June 08, 2009

Beyond Bullets: Strategies for Countering Violent Extremism

To counter the threat from violent Islamist extremism more effectively, the Center for a New American Security launched a strategy development process modeled after President Eisenhower’s Project Solarium. CNAS asked five experts to recast the effort to defeat al-Qaeda in sustainable terms consistent with American values. The result is a series of essays, produced in this report, that recommend a rich array of counterterrorism tools and strategies for the new administration.

The series begins with Kristin Lord, John Nagl, and Seth Rosen, who present a comprehensive strategy to counter violent extremism backed by a realistic vision of success, guiding principles, and specific ways and means involving intelligence, diplomacy, military operations, strategic public engagement, law enforcement, finance and development, and homeland defense (this essay is available as a separate publication, view it here). David Kilcullen recommends a “balanced response” that disaggregates disparate Islamist groups and recalibrates the civilian and military tools of U.S. power. Larry Diamond then focuses on democratization in the Arab world as a vehicle to staunching the supply of violent extremists and the grievances that inspire them. Camille Pecastaing suggests that the U.S. government dismantle the “war on terror,” relegate counterterrorism to the jurisdiction of technical government agencies, and better educate the American public about the true nature of the threat. Harvey Sapolsk proposes a reduction of U.S. military deployments in order to neutralize sources of extremist propaganda and to conserve limited resources. Finally, Daniel Benjamin presents a counterterrorism strategy that would recommit the U.S. to international legal standards and to expand civilian tools of government, while continuing to track down al-Qaeda.

CNAS then convened the authors, along with leading experts and stakeholders from the U.S. government, to debate the merits and challenges behind each approach. From these discussions, CNAS composed a broad document to support national security policymakers as they pivot to a new approach for combating violent extremism. This capstone paper proposes a series of principles and instruments to shape a new U.S. counterterrorism strategy and to enhance the nation’s security.


  • Alice Hunt Friend

    Member, CNAS AI Governance Forum, Head of AI & Emerging Tech Policy, Google

    Alice Hunt Friend is Head of AI & Emerging Tech Policy at Google. Friend is an expert in defense politics and emerging capabilities, and has served in several roles at the...

  • 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...

  • Kristin M. Lord