To turn back the threat of terrorism, countries must turn to local communities. Whether in France, Turkey, or here in the United States, militaries and intelligence agencies can protect us from external threats and bring terrorists to justice, but they cannot address the complex motives and hateful ideologies that drive people to terrorism in the first place.
Young people grappling with questions of identity and purpose, those aggrieved by perceptions of injustice and marginalization, and others who need social and mental support, can become vulnerable to the siren call of violent ideologies.
The digital age has amplified that call, equipping terrorist recruiters from groups like ISIL with new tools to draw vulnerable individuals into online communities where they learn to exalt and plot violence. Caught in their web, brothers, sisters, neighbors, and classmates become killers prepared to turn on their communities. When they do, we see attacks like those in San Bernardino and Paris.
In their wake, the impulse for action cannot distract from a simple truth: Real progress against terrorism requires not only eliminating terrorists, but also disrupting the process by which people become terrorists. Only a broader approach rooted in this reality can ensure that terrorists taken off the battlefield are not simply replaced.
That approach calls for a more holistic, community-driven effort, where local officials, parents, educators, business owners, and faith leaders partner to address the grievances that terrorists exploit, push back against their propaganda, and build off-ramps from the road to radicalization and violence.
The United States has promoted this broader approach to tackling terrorism at home and abroad under the mantle of Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE, which recognizes that empowered communities are among the best antidotes for preventing the spread of terrorist ideologies and must be an essential component of how we reduce this threat over the long term. But how does this broader approach translate in practice?
First, public officials at home and abroad must ensure effective governance, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. When governments fail to protect, respect, and serve all of their people, it creates openings that terrorists eagerly exploit. According to the Global Terrorism Index, 92 percent of all terrorist attacks over the last 25 years occurred in countries where state-sponsored violence, such as torture and political imprisonment, was widespread.
Second, public officials must proactively build trust and respect with local leaders and communities. From Afghanistan to Somalia to Colombia, research shows that when populations are marginalized and supporting institutions are absent, communities become more vulnerable to violent extremism. But when locals know what to look for and whom to call to protect friends and family from radical ideologies, and when they trust authorities to help them, those ideologies struggle to take root.
Around the world, local leaders are stepping up to protect their communities from terrorism. Youth in Uganda, Somalia, and the Philippines are pushing back against the extremist propaganda aimed at their peers. Police in Kenya are reaching out to build ties with resident Somalis targeted by Al Shabab for recruitment. Educators are developing new lessons to promote tolerance in classrooms across Mauritania. Mayors from around the globe are helping each other build local resilience to terrorism through a new Strong Cities Network.
At home, the United States is revamping efforts to counter terrorist propaganda, and is piloting programs in major American cities — including here in Boston — to mobilize community-led approaches to address the myriad forces that make people vulnerable to extremist ideology. That means reaching out — through both citizen groups and government — to those on society’s margins who lack the sense of community and purpose that terrorist groups exploit. It also means empowering mainstream voices to forcefully debunk violent ideologies of all stripes.
As the Islamic State emerges as a major terrorist threat, partnerships with Muslim communities at home and abroad become even more critical in these efforts. As President Obama has said, “ISIL does not speak for Islam,” and Muslims around the world are our greatest allies in debunking perversions of their faith. At home, Muslims are inseparable from the American family and enrich our society in countless ways, and we must rally to their side by rejecting bigotry and discrimination. These dark sentiments not only betray our deepest values but also feed the propaganda ISIL wields to lure new recruits.
In the long run, defeating groups like ISIL means not only eliminating terrorists, but also preventing people from becoming terrorists in the first place. We do that not by turning away from our values and our communities, but by embracing them.
About the Author: Sarah Sewall serves as Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.
Editor’s Note: This entry originally appeared as an opinion piece in the Boston Globe.