The Roots of Extremism

A Conversation with Leon Panetta

As non-state actors, nuclear weapons in unstable nations, and economic ties with China threaten our freedom, Leon Panetta, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and former secretary of defense discusses the ways to combat these challenges. 

Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta delivers remarks during the U.S. Pacific Command change of command ceremony at the Nimitz-MacArthur Pacific Command Center at Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii, March 9, 2012. (Glenn Fawcett/DoD) Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta delivers remarks during the U.S. Pacific Command change of command ceremony at the Nimitz-MacArthur Pacific Command Center at Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii, March 9, 2012. (Glenn Fawcett/DoD)

Franklin Roosevelt famously talked about freedom from fear as he laid the groundwork for America to engage in the fight against fascism. Leon Panetta focuses in this Catalyst interview on the role of ISIS, the Taliban, and other non-state organizations threatening freedom today. 

He has served as a Justice Department attorney, congressman, White House chief of staff, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and secretary of defense. Each of those positions has given the Democratic leader the chance to closely follow world events over the last 45 years.

When FDR delivered his Four Freedoms address, freedom from fear meant freedom from tyrants of particular states. What states give you most pause today?

I look at the world now as a pretty dangerous place. I think the world is probably more unstable than it was at the end of World War II. A number of flash points could, from some miscalculation, produce an even greater conflict.

At the Panetta Institute, we did a lecture series that focused on 100 years after World War I. As we went through the forum, I realized that the world of 1914-1915 had a lot of the same flash points: terrorism, nationalism, fragile alliances, territorial disputes, and a world leadership that, for whatever reason, did not recognize that any one of those threats would result in a world war.

The world is probably more unstable than it was at the end of World War II. A number of flash points could, from some miscalculation, produce an even greater conflict.

I have the same feeling about the world of 2016. A combination of threats could impact our freedom. Clearly, the war on terrorism and the instability in the Middle East does impact our national security.

We continue to face threats from Iran. Even though we have this nuclear agreement, we’re still very concerned about Iran. It continues to support terrorism and instability in that part of the world and elsewhere.

Add to that North Korea, which has nuclear weapons and continues to develop its missile capability and has a very unpredictable leader. North Korea represents a real threat to the Pacific and our own country.

We now have what I think is a whole new chapter in the Cold War with Russia and Vladimir Putin. He is clearly becoming much more aggressive, as we saw in Crimea and Ukraine as well as Syria. And he continues to develop his nuclear capability so we are facing a growing concern about Russia’s intentions.

China, the same thing: We are facing a growing concern. Even though we have strong economic ties with China, their assertion of territorial claims in the South China Sea and building and militarizing islands represents a real threat to international order and freedom of the seas. That, too, represents a challenge to our security and freedom.

A final flash point is the arena of cyber-attacks, which is the battlefield of the future. Nation-states are developing that capability as a way to exploit information and deny services. But we’ve also reached the stage where a cyber-attack using a sophisticated virus has the potential to paralyze our country.

A cyber-attack like that could take down our power grid, transportation systems, financial systems, and virtually cripple a country. There is the concern that nation-states have that capability, but there also is the concern that some of these non-state actors, like ISIS, could get hold of that capability as well.

For these reasons, I believe we are living in a dangerous world in which our freedom is threatened.

Let’s come back to cyber-security in a moment. How do you see non-state actors like ISIS changing the conception of the threat against personal freedom? I am pretty sure that FDR didn’t think in terms of non-state actors.

The concern I had as director of the CIA and then as secretary of defense was that there were those elements of terrorism that would not hesitate to attack our country and kill innocent men, women, and children, as they did on 9/11. As a result, I think we do have a clear and present danger to our security with groups like ISIS that continue to threaten attacks.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is briefed on the functions of the combat direction center during a visit aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65). Atlantic Ocean Jan. 21, 2012 (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael L. Croft Jr.) Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is briefed on the functions of the combat direction center during a visit aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65). Atlantic Ocean Jan. 21, 2012 (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael L. Croft Jr.)

We had several attacks in the last few months that were conducted by ISIS. I think they continue to plan additional attacks against our country. I do not think that we can in any way underestimate the capability of this group of terrorists to attack our country and our freedoms.

Are entities like this here to stay for the next couple of decades? Or, are they more of a temporary phenomenon?

Asymmetric warfare is probably what we are going to be looking at in the 21st century. We’re going to be dealing with the kind of terrorism attacks that we faced over the last 15 years. The likelihood is we’ll continue to face that kind of growing threat.

9/11 represented an awakening for this country. Prior to that we knew there were terrorists out there but we underestimated their ability to conduct the level of attack that they conducted on 9/11. As a result, we went to war against terrorism, al-Qaeda, those that were involved in 9/11. And we clearly have had some success. We have developed effective counter-terrorism capabilities. We decimated their leadership in Pakistan. And we conducted the raid to go after Bin Laden. Because of advanced capabilities in intelligence and law enforcement, we have been able to avoid another 9/11 type of attack.

But the kind of warfare we’re confronting now in the Middle East with ISIS, and with Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabab in Somalia, means we are going to be engaged in counter-terrorism operations for a long time. For that reason, we not only need to develop a much more coordinated effort to deal with terrorism, we need to better understand the root causes of why people are attracted to that kind of extremism.

