On Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida terrorists killed nearly 3,000 Americans. Eighteen years later, we remain deeply concerned about the threat of another large scale terrorist attack.
We are concerned because terrorist violence continues to grow and spread. The Middle East and Sahel regions are the epicenter of extremist violence. Islamist militants there command more fighters, are active in more countries and control more territory than they did before the 9/11 attacks. Violent extremism’s spread, even in distant countries, creates incubators for future attacks, putting us all at risk.
We recognize and honor the dedication, sacrifice and tireless efforts of American military and civilian personnel. They have destroyed terrorist networks on the battlefield and thwarted their plots. Over 15,000 Americans paid with their lives, and more than 50,000 have been injured. Yet, the Islamic State’s resurgence this year in parts of Iraq and Syria is a stark reminder that the underlying conditions that fomented these groups remain in place.
The initial response
Over a decade and a half ago, as chairs of the 9/11 Commission, we called for a comprehensive strategy to prevent new generations of terrorists, in addition to safeguarding the homeland and defeating terrorist groups. That call remains largely unfulfilled, but we are encouraged by new thinking in Congress, in the administration and internationally, dedicated to preventing violence and extremism at its roots.
Last year, Congress charged the U.S. Institute of Peace with developing a strategy to prevent the spread of extremist violence in the world’s most fragile states and asked us to lead a bipartisan group of 13 of America’s most senior foreign policy leaders to address this critical challenge. Our final report calls for the United States to focus on the underlying causes of fragility, by helping to repair the broken social contract between citizens and their governments, rather than just respond to terrorist threats.
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Today, we are encouraged to see many of our recommendations reflected in pending legislation, especially the Global Fragility Act (HR 2116 and S 727). If adopted, this legislation will be a critical first step in reshaping U.S. policy toward countries vulnerable to extremism and violence. Leaders on both sides of the aisle — Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chris Coons, D-Del., Reps. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Michael McCaul, R-Texas — are sponsoring this legislation. In April, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo concurred during a hearing that we must seize the moment and adopt this new approach. We applaud their leadership.
Let us be clear: We do not recommend nation building. We have learned that the United States cannot build other people’s nations. They have to do that for themselves. What we recommend is to focus on countries where the United States has committed partners and empower those leaders to create alternatives to violence and extremism. Their interest in peace and stability must be at least as great as our own.
Better to avoid the mess than have to clean it up later
Preventing widespread violence and state collapse is far cheaper than the use of military force after crises erupt. We cannot spend another $6 trillion fighting terrorism. By one recent estimate, we save $16 in costly military intervention and relief operations for every dollar spent on prevention. And when we invest in the ability of our partners to become self-reliant, to advance their own prevention agenda, we are working toward a worthy goal — a time when foreign assistance is no longer necessary.
Nor is prevention naive. The United States always reserves the right to use force to confront an imminent terrorist threat. But when we pursue today’s threats without regard to preventing tomorrow’s threats, we risk inadvertently fueling future grievances. We want to get ahead of the threat, not create an unsustainable cycle of violence.
A preventive approach is also prudent. Steering clear of harm’s way, in places where diplomacy and aid can prevent violent extremists from gaining a foothold, is the best way to honor the sacrifices our servicemen and women have made over the past two decades.
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We are under no illusions about the scope of the challenge. We understand both the importance of the problem as well as the difficulty of finding a solution. Preventing extremist violence is a difficult mission, and we must recognize that success will take time. Our efforts will not succeed everywhere. There will be failures along the way.
Success against the spread of violent extremism requires more than the use of force. The 9/11 Commission called for a comprehensive approach, recognizing that long-term success against terrorism demands the use of all elements of national power. Now is the time to act.
Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean and former Congressman Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana served as chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the 9/11 Commission. Over the past year, they served as the chairs of the congressionally mandated Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States, which was convened by the United States Institute of Peace.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Anniversary of 9/11: Fighting terrorism requires crisis prevention