Does anyone still remember the "Global War on Terror"? For roughly two decades following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the struggle against al-Qaeda and other Islamic militants was a fixture of U.S. foreign and security policy. Of late, though, this focus has receded, replaced by an emphasis on "great power competition" with China, as well as Russia. This attention has only been reinforced by Russia's current war of aggression against neighboring Ukraine—a conflict that has succeeded in galvanizing a unified Western response to Russian neo-imperialism.
This shift has had concrete effects. It has altered military budgets, as the U.S. defense bureaucracy has de-emphasized special operations and low intensity conflict in favor of planning for conventional force-on-force competition with near-peer adversaries. Just as profoundly, it has marked the end of counterterrorism as a significant orienting principle in U.S. policy planning. The Biden administration's October 2022 National Security Strategy, for instance, relegates the fight against militant Islam and extremist actors to what is, at best, a second-tier priority.
But if the fight against militant Islam has become less urgent for the United States, America's allies in the Muslim World are still very much embroiled in it—as well as the struggle for hearts and minds that serves as its central front.
AN ENDURING CHALLENGE
Nearly a quarter-century after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center propelled the U.S. into a broad, open-ended war on Islamic extremism, that mission remains unfulfilled. While Washington and its allies have racked up some notable victories over the past two decades (among them the killing of al-Qaeda head Osama Bin Laden, as well as the defeat of the Islamic State and dismantlement of its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria), the broader challenge from militant Islam has endured. Today, this corrosive ideology remains potent and resilient, capable of mobilizing radicalized Muslims and motivating them to carry out violence in its name.
This is visible in the Africa, where regional instability and privation have provided fertile soil for the Islamic State and other extremists to put down roots, resulting in a continental surge of instability. It is apparent in Syria, where, despite the end of the country's long-running civil war, a new generation of extremists is being incubated as part of the after-effects of the conflict. And in Afghanistan, thanks in no small measure to the Biden administration's abrupt, ill-advised departure from the country, Islamist governance has gotten a new lease on life with the return of the Taliban—with ripple effects throughout the region.
The resonance of the extremist message, meanwhile, has been greatly aided by the changed nature of the 21st century media environment. As long ago as 2007, Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda had already identified the media as one of the "strongest methods" to recruit adherents to its cause. And the meteoric rise to power of al-Qaeda's successor (and ideological rival), the Islamic State, was made possible in no small measure because of the group's adroit use of social media, messaging apps and digital platforms. These early advances set the stage for more recent ones. Today, groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and an array of other extremist actors are increasingly leaning into the media space to disseminate their radical messages and carry out both recruitment and indoctrination.
What accounts for this dynamism and resiliency? A good part of the answer lies in the choice of battlefields.
Washington and its partners have charted significant successes to date in military operations against Islamic militants, as well as in domestic policing designed to defuse the threat they pose at home. But the most decisive front in the struggle with Islamic extremism isn't geographic, or military. Rather, it is intellectual in nature.
That domain is, sadly, one that has been largely ignored by the West, at least so far. For all their fighting prowess, the United States and its coalition partners have failed to develop, or to nurture, effective intellectual responses to confront, challenge and debunk the intolerant ideas of Islamic extremists.
This does not mean such work is not being done. Many of the answers to the intellectual challenge of militant Islam can be found in the Muslim World. There, assorted governments have developed sophisticated responses to extreme interpretations of the faith. They have done so out of necessity; for majority-Muslim nations, the challenge of Islamic extremism is not simply one of security, but of legitimacy and authenticity as well. These governments have figured out what the West still has not: that, to provide a lasting answer to the threat of Islamic extremism, it is necessary to develop a cogent, compelling counternarrative that debunks its worldview and offers its adherents an alternative path. The end result is a surprisingly complex and sophisticated web of intellectual models stretching across the Muslim World.
A DISTRIBUTED FIGHT
Today, in country after country from Africa to Southeast Asia, local governments are grappling with the intellectual challenge posed by Islamic militancy. They are doing so in different ways.
-- Under the auspices of Al-Azhar University, its preeminent seat of religious education, Egypt is spearheading an effort to track radical websites and statements, and mobilizing respected scholars to weave a counternarrative to the radical interpretation of the Islamic faith propounded by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
-- The United Arab Emirates has engaged in a variety of domestic efforts, from developing legislation designed to safeguard national diversity to formulating best practices for dealing with returning militants—and increasingly begun to share that expertise with its allies.
-- Bahrain has adopted a two-track approach focused on fostering religious tolerance through civic activities and interfaith programming, while simultaneously raising awareness among younger citizens regarding societal threats, including extremist ideology.
-- For its part, Indonesia's government has harnessed the legitimacy and authority of the country's mass Muslim movements to serve as moderate counterweights to more radical elements in the national body politics.
