Remarks at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
February 18, 2015

SECRETARY KERRY: Good afternoon. On behalf of President Obama and Secretaries Holder and Johnson – Attorney General, I should say, Holder and Johnson, Secretary Johnson, we are really delighted to welcome you here. We’re very, very happy that so many countries have sent such competent and capable interlocutors for a topic that could not be more timely and more critical to all of us.

Earlier this week, with the release of a video showing the medieval murder of 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt on a beach in Libya, the world has once again been reminded of the absolutely unspeakable and undeniable evil of ISIL, which many of us prefer to call Daesh. Twenty-one innocent people were violently executed en masse in the most grotesque way simply because of their faith, and though Daesh has proven that it doesn’t need any rationale to kill people.

In the aftermath of that brutality, President al-Sisi said something important. He made it quite clear – just as President Obama has, as King Abdullah of Jordan has, as President Hollande has, as Prime Minister Cameron has and that others have in the wake of the murders of their own citizens – that rather than be deterred we have to be even more resolved to eradicate this kind of terror and rid the earth of this menace.

There’s no negotiation, nothing that they want except everything their way in a medieval fashion. So we will do whatever it takes, which is why President Obama asked everybody to come here to begin to lay the groundwork to achieve that “whatever it takes.” Because history has shown us that tyranny and aggression do not stop on their own; they stop only when they are defeated. And make no mistake: Tyranny is what Daesh’s agenda is all about; a tyranny of violence and oppression; a tyranny that seeks to impose a seventh century world view on a 21st century world; a tyranny that will never create a job or educate a child or cure a disease, but is bent on destroying if people don’t do exactly what they say. That’s tyranny. A tyranny that is waged by terrorists with passports from many if not all of the nations represented here today, including the United States of America; terrorists who at any point could try to return to any of our countries, as they have, and wreak havoc on them.

The shared commitment to putting an end to this tyranny is what brings all of us here today, and let me thank you all for taking the time to participate in the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism and specifically in this ministerial meeting. I also want to thank Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson for joining me to host this important discussion. And this is a lineup that I think underscores the fact that we view this as an extraordinarily serious challenge.

Now, I know this is a view that all of you share. I’m not saying these things to persuade you, but I am saying them to underscore the importance of the meeting and to remind all of us of the serious obligation we have to our citizens and to the world not to just talk but to take action and to find the right way forward.

None of you would be here if you didn’t share this point of view. By now we know well that the impacts of violent extremism are no means confined to one part of the world. And the foreign fighter phenomenon is not limited to Syria and Iraq, though clearly we’ve seen the deadly impact of the flow of foreign fighters over the past weeks and months. The people that groups like Daesh are recruiting can come from any country. They can be male or female. They can be any ethnicity, with or without spiritual convictions.

Last year, two young men left Great Britain to join Daesh. Among the books that they ordered before departing were Islam for Dummies,The Koran for Dummies. So let’s be honest: Those recruiting for Daesh are not looking for people who are devout and knowledgeable about the tenets of Islam. They’re looking for people who are gullible enough to believe that terrorists enjoy a glamorous lifestyle, and pliable enough to do whatever they are told, and who are attracted by the perception of success.

To date, the results have been deeply disturbing. Our estimates suggest more than 20,000 people from more than 100 different countries have traveled to Syria or Iraq to join Daesh’s ranks. And although more than half of them are from the Middle East, they could come literally from anywhere. Recruits from Western Europe, for example, number almost 4,000. This is unprecedented. And during the conflict in Afghanistan back in the 1980s, some 20,000 foreign fighters traveled to that country to join the fight, but that was over the course of a decade. What we’ve seen happen has been happening since last summer. We’re talking about the same number of foreign fighters joining Daesh in total, when you look what’s happening in Syria, over the course of the last three or four years.

So let me add that the ringleaders of Daesh may be evil, but I’ll tell you something: I don’t think anybody here thinks they’re stupid. And that’s why the vast majority of suicide bombers and the frontline fighters are foreign recruits. You won’t find the bosses on the front lines. They give the orders so they can let other people, particularly gullible people who joined from abroad and think they’re fulfilling some higher mission – they let them pay the price.

It’s not just the fact that these foreign fighters are helping to fuel the fight in Syria and Iraq; they’re coming home, too. To extend their influence, the leaders of Daesh last year called on followers to “explode volcanoes of jihad.” And they asked them to do that in every country. Since then, the world has borne witness to the horrific attacks in Brussels, Peshawar, Paris, Copenhagen, Sydney, two cities in Canada, and elsewhere. And make no mistake: Daesh is not only interested in going after the West. They’re turning their swords to the Middle East as well, as we saw days ago with the mass beheadings of the Egyptian Coptic Christians that I talked about in the beginning. So bottom line, this is about as global as a threat gets.

In September at the UN Security Council, President Obama chaired a high-level meeting on the challenge that is posed by foreign fighters. And that gathering, coupled with the launch of the global coalition to counter Daesh, has motivated countries all over the world to intensify their efforts and to find appropriate ways to share information. We and our international partners are increasingly engaged in a broad array of initiatives designed to make it harder for people to join groups like Daesh and less likely that ex-militants will escape detection when they’re trying to return home. In the United States, we’re working bilaterally, for example, to share information with our partners, including the names of suspected terrorists and those who may be enabling their travel. And we’re working to ensure that not only are the names shared, but they get into the right databases as well.

The State Department will also be increasing our support for Interpol for their work on foreign terrorist fighters so that it can more effectively serve as a principal information sharing platform among the many member states. And we’re committed to helping our foreign partners build the capacity to help control the flow of foreign fighters from within their borders. For example, with our colleagues at the Justice Department, the State Department is working closely with countries around the world to enact and enforce criminal penalties against those who attend terrorist training camps. And because we believe that young people who in the past signed up without understanding the true nature of what they’re getting into and who are genuine in their desire to seek rehabilitation should have the chance, so the State Department is looking at a variety of ways, including using mechanisms of the UN and the Global Counterterrorism Forum to launch initiatives to rehabilitate and reintegrate foreign fighters.

Now, I know that many of you are taking steps similar to the ones that I just articulated. Today, what we want here – what we have here – is the opportunity to take stock of the progress that we’re making, to begin to examine the lessons that we’re learning and the ways that we can improve bilaterally, regionally, and multilaterally. So we’ll hear from Secretary General Stock about the Interpol’s efforts to facilitate information sharing on the travel of foreign fighters and terrorists. We’ll hear from representatives from Morocco and the Netherlands about the important work being done by the Global Counterterrorism Forum’s new Foreign Fighters Working Group. We’ll hear more from Turkey, the European Union, the United States about how we can better use watch-listing tools and approaches to screening travelers passing through our airports.

I want to leave ample time for the discussion, obviously. What we want to make sure is we really have a real discussion. We want to leave these next two days a little bit more with reality. We don’t want just the glib back-and-forth of pre-prepared – we want to really dig in. What can we do to get this job done as fast and effectively as possible? And we need to walk away from this summit – and we’ll push for it – with very practical ideas that we can all go home and work on in order to roll back whatever appeal there is of violent extremism wherever it exists.

So we thank you for being here. It’s my pleasure to introduce to you the Attorney General of the United States.