This month, I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural Spirit of America-sponsored Amman Forum, a conference focusing on countering violent extremism organized by our Middle East Regional Advisor, Zack Bazzi, in the Jordanian capital. The event, hosted by the Jordan Armed Forces’ Military Center for Counter Terrorism and Extremism (MCCTE) in collaboration with the United States Embassy in Amman, was the culmination of months of planning and hard work by the joint SoA-Jordanian-US team. The Forum was designed to convene an elite group of security practitioners, academics, and civil society and business leaders to exchange best practices and lessons learned from collective decades of confronting violent extremism throughout the Middle East. While the Islamic State is steadily being defeated by the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, the threat will not end with the group’s battlefield demise. Extremist fighters will return to their home countries, marginalized populations will remain susceptible to extremist influence and recruitment, and socioeconomic tensions will continue to be exploited by malign actors. We as a collective may not face large-scale pitched battles against groups like the Islamic State, but extremist networks will continue to pose a potent threat to stability and progress. The Jordan Armed Forces – and the MCCTE in particular – was a great partner with whom to host this event. Jordan as a country has stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States against extremism for decades. Indeed, the country has itself been plagued by terrorism. Just this summer, terrorist elements staged attacks against security forces in the cities of Fuheis and Salt. The MCCTE – a military educational facility specializing in graduate programs for senior officers and government officials whose research capability SoA helped support when it was known as the Jordanian Center For Counter Extremism – has been in the vanguard of studying the extremist threat and how to develop innovative approaches to counter it. Over 300 security thought leaders and practitioners from 20 countries attended the Amman Forum. Senior US Embassy and Jordanian officials provided opening remarks, setting the state for subject matter experts to dissect specific aspects of the problem set. Speakers from the Jordanian military, government, and media space shared their experiences and perspectives, and lessons learned from countering violent extremism in the Jordanian context. Academics from Georgetown and international think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and Center for a New American Security provided case studies in countering extremists both on the battlefield and as they attempt to reintegrate into society. Ultimately, the presentations and ensuing lively dialog teased out several main ingredients required to successfully take on this wicked challenge. First, Dial towards security and stability requires a tailored, personalized approach that takes into account varying cultural, demographic, and socioeconomic factors driving vulnerabilities to extremism. This personalization helps combat what retired Brigadier General Dr. Mohammad Alidmat, former director of the MCCTE, enumerated as the drivers of vulnerability to extremism: “isolation, threats to personal identity, deprivation of autonomy, and rejection by society.” SoA was recognized for the unique value a private organization architected around support to security and stability missions can add as we collectively confront dynamic extremist threats Secondly, and this is very much in line with the SoA model, prevailing against extremism ideology requires holistic, whole of nation approaches. This cannot and should not be the domain of the government and military alone. Every resource our countries can bring to bear – civilian and military, public and private – must be applied, from military solutions on the battlefield to government emphasis on improving governance to civil society efforts to improve social cohesion and meet core needs of vulnerable populations. Absent any of these components, marginalized populations will remain susceptible to the allure of extremist groups promising opportunity, excitement, and power. As Nicholas Heras from the Center for a New American Security stated in his remarks, “many extremists groups offer protection, basic necessities of life, and a system of law which the local people are not receiving from the state government.” Event participants are currently drafting a summary of key points based on the topics discussed during the Forum, with the objective of developing concrete actions that result in more effective approaches to countering violent extremism at the international, national, and subnational levels. The value of this conference lay not only in the formal discussions it featured, but in the informal collaboration facilitated by the attendance of so many experts. As in any such event, that networking and dialog are some of the most critical outcomes. My colleague Zack summed it up well in his closing remarks at the Forum: Dialogue. That’s not only what The Amman Forum is all about, it’s what any meaningful strategy aimed at countering violent extremism is all about. It’s about an open, earnest, and direct exchange of ideas. It’s about resisting the impulse to cast judgment when hearing ideas we may not like, and embracing the instinct to come together around shared challenges and shared values. The Jordan Times provided a summary of the Forum, and plans are already underway for next year’s edition. I would like to thank and applaud all the people without whose hard work this conference would not have been successful, most particularly the MCCTE, the US Embassy, and our very own Zack Bazzi.
Isaac is a veteran of the Army National Guard with two tours in Iraq, in 2003-2004 and 2006-2007. After his last deployment during the Surge, he served as the OEF/OIF Coordinator for the Department of Veterans Affairs Regional Office in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.