Outlining an Action Agenda to Counter Violent Extremism

John Kerry
Secretary of State
White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism
Washington, DC
February 19, 2015

SECRETARY KERRY: So good morning, all. That video very briefly are some of the images of terror and much of the rationale for our being here today. Nobody wants the good to die young, and we all have an enormous obligation, enormous responsibility to find the ways to meet this scourge.

This is the ministerial component of these several days here in Washington, and I want to thank everybody. I know that the schedule of any minister in government today is enormously challenging. So for all of you to come here and spend this much time is really a reflection of the deep commitment and concern about the challenges that we face.

And at the White House yesterday, local practitioners and civil society leaders from around the world gathered to highlight the community-led efforts that can prevent terrorist recruitment and infiltration. There’s been a silly debate in the media in the last days about sort of what you have to do. You have to do everything. You have to take the people off the battlefield who are there today, but you’re kind of stupid if all you do is do that and you don’t prevent more people from going to the battlefield. So we have a broad challenge here. And mostly it is to talk about facts and realities and to take those realities and put them into a real strategy that we all implement together. No one country, no one army, no one group is going to be able to respond to this adequately. And we see that in the numbers of countries that are now being touched by it.

So our goal today is to build on the discussions of the last two days by looking at ways both to address the most alarming threats that we face, but also to get practical, to strengthen the role of civil society – in particular women, youth, and victims – and to ensure that civil society has the space to be able to operate. We need to identify and amplify credible voices, expanding religious and other education that promotes tolerance and peace and respect for all religions; we need to address the social, economic, and political marginalization that is part of this challenge.

When I was recently in a country in northern Africa, the foreign minister there over a good dinner told me about the challenge of a certain portion of their population where young people are just proselytized and captured at a very young stage, paid money in some cases. And once their minds are full of this invective and this distortion, they don’t need to pay them anymore. But what was chilling was, this foreign minister said to me, they don’t have a five-year strategy; they have a 35-year strategy. And so we have to come together and say, “What’s our strategy? How are we going to respond?”;

Our goal today is to take this chance to think broadly about how to prevent violent ideologies from taking hold, and how to prevent terrorist networks such as ISIL or Boko Haram or any group of other names from linking up with aggrieved groups elsewhere, and how to prevent them from thereby expanding their influence.

This morning, I expect that the secretary-general and President Obama will urge us to push ahead as far and as fast as we can to work on the – to develop the work streams that we have already identified. And some of our efforts are going to take place in public gatherings such as this. But I think everybody here understands that much of this work is going to be done quietly, without fanfare, in classrooms, in community centers, in workplaces, in houses of worship, on urban street corners, and in village markets. In the months to come, we will have regional summits, and I’m sure we’ll have other events, which will gauge the progress and measure the next steps. And in New York this fall, our leaders will come together as a group. But between now and then, we must all contribute, and our collaboration and our cooperation must be constant.

Now, we need to remember that our adversaries don’t have to cope with distractions. They don’t have a broad set of responsibilities to fulfill. They don’t have the same institutional responsibilities that we do to meet the needs of our citizens. Terror is their obsession. It’s what they do. And if we let them, their singleness of purpose could actually wind up giving them a comparative advantage. But with the images of recent outbreaks fresh in our minds, everybody here knows we simply can’t let that happen. We have to match their commitment and we have to leave them with no advantage at all.

And this morning, we will begin with a session devoted to a single word: why. Why do people make what to many of us would seem to be an utterly wrongheaded choice and become the kind of terrorists that we’re seeing? It’s a question that we need to approach with humility, but also with determination, because you cannot defeat what you don’t understand. Certainly, there is no single answer.

In our era, poisonous ideas can come from almost anywhere – from parents, teachers, friends, preachers, politicians – from the pretty woman on a radical website who lures people or the man in the next cell who proselytizes while in prison. They might grow from pictures seen on the nightly news or from acts of discrimination or repression that you don’t think much about on the day of occurrence, but which come back to haunt. It could come from the desire to avenge the death of a loved one. In some cases, they may come from a lost job or from the contrast between one family’s empty dinner plate and a fancy restaurant’s lavish menu. The poison might even come from within, in the form of rebellion against anonymity, the desire to belong to a group, people who want a moment of visibility and identity, or the hunger for black and white answers to problems that are very complex in a remarkably more complicated world.

We can all understand the search for meaning and doubts about authority, because at one time or another, most of us have been there. But it’s a huge leap between personal disquiet and committing murder, mayhem. So let there be no confusion or doubt: Whatever one’s individual experience might be, there are no grounds of history, religion, ideology, psychology, politics or economic disadvantage, or personal ambition that will ever justify the killing of children, the kidnapping or rape of teenage girls, or the slaughter of unarmed civilians. These atrocities cannot be rationalized; they cannot be excused. They must be opposed and they must be stopped. Whether in classrooms or houses of worship or over the internet or on TV, our message is very straightforward. To anyone who’s in doubt, we can say with conviction to have no doubt there’s a better way to serve God, a better way to protect loved ones, a better way to defend a community, a better way to seek justice, a better way to become known, a better way to live than by embracing violent extremism. In fact, there is no worse way to do any of those things.

Our challenge then is not really one of marshaling facts, because the facts are wholly on our side. Our task is to encourage the most credible leaders and spokespersons to penetrate the barrier of terrorist lies and to do so over and over and over again. We have to support the right people saying the right things all the time. That also means that we have to be crystal clear in separating what we oppose from what we should always be eager to defend. We have to be steadfast advocates of religious freedom, supporters of the right to peaceful dissent, opponents of bigotry in every form, and builders of opportunity for all.

Friends, our arms are open. Our minds are open to the ideas. The partnership against violent extremism that we are assembling has room for anyone who is willing to respect the fundamental rights and dignity of other human beings. And so it is appropriate this morning that we will be privileged to hear from the secretary-general of the United Nations, an organization whose founding, purpose, is to encourage us all to practice tolerance and live together in peace. Through these – through its efforts at peacebuilding, conflict resolution, development, the UN has obviously been an invaluable contributor to the long-term battle against international terror and the global partnership that is represented here today. This effort is not something taking place outside of the UN; this is to support the UN resolution, respect to this, and is to support the efforts that we have all been part of for so long.

In 2006, Ban Ki-moon was chosen to lead the UN. Five years later he was reelected. He’s been a voice of healing and reconciliation. And despite the fact that the job of secretary-general is nearly impossible, Ban Ki-moon has become known across the globe for his energy and his commitment. And it’s my honor to present to you the Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon. (Applause.)