Remarks at the East Asia Summit Symposium
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIL
Remarks as prepared
Thank you Professor Rohan for your generous introduction and thank you for your generous welcome to the East Asia Summit Symposium.
This is the second time I have been to Singapore in the past few months but this is my first visit since the passing of this nation’s founding Prime Minister and one of the visionary leaders of the 20th century, Lee Kwan Yew.
I understand that the Prime Minister’s given name, Kwan Yew, can be translated as “someone who brings joy to his ancestors.” I have no doubt that the name Lee Kwan Yew will have even richer meaning in years to come: it will signify not only someone who brought great joy to his ancestors but a leader who brought Singapore great joy, prosperity, significane, and security to future generations.
I also want to convey my personal thanks to Prime Minister Mr. Lee Hsien Loon, whom I was privileged to have met years ago during my previous service in Singapore. And it is wonderful to see my dear friend, U.S. Ambassador to Singapore Kirk Wagar.
I deeply appreciate Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Home Affairs Mr. Teo Chee Hean and Ambassador Ong Keng Yong for the instrumental roles they have played in inaugurating this conference and for their broader efforts in the fight against violent extremism and radicalization.
During the many years I spent in this region and particularly in recent months, I have seen firsthand the ways in which Singapore sets a standard for the region and the world when it comes to countering extremism. Indeed, I saw this powerfully in February when I met here with some of Singapore’s Muslim leaders, whose deep commitment to their faith, as well as to their country’s future and security, was clear for all to see.
These men of faith, as well as their counterparts in the community and government, had obviously invested enormous energy in understanding and in successfully developing protocols to de-radicalize young men, the victims of violent extremist ideology, and helping them transition back to being contributing members of society.
The way in which government officials and clerics had established deep bonds of trust and mutual respect served as a model for me of what is needed in so many multi-cultural, multi-faith communities around the world.
Singapore’s success has served to showcase what President Obama has emphasized repeatedly: that we need to diversify our approach to engagement and counter-terrorism by bringing strong, capable partners to the forefront and enlisting their help in this mutually important endeavor. Exactly that is occurring in the critical line of effort encompassing the rehabilitation and reintegration of violent extremist offenders in Singapore and beyond.
The U.S. Department of State, together with other U.S. government agencies, has been working since 2011 with other concerned governments, as well as multilateral organizations and civil society organizations, to develop and disseminate good practices intended to disengage incarcerated violent extremists from active support for terrorism, and to facilitate their successful reintegration into society upon release.
One of my counterparts from the State Department, Michael Jacobson, who has been deeply engaged in these efforts, is here with us today. Michael, thank you for your good work.
Singapore is one of several countries from around the world that has contributed funding and expertise – including very practical, on-the-ground experience – to enable other countries interested in establishing programs based on those good practices to progress more rapidly.
Because there are parallels between this work and addressing the challenges created by returning foreign terrorist fighters, we and our partners are now working to draw lessons to understand better what knowledge and good practices can be transferred from one domain to the other.
Many returning foreign terrorist fighters ultimately will not be prosecuted for their activities in foreign zones of conflict because there won’t be sufficient evidence to complete a rule-of-law prosecution in the home country.
Whether such non-prosecutable returnees will pose an enduring threat to their home countries is likely to depend significantly on how well the reintegration process functions for them and for their families. It will be essential to understand – based on rigorous risk assessment – the threat that each individual poses, so that the right resources, at the right level, can be brought to bear against their return to extremist ideation. Unless long-term detention is an option, and in many countries it isn’t, options range from intensive monitoring to providing social services and family and community engagement.
Close monitoring is generally very resource-intensive. Therefore, those evaluated as amenable to genuine reintegration should receive appropriate support and assistance, while those assessed as posing a continuing threat are likely to require close monitoring by law enforcement and intelligence resources.
Singapore has made important progress in understanding some of the keys to rehabilitation and reintegration, but the lessons Singapore is offering in the struggle against extremism extend far beyond these essential efforts. Singapore is also sharing critical insights into how to counter ISIL’s toxic messaging and appeal.
During my last visit here in February, I remember the particular efforts of one Singaporean who was in charge of tracking the social media in South Asia related to ISIL -- which hereafter I will refer to by the Arabic acronym Da’esh.
Through the strategic analysis of her team, she had found that potential foreign fighters in the region were particularly enamored with Daesh’s apocalyptic, end of days narrative.
Singapore is working with Rick Stengel, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public affairs, who is here this week in Singapore … to understand Daesh’s different appeals to young people in different regions, so that we can work together to delegitimize its message and ideology.
The kind of social media analysis being performed here in Singapore is also an example of Singapore’s pioneering technical and analytical capabilities.
Indeed, the way Singapore is leveraging these strengths to fight Daesh is one of the many reasons it has become a vital member of the Global Coalition.
Singapore is one of 24 capitals I have visited in the past seven months as Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter Da’esh … to meet with the national leadership, and in that short span we have assembled a global coalition, which currently includes more than 60 nations and international organizations, each committed to the counter-Daesh campaign.
