The US 2020 Presidential Election: Affects on Counter-Terrorism and Violent Extremism

With the presidential election three weeks away, leaders around the globe are closely following the developments from the debates and recent polls across the country. US interventionism, our role in development work around the world, efforts to support democracy and citizen movements, intervention in fragile and conflict-affected countries, and many other crucial areas of global policy will be affected by the US presidential race and election outcome. In a follow up to the first article, “The US 2020 Presidential Election and Foreign Policy Ramifications,” Lauren Van Metre, lecturer in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University, addresses the affects the election will have on counter-terrorism and preventing violent extremism.

Dr. Van Metre’s areas of expertise include conflict resolution, violent extremism, and resilience to violent conflict. She has served as the Acting Vice President and head of the Center for Applied Research at the US Institute of Peace (USIP), at the State Department as deputy office director for Kosovo peace implementation, and at the Defense Department where she organized the first-ever Defense Ministerial of the Americas and South Balkans Defense Ministerial.

How will the US provide leadership in preventing violent extremism and counter-terrorism? 

The US has been a global leader for counter-terrorism and preventing violent extremism, and policymakers are wondering what the elections will mean for US leadership in this area. Since 9/11, the counter-terrorism strategy favored by the US was conducted primarily by the US military. It was focused primarily on disrupting or defeating violent extremist groups militarily as well as disrupting their recruitment channels. There was a tremendous focus on how to stop individual radicalization and dissuading recruits from joining these groups. One of the things that became very apparent in the Obama administration, was the realization that these military approaches were not working. 

Even now, we’ve seen the continued rise in terms of the numbers, size, and geographic expansion of violent extremist groups. There have been upticks in the number of people killed annually by terrorist attacks, and we’ve seen only a growth in the number of foreign fighters that are affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and with ISIS and its different forms. More than that, we’ve seen the geographic spread of violent extremist groups moving rapidly into the Horn of Africa, into the near east, and now, into western Africa. 

What’s changed about how the US approaches counter-terrorism efforts since 9/11? 

We’ve learned that counter-terrorism alone cannot solve this problem. One of the things that the Obama administration was just getting to was the realization that we have to expand our repertoire of responding to and preventing violent extremism. His administration was focused much more on a ‘whole of society’ approach that built up the capacities of communities and governments and those on the ground to manage their violent extremism problem. 

Under the Trump administration, I think that there has been a little bit of a confused response. We have definitely seen the attempted retrenchment around our counter-terrorism activities. You saw this in the National Defense Strategy by General Mattis. It was a profound shift away from counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism as the US national security goal to becoming a geopolitical competition. You’ve seen Trump pull out of Syria, you’ve seen a scale-down of counter-terrorism operations by the US globally, and you’ve seen the EU needing its response with things such as putting together a European coalition. As there has been a kind of retrenchment on counter-terrorism, we also have a lack of a long-term, strategic approach by the US under this administration. 

How will the upcoming US presidential election affect our country’s stance on counter-terrorism?

I think that withdrawal by the US is where people are going to be paying close attention with regards to the upcoming election. If there’s a continuation of this administration, you’re going to see two things. The Europeans and regional organizations will really need to step up in terms of the prevention and counter-terrorism efforts. And, you’re also going to see the US focusing more on geopolitical competition and move its assets and national security programming to a different national security goal. 

If, on the other hand, there is a change in the administration, policymakers will see a much more multidimensional approach to managing violent extremism and preventing it, picking up where the Obama administration left off. I would expect that there would be a strong emphasis on what I would call strategic prevention, which connects to what I’ve already mentioned about the Global Fragility Act and how countries engage in partnerships. 

In addition to counter-terrorism, you’ll see an emphasis on the development of local partnerships and strengthening societies, but most importantly, I think there will be a real emphasis on the political drivers of violent extremism in a country. And this is where I think the Obama administration wanted to go. 

What have you discovered in your research around policymaking in these areas? 

It’s important to note that now, most studies recognize that what truly drives violent extremism in very fragile, conflict-affected countries are the activities of those governments themselves. I certainly saw that profoundly in my research in Kenya. When governments captured democratic processes, and use them to extend their own corrupt and personal gain at the expense of citizens, this drives citizens to look at violent extremism groups as sustainable and legitimate options to engaging in their own governments and societies. 

I saw that concretely in two ways in Kenya. Political parties in Kenya often use their political power to strip a group of political opposition of their land and their political rights. These parties will employ youth in these communities to exercise violence against political opponents. Security forces in these countries, because they are starved by political powers, will often predate on the societies and exercise human rights abuses. You see that at the community level, and so, for those communities, at the local level, democracy does not look like a legitimate form of government for them. 

You begin to see where extremist groups can offer an alternative form of governance, an alternative society — which in many ways, is so appealing to younger people because it offers status and the ability to have political and social input. So, I think there’s increasing recognition that preventing violent extremism must address political processes as well. It’s got to be around fundamental governance reform and advancing legitimate democratic interests in countries in support of the citizens who want this change.

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