Obama to Host Summit on "Violent Extremism"

Obama to Host Summit on "Violent Extremism"
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In a world where innocent civilians are killed daily, and Islamic terrorists behead Muslims and Christians and recruit educated teenagers to battlefields, can a few days of White House conversations help prevent “violent extremism”?

That’s President Obama’s goal this week, and even with the bar set low, he has his work cut out for him.

The United States, the president said during his State of the Union address last month, is “assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism. This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed.” 

The White House for months has touted plans for a summit to tackle the global causes, preventions and defenses against extremists operating alone and together; under the guise of religious zealotry, or not; for political aims, or not; tolerated or backed by nation states, or not; both in the United States and abroad.

If that suggests this week’s event devoted to “best practices” lacks urgency or even a tight focus – it will feature multiple sub-topics, loads of speeches, venues at the White House and the State Department, and representatives from five dozen countries – here’s how the administration describes it:

“Through presentations, panel discussions, and small group interactions, participants will build on local, state, and federal government; community; and international efforts to better understand, identify, and prevent the cycle of radicalization to violence at home in the United States and abroad.”

As a conference in Washington gets underway, hatreds it seeks to eradicate are on full display. The Islamic State, functioning like an army, has marched into Iraq and hunkers down in Syria. Using the Internet, social media, and horrific YouTube videos, ISIL (also called ISIS) spreads terror, fear, and solicits young recruits worldwide under the guise of an Islamic caliphate.

Two dozen ISIL insurgents were killed Friday after an attack on an air base in western Iraq, close to where U.S. forces train Iraqi troops. And Islamic State fighters slaughtered 21 Egyptian Christians, who were kidnapped and taken to Libya, prompting Egyptian air strikes in Libya following the Sunday video release of the massacre. The deaths raised fears that ISIL is advancing into new territory.

In Copenhagen, a 22-year-old gunman over the weekend shot and killed a Danish film director and a Jewish guard before being killed by police. The gunman, born in Denmark, had a history of gang-related crime before embracing Islamic militancy, but authorities in Copenhagen said there was no known link to jihadist fighters in Iraq or Syria. The deaths followed recent terror attacks in Belgium and France.

The White House downplayed anticipation that Obama’s summit would focus solely, or even primarily, on recent terrorist threats. Administration officials, speaking to reporters in advance of the event, said the aim is to lead discussions around domestic, community-related U.S. concerns tied to violent extremism, and then international issues, continuing a deliberate process to culminate on “progress to date” at September’s annual U.N. General Assembly gathering in New York.

Terrorism has captured public attention, a senior administration official said during a conference call. And Obama’s strategy to degrade and defeat ISIL is in operation. More broadly, there has been less public attention paid to efforts to build what the administration called “resilient communities” in the United States and abroad, which are equipped to confront terrorism, and also thwart extremists who turn to violence for other purposes. The summit is intended to explore strategies that reach beyond threats of terrorism, his advisers said. 

“This particular piece on countering violent extremism is lifting up a part that hasn’t received a lot of attention, where we think there’s a lot more room for government to act, and for civil society to play a role,” a second administration official said, declining to be identified for attribution. “This is one piece of a much broader strategy.”

The government, famously crowded with acronyms, abbreviates the broad endeavor as “CVE,” for countering violent extremism. Obama in 2011 released a White House strategy, Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States, aimed at domestic problems.

In 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convened a globally focused meeting and celebrated the creation of a first-ever Center of Excellence on Countering Violent Extremism, which is headquartered in the United Arab Emirates. Thirty member nations at the time convened a Global Counterterrorism Forum to discuss how the CVE center in Abu Dhabi would conduct training and foster dialogue and research to give a persistent problem attention that was, at the time, described as “timely.”

Three years later, the efforts to share international information, dissect successes, and figure out ways to create counter-programming to burrow beneath radicalization’s root causes appear to be, if anything, lagging behind events.

The summit will convene a panel, for instance, in which U.S. social media and Internet experts discuss ways to create messaging that can “counter” online recruitment of “vulnerable communities” by extremists, including the impact of videos that depict captives beheaded and burned alive.

Some conservatives have criticized the administration for declining to use “Islamic extremism” as the label for the problems at hand. But officials who spoke to reporters Monday said it would be incorrect to point to a single religion or common profile among those drawn to extreme killings and terrorism.

“The evidence doesn’t show that there’s any particular community. There’s no profile that we can point to say, `This person or this community is going to be radicalized to violence,’” an administration official added. “It would be wrong for us to say that there’s any one stereotype that’s going to fit here.”

To widen the viewfinder from Islamic extremists, the administration pointed to a “broader trend,” and used as an example the South American Marxist guerilla army known as FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known for indoctrinating children.

Tuesday’s summit events will showcase domestic best practices drawn from Boston, Los Angeles and Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Vice President Biden, as well as officials from the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, will describe efforts that span governments, the private sector, and among religious and community organizations to prevent violence and thwart radical brainwashing.

Obama will deliver speeches at the White House on Wednesday and at the State Department with representatives from other governments on Thursday.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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