Whether you live in Lisbon, Amman, Canberra, Kuala Lampur, or here in Singapore, Daesh’s threat is not confined to some distant and dark place, some foreign shore. In the form of foreign fighters and the spread of its bankrupt ideology, Daesh is a threat that is real; a threat that is here; and a threat that demands both our urgent and, assuredly, our enduring attention.
It was the urgency of that threat, and the immediate emergency we saw unfold last summer in Iraq, that first prompted President Obama … with the yeoman’s work of Secretary John Kerry … to convene a global coalition to counter this menace.
It is difficult to describe today just how desperate the situation was for Iraq last summer. By June, Daesh fighters began pouring through the Tigris River Valley. Multiple Iraqi towns and cities, including Mosul, went down one after another under Daesh’s heel. A substantial portion of Iraq’s military units collapsed, and Daesh’s subsequent and remorseless slaughter of Iraq’s refugees and Iraqi religious minorities exposed us all to a stark, intolerable evil.
Today, less than 10 months after Da’esh fighters were threatening Baghdad, and 8 months after President Obama called for a Global Coalition to counter Daesh, we have achieved the first phase of our campaign: we have blunted Daesh’s strategic, operational, and tactical momentum in Iraq.
As we undertake Coalition efforts to help restore Iraq’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, we are also seeing Iraq undertake vital reforms to make that a sustainable restoration. Today, Iraq has both a more inclusive government and a new prime minister, Dr. Haider Al-Abadi, whom I visited in Washington on Wednesday before my flight to Singapore. While he has only been in office since September, Prime Minister Abadi has made a series of politically difficult and absolutely critical decisions in support of a stronger, more unified Iraq.
For example, Iraq’s new government has come to an agreement with the Kurds on oil revenues – an agreement a decade in the making – one now reflected in the 2015 budget Prime Minister Abadi put before Iraq’s Council of Representatives in February. The Prime Minister has also priced into that budget funding for a national guard, one that would allow Iraqis to serve and provide security for their own provinces … an important step on the road to national reconciliation.
Prime Minister Abadi has mourned the deaths of Sunni colleagues in their own mosques and has met twice with Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani – a vital endorsement of his leadership at this critical time.
Of course, Prime Minister Abadi’s efforts to reconcile Iraq’s divisions and reform its government remain an enormous undertaking. The results are as yet uncertain. His efforts to spur economic revitalization are challenged by a historic decline in the price of oil.
Make no mistake: Iraq has a tough road ahead. Supporting a secure and stable Iraq will require a sustained effort from the Coalition. Whether it comes to standing up Iraq’s security forces or confronting extremist bigotry, these efforts require our realistic expectations.
And as we and Coalition partners pursue this campaign, there will be advances, as well as setbacks.
Sadly, Daesh’s savagery has touched us all. The victims of Daesh’s grotesque violence span from Tikrit to Tunis – and beyond.
We have grieved for the loss of the brave Jordanian pilot, Captain Mouaz Kasasbeh. We were disgusted when Daesh- affiliated militants executed 21 Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach. And we have mourned the murders of the many aid workers and reporters – all whose lives and values – like so many of Daesh’s victims – stand in stark contrast to Daesh’s empty vision.
In addition to these gruesome tragedies, what often goes unreported are the daily horrors endured by those who continue to suffer under Da’esh’s tyranny–the crimes and atrocities that impact countless Iraqis and Syrians every day.
None of us can stand by when we hear reports of Da’esh selling hundreds of women and girls into slavery.
None of us can see Daesh desecrate holy sites and murder spiritual leaders–Sunni, Shia, and Christian alike–and not see something sacred to us all being violated.
None of us can allow Daesh to threaten the existence of entire peoples and stay silent. Daesh and its barbarism must be consigned to the darker chapters of human history.
With the Coalition we have now assembled and through our coordinated action, we send a clear and unambiguous message: the international community will not waiver in its collective resolve to degrade and defeat this shared threat. We will not accept this as the new normal, and never cease to be outraged.
In my experience, I’ve seen the possibilities that lay beyond the horizon when partners maintain their focus on a set of clear strategic objectives, and work towards them with mutually-reinforcing lines of effort. I’ve seen how sustained strategic cooperation and the pursuit of a shared strategy can lead to unity of purpose and transformation.
Wherever Coalition nations have coordinated airstrikes with capable partners on the ground, we have seen Daesh stopped in its tracks, particularly in Iraq, where our partners have taken more than a quarter of the populated territories back from Daesh.
Because we lack the same kind of partners on the ground in Syria, the situation is more challenging and complex. However, more than 1,000 Coalition airstrikes helped Kobane’s defenders thwart earlier this year a massive Daesh assault, which killed nearly 1,000 of their fighters and led to significant attrition of its ranks.
Looking ahead, we are working closely with regional partners to stand up a program to train and equip approximately 5,000 appropriately vetted Syrian opposition elements for the next three years.
