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Combatting Terrorism: Looking Over the Horizon – Remarks by Under Secretary Sarah Sewall
June 15, 2015


Sarah Sewall
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Geneva Centre for Security Policy
Geneva, Switzerland
June 15, 2015


(As Prepared for Delivery)

Good morning everyone. Thank you Dr. Mohamedou, and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, for inviting me to address this accomplished group of scholars and practitioners on a topic that concerns much of the globe today: the threat of violent extremism. This threat takes many forms and appears throughout the world including: Neo-Nazi actors in the United States or Europe, violent radical Islamist movements in the Middle East and Africa, or extremist Buddhism operating in parts of Asia.

Violent extremism’s growth over the last decade is an extremely dangerous and destabilizing phenomenon. It is essential that the world mobilize against such backward-looking intolerance and cruelty, which threatens humanity’s moral, political, and economic progress. We know that terrorists must be defeated militarily, yet we also see them responding to military force by dispersing, rebranding, aligning and reforming – continuing to spread as new members join their ranks. This underscores the need to adopt a more preventive approach, one that halts the spread of violent extremist networks. This was a unified message from the February White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism.

Yet we remain challenged by the difficulty of understanding why individuals or communities would join such backward, violent extremist groups. Terror network recruits come from all walks of life: posh suburbs and forgotten slums; from countries rich and poor, repressive and free, stable and conflict-ridden.

They have many complex, overlapping and context-specific motives. This can be confounding for a global community eager to understand why violent extremism proliferates and how we can address it.

Even as our understanding remains incomplete, we have documented a range of grievances and motives that propel individuals, and in some cases, communities to join or align with terrorist actors.

Motives can be identified along what psychologist Abraham Maslow famously posited as a human hierarchy of needs.

Maslow argued that individuals have a range of needs that must be met – in priority order – before people attain their greatest self-realization.

At the bottom of the pyramid are needs critical to physical survival, such as food, shelter and safety.

Higher up the hierarchy of need, individuals look to find love and belonging, self-esteem, and purpose.

In my view, understanding Maslow’s schema usefully helps us disaggregate the reasons that individuals might be “pushed” or “pulled” toward violent extremism. What have been called push factors – the conditions that make individuals or communities vulnerable to extremist recruitment – prominently feature conditions like physical insecurity or the inability to provide for oneself or one’s family. But even where people’s lower-level needs are met, social and political marginalization can impact higher-order human needs such as a valued role or purpose.

The Hierarchy of Needs therefore helps us understand why dramatically different profiles of persons can be drawn to organizations antithetical to what we would identify as progress and humanity.

Any type of violent extremist group exploits human needs all along the spectrum.

From al-Shabab in Somalia to Da’esh in Syria, terror groups lure some with the promise of a paycheck –the undereducated youth with no prospect of employment or a future, or the father who can no longer provide for his family.

Others are motivated to join extremist ranks by higher-end needs – purpose, meaning, identity. The exclusivity of belonging to group that aligns itself against another may lure the racial supremacist — whether a “Skinhead”, Bhuddist extremist, or other variety. Terrorist narratives and slick media-driven marketing make casting calls for heroic warriors, wives of a new nation, or spiritual martyrdom. By targeting of psychological needs, despite the realities behind the pitch, violent extremists entice local youth, girls from Europe, and wealthy engineers to their ranks.

Maslow’s hierarchy suggests that those with unmet basic needs, be it physical security or a paycheck, may be particularly vulnerable to terror organizations. But the hierarchy also points toward other vulnerabilities that terrorists exploit. In so doing, this schema of needs suggests a complementary – if complex – set of interventions that states and communities must pursue to protect the most vulnerable from the false claims of terrorist propaganda.

Because violent extremists prey on different grievances, from people’s immediate needs for security to their more abstract desires for empowerment, and identity, a ‘whole-of-society’ approach is the key to preventing the spread of violent extremism’s appeals.

We absolutely need our military, intelligence, and law enforcement tools to defeat terror networks. But as Al-Qa’ida was dispersed, new terror groups sprang up, and they have merged or made common cause with other actors – sometimes coopting political movements or non-theologically affiliated communities (such as Sunni communities in parts of Iraq). Tens of thousands of individuals from around the globe travel to join the epicenters of terror. Violent extremism continues to spread.

Therefore as an international community, we must continue to expand our approach to counter terrorism to include greater emphasis on prevention – protecting individuals and communities from violent extremism. As agreed at the February White House Summit, global counter-terrorism efforts must learn to build resilience and resistance within the most vulnerable communities, helping address the range of human needs we have just discussed.

