This is an abbreviated version of the remarks delivered by ICSR Director Peter R. Neumann at the White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism, 19 February 2015, Washington DC.
(Professor Neumann spoke alongside UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, among others. For a video of the event, click here.)
Right now, a lot of my time – and that of my team – is spent looking at people from Western Europe who’ve travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for extremist groups.
They are young people from Berlin, Paris, Stockholm and London. Citizens of Western countries. Nearly 4,000 have gone since 2012.
We know many of them.
We’ve found 700 of them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr – social media platforms where they are posting news and updates, comments and pictures.
We’ve spoken to nearly a hundred of them – some over a period of several months.
And we’ve met face to face with many facilitators, transporters, sheikhs, and – the fighters themselves on the ground in the border towns from where they’ve gone into Syria.
We know these people. We know their stories.
And we know there isn’t just one story. There are many of them:
- Some of them are pious – but others are not.
- Many have troubled histories – but some would have had great prospects had they stayed in their countries.
- Some were driven by the humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people – others were seeking thrill and adventure. And, of course, many were genuinely committed to the totalitarian project of the group that calls itself ISIL.
And because their personalities, backgrounds, motivations and – indeed – experiences in Syria and Iraq are so different, as governments, you should expect that the people who may at some point come back to your countries will pose very different types of challenges.
- Some of them will be DISILLUSIONED and can be reintegrated into society.
- Others will be mentally DISTURBED and need psychological support.
- But there will also be a number who are outright DANGEROUS. People who come back with military training, experience, with global connections, often brutalized, emotionally desensitized, driven by, and fully committed to, their mission. They will plot against your countries, and they will also seek to inspire others. They will be the future leaders of their movement.
Just like Osama bin Laden started his career in international terrorism as a foreign fighter in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the next generation of Osama bin Ladens are currently starting theirs in Syria and Iraq.
And just like Afghanistan in the 1980s had consequences for decades – including the 9-11 attacks which happened 14 years after the conflict had ended – the fallout of what currently happens in Syria and Iraq will trouble us not for years but for an entire generation.
So what needs to be done?
There’s a long list of security measures that need to be implemented.
Many are contained in Security Council Resolution 2178 on Foreign Terrorist Fighters – which I had the honor to work on with Ambassador Power and her team.
But the Resolution also makes prevention a priority. It recognizes that it is essential to counter the appeal of violent extremism, so that fewer people will want to become foreign fighters to begin with.
Let me close by highlighting 3 issues that I feel strongly about:
- FIGHTERS’ FAMILIES… 99% of them do not want their kids to go to Syria, none of them want their kids to die. We know that wannabe fighters have arguments with their parents, and we’ve seen – in a number of cases – that parents have succeeded in making their sons or daughters stay. Parents are our strongest allies, they need to be helped and empowered.
- THE INTERNET: Groups like ISIL are using the internet to radicalize people and promote their message. There’s a lot of talk about taking content off the internet. And that may be a part of the solution. But we need to spend a lot more time, energy, effort and creative brains to think about ways in which we can engage and challenge extremist ideas online.
Everything I’ve seen in this area is great, but it’s a drop in the ocean. The internet is the most powerful tool that ever existed for promoting ideas – good ideas and bad ideas. But right now, we’ve handed over that tool to the extremists. And that’s not right.
- INTEGRATION: There’s an uncomfortable truth for my European compatriots. However different the foreign fighters that my colleagues and I have found, what many, if not most of them, had in common is that they didn’t feel they had a stake in their societies. They sometimes felt that, because of who they are, how they look and where they come from, they weren’t part of us, that they’d never succeed.
That didn’t turn them into terrorists by osmosis, but it made them open an ideology which says that the West is at war with you and that you can’t be European and Muslim at the same time. If we’re serious about wanting to reduce the pool of people who are susceptible to the messages and narratives of violent extremists, that’s where we need to start.
Thank you for your attention.