About the Author: Salmah Y. Rizvi serves as the Truman Fellow in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism.
In regions where economic opportunities are few, access to fair education is limited, ethnic conflict influences everyday life, and religious zeal is manipulated for corrupt purposes, extremists leaders will exploit these conditions to create what the National Intelligence Council calls a "perfect storm" -- the most efficient breeding ground for terrorists.
These malevolent non-state actors will use a variety of techniques to create safe havens -- physical space, cyber space, and ideological space in order to brainwash the most vulnerable members of society. Their missions often transcend national boundaries and their campaigns become regional. In order to combat such multifaceted approaches to terrorist infiltration, the U.S. Counterterrorism Team, specifically Regional Affairs Officers (RAOs) from the Department of State's Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism (S/CT), must use all elements of national power to tactically implement the Regional Strategic Initiative (RSI) with the support of partner nations.
Planned in Washington, D.C., and hosted by U.S. embassies overseas, the RSI creates a flexible network of coordinated country teams, whose aim is to assist partner nations to eliminate terrorist safe havens. In Washington, S/CT RAOs interface with other intelligence and security agencies to properly assess terrorist threats in a particular region and develop a common strategic approach to counterterrorism. S/CT pools resources and tasks to generate a unified effort by the U.S. government while leveraging resources from international partners such as the G8, UN, etc. Department of State's regional bureaus and functional bureaus, such as INL, rely on S/CT's regional expertise in combating terrorism. Primarily, S/CT makes policy recommendations for various technical assistance programs which can be implemented on the ground.
One example of the RSI concept is the Southeast Asia RSI which includes Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Southeast Asia RAO, Daniel Mahanty, cited the combination of the U.S. Embassy Manila Country Team's holistic approach using the "three D's" (Diplomacy, Development, and Defense) and capacity building for other regional partners as critical to the Southeast Asia RSI concept. Mahanty elaborated: "the southern Philippines, a loosely governed area with extensive coastline access to the Sulawesi Sea, was in the throes of civil conflict and vulnerable to economic hardship, criminal activity, and natural disasters -- the kinds of conditions that transnational terrorist groups were taking advantage of to establish safe haven. Terrorists could easily transit the Sulawesi sea between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The U.S. provided military assistance to help train the Philippines national army to root out Abu Sayyaf Group and Jemaah Islamiya Organization terrorists, which allowed Philipines military and police to provide security and gain the trust of the local population. More than 80% of the Embassy strategy, however, involved supporting the peace and reconciliation process between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and providing multi-sectoral development assistance to the people of the southern Philippines as areas become devoid of terrorists and supporters. At the same time, we looked for ways to support and build the capacity of other Southeast Asian nations in their own efforts to secure their borders and maintain maritime domain awareness. This regional strategy went a long way to help create an area less amenable to terrorist causes and deprived terrorists of significant safe haven and training areas -- a development with significant impact on the entire region. The idea of the RSI is to acknowledge through policy development and resource allocation that a comprehensive approach to terrorism will require all elements of national power and a regional perspective to address the conditions that terrorists exploit."
The RSI embodies a regional perspective for many of the tools of U.S. counterterrorism assistance, such as assistance to law enforcement, countering terrorism finance, building legal capacity, and promoting counterterrorism cooperation in multilateral organizations. The implementation of the RSI not only counters terrorism, but also builds credibility, good governance, and increased economic capability.