UN leaders agree on how to defeat ISIS. Doing it is the hard part

President Obama held a summit at the UN to address the rise of the Islamic State. Efforts haven't gone well so far, underscoring the difficulty of the task ahead.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
President Obama arrives from New York to the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Tuesday, after chairing a summit at the UN on countering the Islamic State.

President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin dueled at the United Nations this week over how best to defeat the Islamic State. Much of their debate was over the role Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should – or should not – play in the fight.

But when Mr. Obama chaired a summit at the United Nations Tuesday on countering the Islamic State and other forms of violent extremism, the focus was more on the community-relations building, civil society involvement, and youth outreach measures. 

Obama’s argument that “Ideology is not defeated with guns [but] … with better ideas” appeared to ring true with the leaders at the summit, as they presented their own visions of how to reverse a global rise in extremist ideology. ​

The contrast between the diplomatic and geopolitical considerations for defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State one day and the “hearts and minds” focus of Obama’s summit the next suggests how comprehensive the battle to defeat IS and other Islamist extremist groups will have to be.

“We have to stop the process [of radicalization] at the start, not at the end,” which means that preventing the “incubation” of an “extremist worldview” in young minds around the world will be “as important as the military [and] political steps we all take as part of this effort,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron in addressing the summit.

In other words, airstrikes on IS positions, training of more Iraqi troops to push the militants out of their strongholds, and high-level efforts to craft a political transition in Syria will continue to be essential to defeating IS – but increasingly crucial will be the war of ideas.

Tuesday’s summit comes a year after Obama held another gathering at the UN to launch an anti-IS coalition to lead the fight against the extremist group controlling large swaths and major cities of Syria and Iraq.

But a year later and by almost any measure, that battle is not going well – showing starkly the depth of the problems to be addressed and the failure to make a substantial impact so far.

Coalition airstrikes have killed some IS leaders, and the group’s fighters have been pushed out of some areas they controlled, particularly along the Turkey-Syria border. But in May, the militants seized the Iraqi city of Ramadi, less than 80 miles from Baghdad, and Iraqi efforts to retake the provincial capital have sputtered to a halt.

The flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria was a major focus of last year’s summit, with leaders pledging tough measures to close borders, share intelligence, and interdict the fighters’ travel.

But if anything that flow has increased, experts say, with estimates of up to 30,000 foreign fighters now in Syria and Iraq – about double estimates of a year ago.

What that means, US officials and others say, is that the international community is losing the message war with IS and other extremist groups, particularly among growing numbers of Muslim youth around the world – including in the US. (For details, see the Monitor's ongoing series about ISIS in America.)

That explains why one leader after the other at Tuesday’s summit underscored the need to nip extremist ideology in the bud – before it becomes an army of fighters on the field – if the battle is to be won.

“Governments need to do more, but that will not suffice,” said Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. Noting that the terrorist group Boko Haram “changed its tactics and ideological outreach” since it pledged allegiance to IS earlier this year, he added, “We need to find as way to prevent young people from turning to terrorism in the first place.”

Last year’s summit was a gathering largely limited to leaders of countries most affected by the rise of IS and the growth of foreign fighters. But this year, the guest list was expanded to include community groups, experts in countering violent ideologies, and social media specialists – a nod to the more comprehensive strategy Obama and other world leaders say will be necessary to defeat IS.

In particular, that strategy must zero in on Muslim youth and on countering the messaging – or “siren song,” as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described it – that IS so successfully disseminates via social media, leaders said.

To launch the “youth” dimension of that strategy, the White House organized a parallel “global youth summit to counter violent extremism.” That meeting, which was headlined by Lisa Monaco, Obama’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, drew more than 80 youth leaders from 45 countries with the objective of developing outreach and social-media intervention initiatives that can be shared globally.

But overshadowing the proceedings was evidence that the “hearts and minds” efforts undertaken to this point by the US and its partners have hardly delivered impressive success.

A recent State Department assessment of the US “countermessaging” program against IS propaganda found they were getting nowhere, with the extremist groups thousands of messages a day and sophisticated online recruiting campaign far outstripping US efforts. The report also found little coordination and unified messaging among the few allied propaganda efforts.

Obama’s organization of a summit focused on social media messaging and youth outreach is also not likely to impress critics of the US effort against IS like Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who insists the US is not winning, “and if you’re not winning in this kind of warfare, you are losing.”

But the chorus of leaders’ voices Tuesday on the need to counter the IS message indicates the ideological threat is real. The problem may be that, as the early evidence suggests, no government has yet proven it knows how to do it.

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