Remarks by Ambassador Richard R. Verma at Vivekananda International Foundation Conference

Remarks on Countering Violent Extremism

(As prepared for delivery)

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.  It’s a pleasure to join such an esteemed group of experts and practitioners for this very salient conference on countering violent extremism.  I’d like to thank our host, the Vivekananda International Foundation, and General NC Vij for kindly inviting me to speak here today.  The U.S. Embassy has a long history of partnership with VIF, including the November 2015 workshop we hosted together on building opportunities for public private partnership in countering online radicalization.  I’d also like to acknowledge my State Department colleague, Irfan Saeed from the Counterterrorism Bureau’s CVE office, as well as civil society partners Brian Fischman, who is representing the New America think-tank, and Sara Zeiger, here on behalf of the Hedayah Center.  They are the real experts when it comes to countering violent extremism, so please save the tough questions for them.

In today’s complicated global landscape, a wide-array of security challenges – including conventional threats from states, cyber-attacks, environmental challenges, or terrorism – strain the international order.  And in an interconnected world, where the march of the digital revolution continues unabated, combating these cross-border challenges is becoming increasingly complex.  This is especially true when it comes to terrorism, a varied and nebulous problem that requires us to continuously revamp our approaches in order to stay ahead of emerging threats.

While no cause or grievance justifies terrorism, it is important for us to examine how and why young people may be driven to commit heinous acts of violence.  The potential factors driving violent extremism differ across communities and countries, and could be linked to individual psychology as well as religious, economic, political or sectarian grievances.  India has sadly long been a victim of terrorism in various guises.  Earlier this week, I was in the state of Mizoram in India’s northeast, which was at one time afflicted by a serious ethnic insurgency.   Fortunately, political accommodation in recent years had led to a return to normalcy and Mizoram enjoys one of the highest rates of voter participation in India.  The ballot box replaced armed violence.  I believe there needs to be more scholarly work examining India’s approach to northeastern insurgencies and whether lessons-learned can be applied to the broader challenges of violent extremism.

On its western border, India’s faces a daunting challenge from terrorist groups operating from inside Pakistan.  Some of these groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba , the Haqqani Network,  and Jaish-e-Mohammed, have also targeted U.S. and Afghan security forces in Afghanistan.  The United States continues to press Pakistan at the highest levels to take effective action against these groups, and just last month we expanded our terrorism designation against LeT to include two additional LeT leaders and LeT’s student wing.  Actions such as these underscore my nation’s commitment to aggressively target these groups, which threaten the security of India, Pakistan, and the region.

Let me now turn to a group that has been particularly adept at using digital technologies to recruit, radicalize, and finance terrorist activity across borders, which is of course ISIL or Daesh.  The internet and social media have been a key component of Daesh’s strategy to recruit foreign fighters, 40,000 of whom have poured into Syria over the last four years.  That’s almost twice as many as we saw travel to Afghanistan in the 1980s.  ISIL has faced significant reversals in Iraq and Syria at the hands of the International Coalition, but the group remains a clear and present threat, including in South Asia.  Daesh’s operates an official branch in Afghanistan and is looking to expand its presence in India, Bangladesh, and elsewhere.

Daesh also uses digital technologies to encourage self-radicalized or lone-wolf extremists to conduct heinous attacks near where they are located.  Terrorists are no longer simply building bombs and hatching plots in secret; they now post instruction manuals online and urge individuals to commit violence on their own accord.  Recent attacks in Germany, Turkey, and Israel – the list sadly continues to grow – highlight the grim reality that threats posed by lone-wolf attacks are not constrained by territorial boundaries and unlikely to dissipate soon.

But regardless whether it’s Daesh or another group, a comprehensive approach to counterterrorism requires countries both to tackle immediate threats and also address underlying factors driving radicalization.  We must better understand how extremist messages and propaganda gain currency, particularly among disaffected and alienated young people.  When governance fails or economic opportunity wanes, the potential pool of recruits undoubtedly grows and the Internet becomes an even more effective tool to indoctrinate, train, and recruit new fighters.  Conferences like this one are important because they focus attention on these issues.

