Nunn Forum Examines Underlying Causes of Ideological Extremism

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On September 22, 2016, Bank of America, the Ivan Allen College Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, and the Center for International Strategy, Technology, and Policy (CISTP) commenced the 2016 Sam Nunn Bank of America Policy Forum, entitled “How Does it End and What Can We Do? Addressing the Underlying Causes of Ideological Extremism.”


For the last two decades, United States security policy has been dominated by a series of crises within and emanating from the Middle East. Almost every conflict within this region affects one or more of our national security interests including: preventing terrorist attacks on the homeland and against American citizens abroad, security for U.S. allies and partners, and the promotion of universal values. The rise of the Islamic State of Iran and the Levant (ISIL) has impacted every one of these security interests. ISIL has attempted attacks on the homeland of the United States and its citizens abroad, and successfully attacked U.S. allies and partners. ISIL promotes and practices values that the United States and most of the world find morally repugnant.

Regionally, ISIL’s activities have catalyzed nearly every source of conflict in the Middle East, including inter- and intra-sectarian strife; tension between ruler and ruled; violent conflict between multiple state and non-state adversaries; and clashes between tribes, ethnicities, and nations. Layered on top of these intra-regional conflicts, large and small actors outside this sub-region have made the task of constructing a consistent and comprehensive strategy that much harder.

In the United States and Europe, the threat of international terrorism has challenged the delicate balance between democracy and security. In response to ISIL’s gruesome attacks, populist sentiments have called for policies that threaten to undermine the values to which Western democracies once held firm. To mitigate these national and international threats, the United States has led a coalition whose goal is to “degrade and destroy” ISIL. Yet, efforts toward this end are often hampered by fundamental questions: Who should bear the risk and costs of the military operations?  What are the requirements and conditions for success of future political arrangements? What will happen the day after ISIL is defeated?

Meanwhile, debates in the United States have largely focused on the efficacy of greater military action against ISIL. The 2016 election season has amplified the level of threat and the urgency to find “a” solution. But the physical defeat of ISIL will not eliminate the challenges to regional stability and the threat of international terrorism. As a result, the vigorous debate about counter-ISIL strategies has largely overlooked some of the past, present, and future drivers of this conflict — the underlying causes of the extremism in the region. It is an imperative to address this issue because when ISIL is defeated on the battlefield, the root causes that led to ISIL and its living parent, al-Qaeda, will remain. Thus, we must think much more critically about how we can shape the environment to prevent violent radical ideologies from emerging and spreading.


Joe Bankoff, chair and Professor of the Practice at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, opened proceedings by framing the topics of discussion — the root causes of extremism, long-term solutions, and the role of government moving forward. He was followed by Rafael L. Bras, provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs, K. Harrison Brown Family Chair, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Wendy Stewart, Atlanta Market President for Bank of America, who noted Bank of America’s long partnership with the Nunn Forum and underlined the importance of the subject at hand to her company and to the U.S. in general.

The Honorable Sam Nunn, distinguished professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology, and co-chairman and chief executive officer, Nuclear Threat Initiative, offered opening remarks, posing the question to audience members “how do we ‘win’ the war on terror?” He emphasized the need for the United States to cooperate with other states, especially those in the Muslim world, but he also stated that ultimately U.S. policy towards combating terrorism will be dictated by how we view it here at home. He then posed teasing questions for the panelists and the audience, including: What are the root causes of terrorism? What is the narrative that terrorist organizations are using to recruit and does the U.S. have a counter narrative? Is there a long term U.S. strategy? And finally, what should we do, or what should we not do?


Following Nunn’s opening remarks, General John R. Allen, USMC (Ret.), co-director, Center for the 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institute and former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, argued that there is no short term solution to the current situation and the threat of ideological extremism will not end with the current course of action, as more people are needed than we are willing to commit. He broke his approach down into three horizons: near, distant, and deep. The “near” horizon requires the will to fight, preparedness to fight against more sophisticated groups in the future, and to rescue those living under the grip of these groups. The “distant” horizon references operations in the physical, financial, and cyber spheres. Kinetic operations are already being waged through proxy groups, and ISIL is beginning to feel financial strain as their sources of income constrict due to loss of territory and continued pressure from outside forces. The main focus for U.S. efforts, though, will be in the informational space, as the U.S. and its allies must destroy the idea of ISIL and stop it from reaching vulnerable youth. Finally, the “deep” horizon envisions comprehensive global reforms and will require that we think differently to overcome the threat of extremism.

Allen remarked that reform and change will likely take at least a generation, and he stressed the importance of a “grand strategy” coming from new U.S. leadership. Perpetual conflict cannot be the future presented to posterity. He then fielded questions from the audience, which included: Is this a war of ideologies? Is this part of an accumulated resentment towards Big Oil? How do we deal with this situation and Russia?

