A new channel for Arab publics to help the U.S. counter extremism

Thomas H. Kean (R) Chairman of the 9/11 Commission and Co Chair, Lee H. Hamilton confer during a news conference Decembe
Thomas H. Kean (R) Chairman of the 9/11 Commission and Co Chair, Lee H. Hamilton confer during a news conference December 5, 2005 in Washington, DC. The Commission released a report card giving a failing grade when it comes to how well the U.S is protecting Americans against a future terrorist attack. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

As a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Countering Terrorism and Ideology, I interviewed its co-chairman, Governor Tom Kean, as part of an effort to spread the message of the report to an Arab audience. It was published in Majalla, Saudi Arabia’s flagship news magazine, and included an open invitation to readers to contribute their ideas about how to counter extremism in their own country and beyond. Here’s a link to the English edition of the q&a, and below is the text.

Sixteen years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States has been spared a terrorist act of similar magnitude — but the global threat posed by trans-state actors claiming the mantle of Islam has metastasized. An avid observer in the evolution of terrorism is former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean. Following the 9/11 tragedy, amid broad-based American demand for an independent investigation of its causes, President George W. Bush appointed Kean to chair the “National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States,” which became commonly known as the “9/11 Commission.” In partnership with Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, Kean, a Republican, oversaw a massive research project which culminated in a substantial report on the lead-up to the attacks and the failure of America’s security and intelligence agencies to prevent it. It also made 41 recommendations for changes in policy and governance, drawing upon the bitter lessons, all of which were endorsed by both American parties and most of which has since been implemented.

A decade and a half after the report’s publication, Kean and Hamilton came together again, and appointed a task force of experts to develop a new report about terrorism and counterterrorism in the age of ISIS. The first, analytical component of the report was released in Washington on September 8, titled, “Defeating Terrorists, Not Terrorism: Assessing U.S. Counterterrorism Policy from 9/11 to ISIS.” In substance, it finds that “terrorist ranks are being replenished almost as quickly as the military can decimate them,” and calls for a new campaign to “discredit and supplant the jihadist ideology that legitimizes and incites people to violence.” The second installment of the report, now in the works, will present new policy recommendations to pursue this goal.

Majalla New York bureau chief Joseph Braude, himself a member of the task force, sat down with Governor Kean on the sidelines of the launch in Washington to discuss the report and its significance.

Q: What motivated you and Congressman Hamilton to initiate a new post-9/11 report?

A: It’s been a number of years since the 9/11 report. Congressman Hamilton and I have always felt that we would need to reassess the problem. The report culminated in 41 recommendations, most of which were implemented and have proved helpful in the fight against terror. But we wanted to re-look at it every four or five years, to see what we were doing right, what we were doing wrong, and what new approaches were necessary. I don’t think we did that enough. So we thought it was time to get some bright people under a bipartisan auspices to look at this whole problem, and decide whether we are in fact doing everything we can.

Q: The 9/11 commission study followed a rare moment of American national unity which was spurred by the September 11 attacks. This new report comes at a moment of grating hyper-partisanship. How does one convey a message about terrorism to both sides of the partisan divide at such a time?

A: Actually, we also had a hyper-partisan moment back when the 9/11 Commission was formed. George W. Bush — who some thought had been “elected” by the Supreme Court — was running for reelection, and everything in the Republicans’ mind was about getting him reelected, while everything in Democrats’ mind was about beating him. It was while that campaign was warming up that we were formed. So the first time I went into the meeting, the Democrats were huddled in one corner while the Republicans were huddled in another. I said, if we’re going to succeed, we’ve got to be bipartisan. So Lee Hamilton and I worked together to ensure that it was bipartisan — and everything we did from then on was to make sure everything we did publicly as well as privately was bipartisan. As the Commission started to bond, amid a very tough presidential campaign, we came up with a unanimous bipartisan report which both parties and both presidential candidates signed off on. So I think leadership in this regard is very possible, but it takes people who are determinedly bipartisan, and that’s not easy. But it has to be done. Terrorism cannot and should not be in any way a partisan issue.

Q: As Washington strives to counter terror groups 14 years later, how has the policy outlook evolved toward America’s Arab allies and their role?

A: We’ve always had a difficult time with our alliances in the Middle East. We are a democratic people, and that is a strange philosophy and ideology in the Middle East, looked at by some as a “Greek” idea that has no place in the region, and the region has often been governed autocratically. So as we make alliances in those areas it sometimes is very difficult, because we don’t agree on ideology or methods of government. Nevertheless, it’s very important for the world to maintain good alliances in the area. We have tried our best to understand the region. It helps tremendously that we have good citizens in this country who come from that area, and a number of them serve in our task force. It’s always difficult, but always very important, and we should continue to make all the alliances we can.

Q: President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in June featured the inauguration of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh. What is your appraisal of the new venture?

A: I think what the President is trying to establish in the region is a unified group of people in numerous countries who are opposed to an ideology. My own belief is that even among those countries that are the most hostile at the moment to the U.S., there are a number of elements in those societies that are not hostile, and that should be encouraged. Talk is better than war, and should be the first option in any effort to engage. I understand the President’s initiative, and understand the good that could potentially come of it.

Q: Given that the report is available online and will likely win an audience in the Arab world, what do you hope its readers in the region will gain from it?

A: I hope that Arabs who read this report will gain a sense of the history and the details about how administration after administration in Washington have strived to address this problem. I also hope they will see it as a report about how we want to work with the majority of the Muslim community, and majority of Arabs, to help them address what is a problem to them even more than it is to us, which is the violent extremism within their midst. So my hope is they’ll read the report in that spirit.

The second, follow-on report that is now in the works will move from history and analysis to recommendations for future policy.

Q: Can non-Americans provide their own input and recommendations to the task force, and if so, how can they do so?

Anybody out there can present ideas, because that’s what we’re looking for. We have tried to put together a task force of experts with different ideas, who understand the region, the religious issues, and so on — but that’s only a few people, and we need broader ideas. For people who would like to share their own insights, the first place to do it is through members of the task force. Their names are publicly available. The second is through the Bipartisan Policy Center itself.

To read an executive summary of the report, “Defeating Terrorists, Not Terrorism: Accessing U.S. Counterterrorism Policy from 9/11 to ISIS,” click here. To contact Joseph Braude in his capacity as a member of the task force, click here.

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