Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
Remarks at the University of Maryland's START
College Park, MD
March 27, 2013

Thank you, Bill – and thank you to all the students, scholars, and CVE and CT practitioners here today. It’s a pleasure to address you at START, which is doing such important work to understand the causes and consequences of global terrorism.

I am here to talk about the challenges of countering violent extremism, and where public diplomacy fits into that big picture. I want to take you inside the space that public diplomacy is uniquely positioned to address—not only in the short term, but in the mid and long term. And today, I want to talk about the ways public diplomacy augments and complements our efforts to counter violent extremism, how we measure its effectiveness, and why that’s so important to our national interests.

As I thought about the best way to begin, I kept remembering something I used to tell my children when they were building LEGOs.

That’s right, those little toy building blocks that have fired the imaginations of children for generations—including my two sons.

What I told them was: You can take all the time, care, creativity, and patience in the world to build that LEGO skyscraper. But it just takes one second to knock it all down.

As America and the rest of the world have seen so tragically, destruction is the endgame of the terrorist. Construction—and by that I mean building the infrastructures that offer positive alternative scenarios to violent extremism—is the bricks and mortar of public diplomacy.

You might say our adversaries have the advantage. Destruction is easy to achieve and ruthlessly effective.

And in the many places around the world where people lack opportunity and local grievances go unchecked, recruitment is easy. But positive work can offset negative environments. Yes, construction requires hard work, patience, resources, and time. Building capacity, forging partnerships, providing resources, engaging actors in positive ways, wiring up communities so there is connectivity – the list is endless. But it is worth the effort to build positive environments. To work with nations, citizens, and other partners to support their efforts to build peaceful, prosperous, and tolerant societies.

Which brings me to what we do – and why public diplomacy is so critical to the outcomes our global engagement works to build.

Just to make sure we are all on the same page—let me review what public diplomacy is and what it seeks to achieve.

In short, public diplomacy is how we engage with people in every region of the world. To explain our values and our interests. To build mutual understanding. To provide individual connections that can improve lives – that advance human rights, and religious tolerance, and freedoms that can be guaranteed by constitutions and protected by government practices, rule of law, and a vibrant civil society.

We also work to advance educational opportunity that’s accessible to everyone, especially women and girls. Citizen security that can be strengthened. Free, fair, and transparent economic environments that can support emerging entrepreneurs and the poor. And access to the Internet for all that can unlock futures.

How do we advance positives and work against the negatives—negative outcomes that often come about in environments of fear, hatred, and religious intolerance; ruthless repression of women; top-down tyrannies; indiscriminate violence that targets innocent civilians; lack of economic, social, and political opportunity – all those factors that intensify the appeal of extremist narratives in the first place?

The how is through State Department’s public diplomacy programs and initiatives which draw on many tools in our PD toolbox—educational exchanges, social media, interfaith dialogue, leadership projects, professional exchange programs, music, media, culture, sports, the arts, movies.

We even use the power of video games – including an interactive one called “Trace Effects” that serves as an English language teaching tool.

In the last few years, we have added online engagement as a tool to counter violent extremism.

Through our Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications—which I’ll talk about shortly—we are coordinating closely with our counterterrorism office at State, with other agencies, including the military, and with missions abroad to address the upstream factors of radicalization.

Who are we worried about? Now I know that you have heard of al-Qaida. You have heard of Usama bin Laden. And you are wondering what we are doing about them. I think you probably know about bin Laden’s end.

But in terms of al-Qaida it is important to know that although their central operating command capacity has diminished, there are still splinter groups, individual adherents and advocates– who are inspired by their destructive cause – and eager to cause trouble.

Thanks to our own and other collective efforts – including from our friends and allies – al-Qaida is finding it harder to raise money, train recruits, and plan attacks outside its region. Their leadership is diminished. But challenges remain– particularly in the Sahel, the Maghreb, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa – where groups are continuing to use terror to advance their agendas – and seeking to extend their reach and networks in multiple directions.

And it is not just central al-Qaida we worry about. We see their franchises – the al-Shabaabs and Boko Harams of the world – exploiting those negative factors with the express purpose of recruiting young people for violent extremism.

We can’t do the work alone. We need partners to keep up the hard work. We partner with other governments and religious scholars, universities, and even ordinary citizens, to build international coalitions to counter violent extremism.

Through the Global Counterterrorism Forum, supported by 29 countries plus the European Union, we are helping countries strengthen civilian institutions and counter violent extremism. We are doing this by developing capacity to build rule of law frameworks, combating kidnapping for ransom, enforcing border security, and other countermeasures.

