Obama appeals for unity in countering extremism

US president speaks at summit following waves of terrorist attacks around the world

US president Barack Obama arrives to deliver remarks on countering violent extremism in Washington. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

US president Barack Obama arrives to deliver remarks on countering violent extremism in Washington. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

 

US president Barack Obama called on Americans and more than 60 nations on Wednesday to join the fight against violent extremism, saying they had to counter the ideology of the Islamic State and other groups making increasingly sophisticated appeals to young people around the world.

On the second day of a three-day summit that comes after a wave of terrorist attacks in Paris, Sydney, Copenhagen and Ottawa, Mr Obama said undercutting the Sunni militant group’s message and blunting its dark appeal was a “generational challenge” that would require cooperation from mainstream Muslims as well as governments, communities, religious leaders and educators.

“We have to confront squarely and honestly the twisted ideologies that these terrorist groups use to incite people to violence,” Mr Obama told an auditorium full of community activists, religious leaders and law enforcement officials - some of them skeptical about his message - gathered at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House.

“We need to find new ways to amplify the voices of peace and tolerance and inclusion, and we especially need to do it online.”

Mr Obama added: “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.’’

Despite the president’s call to arms, many of the leaders and officials attending the conference expressed doubt about the ability of the Obama administration to counter extremist messages, particularly from the Islamic State, which has a reach and agility in social media that far outstrips that of the US government.

“We’re being outdone both in terms of content, quality and quantity, and in terms of amplification strategies,” said Sasha Havlicek of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based research organisation, in a presentation at the summit talks.

She used a diagram of a small and large megaphone to illustrate the “monumental gap” between the Islamic State, which uses social media apps such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and other groups and governments, including the Obama administration.

“The problem is that governments are ill-placed to lead in the battle of ideas,” Havlicek said as she called for private companies to become involved in what she called “the communications problem of our time”.

Part of the business of the summit on Wednesday was to bring together leaders from Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Boston, where federal pilot programs are underway aimed at helping target disaffected young people who might be susceptible to extremist messages.

New York Times