Defeating violent extremism: How we’re doing it wrong


Why targeted killings of enemy leaders is a temporary fix

By Scott Mann


The Obama administration is hailing the death of Nasser al-Wuhayshi, leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as a major blow to that organization. The United States targeted and killed this notorious leader in Yemen with yet another drone strike.

Any time you can remove a key enemy leader from the equation, that’s a good thing. But we should be careful not to oversell this. It’s a very temporary solution to a growing strategic problem. In fact, history from the last 15 years shows that isolated, surgical strikes against terror leaders without any accompanying ground plan will count as nothing more than mowing the grass.

Terror leaders and terror capabilities always re-emerge. Our misguided U.S. strategy comes down to this: The violent extremists want to win. The United States wants not to lose.

In other words, violent extremists are “all in” and radically committed to achieving their end goals of global domination. The United States and its Western allies, by contrast, dabble in political correctness, internal bipartisan infighting, and general dismissal of violent extremists as the strategic threat that they are. Rather than do what is necessary to embrace reality, adapt to our surroundings and defeat this grave threat, we are more content to mitigate our own domestic political risk by launching air strikes into these tribal lands, hoping to defeat our enemies from 30,000 feet above.

Air strikes and drone strikes will never defeat this problem, no matter how senior the leaders are whom we kill.

Our Achilles’ heel is the mistaken theory that the best way to deny violent extremist resources and manpower is for foreign central governments in these fragile states to extend their authority over all of their sovereign territory. The theory assumes that central government security operations, top-down government, and a smattering of economic development somehow create order and a population that trusts its government. That might work in the West, but not in the dark places where violent extremists operate.

The real center of gravity in this epic fight is local clan populations and the tribal societies, which provide men, resources, money and ideas. Our enemy gets this and does it every day. Look at how ISIS exploits marginalized Sunni clans in Iraq to fight against the largely Shia-dominated and U.S.-supported Iraqi government.

Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, by focusing on propping up inept central governments or kinetically targeting terror networks, we ignored these local realities of clan civil society and took ourselves out of this game.

The narrative of imminent Islamist global expansion becomes increasingly real and appeals — or scares — more and more people to join. Over the many years of this long war, violent extremists’ reach grew in that abandoned local, social space, and now we’re left wondering why we’re losing.

Our foreign policy has ignored what violent extremists are really all about and how they operate — going local in under-governed areas. If we are going to defeat them, we have to go local as well. That means working with tribes, clans and other groups from the bottom-up to resist extremist activity.

Despite a number of setbacks over the last decade, we’ve learned many valuable lessons that could help us defeat violent extremists. For a few years, the United States did engage the locals in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it worked. We actually figured out how to beat the extremists at their own game, and we started winning.

Mullah Mohammed Omar and Osama bin Laden both expressed strategic concern about the U.S. local approach — because they knew it was working. These lessons, earned in blood and sacrifice, could be very useful to our emerging challenges around the globe, even at home in the United States.

But instead of implementing this strategy with the potential for widespread success, we are actually boxing them up with all of the other counter-insurgency actions and putting them in the attic of U.S. foreign policy misadventures.

This is a leadership issue. The days of American isolationism have long passed. Violent extremists will exploit the actions we don’t take more than the actions we do take. It won’t be easy. There must be a patient will to win that transcends policy and politics. Our leaders must embrace policies that stretch beyond political terms of office by putting our country — not politics — first.

This will not happen overnight. We need to lose the desire for immediate impact. We need to prepare ourselves smartly, efficiently and effectively for the determined campaign we must undertake with our soft and hard national power.

If we can’t open our eyes to the mistakes of our own foreign policy from the last 15 years, we are doomed to repeat them. Being drawn in deeper toward fiscal insolvency and a never-ending manufactured crusade, on our enemy’s terms, is not a mistake we can afford to repeat.