Defeating terrorism requires prioritizing development

Following each new terrorist attack, especially those in western countries such as France and Belgium, the international community reaffirms its commitment to fighting terrorism. U.S. President Barack Obama stated that the attacks in Brussels in March 2016 were “yet another reminder that the world must unite. We must be together, regardless of nationality or race or faith, in fighting against the scourge of terrorism... We can and we will defeat those who threaten the safety and security of people all around the world.”

Yet the United States’ piecemeal counterterrorism strategy is failing because it prioritizes surveillance and killing individual terrorists over addressing the fundamental social and economic issues that empower and sustain terrorist groups. The United States must reevaluate its counterterrorism approach in order to fulfill the promise of defeating global terrorism. A greater emphasis on investment in development - political, economic, and social - is the only means of alleviating the underlying conditions that give rise to terrorist groups and allow them to successfully recruit members.

Engaging terrorists militarily is very different from fighting a conventional war against a sovereign nation. Terrorist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda consist of far-reaching, decentralized networks spanning multiple countries. Members of terrorist organizations are often difficult to identify, locate, and capture or eliminate. And eliminating one terrorist cell does little to weaken the strength of the organization. When leaders and members are captured or killed, they are quickly replaced with new recruits and new cells that are strengthened in their resolve to defend the group’s values.

For these reasons, terrorist groups cannot be defeated through purely military engagement. While boots on the ground and air strikes are undoubtedly essential components of counterterrorism efforts, until the root causes that lead individuals to form and join these organizations are addressed, existing groups will never be completely eliminated and new organizations will continue to form.

While the link between poverty and terrorism is difficult to conclusively establish, a 2015 study, “Economic Growth and Terrorism: Domestic, International, and Suicide,” published in Oxford Economic Papers, found that higher industrial economic growth is correlated with lower levels of international and domestic terrorism. Poverty can lead desperate individuals to join terrorist organizations they would not otherwise engage with given greater economic opportunity.

Extreme poverty in Northern Nigeria is a leading factor in recruiting members for Boko Haram. CIA analysts stated that, “The threat Boko Haram poses will disappear only if Nigeria’s government manages to reduce the region’s chronic poverty.”

Social and political grievances are another potential motivator for joining an extremist group. Boko Haram “attempts to exploit the legitimate grievances of northern populations to garner recruits and public sympathy,” according to Johnnie Carson, former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.

Despite the important role that “social conditions” and the larger socio-economic context play in driving domestic individuals to join terrorist organizations, most counterterrorism efforts focus on military campaigns, surveillance and intelligence, security, winning hearts and minds, and blocking funding sources, rather than addressing and alleviating domestic drivers of recruitment through comprehensive development.

Using foreign aid and development programs to mitigate these conditions is not without its challenges and drawbacks. Some places, such as Syria, are too dangerous to effectively run development programs beyond providing basic humanitarian assistance. A development-based approach does little to combat those who are already actively engaged in terrorist organizations. Some underlying conditions (such as corruption, kleptocratic governance, and lack of rule of law), which give rise to grievances used as recruitment tools, are extremely difficult to influence externally through aid programs. The current military-heavy counterterrorism strategy, however, exerts little influence on the political environment in a country and can further harm an already struggling economy.

Yet the United States’ counterterrorism strategy remains military-centric. This is underscored by the fact that the United States spends far more on military initiatives than development programs. Gordon Adams, a national security budget expert, estimates that the United States spends at least $100 billion on counterterrorism efforts each year. The 2016 U.S. Department of Defense budget is $585 billion while the budget for U.S. foreign assistance is $38 billion. This needs to change.

Military engagement is an undesirable, but sometimes necessary, means to an end. Military action puts human life at risk in order to achieve a greater good - in this case combating terrorism. However, development is a desirable means to the same end, as well as a valuable end in and of itself. Using development initiatives for counterterrorism not only impedes the proliferation of terrorist membership, but also improves the social, economic, and political climate of a country - a worthwhile goal on its own.

Economic, social, and political development is an effective means of preventing existing terrorist organizations from thriving and new ones from forming. Until the root issues that allow the ranks of these extremist groups to grow are addressed, we will be fighting a losing battle against terrorism. If we make sustainable development a higher priority and view it as an indispensable counterterrorism and national security tool, we can create a future with fewer terrorists while simultaneously improving lives and livelihoods. A counterterrorism strategy that prioritizes military intervention at the expense of development is a zero sum game.