The United States struck a forceful blow against terrorism in late October when ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi blew himself up after being cornered in a raid by U.S. forces. But killing and capturing terrorists is only one approach. It needs to be attended by a robust effort to prevent terrorism from happening in the first place.
This is a tough job. Preventing terrorism requires abundant resources, effective government organization and extraordinary leadership, capable of planning and implementing a comprehensive strategy. Progress has been made on this front, but not nearly enough.
Meanwhile, terrorism continues to take a heavy toll. In the past 18 years, 10,000 Americans have lost their lives as a result of terrorism and 50,000 have been wounded fighting the threat. An estimated $6 trillion has been spent by Americans to defeat terrorism and protect ourselves from it.
A lot of terrorists have been removed since 9/11, but terrorist attacks worldwide have increased five-fold and the number of self-professed jihadist fighters has tripled.
Congress has charged the U.S. Institute of Peace with developing a strategy to prevent the spread of terrorism in the world’s most fragile states, which provide the breeding grounds for terrorists. Former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean and I co-chair a bipartisan task force addressing this challenge. We have called for a government-wide policy framework on terrorism, a strategic initiative to use our foreign-policy tools to prevent it, and a dedicated fund to target international resources toward addressing its underlying causes.
Led by Nancy Lindborg, president and CEO of the U.S. Institute of Peace, this initiative brings together some very talented policymakers, including former ambassadors and White House aides. They have their work cut out for them. Eliminating or even reducing terrorism will not be accomplished quickly or easily.
Terrorism takes root when governments, especially in fragile states, fail to address legitimate grievances. Preventing terrorism requires leaders who have the commitment and courage to do it. America’s responsibility is to buttress their efforts and help provide the tools they need to succeed.
While we must always reserve the right to use military power to respond to those who target us, preventing terrorism will be much less costly than responding with force after each crisis arises. This will take a sustained effort, and we will encounter barriers, but to protect our people we’ve got to try.
In the U.S., a lot of work needs to be done in both the legislative and executive branches. We need a whole-government strategy with all branches and agencies of government working together closely and cooperatively to address the root causes of extremism and violence. Our approach to date has been disjointed and piecemeal.
This effort will take substantial funding, including, but not limited to, congressional appropriations for several years. Our strategy must bring together a whole host of entities; not only U.S. government agencies but private and international partners across the globe.
We can’t do everything, everywhere, so priorities will have to be set to have the greatest impact. For example, a U.S. Institute of Peace-led initiative is bringing together government officials, local leaders and community organizations in Burkina Faso, a West African country at high risk of extremism and terrorism.
America and our allies have eliminated a lot of terrorists, but there are more terrorists today in crisis states than when we started. We urgently need a comprehensive plan, addressing the underlying causes of terrorism by fostering more resilient societies, especially in Africa and the Middle East, working with countries that are stepping up their own efforts, and want our help.
Terrorism is a symptom; violent extremism is the disease. Both prey on fragile states and contribute to chaos and conflict. We have made progress in fighting them, but we need a unified, robust approach and a much greater sense of urgency to address this serious threat to our safety.
By Lee H. Hamilton