Kerry: You Have to Understand Terrorists to Defeat Them

Patrick Goodenough | February 19, 2015 | 4:01pm EST
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Secretary of State John Kerry speaks on the third day of a White House summit on ‘countering violent extremism,’ on Thursday, February 20, 2015. (Screenshot: State Department)

( – Declaring that “you cannot defeat what you don’t understand,” Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday suggested some reasons why tens of thousands of young people are flocking to join terrorist groups in the Middle East.

Among some of the likely motivations he listed were deprivation, a desire to avenge the death of a loved one, a response to “acts of discrimination or repression,” the desire to belong to a group, and “rebellion against anonymity.”

Absent from the list was any belief – misguided or otherwise – that joining a terrorist group was an Islamic duty or demonstration of religious zeal. (He did make reference to proselytizing in prison.)

Kerry was addressing an audience including foreign government ministers, on the third day of a White House summit on countering what it prefers to term “violent extremism.”

Some conservative critics have slammed the administration for not identifying the problem as “Islamic” or “Islamist” terrorism or radicalism. Attorney-General Eric Holder retorted Tuesday there was little to be gained by using terms like “radical Islam” or “Islamic extremism.”

Meanwhile, some U.S. Islamic groups have charged that its “countering violent extremism” (CVE) initiative unfairly focuses on Muslim communities, and some organizations have declined to take part in the summit as a result.

Kerry introduced the topic of what motivates terror recruits.

“Why do people make what to many of us would seem to be an utterly wrongheaded choice and become the kind of terrorists that we’re seeing?” he asked. “It’s a question that we need to approach with humility, but also with determination, because you cannot defeat what you don’t understand.”

“Certainly, there is no single answer,” Kerry continued. “In our era, poisonous ideas can come from almost anywhere – from parents, teachers, friends, preachers, politicians – from the pretty woman on a radical website who lures people or the man in the next cell who proselytizes while in prison.

“They might grow from pictures seen on the nightly news or from acts of discrimination or repression that you don’t think much about on the day of occurrence, but which come back to haunt. It could come from the desire to avenge the death of a loved one,” he said.

“In some cases, they may come from a lost job or from the contrast between one family’s empty dinner plate and a fancy restaurant’s lavish menu. The poison might even come from within, in the form of rebellion against anonymity, the desire to belong to a group, people who want a moment of visibility and identity, or the hunger for black-and-white answers to problems that are very complex in a remarkably more complicated world.”

Kerry made clear that the suggested motivations in no way justified acts of terror like those witnessed in recent months in the Middle East and North Africa.

“We can all understand the search for meaning and doubts about authority, because at one time or another, most of us have been there,” Kerry said. “But it’s a huge leap between personal disquiet and committing murder, mayhem.”

“So let there be no confusion or doubt: Whatever one’s individual experience might be, there are no grounds of history, religion, ideology, psychology, politics or economic disadvantage, or personal ambition that will ever justify the killing of children, the kidnapping or rape of teenage girls, or the slaughter of unarmed civilians.”

ISIS fighters in Syria. (Photo: Islamic State News)

'Silly debate'

Earlier in his presentation, Kerry alluded to recent criticism of a State Department spokeswoman for saying the response to terrorism must include addressing “root causes” like a lack of job opportunities.

“There’s been a silly debate in the media in the last days about sort of what you have to do [to prevent terror recruitment],” Kerry said.

“You have to do everything. You have to take the people off the battlefield who are there today, but you’re kind of stupid if all you do is do that and you don’t prevent more people from going to the battlefield,” he said. “So we have a broad challenge here.”

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