LONDON — British Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday unveiled a five-year strategy to combat Islamist extremism, including a measure that would empower parents to cancel the passports of children at risk of radicalization and a push to “deglamorize” militant groups such the Islamic State.
In a wide-ranging speech to an audience in Birmingham, Cameron called the fight against extremism “the struggle of our generation” and said there was an urgent need to address segregation in Britain.
“For all our success as a multiracial, multi-faith democracy, we have to confront a tragic truth: that there are people born and raised in this country who don’t really identify with Britain and who feel little or no attachment to other people here,” he said.
About 700 Britons have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State, according to British authorities.
It was Cameron’s first major counterterrorism speech since winning a second term and since 30 Britons were killed last month in Tunisia by a gunman with links to the Islamic State.
In addressing the problem of divided communities, Cameron said the government would explore ways to make schools and neighborhoods less segregated.
“I’m not talking about uprooting people from their homes or schools or forcing integration,” he said. “But I am talking about taking a fresh look at the sort of shared future we want for our young people. In terms of housing, for example, there are parts of our country where segregation has actually increased . . . so the government needs to start asking searching questions about social housing.”
Although Cameron’s speech laid out the threat of homegrown terrorism, it offered few concrete solutions. He said there would be a new measure under which parents who are worried about their children traveling abroad to join a radical group would have the power to get their passports canceled. The provision would affect children younger than 16.
He spoke of the dangerous appeal of militant groups, saying that he recognized that the extremist cause could seem “exciting,” especially to youths, but that the reality on the ground was vastly different.
“This is a group that throws people off buildings, that burns them alive. . . . Its men rape underage girls and stone innocent women to death. This isn’t a pioneering movement,” Cameron said.
He also rebuked Internet companies, saying they need to do more to help identify would-be terrorists and stem the spread of extremist propaganda.
“When it comes to doing what’s right for their business, they are happy to engineer technologies to track our likes and dislikes. But when it comes to doing what’s right in the fight against terrorism, we too often hear that it’s all too difficult. Well, I’m sorry, I just don’t buy that.”
But for the most part, Cameron appeared to be laying out his philosophy, floating a trial balloon of sorts before the government publishes its counterterrorism strategy in the fall.
He also seemed to suggest that the government would not only train its sights on violent extremism but also take a tough view of nonviolent extremism and “peddlers of hatred” who manage to stay — barely — on the right side of the law.
Cameron said it is not enough for anti-extremist groups to condemn the Islamic State. “We can’t let the bar sink to that ludicrously low level,” he said. “Condemning a mass-murdering, child-raping organization cannot be enough to prove you are challenging the extremists. We must demand people also condemn the wild conspiracy theories, the anti-Semitism, the sectarianism, too.”
The Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank in London, welcomed the speech, saying that “there is a pressing need to challenge all forms of extremism, not simply its violent manifestations.”
Cameron singled out the Muslim advocacy group Cage for criticism, noting that its research director earlier this year described Mohammed Emwazi, the British killer known as “Jihadi John,” as a “beautiful young man.”
“I want to say something to the National Union of Students. When you choose to ally yourself with an organization like Cage, which called ‘Jihadi John’ a ‘beautiful young man’ and told people to support the jihad in Iraq and Afghanistan, it really does, in my opinion, shame your organization and your noble history of campaigning for justice,” he said.
In response, Cage denied any support for terrorism or “the criminal actions of ‘Jihadi John.’ ” It said in a statement that Cameron’s assertions about Cage were “false” and that his agenda would “create more distrust and alienation among British Muslims and an atmosphere in which political dissent is criminalized.”
Cameron also took aim at universities, saying they sometimes fail to spot “creeping radicalization” on their campuses, and he said the problem of extremism in prisons needs to be tackled, as well.
Cameron appealed to those in the news media, saying they should give a platform to a broader range of speakers from the Muslim community.