Remarks by Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at a UN Security Council Debate on the Maintenance of International Peace and Security: the Role of Youth in Countering Violent Extremism and Promoting Peace, April 23, 2015
Thank you, your Royal Highness Crown Prince, for joining the Council to chair this meeting, your presence here is yet another testament to Jordan’s deep commitment to combatting violent extremism among youth and people of all ages.
This Monday, April 20th, six young Somali-American men – ages 19 to 21 – were charged in Minneapolis on terrorism related offenses. They had planned to travel to Syria to join ISIL. Five of the six were U.S. citizens, and one was a permanent resident.
The young men had reportedly been inspired in part by another Somali-American, Abdi Nur, who left the same city in May 2014, shortly after his 20th birthday, and joined ISIL in Syria. And they had in part been encouraged by one another – what is known as peer-to-peer recruiting – through regular meetings to plan their trip and discuss their violent ideology.
Their case is just one of the many recent instances in which young people have attempted to join ISIL or other terrorist groups. In some instances, as in the Minneapolis arrests, we have succeeded in stopping youth before they could reach their destination. In other instances, we have not, as happened in February, when three British girls – ages 15 to 16 – traveled to Turkey, and likely onwards to ISIL-controlled territory, where they presumably remain.
ISIL is showing increased sophistication in recruiting young people, particularly in virtual spaces. The group disseminates around ninety thousand tweets each day, and its members and supporters routinely co-opt trending hashtags to disseminate their messages. ISIL even reportedly developed a Twitter app last year that allows Twitter subscribers to hand over control of their feed to ISIL – allowing ISIL to tweet from the individual subscriber’s account, exponentially amplifying the reach of its messages. In February, ISIL posted a polished, 50-page guide online called, “The Hijrah to the Islamic State,” that instructs potential recruits how to make the journey to its territory – including everything from finding safe houses in Turkey, to what kind of backpack to bring, and how to answer questions from immigration officials without arousing suspicion. And it’s not just ISIL that is aggressively targeting children and youth – but al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, and other groups.
There is a clear consensus that we – and by we of course, I mean not only the United States, but all countries committed to combatting terrorist groups – must make countering violent extremism a central part of our counter terrorism efforts. And this is particularly true among children and teens, whose youth makes them especially vulnerable to recruitment. Yet even with increased attention to this problem, the reality is that we are being outspent, outflanked, and out-innovated by terrorist groups intent on recruiting new young members. We have to catch up – for their welfare, and for our collective security.
That is one of the reasons we are looking forward to the Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Counter Violent Extremism, which we hope will galvanize the UN to take a leading role in empowering and uniting Member States to tackle this very grave problem. And it is one of the main reasons President Obama convened a White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism on February 19th. More than 60 governments took part in the summit – including most of the members of this Council – together with civil society representatives from over 50 countries and private sector leaders. And as many of you know, we are looking forward to a leaders summit on the margins of the General Assembly in September, to evaluate the progress that has been made and the challenges that most definitely remain to implement the White House’s CVE Agenda.
One of the participants in the White House’s February summit was a young Moroccan woman named Zineb Benalla. Zineb works for the Arab Center for Scientific Research, an NGO that, with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, has helped lead an innovative effort to counter violent extremism in northern Mali. As you all know, terrorist groups seized large swaths of the region in 2012, and continue to carry out attacks and recruit young people. Zineb’s project was focused on reaching vulnerable youth studying in the region’s madrasas. Research showed that madrasa instructors were teaching only religious texts and focusing mainly on rote memorization; Zineb’s program aimed to broaden the curriculum to foster more critical thinking and reasoning skills – skills that help young people question, and ultimately reject, the narrow ideologies of terrorist groups.
Zineb did not go directly to the schools, knowing that she would be turned away. Instead, she met repeatedly with imams and elders in Timbuktu and Gao – gradually earning their trust over cups of tea. When eventually she laid out the proposal to start book clubs in the madrasas, they accepted. With the backing of the imams, these imams and these elders, students and teachers were given e-Readers, and allowed to download books that previously would have been considered “haram,” or sinful, such as works of philosophy and novels. She then organized workshops where she trained dozens of educators in how to teach the new material.
Now, this is a narrow program designed for a specific set of circumstances. But Zineb’s story demonstrates several key lessons about how to build efforts to counter violent extremism among young people.
First, education is of course essential to developing the critical thinking skills that empower youth to challenge violent extremist ideologies. We’ve seen similar efforts undertaken on a broader scale by the government of Morocco and others, Morocco is working to replace teachers and imams who promote violent extremist ideologies with ones who hold up the values of respect and dignity, and preach more moderate interpretations of Islam.
Second, the trust and support of local actors is critically important – and that includes not only government officials, but religious and civil society leaders, and even families. As the first and most important line of defense in protecting youth, communities need the tools to do their part. The Safe Spaces Initiative – a guide created by the Muslim Public Affairs Council to help communities implement a multi-tiered strategy of prevention, intervention, and ejection of violent extremist elements – is just one example of a resource that informs communities how to be more active partners.
Third, as others have stressed here today, we need to enlist youth themselves in leading this effort. Research shows that young people are more likely to listen to, and be influenced by, their peers. Yet too often, we approach youth as the passive recipients of campaigns to counter violent extremism, rather than active participants in shaping their strategy and spearheading their implementation. We’ve seen how powerful youth-led initiatives can be, including those that use satire. That was the approach Karim Farok adopted. An amateur Egyptian musician, Karim took an ISIL chant and remixed it into a pop song, posting his version on social media sites. While his action may at first glance look like a way of amplifying ISIL’s message, in reality Karim’s remix was a form of protest, because ISIL’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam forbids music with instruments. By transgressing the group’s rules, Karim’s song encouraged others to express criticism as well, rather than be silenced by fear. Not only did his remix go viral, garnering hundreds of thousands of views, but it also spawned countless other musical and dancing spoofs of ISIL chants – a potent form of counter-extremist messaging that kids can relate to.
Of course, we must pursue other lines of effort in countering violent extremism among youth as well, such as strengthening laws and international coordination to stop the flow of young foreign terrorist fighters to battlefields, as we committed to do under Resolution 2178; and enlisting the private sector in amplifying our message, as Google Ideas has done through the launch of its Against Violent Extremism Network, which has given a platform to more than 500 rehabilitated former extremists. We need to do more on all of these fronts.
At the beginning, I spoke about the six young men from Minneapolis who were detained earlier this week. One of the main reasons that they were stopped from joining ISIL was because a young man who had originally planned to join with them experienced a change in conscience. He took a step back, he saw the group’s violent intentions for what they were, and he decided to report the group to law enforcement. Without his action, those young men may well have made it to ISIL-controlled territory, where they could have taken part in the group’s horrific atrocities. That young man’s choice shows how a single changed mind – just one person who starts to think differently, and more compassionately – can disrupt and ultimately stop a dangerous action by many people. That is a valuable lesson in countering violent extremism, and ultimately, it is what our efforts are all about.