June 09, 2009

Beyond Bullets: A Pragmatic Strategy to Combat Violent Islamist Extremism

This essay is part of a larger edited volume, with additional authors, on combating violent extremism. To view the entire edited volume, click here.

Violent Islamist extremism will remain a potent threat to U.S. national security for the foreseeable future. On our own soil, catastrophic terrorism - employing chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons - remains a remote but grave risk. Beyond U.S. borders, American interests, including American allies, institutions, and citizens, remain likely targets. From Pakistan to Somalia, a complex assortment of Islamist extremists threatens to destabilize whole countries or regions, potentially unleashing political turmoil, economic distress, and widespread violence.

This global and complex threat demands a global and complex response. In this paper, Dr. Kristin M. Lord, Dr. John A. Nagl and Seth Rosen present a pragmatic and comprehensive strategy to combat violent Islamist extremism, one that engages all appropriate instruments of national power in a cohesive vision for action. As other national security concerns proliferate, the authors argue, America must re-commit to countering violent extremism by employing an approach that is sustainable, properly resourced, grounded in bipartisan political support, and bolstered by a dense network of partnerships that engages actors both inside and outside of government.

The paper establishes a clear analysis of the threat, a realistic vision of success, and strategic principles to guide U.S. actions. The authors also offer specific “ways and means” in order to accomplish the objectives they lay out, including developing the intelligence networks and human capital necessary to counter violent extremism; creating “expeditionary” civilian specialists who can embed with military units and provide much-needed assistance in political, economic, and governance missions; optimizing strategic public engagement abroad; investing in the capacities of both U.S. and foreign militaries to counter violent extremism; prioritizing job creation in areas where young people are economically marginalized and susceptible to radicalization; and defending the homeland against terrorist attacks.

The strategy presented here draws from a competitive policy analysis led by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Modeled after President Eisenhower’s Project Solarium, CNAS asked five experts to examine the threat posed by violent Islamist extremism, to recommend U.S. policies to counter extremism, and then to debate them. This paper distills these insights, and our own views, into a comprehensive strategy to suppress violent Islamist extremism and combat the threat it poses to American interests.


  • John A. Nagl

    Member, CNAS Board of Advisors, Associate Professor of Warfighting Studies at U.S. Army War College

    Dr. John Nagl is the ninth Headmaster of The Haverford School in Haverford, Pennsylvania and a member of the Board of Advisors at the Center for a New American Security. He wa...