It’s going to take both good counter-terrorism efforts, plus a better understanding of what those root causes are, to ultimately be able to defeat this enemy.

Asymmetric warfare is probably what we are going to be looking at in the 21st century. We’re going to be dealing with the kind of terrorism attacks that we faced over the last 15 years. The likelihood is we’ll continue to face that kind of growing threat.

What have we learned about the root causes? Are these personality-led movements? Are they movements driven by ideology more than power? Or power more than ideology? What’s your view?

In some ways, dealing with violent extremism is like dealing with gang warfare in this country. We always ask why young people resort to gangs and drugs. We need strong law enforcement to go after those that would commit those kinds of crimes. But we have struggled a long time in this country to try to figure out what are the root causes that drive young people into gangs.

In many ways, the answer to that question also answers why there are young people in the world that are attracted to violent extremism. Part of it is poverty. And part of it is the conditions in their country, the feeling that there is no opportunity to succeed.

There is a blame game for who is responsible for their condition. There is a religious part of this that tries to inspire these young people to jihad by using a religion and what we would consider a distorted interpretation of the Quran.

Then, you have social media, which is playing a huge role with people who have the same frustrations and anger communicating with one another. You put all that together and you have a poisonous mixture of ingredients that are contributing to the problems we’re facing in that part of the world.

You and Prime Minister [Tony] Blair are leading a commission to come up with some recommendations for the next president on how governments can deal with violent extremism…

The point is to look at violent extremism to understand what strategies can most effectively combat it. Military strategies. Law enforcement strategies. Counter-terrorism strategies. Then, what are the most effective ways to deal with those root causes. That’s a much bigger challenge.

Even in the time I dealt with terrorism at the CIA and at the Pentagon, there was always talk about dealing with the root causes. Almost every effort turned to mush because it is complicated and involves problems that have been with us for a long time. They aren’t going to change overnight.

This relates to the stability of the countries in which extremism is taking route. If they had strong economies, educated their young people, and provided opportunities for a better life, that would help. But the most frustrating part is you can’t slam down a rubber stamp and say, okay, this will solve that problem in this place. Almost every country has its own unique problems.

If they had strong economies, educated their young people, and provided opportunities for a better life, that would help. But the most frustrating part is you can’t slam down a rubber stamp and say, okay, this will solve that problem in this place. Almost every country has its own unique problems.

I’ve always felt that what we really need is an alliance of nations working together to deal with this. We need to have Arab nations working with us, countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and others. We need to have Israel working with us. We need to have NATO countries working with us. We’re not going to be able to deal with this on a hit-and-miss basis, or on a crisis-by-crisis basis.

The formula I envision is one where you pull together a strong alliance of nations with common objectives. They want to confront terrorism and defeat it, deal with countries that try to promote instability in a region, and provide the support system for failed states to establish stable governments and stable security. We have not learned how to do that.

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaks at the centennial dinner for the Anti-Defamation League in New York City, New York, Oct 31, 2013. Panetta was presented with the William and Naomi Gorowitz Institute Service Award for his dedication to equal rights throughout his career in public service. (Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/DoD) Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaks at the centennial dinner for the Anti-Defamation League in New York City, New York, Oct 31, 2013. Panetta was presented with the William and Naomi Gorowitz Institute Service Award for his dedication to equal rights throughout his career in public service. (Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/DoD)

Thinking beyond nations for a second, what would be the role of non-governmental organizations in dealing with some of these challenges?

They play a role. Particularly in Africa, non-governmental agencies are trying to promote better farming, education, social services, and health care.

But every one of these countries is different. These countries have their own history. Most of them have been wrapped up in tribalism for years. Many of these countries have operated under dictatorships or monarchies of one kind or another. This transition is not going to take place overnight. It will take time and the ability to understand the forces at play in a country and how we can develop responsible leadership in each country. That’s going to be a real challenge. I can say this, but it’s going to be much tougher to accomplish.

What does the rise of so many non-state actors mean about the concept of borders? Are borders less relevant than they once were?

 Countries that have their own nationalism and people who have an identity play an important role. Non-state actors basically feed on chaos.

If we could provide greater stability, and deal with some of these root causes, extremists would lose the very ground in which they try to develop seeds. If we do this right, we can undermine non-state actors in the future. If we do it wrong, and create greater chaos, they will continue to grow as a threat to our country.

Countries that have their own nationalism and people who have an identity play an important role. Non-state actors basically feed on chaos.

Let’s circle back to the topic of cyber-security. How do governments take on this issue?

So far, we have failed to address that question. It’s wrapped up in the information age explosion. The technology that has developed with the Internet has changed our lives and the way of doing business. But we have failed to realize the dark side of that capability.

We know there is hacking and those who can misuse this capability. But we haven’t taken it as seriously as we should. It does have the potential to virtually cripple a country.

The international community is going to have to address cyber warfare the same way we made an effort to address nuclear warfare. Countries are going to have to sit down and develop some rules and standards about the use of cyber capability. Then we all can recognize what limits ought to be placed on this capability to prevent it from being used as a weapon of war.

To define what constitutes an act of war using the cyber world has not really been defined. We need to emphasize the peaceful uses of cyber and what it can do to promote prosperity. And we need to do everything possible to try to prevent it from being used to destroy.

Leave your feedback with The Catalyst editors