DAVOS, Switzerland – The fight against violent extremism will continue for decades unless the root causes of despair and hopelessness are addressed, Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday in a speech to political and business elites at the World Economic Forum.
Though he provided no concrete program proposals for countering the allure of groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, Kerry called for a “global partnership” to address issues like poverty, rampant unemployment and the lack of accountability in government.
“Ultimately, this fight is not going to be decided on the battlefield,” he said. “The outcome is going to be determined in classrooms, workplaces, houses of worship, community centers, urban street corners, in the perceptions and the thoughts of individuals, and the ways in which those perceptions are created.”
At Davos, an annual gathering of the wealthy and powerful who ponder weighty issues in the setting of an alpine ski resort, Kerry struck an emotional tone as he described children outfitted with suicide vests, women raped and stoned to death and the execution of defecting fighters.
His speech reflected an attempt by the Obama administration to pivot from waging primarily a military campaign against Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq. Officials say airstrikes have largely succeeded in stopping the extremists’ territorial advances. The next phase involves undercutting the lethal message that has attracted thousands of fighters from around the world and turned some sympathizers into independent “lone wolves” that attack on their own turf, as in Paris earlier this month.
To that end, Kerry heaped scorn on the fighters for Islamic State, which he has taken to calling Daesh, a loose acronym with negative undertones in Arabic.
“The areas under its control are languishing,” said Kerry, citing shortages of food, water and medicine, huge pay cuts for fighters and routine torture as a way to enforce their code of conduct. “All of which emphasizes the degree to which Daesh is guilty of shamelessly deceptive advertising. The advertising about its path to paradise, like that promised by al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and similar groups, is in fact a road to nowhere.”
Kerry made a pitch for a White House summit in February aiming to counter violent extremism, and he previewed the breathtaking scope of what administration officials increasingly see as a battle of ideas.
“We also have to strengthen Somalia, intensify our effort to defend violence in Nigeria,” said Kerry, who visits Nigeria on Sunday, “and strike at the tentacles of al-Qaeda in Yemen, the Maghreb, and wherever else they appear. There is nowhere that you can leave as an ungoverned space with this crowd.
“Eliminating the terrorists who confront us today actually only solves part of the problem,” Kerry added. “We have to do more to avoid an endless cycle of violent extremism. … We have to transform the very environment from which these movements emerge.”
Kerry acknowledged that the endeavor would be expensive and drawn-out, and urged private foundations as well as governments to devote resources for the task as they would for disease or famine. Failure, he said, will haunt future generations.
“The terror groups may have those different acronyms in the future and they may be targeting different countries,” he said. “But if we don’t do what is required now, then I guarantee you the fundamental conflict will either stay the same or get worse.”
Kerry’s trip to Davos this year is in flux even more than usual. He had planned to meet with leaders of some predominantly Muslim countries, but many left early to attend the funeral of Saudi King Abdullah.
Kerry did meet for an hour Friday night on the sidelines at Davos with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as negotiators prepare to continue negotiations in Zurich about a possible deal to whittle down Iran’s nuclear capacity and ease sanctions.
At Davos, which is billed as a place to exchange ideas that make the world a better place, climate change has been a prominent issue, with an international conference on climate change scheduled for December in Paris.
French President Francois Hollande told the forum that the world is now in a post-carbon emissions era, and said climate-conscious measures can be good for economic growth.
“The transition from carbon to a green economy is an opportunity for growth that we can develop,” he said.
Felipe Calderon, the former president of Mexico who now chairs the nonprofit Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, has been making the rounds of Davos urging more densely packed investments in mass transit instead of highways that cut through the heart of a city.
Calderon said in an interview that an estimated $90 trillion that would be invested in road infrastructure over the next 15 years would be better spent on subways and other forms of mass transit.
“Decisionmakers are afraid to take action on climate change that could hurt economic growth,” he said. “We need to demonstrate there is no dilemma. Cities will become more productive and competitive. There will be new jobs. I want to demonstrate there is life after switching to a low-carbon path.”