To address evolving threats, we need first to be able to identify, trace, track and ultimately put out of business terror networks that use the Internet.  As democratic societies that value free speech and due process, India and the United States have a unique responsibility to strike the right balance.  The tensions between privacy and security and free speech and maintaining order are not new; but the use of digital technologies has placed these tensions in a newer and sharper focus than in the past.  Successful resolution is not easy.  It requires careful coordination between our law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and with private sector partners such as Facebook; it requires efficient sharing of real-time threat information; and it requires smooth handling of cross-border cases, when our mutual legal assistance treaty comes into play.  Though challenges inevitably arise, I am pleased that our cooperation in this area continues to improve.

Second, as I noted during our November 2015 workshop on public-private partnership in countering violent extremism, success in addressing the underlying drivers of radicalization depends at least partly upon empowerment of the private sector, civil society, media, and religious leaders to disseminate alternative narratives.  These narratives can counter terrorist propaganda, for example, by amplifying the stories of those who defect from terrorist organizations, by showcasing the life of misery as a foreign terrorist fighter, and by highlighting the damage terrorists are inflicting on Muslim communities.  And as Indian government and non-government actors consider opportunities for countering violent extremism, I hope they will reflect upon this nation’s vast potential for contributing in this area, for no country has more to offer.  While no one would claim India is immune from threats, it citizens have by-and-large resisted the pull of violent extremism.  How then can India’s vast and vibrant civil society – its universities, its influential clerical establishments, Bollywood, and so on – mobilize locally and globally in the fight against violent extremism?

Along these lines, I am gratified to share with you some of the dynamic and developing opportunities civil society actors are applying in the fight against violent extremism.  The “Peer to Peer: Challenging Extremism” program, in collaboration with Facebook, empowers university students to counter pervasive extremism on social media.  In the U.S. State of New York, young women at the Rochester Institute of Technology used the program to create a digital campaign – “It’s Time: #ExOut Violent Extremism” – to extinguish ISIL’s use of fear as a motivator.  This spring, Peer to Peer will expand to over 300 universities in 70 countries, whose students will push back on online hate and extremism and promote tolerance and respect.  I am pleased to note that the U.S. and India are both represented in this roster of nations.

Just as Peer-to-Peer enables university students to amplify their voices, the Strong Cities Network provides resources for municipalities to tackle the sociological, economic, cultural, and psychological drivers of radicalization.  Launched at the United Nations in September 2015, the Strong Cities Network is the first ever global network of mayors, municipal-level policy makers, and practitioners united against violent extremism.  The Network links communities, CVE professionals, and local political leaders with their counterparts around the world through the sharing of best practices and facilitation of CVE collaboration.  In less than two years, the network has expanded to around 80 cities.  This is a good start and much more is possible.  Once again, I am gratified that both U.S. and Indian cities are represented, with Mumbai bearing the standard for India.

As we move forward, let us remember the potential in partnership.  We all know how bureaucratic stove-piping inside our own agencies and governments hampers responses to terrorist threats.  The same applies to cooperation between international partners.  When we work together effectively – by sharing information, evidence, and best practices – we can defeat transnational threats like terrorism.

The U.S.-India partnership stands as a global example of what is possible.  In the last year alone, we signed a new agreement on terrorist screening information and deepened our cooperation in countering Jaish-e-Mohammed and other terrorist groups.  Our intelligence sharing has reached unprecedented levels, which has directly helped Indian security agencies foil potential attacks.  Yet the nature of the threats we face requires us to identify new avenues for cooperation, not only specific terrorism cases but systemically.  Over time, our cooperation against terrorism and violent extremism can and should embrace the largest possible spectrum, including collaboration between our law enforcement academies, our judicial training centers, and our rich civil societies.  Given the threats, those of us in government positions should undertake every reasonable effort to foster and support this cooperation.

Finally, the world needs India’s leadership in countering terrorism.  As Secretary Kerry stated during his visit to New Delhi last year, “The battle to counter and defeat violent extremists does not rest with any one nation and cannot be won by any single campaign.  It is a global cause requiring consistent focus and persistent action; a willingness to adapt our tactics as threats evolve; and a commitment to tackling this challenge at every level – in the security of our airlines, cities, and ports; in the flow of money and arms across our borders; in the integrity of judicial and law enforcement personnel; in the battle of ideas waged in schools, houses of worship, and on social media.”  Secretary Kerry spoke eloquently of a global cause worth pursuing, and I think his words capture why U.S.-India counterterrorism cooperation and events like this one are so important.  I sincerely hope this conference spurs additional engagements in the future and will translate into recommendations for policy-makers.  Thank you.