Combating Terrorism with Socioeconomics: Leveraging the Private Sector

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It is widely recognized that leaders of terrorist organizations come from the ranks of the educated and are mostly driven by extremist ideologies. The foot soldiers of terrorism, however, are often recruited from the deprived masses at the bottom of the socioeconomic and political pyramid. The leaders exploit impoverished and hopeless environments and circumstances to attract the large numbers of people needed to advance their agendas. (1)

Recently, the U.S. Army War College hosted a conference on the underlying conditions of terrorism and the military role in addressing these conditions. The participants agreed that the U.S. military has been successful in its efforts to attack and disrupt key terrorist organizations since 9/11; however, these organizations are able to replenish their ranks faster than we can reduce them because "poverty and inequality still prevail in many parts of the Muslim world with high illiteracy rates, lack of human development, and poor infrastructure." (2) Moreover, the "center of gravity for war and terror are the populations that can provide sanctuaries, safe havens, and/or recruitment for terrorists." (3) These conditions are pervasive throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

According to Asian Development Bank statistics, for example: (4)

* The Asia-Pacific region is home to two-thirds of the world's poor.

* Nearly 1.9 billion people in the region live on less than US$2 a day.

* At least 30 percent of the population in countries such as Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, and Vietnam still live in extreme poverty.

* A conservative estimate of Asian unemployment is 500 million, and 245 million new workers are expected to enter the labor markets over the next decade.

Millions of Muslim boys in Asia are coming of age and creating a "youth bulge." When governments are not able to deliver a vision of hope, mutual respect, and opportunity, these young men end up desperate, frustrated, and humiliated. These are ripe conditions for religious extremism, which can provide a perversely attractive escape from the grinding hopelessness and despair. (5)

According to Lieutenant General Wallace Gregson, former commander, U.S. Marine Forces Pacific, the decisive terrain of the war on terror is the vast majority of people not directly involved, but whose support, either willing or coerced, is necessary to insurgent operations around the world. (6) This populace is equivalent to American swing voters, whose ballots have contributed significantly to the outcome of many U.S. Presidential elections. As President Ronald Reagan said during the midst of the Cold War, we have to turn these potential enemies into friends.

Thus, it is crucial for U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) to develop a concept of operations to alleviate these conditions. Since the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines in 2002, the island of Basilan, where a reign of terror had ruled since the early 1990s, has achieved a secure environment. However, as we have seen in Iraq, this success will be short-lived if the local, state, and central governments are unable to provide a sustained secured atmosphere and meet the expectation of the populace. In a recent interview, Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, USA, commander of Multinational Corps in Iraq, stated, "If we don't follow up with a build phase, then I don't think Baghdad can be secure." The same article pointed out:

The imperative to provide economic benefits to ordinary Iraqis is not born out of some vague humanitarian impulse, U.S. military officials [in Iraq] emphasize, but one that directly affects the security of the country and the viability of the government. (7)

Although Basilan has made great strides in achieving better economic conditions in recent years, poverty and lack of opportunity are still pervasive. Therefore, our long-term counterterrorism efforts by, through, and with the government of the Philippines must focus on creating sustainable socioeconomic conditions on Basilan island. …