The Scourge of Extremism: Move Beyond the Symptoms and Treat the Disease


In the 2012 Israeli documentary “The Gatekeepers,” six former directors of Israel’s internal security service talked about the aggressive actions they took to protect Israel from terrorism.  But they also talked candidly about their frustration with their own government for not coming to a settlement with the Palestinians.  Why?  Because without a lasting peace, new Palestinian terrorists were stepping onto the battlefield faster than Israeli security forces could remove them.  The directors were combatting the symptoms while their political leaders failed to address the disease.

The message of “The Gatekeepers” has parallels in our fight against jihadist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaeda. For every 1,000 hours we spent in the Situation Room talking about how to stop existing extremists from attacking us, we spent perhaps one hour talking about how to prevent the creation of terrorists in the first place.  And, for every million dollars the U.S. government spent on stopping those trying to attack us, we spent perhaps one dollar on countering radical extremism.  The United States has, since President Obama’s first term, taken steps on what is called countering violent extremism (CVE), but these efforts have paled in comparison to our “hard” counter-terrorism operations.

Our failure to focus our energies on CVE is understandable.  One rightfully focuses on stopping those who are trying to hurt us today, and we must continue to do that.  But, unless we — and our allies and partners — also get our arms around the underlying causes of extremism, we will be facing it for generations.

There are numerous factors that come together in a variety of combinations that can lead an individual down the path of radicalization.  We must deal with them all.

For the leaders of ISIL and al-Qaeda, the modern world is inconsistent with their twisted interpretation of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. To remedy this, they seek to establish caliphates, drive the West and its regional allies from Muslim lands, and even prepare for a coming apocalypse by separating believers from non-believers. These views are not shared by the vast majority of the world’s Muslims, but militant groups advancing this ideology are advancing in different hotspots around the word.

Individuals can be drawn to extremist groups for several reasons. Some are attracted to the distorted religious message.  Some believe Western policies are biased against Muslims, pointing in particular to U.S. support for Israel and military interventions in the Muslim world.  Others simply view extremist groups as the only available instrument of political change in countries where poor governance offers little hope for the future.  Many Syrians joined the group known until very recently as Jabhat al-Nusra, for example, because they appeared to be the most effective forces fighting the Assad regime.  Still others are drawn for sectarian or ethnic reasons, whether to protect specific groups or to exact revenge for perceived wrongs.  Many Iraqi Sunnis joined ISIL because they viewed the Shia government in Baghdad as a greater evil.

In the past decade, two other factors have emerged to add fuel to extremism in the Middle East.  First, ungoverned spaces and state failure in the wake of the “Arab Spring” have given groups with extreme aims room to operate. Second, rising sectarianism stoked by Iran’s push for regional hegemony and its lethal support to its proxies have stoked tensions, competition, and radicalization throughout the region.

Scholars and analysts have pointed to a variety of possible socio-economic factors that feed extremism, including feelings of alienation, which can be traced to different causes. In the West, immigrant populations — particularly in Europe —  have not been assimilated into larger society effectively enough. Some alienated youth then turn to extremism to find an outlet and a sense of belonging. Poor integration can also limit social mobility which can lead to further frustration.  Still others are attracted by the so-called “jihadi cool factor,” fostered by depictions of victorious young men carrying AK-47s beneath black banners marketed by social media. For the vast majority of Muslims in the West alienation does not lead to radicalization, but terrorism does not require huge numbers to create instability.

Addressing extremism’s root causes is a complex undertaking that will require years to show results.  It is complex because the causes are numerous and interrelated and because the solutions rely on many different actors.  This is not something the United States can do on its own.  Our allies in the Middle East will have to carry the heaviest burden because the region is the geographic center of the root causes.  They face a heavy responsibility in this regard.

The United States can push and support. Our assistance should be reasonably conditioned on these efforts, starting with good governance. This is lacking in many countries, with the United Arab Emirates being the only exception (indeed it is a model for the way forward).  Good governance includes political reforms that give all groups a stake in the future, economic reforms that incentivize entrepreneurship and create jobs, education reforms that create workers with the skills needed in the global economy, programs like the Emirati Mars probe that inspire the youth of the region, and the teaching of religious tolerance by clerics and teachers.  It is important to note that good governance does not mean Western-style democracies. Rather, it means a government that is responsive to the needs of its people.

The United States and its allies can also help with the regional dynamics that contribute to extremism, including Sunni-Shia tensions.  Iran’s regional malfeasance stokes tensions with Saudi Arabia, for example, while the ongoing atrocities in Syria pits Sunni against Shia. The United States should do more to deter Iran from its regional misbehavior. Such an effort could start with clear warnings and then, if necessary, escalate to the kind of international sanctions brought to bear on its nuclear program. If these measures do not work, some sort of direct action should be pursued.  At the same time, Washington must make clear to Israel that the failure to move forward on Palestinian statehood feeds extremism and is therefore not acceptable.

Europe also faces a heavy burden because the alienation of Muslims is so significant there. European countries will, in some cases, need a wholesale change in how Muslims are integrated into society and we need to publicly prod them to do so.  One of the best ways to help Europe is for the United States to be a model of openness to Muslim immigration and of fully integrating Muslims into our society and economy — with our political leaders refraining from any rhetoric to the contrary.

In the 2015 Showtime/CBS documentary “The Spymasters,” a number of former CIA directors said that we cannot capture and kill our way out of the extremist problem.  These former directors, charged with protecting the United States from the symptoms of extremism, were full in agreement with their “Gatekeepers” counterparts about the importance of dealing with the disease.


Michael Morell was Deputy Director of the CIA from 2010 to 2013.  Admiral (ret.) James A. “Sandy” Winnefeld was Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2011 to 2015.  Samantha Vinograd was the Senior Advisor to the National Security Advisor from 2011 to 2013.