It has been 20 years since the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 9/11 and 20 years since the start of the US war on terror. It has been 20 years filled with lessons on how to combat radicalisation and violent extremism. The experience of the US military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq and subsequent failures to build nation-states able to prevent the rise of armed and hostile insurgencies shows us the limitations of a militarised approach to building enduring peace and security.
The passage of the Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF) by the US Congress in September 2001 authorised the use of US armed forces against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Over the last 20 years, the AUMF has been cited almost 40 times by successive US presidents as the justification for counter-terrorism activities in multiple countries including Afghanistan, Cuba, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Georgia, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, according to the Congressional Research Service, making the war on terror not only the longest US war, but also one that is extremely geographically expansive.
The US must decide if the war on terror is succeeding. As it has done recently in Afghanistan, the US can decide to withdraw its forces from such countries at any time. But countries with local insurgent threats face a very different situation.
The image of US forces leaving Afghanistan while the Taliban reclaimed Kabul grabbed the world’s attention last month, exemplifying the limitations of the US ability to effect long-term change. US President Joe Biden made a clear distinction between the US strategy to combat terrorism and counter-insurgency that has clear relevance to the reality in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
On 16 August, he said the US mission should have been “narrowly focused on counter-terrorism not counter-insurgency.” This distinction is not just about splitting hairs but is about an assessment of the type of threat extremist groups pose to the US. The US faces violent non-state actors that try to wreak havoc by using extreme violence. But these non-state actors are not trying to take control of US territories. Neither Al-Qaeda nor the Islamic State (IS) group are looking to take control of Hawaii, declare it an independent state and impose extremist policies over the population, for example.
In the MENA region, we face a very different reality. The IS group’s mission is to take territorial control over the cities and towns where we live and work, making it literally an existential threat to our very way of life. The use of terror tactics both by terrorist and insurgent groups has created some conflation between the two.
The difference between the threat the US faces from IS and the threat it poses to us means we have divergent long-term goals. While both counter-terrorism (CT) strategies and counter-insurgency (COIN) strategies include stopping attacks, CT uses mainly strategic communication, investigative and judicial actions, while COIN requires more robust strategies. In the MENA region, we use a CT framework to prosecute a political ideology, not just criminal acts. This is in essence asking the criminal justice system to interpret, judge and change hearts and minds and not just adjudicate criminal acts. This is like using a hammer to paint a sunset. It isn’t very practical.
For violent groups to succeed in imposing their authority over a population, they need the support, or at least the compliance, of the local community. Violent groups use the threat of extreme violence to terrify a population into submission. This is true of both criminal gangs and insurgents. Not only do we need to hold those who have criminal intent accountable, but we also need to ensure that communities and individuals are able to withstand catastrophe and rebuild after a crisis, be it a natural disaster or one brought about as a result of warmongers. Community resilience is the measure of a community’s ability to use resources to withstand and recover from dire situations.
Resilient communities have proven to be a bulwark to all forms of crisis. According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the concept of resilience is the capacity of communities to face a wide range of rapid-onset shocks and slow-onset stresses.
Resilience begins after the basic needs of community members are met, including food, water, shelter and healthcare. The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development seeks to meet these basic needs through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 1 to SDG 8 tackle everything from poverty and hunger to access to clean water and affordable energy, creating the foundation for a resilient community.
The SDGs also go beyond basic needs, since the core of sustainability is to protect the environment and our natural and human resources. In doing so, we develop communities that are able to manage their resources more efficiently, fulfilling a key component of resilience.
The SDGs also include improving community cohesion and promoting peace through building strong institutions and accountability mechanisms (SDG 16). Community resilience is specifically addressed in SDG 11, which focuses on making “cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.”
Sustainability is not only a policy to tackle climate change. It is built on the need to create strong communities through holistic solutions that not only protect us from disasters, but also help us withstand and recover from calamities, including from extremist groups. Sustainability may not prevent attacks, but it can create conditions where radical ideas cannot take hold, and a community can come together to reject extremist views.
Sustainability should build on organic structures and localise disaster-response strategies, therefore creating communities that can bounce back quickly once a threat is removed. Sustainability is a coherent and wide-ranging strategy to help us address many of the problems we face today, including countering violent extremism and insurgents.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.