PANEL I: How Does it End? Understanding the Causes of Extremism

Moderator: Lawrence Rubin, associate professor, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology

Opening Remarks: Jon Alterman, senior vice president, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy and Middle East Program Director at CSIS

Panelists: Mia Bloom, professor, Department of Communication, Georgia State University; Hisham Melham, analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, D.C.; Lorenzo Vidino, director of the Program on Extremism, George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security

The first panel began with remarks by Alterman, who stressed the array of differences within jihadi organizations and urged the audience to view “terrorism” not as a single entity, but as a complex, diverse, and adaptive phenomenon. Furthermore, he stressed that U.S. leadership needs to define “success” much more thoughtfully than in the past. Extremist organizations have different levels of success because the bar is so much lower for them — it is much easier to cause disorder than create order.

Bloom discussed how all combat groups operating in Syria and Iraq recruit and use children as couriers, scouts, recruiters, spies, and combatants. She emphasized that ISIL desires to drive a wedge between their opposition (particularly the U.S.), and fuel their future recruitment efforts. Specifically, they wish to fuel dissent among Muslims living in the U.S. by making them feel alienated by the U.S. government.

Melhem described the historical precedents that predate ISIS and current extremism, and followed with a discussion on the long genealogy of false prophets and violence throughout Islamic history, which now manifest as ISIS. He also echoed Nunn’s remarks, stressing the importance of pushing for a solution that incorporates the Muslim world. He concluded by discussing his own experience growing up in Beirut and added background on Islamic traditions.

Vidino spoke on the diverse backgrounds of the individuals who become radicalized to commit violent acts in the name of ideological extremism. He stressed that not all extremists are beset by financial hardship — in fact many radicalized individuals in the West have different motivations. Extremists do not come just from slums or impoverished communities, he noted, but that there is quite a diverse profile on those who are radicalized. Because of this diversity, there are different levels of analysis needed to study the complex process of radicalization in the Western world.

PANEL II: What Should We Do About It?

Moderator: Lawrence Rubin, associate professor, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology

Opening Remarks: Adm. James A. Winnefeld, Jr. USN (Ret), distinguished professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology and former Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Panelists: Amb. Gerald Feierstein, former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State and former Ambassador to Yemen; William McCants, Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy and Director, Project on U. S. Relations with the Islamic World, The Brookings Institution; Nadia Oweidat, Smith Richardson Fellow at New America.

The second panel began with remarks from Winnefeld, who argued that the U.S. and its allies are trying to treat symptoms of a larger generational issue, but the true solution must come from the Muslim community. In order to support the Muslim community, he suggested we embrace the techniques to battle extremism employed by the UAE to address the root causes of why people turn to extremism, including a lack of opportunities and education. He then posed several questions to the panelists: Who are the major players that can contribute to answering this question? Why have these groups failed to start addressing the causes of extremism? What is it the U.S. should be doing to address these causes? Who should lead this? Is this a U.S.-led operation, or should it be leaders in the Muslim world?

Feierstein argued that extremism is the outcome of deeper political, economic, and social issues in the region. If it is these other factors, as opposed to ideology, the U.S. must continue to engage militarily. However, it should also include tactics that focus on improving institutions that can supply support and stability within these states while dismantling unproductive alliances with authoritarian leaders. This requires pushing for different government programs that instill different values in the population and working with private companies in an inclusive manner rather than an extractive one.

Oweidat rejected the argument that the problem lies in economic or political factors, and instead points to ideology and teachings. Her main argument emphasized fighting ideas through technology and entertainment. Additionally, the U.S. can provide support to local voices, teach philosophy to teach critical thinking (which can lead to a rejection of the logic of extremism), and through leveraging former extremists.

McCants offers two different paths for ending extremism: “going small” or “going big.” “Going small” focuses on people who are already exposed to jihadist propaganda and attempts to redirect their attention away from these extreme ideas. This also means targeting jihadi operations online and shutting them down before they cause damage. “Going big” is a much more difficult approach that attempts to explain the differences between those who join extremist groups and those who do not, with factors such as prevalence of civil war, bad governance, and youth unemployment. The U.S., and other partners, he argues, can make a big difference by simply assembling more data to allow for better judgments concerning extremism and its causes.


The purpose of the Sam Nunn Bank of America Policy Forum is to bring Georgia Tech, the Atlanta community, and the nation into a conversation about these very important issues. Members of the academic, government, and private sector communities must gain a broader as well as granular understanding of how these complex issues affect the world and how our leaders seek to deal with them.

The Policy Forum is funded by a generous endowment provided by the Bank of America.


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