This can mean pushing governments to ensure space for dissent and religious freedom to reduce perceptions of marginalization and enable communities to find their voices; training security forces to protect instead of profile their citizens; supporting civil society to engage youth through educational, service or mentoring programs; partnering with businesses to expand vocational training or economic opportunities in marginalized communities; and amplifying the voice of cultural or religious leaders to challenge violent extremist marketing and propaganda.

Given our limited resources, effective prevention means identifying priority regions and communities at greatest risk of radicalization to violence and working proactively to address the grievances and needs violent extremists are most likely to exploit.

As important as countering extremist narratives is, we must help communities and governments provide alternatives that are as credible, as visible, as empowering, and as broadly available as we can make them.

Local actors must lead this effort, for they have the greatest credibility, knowledge and long-term stake in implementing effective and at times, interrelated interventions.

Governments must also acknowledge their contributions to the grievances violent extremists exploit, like police abuse and corruption, and act swiftly to remedy them.

Our experience and observations since September 11th – the gains, and the missteps – show us that, while our considerable military, intelligence, and law enforcement tools can significantly diminish the capabilities of violent extremist groups, unless local actors address the underlying grievances that feed them, we become locked in managing the consequences of violent extremism without addressing key push factors.

Our experience also demonstrates how, once violent extremism has taken root, the conflict and instability associated with it make it far harder to address the conditions that enable its growth.

That is why we see focusing on prevention as a critical part of how we counter violent extremism and increase the likelihood of avoiding costly interventions later.

To realize the broad partnership required for this long-term and holistic strategy, the White House convened a summit last February of more than 300 participants from national and local governments, civil society, the private sector and international organizations to launch a global movement to counter violent extremism.

Participants discussed the underlying drivers of violent extremism, distinguishing “push factors” that made individuals vulnerable from the “pull factors” that lured them to a particular organization. Summit participants developed an Action Agenda for collaborating on a number of priority areas, from researching the local drivers of violent extremism and empowering civil society, to expanding economic opportunities and amplifying local voices to counter violent extremist narratives.

In advance of a CVE leaders level meeting on the margins of the UN General Assembly, members of the international community have begun or are planning regional summits all over the world to broaden this movement and help partner governments develop national strategies tailored to their challenges with violent extremism.

I have participated in two regional summits thus far, and several more are on the horizon – while work is ongoing in capitals and in neighborhoods around the world. I encourage you all to learn more about this agenda by visiting www.cvesummit.org.

I am inspired by the energy around the prevention agenda, which increasingly extends beyond the “usual suspects” in the counterterrorism sphere. For example, Klaus Schwab has committed the World Economic Forum to engage deeply in this approach to countering violent extremism.

The United Nations has long emphasized the need for prevention in its longstanding counter terrorism strategy. At the White House Summit, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon announced his commitment to develop a CVE plan of action to guide member states’ and the UN’s prevention efforts. As this expert audience knows well, violent extremism is a generational challenge.

Prevention too often receives short shrift in our debates and budgets. But the preventive aspects of CVE can harness a far broader array of actors and resources than we have to date. Foreign assistance – or overseas development assistance – has a critical role to play, as do the international and regional financial institutions and indeed the private sector. As we broaden this global campaign to counter and prevent violent extremism, we are forging new partnerships with the EU, WEF, IFIs and philanthropic organizations.

We are also strengthening our engagement with the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF) based right here in Geneva.

Recognizing the key role of local governments in this effort, we anticipate on the margins of the UN General Assembly a launch of a Strong Cities initiative for mayors and municipal leaders and practitioners all over the world to exchange their successes and challenges in countering violent extremism. We are also anticipating the launch of regional civil society networks that allow young activists working to build community-level cohesion and artists using the power of creative expression to counter extremist messaging not only to share best practices, but also to connect with potential private sector sponsors to scale their innovative, community-level CVE programs. A side conference in New York that brings together young researchers from around the world working to identify local drivers of violent extremism and what has worked to build community resilience against violent extremism, will lead to the launch of a global research network for those working in this field.

And, I hope this Center can play a role in this new network and more broadly by contributing its world-class scholarship to help illuminate where and why violent extremism is most likely to thrive, and by continuing this vital conversation about the benefits of preventive, whole-of-society approaches to this challenge.

Thank you all very much, and I look forward to your questions.