I want to thank Irina Bokova from UNESCO and Solomon Passy from the Atlantic Club for inviting me to beautiful Sofia and to speak to you today.
The United States and Bulgaria and have a long and strong history of partnership in security matters. Bulgaria has proven to be one of the United States most outstanding NATO allies. President Obama himself has praised the government’s commitment to fighting terrorism and to supporting US efforts in Afghanistan to rebuild the country and helping its people have a brighter future.
The last few months have seen violent extremism raise its ugly head across the world – in the skies above the Sinai, on the streets of Paris, at an open-air market in Beirut, and a facility for disabled people in San Bernardino, California.
The impacts of violent extremism are not confined to one part of the world. We have seen the deadly consequences of extremism and radicalization of our own communities. The people that groups like ISIS are recruiting can come from any country. They can be male or female. They can be any ethnicity, with or without religion. They are disaffected and angry, looking to hurt those they see as different. They are looking to inspire others in our communities to commit horrible acts of violence.
Extremism has sown tragedy in too many communities. Countering it is essential to the security of all nations and all communities, and no one can meet this challenge alone. Securing the future against terrorist threats means our governments have to work together and break down the barriers of ignorance between our peoples. We have to tackle this challenge from every angle, disrupting plots, destroying safe havens, cutting terrorist funding, and deepening our focus on prevention.
We have to defeat ISIS in the battlefield in the Middle East. But this is not going to be enough. We have to prevent it from radicalizing, recruiting and inspiring others to violence in the first place. This means defeating their ideology. Ideologies are not defeated with guns, they’re defeated by better ideas – a more attractive and compelling vision of a future.
We recognize that our best partners in protecting vulnerable people from surrendering to violent extremist ideologies are the communities themselves – families, friends, neighbours, community and religious leaders.
This past year has seen horrific and tragic assaults on our shared heritage and values. Ancient treasures in Iraq and in Syria have now become the casualties of continuing warfare and looting. No one group has done more to put our shared cultural heritage in the gun sights than ISIS.
They are not only beheading individuals; they are tearing at the fabric of whole civilizations. They have no respect for life. They have no respect for religion. They have no respect for culture, which for millions is actually the foundation of life and the shared bonds of our communities. Far from hiding their destruction of churches and mosques, they broadcast these, with pride, for all the world to see their act of depravity and for all of us to be intimidated. For the proud people of Iraq and Syria the destruction of their heritage is a purposeful final insult, and another example of ISIS’ implacable evil. These acts of vandalism are a tragedy for all civilized people, and the civilized world must take a stand.
These violent extremists are also targeting our youth in our own local communities. They exploit social media, use flashy graphics and images that could be taken from modern video games and tourist brochures. They prey like wolves on isolated and vulnerable individuals at the heart of our communities, radicalizing them with tales of false injustices and hollow promises. They make people turn away from their loved ones and fill their hearts with hate. Too often we turn a blind eye to the most vulnerable until tragedy strikes – but by then it is too late.
Three cases of action
I see three things that governments can do to push back against this rising threat and protect our communities from radicalization and extremism.
First, closer cooperation
First, we need to work more closely between governments to understand the precise nature of threats and to better coordinate international responses. We need to share more information about foreign terrorist fighters and those returning from conflict in places like Syria and Iraq. Those returning already radicalized can, like a virus, infect others in our communities, spreading their hatred and fear of others.
Second, working with local communities
Second, and what I think is most fitting here is that effective interventions often begin and grow within local communities. Government partnerships are critical, but the best solutions are bottom up, not top down. We all need to work more closely with civil society and local community and religious groups to tap into the talents of communities which might otherwise be left on the side lines. Empowering our local leaders is one of the best ways to stop extremism from flourishing.
That includes, women and girls, who are some of the most effective voices in countering violent extremism. Who is better than a mother to spot unusual behavior in her child and intervene? We need to support projects to train women to recognize the signs of recruitment and radicalization in their families and communities and to devise prevention strategies. I know UNESCO has been doing fantastic work under Irina Bokova’s leadership in education and women’s empowerment and we are lucky to have her here today.
The role of police is also important in our communities. Often they are held as examples of being an ‘outsider’ to a community with a negative input but we need to change that image. We need help them build trust and strengthen cooperation between themselves and the communities vulnerable to radicalization. They face a daily challenge in protecting our society and the pressure to avoid making mistakes that will result in loss of life is immense. We need to help them help our communities.
Third, greater opportunities
Third, we also need to create opportunities for our marginalized populations. If, from an early age, young people can picture a promising future for themselves and see a path to reaching that future, they will be less likely to turn to violence or extremism. We need to increase access to education and offer training, leadership skills, and mentorship. We need to partner with the private sector, charities and civil society, to make a real impact in these people’s lives. We need to give them hope and we need to give them a bright future to aim for.
What violent extremists like ISIS is trying to do, is destroy the physical culture in the Middle East and also the core values we share and enjoy at home. Through twisted versions of education and evil propaganda campaigns it is trying sow division among our different communities and faiths, creating separation where none should exist.
Extremists want to rob future generations of any connection to this past. We can see this with the sheer cultural barbarism of looting a museum and smashing thousands of years of culture to dust. We can see it when they try to radicalize our youth with a profoundly evil and medieval ideology and world view. That is a future they are trying to create. That is what is at stake. If you leave it unstopped, if you don’t stand up, we are all complicit in the crimes that happen.
Our heritage and our values are the same. They are under threat at the moment and the world needs to act now and as one. There are short term actions that will hurt the physical presence of ISIS in the Middle East but we must also look at the long term solutions that will stop the rot in our communities before it sets in.
Education and cultural awareness are key to success. Extremists exploit fear that is the result of ignorance. Reducing ignorance helps to remove fear and in turn removes the power of hate that extremists need and exploit.
I would like to conclude my remarks by commending the remarkable work done by Irina Bokova at UNESCO on this issue. Under her leadership, UNESCO is at the forefront of the fight against terrorism, cultural cleansing and terror financing. This would have been unimaginable 10 years ago. She has totally reshaped and reformed the institution. The fact that the White House and the State Department are pushing hard to re-start US financing of UNESCO after it was stopped for many years clearly shows how respected she is in Washington DC by the current administration. We need more leaders like you, Irina, to ensure we are on the right track to overcome extremism.