Another good example of a partnership overseas is the newly created International Center of Excellence on Countering Violent Extremism in Abu Dhabi – or Hedayah, which draws further from the collective expertise and experience of international partners for sustainable training, dialogue, research, and collaboration.

Where do we find these violent extremists? Some of them are online. Others are in more traditional spaces of society. So we have to cover the spectrum.

At one end of that spectrum, we are confronting our opponents in the virtual space – delegitimizing their ideology with all the messaging tools at our disposal. As we move towards the other end of the spectrum, we engage audiences all over the world with our exchanges, to support and encourage with credible change agents and emerging leaders especially in critical communities.

Let me start at the direct – and digital – end of the spectrum with our engagement in social media, blogs, and other online forums.

We cannot afford to stand on the sidelines and let cynical voices distort and misreport our policies, values, and interests. We have to enter that communications space – where so many young people are getting their information – and contest extremist and other negative rhetoric with facts and counter assertions.

Recognizing this, President Obama signed Executive Order 13584 in September 2011 to establish a Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications – or CSCC. Housed within my department, CSCC collaborates with our embassies and consulates, our interagency and international partners, and outside experts, to counter terrorist narratives and misinformation.

This is the heart of our engagement. We enter spaces where al-Qaida and its supporters lurk, and we robustly engage with them in chat forums in Arabic, Somali, Punjabi, and Urdu.

In 2012, alone, our engagements numbered more than 7,000 – consisting of written text posted to online forums, Facebook, or the comment sections of media websites.

By targeting the hardliners, we are really trying to reach the middle grounders – the fence sitters, the sympathizers and passive supporters. When we counter unfounded rumors, propaganda, and conspiracy theories with facts, truth, and reasonable argument, we can better define what we stand for. And we have a greater chance of changing more minds.

We also post videos on YouTube – and I’ll be showing one of them to you today. It’s called “The Betrayal.” And you’ll see right away, it doesn’t have the production values of “Argo,” but it’s a compelling example of the many ways in which we reach critical groups. You’ll see how we are respecting cultural norms as we do so. The video uses a well-known narrative that comes from religious teachings that underscores the values at stake, as we showcase the lies and the destruction that violent extremism brings down on communities.

How do we measure success in these types of operations? It’s not easy. Terrorists are not exactly willing to participate in surveys! So we analyze our success in unconventional ways. When members of al-Qaida complain about CSCC on their forums and urge their adherents not to pay attention to us, that’s a gain. When a Saudi citizen, on an official government website, suggests his government establish a Digital Outreach Team that matches our mission – and even our name in Arabic – that’s a gain.

As we move away from the CSCC end of the spectrum, we move towards our full array of people-to-people engagement, online and offline. But before I summarize those activities, I want to give you a sense of the scale of our challenges – and the reasoning that informs our strategies to address them.

We see the demographic numbers and the unmet needs: There are currently more than three billion people under the age of 30 – what demographers are calling a critical youth bulge. Nearly 90 percent of these young people live in developing countries.

And around the world, unprecedented numbers of youth are jobless and economically and politically marginalized.

When we consider that scale of unmet human need – and the stakes involved in this post-9/11 world – we know we cannot afford to stand by. So our reasoning is simple: If the other side can use negative factors to lead people in one direction, then we can use positive ones to lead them in the other.

Through our Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, we sponsor programs that range from educational exchanges to teaching English – so that young people can see positive and alternative scenarios for their futures. We advise foreign students about study in the U.S., so that they can see a way from there to here – and see America as a land of opportunity and freedoms.

There were more than 765,000 foreign students studying at American colleges and universities in academic year 2011-2012. And I’d like to share another interesting number with you.

Want to take a guess at how much money foreign students bring into the American economy? It's $22 billion. Yes, $22 billion with a “b.” Not a bad return on the money we spend on all our foreign aid and diplomacy – which amounts to only one percent of the federal budget.

We support and promote economic and educational opportunities for marginalized populations. We encourage participation in national, political, and transition processes, especially for women and youth. And in Northern Mali, through CSCC, we are funding the training of young citizen journalists and outfitting them with smart phones so that independent voices in remote regions can report positive stories to the disenfranchised.

Independent voices are important for obvious reasons. They have credibility. That’s why we work as unobtrusively as we can to identify and support local television stations that broadcast documentaries, dramas, or news specials contesting propaganda or highlighting the families and survivors of terrorism. We support positive and influential voices.

