Obama's global plan to target Islamic State foreign fighters

At the annual September opening of the UN General Assembly in New York, President Obama will call a Security Council 'summit' to address the flow of foreign fighters to groups like the Islamic State.

President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference with Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves at the Bank of Estonia in Tallinn, Estonia, Wednesday.

The Obama administration wants to enlist the world in efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters to international terrorist organizations like the Islamic State (IS) – with President Obama to host a meeting of world leaders on the issue later this month.

According to Samantha Power, US ambassador to the United Nations, Mr. Obama will take advantage of the large gathering of world leaders at the annual September opening of the UN General Assembly in New York to call a Security Council “summit” on the issue.

Together with Secretary of State John Kerry’s travel to the Middle East next week to begin building a regional coalition to address the challenge posed by IS (also known by ISIS or ISIL), Obama’s Sept. 25 summit underscores the importance that the United States is placing on making the issue a worldwide priority.

“It will not suffice” if just the US and the few partners that have joined in striking at IS in Iraq address the threat of foreign terrorist fighters, Ambassador Power said Wednesday. “We need all hands on deck.”

Power, speaking Wednesday with journalists at UN headquarters, said the US anticipates the outcome of the special Security Council session will be a resolution that guides UN member states in efforts to deter foreign fighter travel and their financing. The resolution could also guide intelligence-sharing efforts to keep track of where foreigners go to fight and if they seek to return home.

The Security Council last month approved a British-sponsored resolution on the problem of foreign fighters, and the US initiative would seek to build on that initial effort, Power said. Terrorism experts estimate that perhaps 140 Americans have gone to fight with IS, but that a much larger number of Europeans, at least several thousand, have left home to join the cause.

The resolution the US envisages would “strengthen the ability of governments around the world to curb the flow of their citizens into war zones,” she said, while also taking actions aimed at “outpacing the ability of foreign terrorist fighters to take advantage of [global] systems” facilitating travel and communication.

The foreign fighters joining IS have been a factor in Syria’s civil war for most of the 3-1/2 year conflict, but the problem has burst into global consciousness recently with widely distributed videos of a British-accented terrorist executing American journalists and of Americans boasting of their exploits on behalf of jihad. Radicalized Muslims have also gone to Syria from Chechnya, central Europe, and a large number of Arab and other Muslim countries, experts say. 

So far, the actions the US has undertaken against IS, primarily through airstrikes targeting the group’s advances into Iraq, have been at the request of the Iraqi government, Power noted. But she acknowledged that really addressing the foreign fighter issue will mean taking up the conflict in Syria. That conflict produced the vacuum of authority in northern Syria that allowed IS to come in and take hold.

“We recognize that part of what this coalition will have to deal with is the problem of ISIL in Syria,” she said, using the acronym for the Islamic State that the US government prefers.

But addressing IS in Syria could also meet with a degree of international resistance, since it raises the sensitive issue of intervening in a country’s affairs against its will and potentially without its consent. The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has already said it is ready to cooperate with other countries, including the US, in battling “terrorists” in Syria, but has also declared that any action in its territory without its cooperation and agreement would be viewed as “aggression.”

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