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At the U.N., Obama States His Case for Fighting ISIS With Ideas

UNITED NATIONS — President Obama called upon a conclave of world leaders on Tuesday to fight violent extremism with not only weapons, but also ideas, jobs and good governance, a strategy he has long advocated. There are few signs that it is succeeding.

Military pressure, Mr. Obama said at a United Nations summit meeting, will be insufficient to vanquish groups like the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

“This means defeating their ideology,” Mr. Obama said. “Ideology is not defeated with guns. They are defeated with better ideas.”

Mr. Obama spoke without having to hear a robust response to his strategy delivered within moments of his speech, as was the case at the General Assembly on Monday when President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia defended his government’s support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and other authoritarians.

But the echoes of Mr. Putin’s more muscular strategy still echoed in the hallways here. Many leaders have little enthusiasm for the kind of political changes Mr. Obama has advocated, fearing that his approach might empower or at least legitimize their political opponents.

Mr. Putin, in his speech on Monday, said the American strategy of promoting democratic change in the Middle East had backfired.

“Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster,” Mr. Putin said. “And nobody cares a bit about human rights, including the right to life.”

Even Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. acknowledged in a candid moment when he arrived in New York that little would come of Tuesday’s meeting. He asked a group of reporters who were following him if they would stay awake at the United Nations meeting and “30 speeches about how we’re going to go after ISIS.”

The conclave seemed to highlight the bewilderment of world leaders over how a movement like the Islamic State, which slaughters opponents, enslaves women and destroys historical artifacts, can continue to attract followers from around the world.

Nearly 30,000 recruits from more than 100 countries have poured into Syria since 2011, almost doubling the total that was estimated a year ago, officials have said. The increase occurred despite international efforts to tighten borders, share intelligence and enforce antiterrorism laws. A $500 million Pentagon effort to train forces to take on the Islamic State in Syria has produced only a handful of fighters.

And international efforts to combat the Islamic State’s online propaganda have been an abysmal failure, according to a recent State Department assessment.

So far, the Islamic State’s violent narrative — promulgated through thousands of online messages each day — has effectively “trumped” the efforts of some of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nations, the State Department assessment said.

Some of the leaders attending the United Nations General Assembly this week acknowledged the challenges.

“We need to win this propaganda war far more effectively than we have to date,” said Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain. The way to do that, Mr. Cameron said, is to stop the dissemination of hateful messages in schools and prisons.

“I believe in freedom of speech, but freedom to hate is not the same thing,” he said.

The conclave on combating violent extremism coincided with an announcement on Tuesday by the Treasury Department in Washington that it was freezing the assets or blocking the banking transactions of 15 people considered to be critical facilitators for the Islamic State.

Among them are a Libyan, Hasan al-Salahayn Salih al-Sha’ari, who after being released from an Iraqi prison in 2012 went on to found a branch of the Islamic State, and Ali Musa al-Shawakh, a Syrian who served as the Islamic State’s governor for Raqqa, Syria.

Such financial targeting may be far less effective against the Islamic State than it was against Al Qaeda, since the Islamic State commands territory from which it can extract taxes, extortion fees, ransoms and other payments.

Counterterrorism experts said on Tuesday that while the Treasury designations would be unlikely to find any bank accounts or assets that could be frozen, they may be able to shut down some financing channels through otherwise legitimate businesses.

“Though ISIS runs a local and somewhat insular war economy, their financing does touch elements of the financial system — whether brokers in Turkey or microfinancing via social media,” said Juan C. Zarate, who was a top counterterrorism official under President George W. Bush. “Treasury is trying to do whatever it can to disrupt ISIS’s ability to access the financial system and attempting to deter others from supporting the group.”

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(via NY Times)