The barbaric murders of a British aid worker and two American journalists have left us all sickened and saddened. And with the news yesterday of a French tourist beheaded in Algeria, we continue to pray that Alan Henning, John Cantlie and all others held hostage will be released safe and unharmed. Of course, what has added to our collective shock at these grotesque acts being carried out by Islamic State extremists is the involvement of a Western jihadi with a London accent.
What it teaches us, is that in today’s world, terrorists don’t just cross moral boundaries, they cross international ones too. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalism, based at King’s College London, estimates around 12,000 foreigners from 74 countries have gone to fight with rebels in Syria. The danger they pose is acute and growing.
In order to stop the cancer of Islamic State spreading, therefore, it is critical for us to stop the flow of American, British and other foreigners from enlisting in terror.
This phenomenon of foreign fighters isn’t new. History is full of examples of individuals travelling abroad to fight in overseas conflicts, from ancient times to modern. So what makes it different this time? What has changed so much that it requires a global response led by the United States in partnership with our allies?
One reason is the sheer scale of foreign fighters aligned to Islamic State. We are seeing them recruited in unprecedented numbers. Another, as we have witnessed so explicitly, is their utter ruthlessness and readiness to commit atrocities. Third, is their unshakeable belief in a warped and violent ideology — they have no motivation to seek peace.
But we should not make the mistake of thinking this is a challenge confined to the conflict zones of Syria and Iraq. Foreign terrorist fighters have passports. They have rights of citizenship and nationality. They can return home. If left unchecked, we believe Islamic State could pose a growing threat beyond the region, including to the United States and Britain.
So this is a global problem and as such requires a co-ordinated global response, which is why President Obama is leading that effort at the United Nations. Last night he chaired a special session of the Security Council focused exclusively on the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters, at which he set out a strategy for stemming the flow of recruits around the world.
Among the measures in a US-sponsored resolution that was adopted unanimously by the UN Security Council are requirements for member states to prosecute foreign terrorist fighters and those who fund them. It also calls for countries to strengthen border security, withhold travel documents, and improve intelligence sharing — including airline passenger information. And there is now, for the first time, a legal definition of a foreign terrorist fighter.
The President also recognised the need to comprehensively confront the underlying factors of extremism, through efforts to disrupt radicalisation, resolve armed conflicts, and promote political and religious tolerance, economic opportunity and social cohesion.
We believe every country should contribute something to this effort because every country has a stake in its success. America cannot combat this scourge alone. And as a nation that shares our values, one country we look to more than others to help build broad support for our efforts is the United Kingdom.
Take it from someone who sees the special relationship at work every single day: the alliance between the US and the UK remains rock solid. Indeed President Obama said at the Nato Summit earlier this month that the UK was one of the closest allies we will ever have. And the feature that I think we value above all else in this indispensable partnership is the UK’s unique and active leadership role on the world stage: how it helps to influence global attitudes and shape the policies of the international community.
So we also look to the UK in our wider efforts to delegitimise, degrade and ultimately destroy Islamic State. Because cutting off the supply of foreign terrorist fighters is only one part of our strategy. We are also blocking Islamic State’s financing and funding, delegitimising its ideology, addressing the humanitarian crises it has created, and providing military support to our Iraqi partners. Already, more than 50 countries and organisations, including the UK, have contributed in various capacities to the effort to combat Islamic State in Iraq, the region and beyond.
For its part, America has carried out almost 200 air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq since August. This week, consistent with international and US domestic law, these have been extended into its strongholds in Syria. This development is part of the President’s wider strategy to deny Islamic State safe haven and help Syria’s opposition go on the offensive against it inside Syria. We did not act alone. Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates participated in or supported the strikes, which destroyed or damaged Islamic State training compounds, command and control facilities, vehicles and storage sites.
However, it should be clear that despite these air strikes — and even though we gave Syria advance warning — the US is in no way co-operating with, or allied to, President Bashar al-Assad, who remains a brutal dictator who lost any legitimacy a long time ago. We took this action because the Syrian regime has shown that it cannot and will not confront these terrorist groups effectively itself.
Whether it is military air strikes or humanitarian airdrops, cutting off supplies of financing or foreign fighters, or discrediting Islamic State’s world view, all these endeavours are just the beginning. The mission against Islamic State will be long and hard. It will require patience, perseverance and above all partnership. Islamic State poses a global challenge and it is imperative that the international community forms a united front to counter it.
This article originally appeared in the London Evening Standard