Round 1, in February.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

There's a War on, So Obama Calls a Meeting

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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As world leaders gather in New York this week for the U.N. General Assembly, you will hear a lot about young people and terrorism.   

It's easy to understand why. As the New York Times reported over the weekend, 30,000 new volunteers have made the pilgrimage to Syria in the last year to join the jihad. Throughout the Western world, law enforcement agencies are struggling to spot young people who become radicalized in encrypted chat rooms and who might conduct "lone wolf" attacks against civilians.

Not to worry, the Obama administration is on the case. On Tuesday the president will host a summit of world leaders to promote his agenda of "countering violent extremism." According to Sarah Sewall, the undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, the extremism summit will be quite ambitious. Not only will it focus on countering the narratives terrorists use to lure the young people, but also it will propose how to address the underlying grievances that make some youth vulnerable to such recruitment.

At a speech last week at Columbia University's law school, Sewall said the strategy to counter violent extremism will address corruption, lack of economic opportunity, the deficit of human rights and even abuse by security forces ostensibly fighting terrorism. Invoking the psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs, Sewall said: "CVE moves our counterterrorism response closer to promoting human rights and human needs. Our work on CVE also reinforces that respecting, protecting and promoting human rights enhances long-term security."

With such a wide mandate, it's understandable that the concrete programs are all over the map. They include, for example, an effort in Indonesia to promote popular music that encourages teenagers to reject radical Islam. There are also the edicts of Egypt's president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to encourage his country's famous Al-Azhar Mosque to reject the radicalism of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mainly though, the State Department's new initiative promotes conferences all over the world where do-gooders and bureaucrats hear and share ideas on saving youth from radicalism.

One State Department official told me the initiative is almost too inclusive, and some states like Egypt's are getting the U.S. government's seal of approval on a violent crackdown -- the sort that emboldens the terrorists Obama wanted to counter. "We fear governments will put lip service to countering violent extremism but won't put in place safeguards for human rights," Neil Hicks, the director of human rights promotion for Human Rights First, told me. Bahey eldin Hassan, the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, echoed this concern. He told me: "We have heard good rhetoric from the White House, but the problem is there is not enough political will to carry this out."

The problem with the Obama administation's broad strategy against extremism is that it is so broad. It aims to treat too many maladies; it will end up curing none.

At the same time that Obama's plan is too broad, it is also not ambitious enough. The main driver in the last four years for jihadists is the carnage in Syria. The war there radicalizes young Muslims in an ever-escalating spiral.

Syria's dictator, Bashar al-Assad -- with the backing of Iran and Russia -- has killed his own people without mercy. He has bombed them. He has gassed them. He has starved them. He has shot them. This ongoing atrocity has shocked the conscience of droves of young Muslims who want to stop it, as the world has done nothing.

The most effective group in recruiting a resistance to Assad has been the Islamic State. Since Assad began his ghastly war, the Islamic State has been able to carve out a caliphate, at first in Syria and now in a large chunk of Iraq. This is in part a result of Assad's own cynical strategy to target more moderate rebels in his campaign against his own people.  The Islamic State's momentum in the face of feckless rhetoric from world leaders has also given the impression that history is on the side of these barbarians. The Islamic State has survived where others have fallen.

Since 2011, Obama has called for Assad to leave power. Last year, he began an air war against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. But Obama has not committed the necessary political or military resources to create a third option between Assad and the Islamic State. The U.S. program to train a free Syrian Army is a joke, failing to train even one company of fighters. U.S. arms are now ending up in the hands of Al Qaeda.

In the vacuum, Russia is now sending unprecedented levels of arms and soldiers to Syria to save Assad and fight the tens of thousands of volunteers joining those who resist him. Iran has even launched its own initiative known as WAVE, World Against Violent Extremism.

In this sense, violent extremists are countering each other -- but in the process they are creating more violent extremists. Obama no doubt sincerely would like to end this horrid cycle. But all he offers are empty words and State Department conferences intended to address the grievances of disaffected teenagers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net