ABOVE PHOTO: Iraqi demonstrators protested against ISIS in front of the White House in Washington, DC on June 21, 2014. (Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com)
By Josh Lederman
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama gathered police leaders, lawmakers and mayors from around the world Wednesday to address the threat of violent extremism at a White House summit that was far from what Obama originally envisioned.
Planned for last October, the summit never happened before the midterm elections. In the months since, the situation has just gotten worse, with the Islamic State group metastasizing and European cities learning firsthand that extremism’s reach is not confined to the Middle East.
“In just a very short period of time we’ve come a long way in terrorist organizations’ ability to communicate,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Wednesday as he opened the second day of the three-day event. “They have the ability to reach into our communities and attempt to recruit and inspire individuals who may turn toward violence right here in the homeland.”
As crises boil over in Yemen and Libya, Obama is asking Congress to take a tough vote backing his military plan to defeat IS extremists in Iraq and Syria. But U.S. military action has so far proven the wrong tool to combat a robust social media and propaganda operation whose success at recruiting fighters and jihadists from western communities like Denver and Chicago has been alarmingly impressive.
With that threat in mind, Obama is hoping to concentrate the world’s focus on the need to combat the underlying ideologies that entice otherwise modern individuals – including many disaffected youth – to behead a non-believer, kidnap a schoolgirl or shoot up a synagogue. During the three-day conference, Obama is working to highlight local models for preventing radicalization that could be replicated in other communities.
“Groups like al-Qaida and ISIL exploit the anger that festers when people feel that injustice and corruption leave them with no chance of improving their lives,” Obama wrote in an op-ed article Wednesday in the Los Angeles Times. “The world has to offer today’s youth something better.”
The White House finally put a date on the calendar for the summit last month, in the wake of a shooting at a Paris newspaper that shook Europe to attention and earlier attacks in Canada and Australia. In the weeks since, Obama and top U.S. officials have sought to portray the U.S. as at a lower risk because of what they call an American tradition of making immigrants feel like full members of their new society.
“We haven’t always gotten it right,” Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday as he opened the summit. “But we have a lot of experience integrating communities into the American system, the American dream.”
Obama’s keynote speech to the summit Wednesday afternoon will follow a series of speeches and panels examining the links between extremism and faith, gender, the Internet and the private sector. Leaders from local communities will present so-called “pilot programs” they’ve put in place in Los Angeles, Boston and Minneapolis.
Although the White House has gone to great lengths to avoid linking the campaign directly to Islamic extremism, it comes as the U.S. seeks to enlist other, mostly Arab or Muslim nations to join together to rid places like Yemen, Nigeria and Iraq of militant groups claiming adherence to rigid interpretations of Islam.
The U.S. is not the only country pushing anew for deeper involvement from the rest of the world in preventing the spread of extremist groups. After IS militants in Libya beheaded a group of Egyptian Christians in a video released this week, Cairo is pressing the United Nations to approve a new coalition for airstrikes. The U.N. Security Council was to meet Wednesday in an emergency session on Libya.
On Thursday, Obama is to speak at the State Department, where representatives of some 60 countries are scheduled to meet. The White House declined to release a list of attendees in advance, suggesting the U.S. was still working to secure support and participation, but representatives from the United Kingdom, Jordan, France, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait were expected to attend.