-- In Central Asian nations like Uzbekistan, meanwhile, an often heavy handed "security first" approach to Islamic radicalism has given way to a more sophisticated strategy aimed at recapturing the narrative surrounding the Muslim faith through education and historical teaching.
Other examples exist as well. This is the case in Jordan, where early efforts to articulate a framework for tolerant Islam paved the way for the work of others in the region. It is also true in Morocco, which has formulated an intricate national approach to promulgating moderate Islam at home—and to exporting its teachings throughout Africa and beyond.
The list goes on, but the commonalities are striking. Across the Muslim World, governments are waging a "war of ideas" against intolerant strains of Islam in various ways, animated by a shared understanding of the need to engage local populations and promote counterweights to extremist ideology.
In the United States, the scope and importance of this intellectual struggle remains poorly understood. Over the past two decades, America has devoted little energy to grasping the ideological dimension of the competition of ideas taking place in the Muslim World, and even less to helping shape it. Yet the mission remains an urgent one—and the United States has a crucial role to play in it. But joining the fight requires thinking differently about the nature of the problem, and what America's most potent contribution might be.
Over the years, by dint of its military prowess, the United States has led the global counterterrorism fight against extremist actors. By contrast, America is not nearly as well positioned to spearhead the intellectual response to Islamic extremism. A predominantly Judeo-Christian nation, it inherently lacks standing or legitimacy in discussions about Islamic texts and their interpretation. Nor is the U.S. bureaucratically structured to direct such a "war of ideas," focused as it has been historically on hard security responses to radicalism.
Rather, the most important role that the U.S. can play in this unfolding contest is that of legitimator and supporter, identifying credible partners (whether nation-states or organizations) working to advance moderate Islamic ideas, and then buttressing their authority and legitimacy. In this way, Washington can use its standing on the world stage to amplify authentic, moderate Muslim voices capable of contesting—and counteracting—the Islamist narrative.
For the moment, official Washington is preoccupied with the challenge of an increasingly assertive, belligerent China, and by the need to prevent Russia from realizing its deeply-held imperial ambitions. Those are unquestionably urgent priorities. But so, too, is the need to play a more constructive role in what ranks as one of the most pressing struggles confronting American allies in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. To a very large degree, America's future standing in those places will depend on whether it does.
 "Great Power Competition: Implications for Defense—Issues for Congress," Congressional Research Service CRS Report, May 16, 2023, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R43838.
 White House, National Security Strategy, October 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Biden-Harris-Administrations-National-Security-Strategy-10.2022.pdf.
 National Defense University, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, "Fatalities from Militant Islamist Violence in Africa Surge by Nearly 50 Percent," February 6, 2023, https://africacenter.org/spotlight/fatalities-from-militant-islamist-violence-in-africa-surge-by-nearly-50-percent/.
 See, for instance, Joseph L. Votel, "This Syrian refugee camp is incubating the next-generation ISIS," Washington Post, July 21, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/07/21/rehabilitate-islamic-state-family-members/.
 S. Enders Wimbush, "The Wages of America's Afghan Withdrawal," AFPC Defense Dossier iss. 35, December 2022, https://www.afpc.org/publications/e-journals/the-shifting-dynamics-of-south-asia.
 "Letter to Mullah Mohammed 'Omar from Osama bin Laden," as catalogued in Harmony and Disharmony: Exploiting Al-Qa'ida's Organizational Vulnerabilities (New York: West Point Combating Terrorism Center, February 2006), http://ctc.usma.edu/aq/pdf/AFGP-2002-600321-Trans.pdf.
 "The Islamic State," World Almanac of Islamism 2017 (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), https://almanac.afpc.org/uploads/documents/ISIS%20Almanac%20Website.pdf.
 See, for instance, Yaakov Lappin, "How social media boosts terrorists' recruitment of minors," jns.org, June 21, 2023, https://www.jns.org/israel-palestinianconflict/topic/23/6/21/296675/?utm_source=brevo&utm_campaign=Daily%20Syndicate%20-%20Wed%20June%2021%202023&utm_medium=email; See also Rany Ballout, "Meet Al-Mahatta: Hezbollah's New Digital Mouthpiece," The National Interest, July 10, 2023, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/lebanon-watch/meet-al-mahatta-hezbollah's-new-digital-mouthpiece-206621.
 "The Amman Message," a detailed statement outlining principles for the authentic interpretation of the Muslim faith, was organized and disseminated by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 2004, and signed by hundreds of luminaries from across the Muslim World. It can be found online at https://ammanmessage.com.
 See Ilan Berman, "Morocco's Islamic Exports," Foreign Affairs, May 12, 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2016-05-12/moroccos-islamic-exports.