British Prime Minister David Cameron challenged President Obama with some blunt talk on Islamist extremism Tuesday during a gathering of world leaders at the United Nations to develop an international strategy for defeating the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.
Well aware that Mr. Obama shuns the term “Islamist extremists,” the Conservative British prime minister reacted strongly at the meeting when the president, who chaired the session, advised the assembled foreign leaders to avoid profiling Muslims because “violent extremism is not unique to any one faith.”
“Barack, you said it and you’re right — every religion has its extremists,” Mr. Cameron said. “But we have to be frank that the biggest problem we have today is the Islamist extremist violence that has given birth to ISIL, to al-Shabab, to al-Nusra, al Qaeda and so many other groups.”
ISIL, ISIS and Daesh are alternate names for the Islamic State, and the others mentioned by Mr. Cameron are Islamist terrorist groups operating in Syria, Somalia and other countries.
He rebuked Mr. Obama during a difficult week for the president’s anti-terrorism strategy in the Middle East. Mr. Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to bridge wide gaps in a private talk Monday on how to defeat the Islamic State in Syria and on the fate of Moscow-backed Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Russia sent only its deputy U.N. ambassador to Tuesday’s meeting. On Wednesday, Russia will chair its own meeting on countering extremism in its role as the current U.N. Security Council president.
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Mr. Obama has repeatedly faced criticism at home for declining to single out Islamist-based terrorism as a particular threat and insists that all kinds of extremism pose dangers to U.S. interests and Western values.
Mr. Cameron on Tuesday said Western governments must “root out the extremist preachers that are poisoning the minds of young Muslims in our countries.”
“We need to make sure we don’t allow the incubation of an extremist worldview even before it gets to justifying violence,” Mr. Cameron said. “We’ve got to get it out of our schools, get it out of our prisons, get it out of our universities. I believe in freedom of speech, but freedom to hate is not the same thing.”
Having recently embarked his government on a five-year plan to defeat home-grown extremism, Mr. Cameron went on as Mr. Obama listened: “The boy who straps a bomb to his chest and blows up an Iraqi town, the guy that stands in the desert with a knife, having just beheaded a British hostage or whoever, they don’t get there from a standing start. They have extremist views and an extremist mindset before they make that final decision to be an extremist terrorist.
“We have to stop this process at the start, not at the end,” Mr. Cameron said. “We also need to challenge the extremist worldview right at the very start.”
Before he left the meeting, Mr. Obama conceded that the British prime minister had made some good points.
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“I thought David Cameron’s point [on radicalization] was excellent, that we are focused on violent extremism, but violent extremism is emerging out of an extremist worldview that has to be counteracted,” Mr. Obama said.
Without getting specific, the president said such an effort should result in “good governance and political settlements … so that we don’t have incubators for expressions of violent extremism.”
Seeking a ‘global movement’
A day after his tangle with Mr. Putin, Mr. Obama said he is leading a global movement to defeat the Islamic State and repeated that his strategy includes the removal of Mr. Assad, a Russian ally.
Defeating the Islamic State in Syria “requires, I believe, a new leader,” Mr. Obama said. “We are prepared to work with all countries, including Russia and Iran, to find a political mechanism. … It is not going to be enough to defeat [the Islamic State] on the battlefield.”
During their closed-door meeting Monday, Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin disagreed sharply on the best way to take on the Islamic State in Syria.
Russia is arming the Syrian military and sending troops, and Mr. Putin said the Assad government is the only effective force fighting the extremist group on the ground.
Mr. Obama told the U.N. that military efforts alone won’t defeat the Islamic State and said the international coalition must offer citizens in the region “a more attractive and compelling vision.”
“This is not going to be turned around overnight because it is not just a military campaign that we are involved in,” Mr. Obama said. “There are problems that have been built up over decades that are expressing themselves. … Even if we were to wipe out the entire cadre of [Islamic State] leadership, we would still have some of these forces at work.”
As Mr. Obama was speaking, his administration was announcing sanctions Tuesday against 25 people and five groups connected to the Islamic State, effectively acknowledging that the deadly jihadi movement had established more links across Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
The State Department designated as foreign terrorist organizations Islamic State regional spinoffs in Russia’s Caucasus region, Algeria, Indonesia and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, The Associated Press reported. Among the individuals designated as terrorists was Sally Jones, a British native and the widow of an operative killed recently in an American drone strike.
Most world leaders at the summit agreed that the solution to countering terrorist groups must include military, political, economic and media campaigns. But as Mr. Obama continued to call for Mr. Assad to give up power, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned against “fake magic solutions” to the crisis in Syria.
“We will have to find a political solution which will allow us to find the exit strategy and which will further allow a government which has some elements of the present government but other elements of the moderate opposition,” Mr. Fabius said. “There isn’t a magic formula here that’s going to allow us to avoid the long efforts necessary to fight Daesh. But we also need to avoid fake magic solutions that will only make the drama worse and longer.”
King Abdullah II of Jordan said Muslim nations must lead the fight “to protect and show the true nature of our religion.”
“While the battles may be fought on the ground, and by the population that is most affected, this war can only be won on the ideological plane,” the king said.
He also said world powers must work more effectively toward a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Tensions such as the clashes over the historic Al Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem only contribute to the aims of extremist groups, he said.
“We cannot tackle this threat in a vacuum,” the king said. “A world that allows the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to move further away from a two-state solution is a world that fuels extremists’ recruitment. The world should not be silent to violations of the sanctity of Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, as this will only empower those who seek to wage a religious war.”
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.