Highlights from the White House Summit to Counter ISIL and Violent Extremism

October 18, 2015
Highlights from the White House Summit to Counter ISIL and Violent Extremism
Amaryllis Georges
Amaryllis Georges Terrorism & Human Rights Researcher

On 29 September, President Obama hosted another Leader’s Summit Counter ISIL and Violent Extremism.  This was a follow on from a similar Leaders’ Summit hosted by the White House in February of this year on Countering Violent Extremism. The September Summit was attended by representatives from 100 states, 20 multilateral bodies, and 120 civil society organisations.  The September Summit emphasized new initiatives undertaken by the international community in the battle against Daesh/ISIL, tackling the Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) threat, and Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) efforts.  The September Summit identified Daesh/ISIL as ‘a unique threat’ to the USA and the world and the outcome of the Summit addressed action plans for countering Daesh, dealing with foreign terrorist fighters (FTF) and furthering global efforts for countering violent extremism (CVE).  The Summit outcome recognised that destroying Daesh and undermining radicalization ideologies around the world is a long-term struggle that will require persistence, and will entail coordinated global action through an assemblage of state and nongovernmental international actors. Military power and intelligence efforts must be employed in tandem with political and economic progression, message strategies aimed at countering Daesh’s narrative, disrupting its financial activities, and countering the danger of FTFs.

A U.S. established coalition leads roughly 60 nations, including Arab partners along with three new additions – Malaysia, Nigeria, and Tunisia – countries that have suffered the reach of ISIL in the form of FTFs and the terrorist group Boko Haram, which has pledged allegiance to ISIL. More than two dozen countries are contributing conventionally to the military campaign with air strikes that are intended to supplement Iraqi forces. In Iraq, 18 Coalition partners have trained and supported 13,000 Iraqi and Peshmerga soldiers, while forces in Syria, aided by Coalition strikes, have limited ISIL’s access to all but 68 miles of the 600-mile long Syrian-Turkish border, which is a critical step in not only quashing ISIL supply lines but in stemming the flow of FTFs. The Coalition is assisting Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi and his government in taking steps to curb corruption, adopt an all-inclusive government that is representative of all its citizens, and restructure a complicated bureaucratic system by distributing responsibilities to provincial authorities. In Syria, where Assad’s government has been conducting brutal campaigns against its citizenry causing the country to divide and ISIL to expand, establishing a provisional government that will unite the Syrian population and replace the regime is tantamount. Steps have been taken by the Coalition’s Counter ISIL Financial Group (CIFG), the U.S., and the U.N. in cracking down on the terror group’s illicit financial activities and its capacity to raise, spend, and traffic funds to pay its fighters and finance its operations and attacks.

Ultimately, however, Daesh and violent extremism needs to be defeated in the heart of what makes it an attractive option in the minds of thousands of FTFs – its ideology, used to motivate, radicalize, and recruit individuals to violence. As President Obama put it “ideologies are not defeated with guns, they’re defeated by better ideas – a more attractive and compelling vision.” The State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications and UAE-based Sawab Center are undertaking efforts to do just that – discrediting and eroding ISIL’s propaganda and appeal, particularly in the online and social media contexts.  Furthermore the USA and its partners are stepping up humanitarian efforts through the provision of aid and relief assistance directed at civilians and society impacted by Daesh.

The Summit recognised that Daesh is posing a new and unique threat to global security through its ability to attract FTFs.  Following the adoption of UNSCR 2178, implemented last year during the UN Security Council summit chaired by President Obama, nations are required to prohibit suspected persons from entering or transiting their countries; obstruct financial aid to FTFs; enforce punishment against individuals aiding ISIL or affiliates of al-Qaida; and put into action legislation to allow for prosecution. Such efforts stress the importance to counter violent extremism and to destroy the FTF threat, which is in large part responsible for ISIL’s metastasized effect. Better information sharing mechanisms, instigated by INTERPOL’s Counterterrorism Fusion Center (CTFC) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have improved border security for countries that are now better prepared to detect, limit and report alleged FTF travel.  Addressing the threat posed by FTFs clearly requires cooperation on a global basis.  While it is recognised that efforts have been made in this area over the past year through the implementation of domestic legislation, a Security Council meeting in May expressed concern that only 51 states currently make use of advance passenger information systems for airlines, a simple but effective tool for stemming the flow of FTFs.