That’s why we also engage influential actors – such as imams and other religious leaders, who function as educators, cultural supporters, peacemakers and leaders of dialogue in critical communities. We search for organizations that build links between these critical communities and the government. We fund interfaith projects that link them with counterparts within their countries and abroad. We invite them to the U.S., so we can expose them to other Islamic – and other religious – perspectives within our own pluralistic communities.

In Yemen, for example, imams were dubious when they found out we were funding an English language program for them. But we encouraged them to stay in the program and then let local leaders take charge. At its January reception, 65 imams came forward to attend, and now there is increased demand for more scholarships for imams. But for this program, most of these imams would never have engaged with us.

We saw the benefits of the networks we have been developing with religious leaders, recently, in the wake of “The Innocence of Muslims,” an incendiary video that angered Islamic communities. Our ties with the imams greatly enhanced our ability to defuse potential violence in many communities. It was also heartening to see so many religious leaders and organizations—here and around the world—speak out and condemn violence as a response to offensive speech.

There were several interfaith statements as well – underscoring the kind of respect across religious lines that can build inclusive relationships instead of narratives of intolerance.

We recognize, too, that women are powerful change agents in the political and economic realms. So why not engage them to help us counter violent extremism? They are powerful influencers, not only on their children and families but across societies. So we are supporting NGOs, for example, that train women in mediation so they can mitigate violence in their communities before it starts–and who bring mothers of victims together with mothers of perpetrators to help change the narrative of revenge.

In Pakistan, we doubled our impact by engaging women who were religious leaders. We helped organize a women’s interfaith dialogue in Rawalpindi that included teachers, civil society activists, and more than 40 female religious leaders from various faiths.

When our embassy asked its more than 850,000 Facebook fans to share their views on interfaith relations, there was strong response. More than 28,000 fans provided positive comments, such as “Excellent forum to talk about real issues—please do more!”

Just last month, I saw for myself how our public diplomacy efforts for young people in Afghanistan are bearing fruit. I met with students of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, some of whom had previously been living on the streets.

Thanks in part to our support, they were able to tour the U.S. and perform to standing ovations at the State Department, the Kennedy Center, and Carnegie Hall. That is an experience that no one will forget. And it would be a success scenario that our adversaries would be hard-pressed to outdo–a strong counternarrative to their empty vision of destruction.

As we ask ourselves the question, "Does our public diplomacy really help counter violent extremism?", we might want to consider the counterquestions. What is the cost of not confronting negative messaging? Or not offering avenues of opportunity? Or not supporting positive and influential voices? Are we really going to leave it to our adversaries to define America, and recruit the disenfranchised and the impressionable to their cause?

We may not be able to draw a straight, cause-and-effect line between our public diplomacy and countering violent extremism, but opinion studies and other analytics have shown promising things.

In Afghanistan, for instance, recent analysis found that 69 percent of those surveyed had heard our messages of countering violent extremism and 83 percent found them effective.

In Pakistan, surveys regarding anti-violence campaigns showed encouragingly positive shifts of opinion on terrorism and its impact on communities. And from across many demographics, focus group respondents felt that more programming like this was needed to inform Pakistanis of the threat of terrorism.

Through surveys of selected countries, we have seen that the overwhelming majority of young people who have been participants in our exchange programs or recipients of our outreach abroad have reported improved opinions about the United States. And in some shape or form, they have taken part in community projects at home, or advocated for rights and freedoms. The programs give hope to young people and women, and in turn they bring this vision back to their communities.

Every day, we gather anecdotal evidence of the success of our engagements, especially from the alumni of our programs. We see them initiating mentoring networks in their own countries. We see them developing skills that provide them tools to thrive in the global economy. We see African women entrepreneurs growing businesses, developing networks, and influencing governments. We see civil society activists using our technology-based training to deepen their impact. We see more women running for public office–and citing us as influences.

Make no mistake: We are locked in the most urgent battle for our shared security and futures since the Cold War. And what public diplomacy brings to the table is the forging of personal success scenarios. When people become deeply invested in their own futures, they help to create more secure worlds out there. And that leads to more secure worlds back here. When they build more prosperous worlds out there, it leads to opportunities for our own students, our investors, traders, businesswomen, and entrepreneurs back here.

As I saw with my sons, when people build their own LEGOs, they like to make sure no one else is going to bring them down. And that’s an important foundation for a shared, secure world.

Thank you.