The military aspects of campaigns like this will invariably receive the greatest attention from the media and policy-makers. But as I saw in Afghanistan during my command there, in Al Anbar in 2007-08, and in recovery efforts for the 2004/5 South Asian tsunami: the military response to this kind of emergency is essential but it is not sufficient.
It will ultimately be the aggregate pressure of the Coalition’s activity over multiple mutually supporting lines of effort that will determine whether we succeed or fail.
That is why when I visit a Coalition capital and meet with a prime minister, a king, or president, I describe the counter-Daesh strategy as being organized around five lines of effort — the military line to deny safe haven and provide security assistance, disrupting the flow of foreign fighters, disrupting Daesh’s financial resources, providing humanitarian relief and support to its victims, and counter-messaging–or defeating Daesh as an idea.
The issue of foreign fighters has grown to be a prominent, if not the preeminent, topic of concern in all of these conversations, and rightly so. There is clearly a growing awareness that the thousands of young men, and increasingly, young women, who have traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq present a truly unprecedented, generational challenge.
Coalition members are beginning to take the coordinated and hopefully increasingly concerted actions required to meet the emerging foreign fighter threat. Within the context of the Coalition, more than a dozen nations have changed laws and penalties to make it more difficult to travel and fight in Syria and Iraq. Through capacity building in the Balkans, criminal justice efforts in North Africa, and through a 20 million euro investment from the European Union to engage at-risk communities, we are beginning to see nations take a series of coordinated actions.
Even with these expanded measures, foreign fighters continue to make their way to the battlefield so we must continue to harmonize our border and customs processes and promote intelligence sharing among partners.
As we seek to interdict foreign fighters at home, en route to the battlespace, and returning from the front, we will need to develop the capacity to reach, rehabilitate, and reintegrate the thousands who have been radicalized, an area where, as I noted earlier, Singapore has achieved significant success.
The kind of creative thinking and information sharing Singapore has championed on counter-radicalization is also critical to a related and similarly urgent challenge: constraining Daesh’s access to financial support.
If you have the right intelligence and have the right partners working together, some of what can be achieved in the financial space can strike a substantial blow at Daesh’s spending options and operational latitude.
The Coalition is not there yet, but we have made gains in synchronizing practices to block Daesh’s access to banks, both in the region and globally.
But, their financial resources are diverse and for now, nearly self-sustaining. For example, beyond the oil enterprise, Daesh’s portfolio includes massive criminal extortion of conquered populations, kidnap for ransom, and human trafficking and a slave trade, including sex slaves, in which, disgustingly, Daesh takes pride.
And when Daesh is not just destroying precious works of antiquity, it is attempting to make millions, if not billions, from the sale of historical artifacts and artworks. They are literally attempting to eliminate Iraq’s and Syria’s rich history for the purposes of burying the region’s future.
As more territory is taken back from Daesh, we must also ensure that we’re poised to act in relief of the liberated populations and support the return of internally displaced persons. We are working closely with the Iraqis, with the support of our Coalition partners, and in particular the Arab states, to help Iraq develop stabilization and recovery plans.
The Coalition’s counter-messaging line of effort is contesting Daesh’s narrative across the many platforms and languages it uses to drive its aggressive propaganda machine. Daesh appeals to many of its recruits because it proclaimed a Caliphate.
But while Daesh once proclaimed itself to be on the march, it is today under increasing pressure from a world uniting to push back against its savagery.
In any operation– stabilization, humanitarian, counter-messaging–we need to define success from the outset. When I think of what success must look like, I think of my young grandchild. I ask myself whether the world he will inherit will be different from our own.
I am not the only one in this room today who has spent the better part of his or her life at war or preparing for it. If we do not get this effort right, our children and grandchildren will have to endure the same and perhaps, more dangerous consequences.
Degrading and defeating Daesh is a top priority. But we should not forget the future that millions of young people across the region hoped to forge when the streamed on to the streets of their capitals just a few years ago. They were motivated by a common desire for education and jobs, for the freedom to determine their own future, no different from what all of us want for our families and the generations who follow us.
We should not forget how these young people used technology so effectively to share their struggle and story with the world. Think for just a moment about what would be possible if these same young people, so hopeful for peace and prosperity, were not joined in protest, but rather by efforts to innovate and trade with one another.
As we confront this shared threat, we must also seize this moment’s promise: to create a rising tide of opportunity, to propel a young generation forward in dignity. That must be our common aspiration.
And we should also keep in mind that if we do not act in concert, if we don’t use this moment of crisis as an opportunity to grapple with underlying causes of extremism, we will burden future generations with the bitter inheritance of this struggle. That’s why the work happening here in Singapore on de-radicalization and the purpose of this conference is so important … so vital to the way ahead.
In the fight against extremism, we must summon a will and determination not unlike the late Lee Kuan Yew’s. “If I decide that something is worth doing,” he said “then I'll put my heart and soul to it … That's the business of a leader.”
As members of the community of nations, let us be those kinds of leaders. Let us be resolute in this struggle.
Indeed, that is what the world asks of us … That is what this challenge requires of us … and that is what the future demands from each of us.
Thank you your leadership, your courage, and your continued commitment.