduring defeat of the organization. Rather, it should instead signal the start of a more protracted effort to defeat the root causes of radicalization.

While the US-led counter-ISIS military campaign has borne fruit against the terrorist group in its strongholds of Raqqa and Mosul, the price paid by the citizens of Syria and Iraq has been tragically steep. Coalition airstrikes have decimated both cities. According to estimates from the US coalition, at least 801 civilians have been inadvertently killed during Operation Inherent Resolve, with another 695 investigative cases still open. In a less conservative estimate, the Airwars monitoring group reports that at least 6,047 Syrian and Iraqi civilians been killed during combat operations. Entire communities have been displaced, perhaps permanently, while hundreds of ISIS fighters and their families were reportedly allowed to escape Raqqa unharmed.

This physical destruction, for which the United States will inevitably bear some responsibility in fixing, has occurred against a backdrop of a heavily militarized Middle East policy under Trump, which has seen the US double down on its alliances with Sunni governments across the region, often at the expense of the two other pillars of American foreign policy: diplomacy and development. One need to look no further than at the massive cuts in both personnel and budget at the Department of State and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to understand the current administration’s priorities.

However, as both organizational and lone-wolf terrorist attacks continue unabated across the region and beyond – and despite the military success of the international counter-ISIS military campaign – it is clear that ideological and grievance-based violent extremism cannot, and will not, be solved through coercive tactics or military force alone.

It has become evident that this is not, in fact, a conventional battle at all, but one that must include an honest conversation about the root causes of radicalization, including identity, ideology, and social, political and economic grievances. It is a conversation that should involve various elements of societies across the Middle East, as opposed to top-down directives from governments. This strategy should also take into account the highly localized grievances found in each country.

In order to prevent ISIS and other terrorist organizations from continuing to breed in the region, and to deny them the recruits they so desperately need, the US and its regional allies should bear in mind the following principles and incorporate them into a comprehensive strategy to counter radicalization and violent extremism, in addition to current military-focused counterterrorism efforts.

First, there is a crucial need to address the root causes of terrorism. Economic pressures, a lack of education, rising unemployment levels, political repression – these are just a few of the issues that any comprehensive strategy to counter extremism must tackle, in coordination with civil society organizations and credible community leaders. This investment in societies and people could very well reduce the need for massive, and massively expensive, military campaigns in the future, freeing up precious resources that could be pumped back into local economies, and reducing the US footprint in the region.

Next, it is important to combat the “us versus them” narrative. By all measures, the US and its regional allies have lagged behind extremists in the “battle of narratives,” and, even worse, are at risk of bolstering various extremist narratives through an overly militarized and oftentimes sectarian worldview. American and regional leaders should utilize positive, non-sectarian narratives that are matched by inclusive programming in local communities.

Lastly, there must be a concerted effort made to fight the discrepancy between words and actions, or in policy-circle speak, to reduce the “say-do” gap. Changing the narratives alone, unfortunately, cannot stem the tide of radicalization. Nor can this reverse a path that has already led to violent extremism. One of the most effective talking points a terrorist recruiter uses is to point to the hypocrisy and lack of transparency of the US and its regional allies. To that end, a determined effort to match the message with the facts on the ground is essential.

Given the various incarnations of terrorist organizations, it would be both short-sighted and reckless for the US and its regional allies to assume that the ISIS retreat from Iraq and Syria signals the end of the terrorism threat. If the US and its allies wish to avoid another Operation Inherent Resolve in the future, they need a strategy to counter the root causes of radicalization. Any further delays will certainly result in the very scenarios they are trying to avoid.

Jasmine El-Gamal is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, where she focuses primarily on US Middle East policy and violent extremism. From 2008-2015, El-Gamal served as a Middle East policy advisor and a special assistant for national security affairs at the US Department of Defense.