Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted President Obama as saying the world must address “secular conflict.” He actually said “sectarian.” The headline and first paragraphs of this version have been corrected.
President Obama told representatives of more than 60 countries Thursday that they must address sectarian strife and other economic and political grievances to blunt the appeal of terrorist groups worldwide.
“Nations need to break the cycles of conflict, particularly sectarian conflict, that become magnets for violent extremism,” Obama said at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, which convened at the State Department for its third day of meetings.
Attending the gathering were senior officials from several countries whose citizens have been targeted by Islamist militants. They included Canada’s minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, France’s interior minister, and the foreign affairs ministers of Egypt and Denmark.
The president reprised many of the themes he outlined in a speech to conference participants Wednesday afternoon, including the need to lift up moderate Muslim voices on social media and elsewhere and provide economic and political opportunities to disaffected citizens.
“When people are oppressed, and human rights are denied — particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines — when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism,” Obama said. “And so we must recognize that lasting stability and real security require democracy.”
However, Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that the United States needs to practice what it preaches because “repressive laws and predatory security forces . . . are counterproductive and ineffective. To this end, the U.S. should also reexamine its own policies and practices to ensure they comply with international law.”
Obama took aim at the Islamic State, even as he alluded to other terrorist threats in Israel, Nigeria, Pakistan and Somalia.
“As we speak, ISIL is terrorizing the people of Syria and Iraq and engaging in unspeakable cruelty,” he said. “The wanton murder of children, the enslavement and rape of women, threatening religious minorities with genocide, beheading hostages.”
Later, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told attendees that the administration was initiating two studies as part of its counterterrorism effort. One, at the University of Maryland-College Park, will explore the similarities between violent extremist groups and criminal gangs, while an in-depth analysis at the Children’s Hospital Corp. of Boston will look at the relationship between gang affiliation and radicalization among Somali youths who have resettled in the United States.
“We are learning that there may be similarities in the factors that lead to gang involvement and violent extremism,” Holder said.
Ahmed Aboutaleb, the mayor of Rotterdam and a practicing Muslim who is attending the summit, said in a phone interview that although he appreciates Obama and Vice President Biden’s emphasis on the need for social inclusion in Western society, it does not explain all radical conversions.
“It’s part of the answer,” he said. “It remains to be seen why these individuals, some well-educated young people, some with a job, nevertheless decide to join ISIL.”
Aboutaleb said he was encouraged by some announcements at the summit, including that Morocco’s Muslim leaders plan to educate 50,000 imams on how to address extremism, and that Egypt and Saudi Arabia are likely to adopt similar programs.
He praised the U.S. government for taking the initiative on the summit, noting, “We in Europe face a similar problem. . . . But so far, there is not a European initiative to bring all these people together.”
Aboutaleb noted that although many Muslim clerics in the United States speak English and are ready to tackle the problem, only a couple of imams in his city speak Dutch.
“That is too little,” he said. “We need 300 to 400 [in the Netherlands] to be able to intervene in the public debate.”
Obama said the United States and other nations must address “the painful truth” of how Muslims were often stigmatized in the West because they remain a minority in many countries, and many citizens get “a very distorted impression” from the news.
“A lot of the bad, like terrorists who claim to speak for Islam, that’s absorbed by the general population,” he said. “Not enough of the good — the more than 1 billion people around the world who do represent Islam, and are doctors and lawyers and teachers and neighbors and friends.”
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, here to attend the summit, said he will travel to Silicon Valley Friday to appeal for increased counterterrorism cooperation. Echoing President Obama, who made the same trip last week, Cazeneuve said he would appeal to their “sense of responsibility” with specific proposals.
Top Internet and social media operators “already feel that they’ve done everything they can do, and they will find it odd that I ask them to do more,” he said.
In the wake of last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, France is pushing for a code of social media conduct and criminal sanctions against those in the private sector who do not voluntarily comply. Cazeneuve said he would meet with “Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, all of them” to ask for cooperation in investigating terrorist use of social media, as well as in helping governments to fashion and quickly disseminate online “counter-narratives.”
“We want to fight against terrorism on behalf of freedom of speech” not against it, he said. French cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine where 12 were killed in the Paris attacks, exercised free speech “to the point of impertinence,” Cazeneuve said, “and they were the first ones to be struck by these attacks.”
Asked whether France remained concerned about U.S. international eavesdropping, he said that what his government wants “more than anything to develop cooperation” with the United States. “We have an excellent relationship with U.S. intelligences services,” he said and are “determined to strengthen it even more.”