Small Wars Journal

Rethinking the Threat of Islamic Extremism: The Changes Needed in U.S. Strategy

Rethinking the Threat of Islamic Extremism: The Changes Needed in U.S. Strategy by Anthony Cordesman, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Main Conclusions

The analysis is supported by a wide range of data drawn from U.S. government, UN, World Bank, and NGO sources where the key statistics and data are presented in the various figures and tables in each section. It concludes that the United States needs to fundamentally rethink key aspects of its struggle against terrorism and Islamic extremism.

The United States has made great progress in improving its homeland defenses and international counterterrorism efforts. It has restructured its security partnerships with largely Muslim states to help them give the same emphasis to counterterrorism that they have given to military security. The United States is also making major progress in defeating the ability of ISIS to hold territory, act as a protostate, provide sanctuary for training fighters, and ISIS’s efforts to widen its grasp and number of affiliates.

At the same time, far too much of the U.S. effort is now centered around the immediate threat from ISIS, and the external threat it poses to the U.S. homeland and Europe. Far too few in the United States understand the importance of the strategic partnerships the U.S. has forged with largely Muslim states, the fact that the primary fight with Islamic extremism is inside Muslim states, and that it is a fight for the future of Islam—rather than the limited threat it poses to faiths and countries outside.

The threat of Islamist terrorism within the United States and Europe has been all too real, but it has only been a minor aspect of a far more serious series of threats it poses within the Islamic world. The fight is primarily a fight between moderate governments and popular majorities committed to Islam’s traditional values and extremists seeking to use almost any form of violence, and mix of terrorism and asymmetric warfare, to seize power. It is “clash within a civilization” and not a “clash between civilizations.”

The United States, Europe, and other non-Muslim states cannot defeat terrorism or the broader threat posed by Islamic extremism by trying to isolate themselves from Muslim countries, or treating Muslims as if violent Islamic extremists were more than a tiny minority of Muslims. Islam is growing too quickly, and is far too important a force within the world. Polls show that the vast majority of Muslims oppose extremist ideology and violence. Most Muslim governments are key partners in the fight against extremism and terrorism, as well as key security partners in dealing with other threats.

The key challenge to the United States is to revitalize its security partnerships, work with largely Muslim states, and develop better collective approaches to both the threat of extremism and other threats like those posed by Iran. The United States needs to show it can act decisively and is a partner that its partners can trust. At the same time, the United States must work with its Muslim security partners to help them address their own failings in developing effective counters to extremism, better efforts at collective defense, and their failure to fully address the causes of Islamic extremism…

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