President Barack Obama will push other countries this week to join the United States in an unprecedented program to stop the often deadly activities of the thousands of so-called foreign fighters who travel abroad to join terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State, in the Middle East.
Obama, convening a special meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday, will urge the nations to pass a sweeping resolution designed to place additional requirements on governments to halt the recruiting, equipping, financing and traveling of the same type of terrorists who in recent weeks beheaded two American journalists and a British aid worker.
“The threat of foreign terrorist fighters is very real, and we have to start with the uncomfortable reality that security measures alone will not solve this problem,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday at the Global Counterterrorism Forum in New York. “We’re talking about fighters recruited from our own communities and radicalized sufficiently to go fight in wars that are not their own.”
U.S. officials say foreign fighters have existed for decades, but that the numbers have exploded in recent years.
The National Counterterrorism Center estimates that 15,000 fighters from about 80 countries have attempted to join the Islamic State, the al Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front or other groups in the Middle East, including 2,000 Europeans and about 100 Americans.
Some of those Americans who have fought the Islamic State, also called ISIL or ISIS, have returned to the United States, said a senior administration official with knowledge of the situation but not authorized to speak publicly as a matter of policy.
Christopher Chivvis, a senior political scientist at RAND Corp., said the administration’s new push on foreign fighters took advantage of a recent change in public mood to support fighting the Islamic State.
“The problem of foreign fighters goes back centuries, but it’s clear it’s gotten a lot more intense the last few years,” Chivvis said.
Obama arrived Tuesday in New York for two days of speeches and meetings centered around the U.N. General Assembly meeting. He urged other nations to combat climate change at the United Nations Climate Summit 2014 and held a discussion with former President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative about how to strengthen civil society globally.
Wednesday’s session will mark the second time that a U.S. president has chaired the U.N. Security Council. Obama did the same in 2009 for a summit on nuclear nonproliferation. Both times the United States has had the rotating presidency of the Security Council for the month.
“We have seen countries all across the globe express concerns about the threat that is posed by foreign terrorist fighters,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. “The Security Council merely provides a convenient venue for talking about these issues in a high-profile way. We want to make sure that countries all around the globe understand that we think this is a priority and that they should, too.”
If the resolution passes, nations would be required to pass new laws and regulations. Enforcement will be difficult, according to a second senior administration official with knowledge of the situation but not authorized to speak as a matter of practice. But experts say it’s possible countries could face economic sanctions if they fail to comply.
Frederic Wehrey, a former U.S. Air Force officer who is now a senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East program, said the passage of the resolution would be a symbolic victory for Obama but that the practical implications are nebulous. “These U.N. regulations are notoriously hard to enforce,” Wehrey said.
The effort will focus heavily on identifying potential foreign fighters before they join terrorist groups by looking for the root causes of the “radicalization,” which could be poverty, discrimination and disenfranchisement.
It will include “addressing the foreign terrorist fighter cycle from the point of radicalization to the return from the conflict zone,” said the first senior administration official.
Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project, said she has concerns about the possibility of targeting “entire minority communities” based on their activism, religious views and worship.
Shamsi said the model for the resolution – the approach the United States and the United Kingdom have used in recent years – has led some law enforcement to do just that.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice said the resolution, which she predicts will pass, will build on “the existing international legal architecture” that was written after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“It will increase the obligations on states to try to prevent and deter the flow of foreign fighters,” Rice told reporters. “It will also place new emphasis on the challenge of countering violent extremism in one’s own domestic context.”
The United States is in the process of launching a pilot program in cities across the country to work with community activists, law enforcement and religious leaders to counter violent extremism. The first three cities in the program will be Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles.
The Global Counterterrosism Forum, co-chaired by the United States and Turkey, formed a new working group dedicated to combating foreign fighters. The White House also announced that it will host a summit on violent extremism this fall.
Turkey has been blamed for not doing enough to stop fighters from crossing its border into Syria. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week in New York that his country is working to stop them but it is difficult. He estimates that 6,000 fighters have entered Turkey. “Our goal is to try and ensure that foreign fighters do not go through our borders,” he said at a Council of Foreign Relations event. “We’re very determined to prevent them from doing so.”