Of course the military action against Daeash and further legislation dealing with FTFs is only part of the effort needed in response to global events.  Finding ways to diminish or counter the appeal of extremist ideologies remains a key global challenge.  Both White House Summits on this matter have emphasized the need to articulate ‘a more attractive and compelling vision’ than the one being offered by extremists.  The September Summit, building on developments from the February event, announced the launch of at International CT and CVE Clearinghouse Mechanism (ICCM).  The purpose of this mechanism to assist in improving capacity building through identifying gaps in current efforts and coordinating resources.

The ICCM will add to the range of global initiatives announced at the February 2015 White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism, which include: Strong Cities Network, The Global Youth Summit to Counter Violent Extremism, Peer-to-Peer Global University Challenge, RESOLVE (Research and Solutions for Violent Extremism), Balkans Regional CVE Initiative, East Africa CVE Center of Excellence and Counter-Messaging Hub, and Guidelines and Good Practices for Developing Inclusive National CVE Strategies. Strong Cities Network aims to strengthen resilience against violent extremism at the community level with communal-focused programs. The Global Youth Summit to Counter Violent Extremism brought more than 80 global youth leaders and organizations from more than 45 countries to develop support for inventive youth-led programs, which will provide linkage and the distribution of best practices between youth leaders and youth-oriented organizations. The Peer-to-Peer Global University Challenge, an effort launched by the United States Government, empowers university students on an international level to create and apply a social or digital program, product, or instrument to encourage their peers to join the effort in countering violent extremism. RESOLVE (Research and Solutions for Violent Extremism) is an international research network that will offer grants to local researchers and function as a platform for intelligence sharing. Balkans Regional CVE Initiative intended to promote research, education, counter-messaging as well as cooperation on CVE issues by supporting CVE experts, non-governmental organizations, and local communities. East Africa CVE Center of Excellence and Counter-Messaging Hub will function as a resource for governments and civil society from across the region and will offer assistance, training, and research regarding CVE. Guidelines and Good Practices for Developing Inclusive National CVE Strategies, created by Hedayah and the Global Center on Cooperative Security and the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, provides guidelines and ethics for CVE strategies aimed at fostering a “whole of society” attitude to CVE.

The Summit also dealt with the enhanced efforts at the domestic level in the USA that have been undertaken by the Department of Justice, DHS and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) to improve upon community engagement initiatives by reaching out to more diverse communities, providing education on terrorism and terrorist propaganda, as well as means by which the threat of extremism can be addressed before it becomes a problem at the local level. Previous domestic U.S. CVE programs have essentially backfired as they are almost all constructed on faulty approaches that have been heavily reliant on law enforcement methods that target American-Muslim communities. Instead of working with the community and constructing trust and dialogue between at-risk communities and law enforcement and government prevention programs, such initiatives have alienated Muslims within these communities and have cultivated a sense of discrimination and suspicion. Moreover, such methods deter alarmed parents and community leaders from turning to authorities out of fear.

The range of efforts discussed and announced at the White House Summit are to be welcomed.  However it is clear that government-directed efforts at countering narratives or positive messaging strategies to oppose extremist narratives must include credible messengers.  An underlying theme to the September Summit appears to be directed at this issue as many of the initiatives address building up community based initiatives.  The Guidelines on Good Practice for Developing National CVE Strategies emphasises the need to ‘promote and foster ownership for non-governmental actors including civil society and the private sector to engage on CVE’.  CVE efforts that are wholly government based will not be effective and community based efforts need to be supported.  In supporting community based efforts it is necessary to involve individuals that have extensive knowledge on Islamic theology as well as current events so as to adequately promote counter-narratives. In many cases, reformed extremists produce sounder CVE messages, than a government official could, as there is a smaller gap of disconnect between the messenger and the audience.  Those that have been part of extremist movements understand the grievances and can offer practical advice and deterrents against extremism. The messenger matters just as much as the message. Weight must be placed on efforts that will expose the detachment between the supposed grievances driving an individual towards extremism and the terror group’s actual aims.

The White House Summit recognised and commended developments in this area, while making clear that further effort is needed from all levels of society within states and between states.  The participants at the Summit reaffirmed a commitment to ensure government and non-governmental actors work together in CVE efforts in order to address the societal factors that extremists exploit in recruiting individuals to join their causes and for dealing with the underlying drivers of extremism in society.  Success in this respect clearly requires active involvement from governments but most importantly from all sectors of society, including the most vulnerable and marginalized.  This is going to be a challenge to national governments as inclusive strategies for confidence building measures for all in society are difficult to implement.