One disturbing aspect of the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka was that the slaughter of 321 victims came at a time when the United States is suffering what might be described as terrorism fatigue.
The wars against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are part of a painful past that policymakers and the public want to escape. Those Middle East conflicts were costly and distracting. They didn’t produce many tangible gains, other than killing terrorists. Sept. 11, 2001, feels like it happened a long time ago, and many politicians want to move on.
But the networks of violent extremists are still there, stretching to places most of us probably hadn’t even imagined, like Sri Lanka. The bombings there of churches and other sites were allegedly staged by two obscure Islamist groups, National Thowheed Jamaath and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim — with the Islamic State claiming that it also played a role.
Terrorism is metastasizing in other ways, as militant white nationalists join the melee. Brenton Harrison Tarrant, an Australian extremist, allegedly shot and killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, last month after circulating a manifesto expressing rage at migrants. Hideously, there are signs that the Sri Lankan church bombings may have been an act of revenge for the New Zealand mosque shootings — in one of those spasms of hatred that are a terrorist’s dream.
“We’re seeing the viral spread of the Islamic State, which takes root in fragile environments where people feel disenfranchised and excluded,” says Nancy Lindborg, president of the United States Institute of Peace. She explains that the Islamic State’s global network has grown so rapidly over the past five years that it’s bigger now than al-Qaeda ever was. “We can’t kill our way out of this,” Lindborg argues, noting that more repressive security forces in places such as Sri Lanka will only make the problem worse.
Lindborg spoke Tuesday at a meeting hosted by her institute, which I moderated, to release a recent report titled “Preventing Extremism in Fragile States: A New Approach.” The gathering was timely, and the conclusions were stark.
The United States has failed to learn the lesson of Sept. 11, argued Tom Kean, the Republican former governor of New Jersey, who was chair of the 9/11 Commission and is co-chair of USIP’s Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States. The United States took down the leadership of al-Qaeda, to be sure, just as it did later against the Islamic State. But the 9/11 Commission had argued for a broader strategy that would attack the underlying causes of terrorism, not just respond militarily, Kean reminded the USIP audience.
“Our current focus on counterterrorism is necessary, but neither sufficient nor cost-effective,” argued the report prepared by Kean’s task force. The authors reckoned that since 2001, the war on terrorism has taken 10,000 American lives, injured 50,000 others and cost the United States an estimated total of $5.9 trillion. Even after that immense commitment, the problem continues — and as the report cautions, the current U.S. approach is “unsustainable.”
What’s the alternative? Unfortunately, it’s the slow and unglamorous work of preventing weak states from collapsing to the point that they’re terrorism havens. It’s about building governance and economic development, rather than night raids by Special Operations forces. It’s about “connecting the dots” among different intelligence agencies and nations — something that has been given lip service, endlessly, since 9/11 but still hasn’t been achieved.
Nations, like individual human beings, often seem condemned to make the same mistakes over and over. That’s certainly true with countering terrorism. Policymakers in the United States and allied countries understand intellectually that a safe and stable world requires reasonable governance, a public belief that some sort of rough justice prevails and enough jobs that adolescent men aren’t tempted to join terrorist groups.
We’re not talking here about imposing democracy or making the Middle East and Africa look like Switzerland. We’re talking the basics — food, water, access to justice, good-enough governance. The United States can’t do this job by itself, even if it tries. We’ve certainly found that out, but the United States remains the essential partner.
Yet we’re fatigued. These mundane anti-fragility tasks don’t win medals for soldiers, or get politicians reelected, or make business executives rich, so they end up at the bottom of the pile. Another problem is that this strategy is led by the State Department, the most underutilized and money-starved agency of our government.
We’re horrified when bombs ravage places of worship on the other side of the globe. But not enough to do the boring but essential thing that has been staring the United States in the face for 18 years, which is to slowly help build a world that’s more just, prosperous and stable.