While asserting that they’ve made progress in fighting terrorism, President Barack Obama and other world leaders conceded Tuesday that the Islamic State and other militants are expanding to new parts of the globe, and they pledged to step up efforts to fight the spread of extremism and the radicalization of young people.
Illustrating the crisis, a bipartisan House task force found in a scathing report that the U.S. government has intercepted only “a fraction” of more than 250 Americans who’ve sought to travel to Syria and Iraq to join extremist groups, and that there’s no national strategy to tackle the problem.
“We have largely failed to stop Americans from traveling overseas to join jihadists,” said the report by the House Homeland Security Committee’s task force. “The unprecedented speed at which Americans are being radicalized by violent extremists is straining federal law enforcement’s ability to monitor and intercept suspects.”
“Gaping security weaknesses” overseas, especially in Europe, are endangering the United States by making it easier for extremist recruits to travel to “terrorist hotspots and for jihadists to return to the West,” the report found.
Stopping the flow of foreigner fighters was a dominant theme of a counterterrorism summit of more than 100 nations and 140 multilateral institutions and civil society groups that Obama chaired on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
We have largely failed to stop Americans from traveling overseas to join jihadists.
U.S. House Homeland Security Committee task force
“There are going to be successes and there are going to be setbacks,” said Obama in his opening address. “This is not a conventional battle. This is a long-term campaign, not only against this particular network, but against its ideology.”
“We have ISIL taking root in areas that already are suffering from failed governance, in some cases; in some cases, civil war or sectarian strife,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “As a consequence of the vacuum that exists in many of these areas, ISIL has been able to dig in.”
Obama and other speakers noted that fighting the Islamic State and the spread of extremist ideologies requires more than military cooperation and intelligence-sharing. Governments, they said, must step up efforts to fight poverty and corruption, create jobs, uphold human rights and address other sources of anger that fuel radicalization and extremist recruiting.
“We know the crucial ingredients for success: Good governance, the rule of law, open, pluralistic societies, quality education and decent jobs, full respect for human rights,” said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who sat to Obama’s left.
That will be a stretch for summit attendees who head authoritarian governments and have cracked down on political opponents, free speech and the practice of religion under the guise of fighting terrorism and maintaining their grips on power.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that laws passed by more than 30 countries to halt the flow of foreign fighters could be used to “target members of certain religious groups, stifle peaceful dissent, unduly curtail freedom of movement, or allow suspects to be held for long periods without charge.”
We have to root out extremist preachers who are poisoning the minds of young Muslims.
Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi sat on the dais to Obama’s right, a political leader who’s run into political opposition as he tries to enact reforms to throttle corruption and sectarianism in his Shiite Muslim-dominated government. He has also tried to resolve grievances driving minority Sunnis to join the Islamic State.
Abadi said that while there’s been some progress, Iraq requires more international support for its battle against the Islamic State.
The summit came as the Obama administration confronts serious setbacks in its strategy to crush the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, where the brutal Islamist movement controls huge swaths of a self-declared caliphate, bolstered by an estimated 30,000 recruits from more than 100 countries.—
U.S.-led airstrikes have helped Iraqi security forces and ethnic Kurdish militias recapture significant chunks of territory from the Islamic State.
But the administration’s $500 million program to train 5,000 “moderate” Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State is in tatters. Offensives by Iraqi security forces and Iranian-backed militias to wrest back key cities in Iraq’s Anbar province have stalled, despite support from a U.S.-led international coalition that has staged more than 7,200 airstrikes against the group.
Moreover, the U.S. approach has been complicated by Moscow’s deployment of jet fighters and armored vehicles in eastern Syria and its agreement to establish with Syria, Iran and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government a center in Baghdad to share intelligence and coordinate operations against the Islamic State.
The Russian buildup continued this week, with the arrival of four Sukhoi 34 strike fighters, dubbed Fullbacks by NATO, bringing to 32 the total number of aircraft at the Russian base near the port city of Latakia, said a U.S. official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
The Russian buildup will bolster embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose continued rule is seen by Washington on as key driver of Islamic State recruitment, and has forced Washington to open talks with Moscow on creating a communications channel to avert mishaps between U.S. and Russian aircraft.
In Syria, “defeating ISIL requires, I believe, a new leader and an inclusive government that unites the Syrian people in the fight against terrorist groups,” said Obama. “And as I’ve said before, we are prepared to work with all countries, including Russia and Iran, to find a political mechanism in which it is possible to begin a transition process.”
The Russian intervention in Syria was a major issue in talks Obama held on Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin that failed to bridge their differences over the crisis, especially Assad’s future role.
Contending that the Syria army is the only force capable of fighting the Islamic State, Russia has indicated that it thinks that Assad’s political fate should wait until the extremist movement and other rebel groups – the Kremlin considers them all “terrorists” – are defeated.
Obama is calling for Assad’s departure in a “managed transition” to a provisional government of regime and opposition members that would oversee the drafting of a new constitution and elections.
“It’s unclear what time frame this would be under,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Tuesday.
Adel al Jubeir, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, a key backer of the Sunni-dominated Syrian opposition, said Assad could have no role in a political settlement. He dismissed as a “non-starter” a proposal by Putin for the formation of a new, U.N.-authorized international “anti-terrorist” coalition that would include Syria and Iran.
“There is no future for Assad in Syria, with all due respect to the Russians and anyone else,” he said on Tuesday in a roundtable with reporters. He cited Assad’s use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs that have killed thousands of civilians.
The Syria leader, he said, could remain – but with no authority – for the start of a transition to a provisional authority, but “whether it’s a day, a week or a month... President Assad should sail into the sunset.”
Jubeir said that Shiite-dominated Iran, Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, could play no role in political negotiations until it withdraws its military advisers and proxy fighters, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, which has been fighting on Assad’s behalf.
At the summit, speakers called for stepped up efforts to counter the radicalization of young people by extremists using social media and other Internet-based recruiting methods.
Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, which has seen as many as 600 citizens join the Islamic State, said that steps must be taken to neutralize the false narratives that militants use to recruit followers in order to prevent people who’ve been radicalized from crossing the line into violence.
Governments, communities and local leaders must “challenge the extremist world view right at the very start,” he said. “It means we have to root out extremist preachers who are poisoning the minds of young Muslims.”
Shortly before the summit opened, the Treasury announced that it was placing 10 individuals and five groups on the U.S. terrorism list for supporting the Islamic State, including a woman who allegedly recruited three young British girls whose journey to Syria made international headlines.
James Rosen contributed.