Growing Russian and Chinese influence could spark extremism, US task force says
As US focuses on preventing attacks at home and targeting militants abroad, extremist ideas are taking root in vulnerable countries amid a global power shift
This story is published in a content partnership with POLITICO. It was originally reported by Nahal Toosi on politico.com on September 11, 2018.
Russia’s and China’s expanding economic and military reach could foster extremism in developing nations, and the United States must engage the rest of the world in trying to prevent that threat from materialising, a task force spearheaded by the leaders of the September 11 Commission argues in a new report .
The report, released on Tuesday, the 17th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, comes as President Donald Trump has pursued overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other autocrats, tried to slash foreign aid spending and broken with America’s traditional democratic allies to an unusual degree.
The report’s authors – led by former Governor Tom Kean of New Jersey, a Republican who chaired the September 11 Commission, and former Representative Lee Hamilton, the commission’s vice-chairman – do not criticise Trump and avoid any hints at partisanship. Still, many of their conclusions seem at odds with Trumps personal approach to foreign policy.
Since 2001, the US has focused extensively on preventing attacks on American soil and targeting militants abroad, but it must do more to prevent extremist ideas from taking root in the first place in vulnerable countries, the report argues.
“The time has come for a new US strategy,” the report states. “Going forward, the priority for US policy should be to strengthen fragile states – to help them build resilience against the alarming growth of violent extremism within their own societies.”
Extremist groups have evolved, especially over the past decade, focusing not just on attacking the West but also on establishing political orders that offer frustrated populations alternatives to corrupt and ineffective governments, the report states.
One prominent example was the Islamic State terrorist group’s attempts to build a “caliphate” in parts of Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, the extremists were offering unhappy Sunni Muslims an alternative to the Shiite-dominated central government.
Countries such as Russia and China, meanwhile, have increased their economic and military outreach to the governments of “fragile states”. The assistance offered by China and Russia, such as loans or military aid, generally doesn’t come with requirements to respect human rights, exhibit transparency or other facets of good governance.
This lets China and Russia bolster their influence, and also “allows predatory governments to avoid reforms and has been shown to have increased corruption”, Populations in the developing states are more likely to lose faith in their governments and, as a result, be more willing to support alternative rule offered by extremists.
In Africa, the report states, “Moscow is by far the largest weapons supplier … When the United States denied Nigeria’s request for Cobra attack helicopters because of human rights concerns, Russia stepped in and also agreed to train Nigerian security forces.”
China, the report notes, is “Africa’s largest single-country trade partner and its biggest creditor”, to the point where some African countries’ failure to repay their loans could allow the Chinese to take control of much of their infrastructure.
Separately, regional rivalries, such as that between Iran and Saudi Arabia, are fuelling violence, extremist ideology and despair across the Middle East and North Africa.
Iran, the report states, is “operating more than a hundred religious institutions in Africa.” The Saudis, who between 1982 and 2005 “spent US$75 billion to fund mosques, madrassas and religious television channels,” are lashing out at Iran in places like Yemen.
Intra-Arab rivalries, such as that between the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are further exacerbating tensions, the report states.
The report is the first of at least two to be produced by the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States. The first focuses on laying out the reasoning behind why a new strategy to prevent extremism is needed and establishing some principles of what it should look like; the next report, due in 2019, will propose a comprehensive strategy to implement.
The task force was established at the behest of Congress and is housed at the US Institute of Peace. Its members include prominent Republicans and Democrats, including Dina Powell, a former deputy national security adviser for Trump.
The report selectively quotes Trump to buttress some of its points. It emphasises aspects of the fight against terrorism that might appeal to him, such as by criticising Iran.
“It was not intended as a rebuke of the president in any way. shape or form,” said Stephen Hadley, a national security adviser to former president George W Bush who served on the task force. “The co-chairs made very clear that our objective is to try to create a bipartisan consensus that would embrace both the executive branch and the Congress on how to address this problem.”
In a call with reporters, Hamilton and Kean cast the new report as a way to follow up on the conclusions of the September 11 Commission. The commission had three main recommendations: attack terrorists and their organisations; protect against and prepare for terrorist attacks; and stop the growth of terrorism.
The new report “in a way is the continuation of the third point of the September 11 report – that you have to find a way to prevent terrorism to begin with”, Kean said.
The pair also stressed that they’ve been encouraged by their contacts with aides to the president. “Obviously, they’re not going to commit to something one way or the other, but they have said they ‘like what we are doing, we want to keep in touch with you, we think it can be useful to us’,” Kean said.
Intentionally or not, the report’s recommendations highlight Trump’s often-inconsistent approach to foreign affairs – a personal vision that can seem out of sync with his own administration’s official National Security Strategy.
The report says the US needs to partner with other governments, local and national, to come up with strategies to reduce the allure of extremism. But Trump, through his rhetoric and use of tariffs, has badly rattled America’s relationships with even some of its staunchest allies, raising concerns about the ability of alliances such as Nato to present a united front on global challenges.
Trump has also sought to improve relations with Russia, even though his administration, under congressional pressure, has imposed sanctions and taken other measures to rein in Moscow. The president has at times praised the Chinese leadership, but he has also slapped tariffs on the Asian giant.
While Trump took office promising to “bomb the s*** out of” terrorists, he has made human rights and the promotion of democracy a low priority while expressing favourable views toward autocratic leaders. The report, meanwhile, stresses that it is crucial to motivate governments in fragile states to be more transparent, less corrupt and more responsive to their citizens.
Future US efforts to strengthen fragile states do not have to be expensive, the report states – a possibly subtle signal to Trump, who has tried to dramatically slash US spending on foreign aid only to run into resistance from Congress.
The report acknowledges that strengthening fragile states to resist extremism and improve governance is the work of many years: “We cannot solve the problem of extremism within the term of a single presidential administration.”
Its conclusion, however, is that there is no time to waste.
“For a preventive strategy to succeed, it will need to outpace attempts by extremist groups to undermine fragile states,” the report states. “The time to put a preventive strategy in place is now.”