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President Barack Obama speaks at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015.Jacquelyn Martin/The Associated Press

Islamic jihadis have "declared war on Canada and its allies," posing a grave threat and justifying sweeping new surveillance of terrorist suspects, Minister of Public Safety Steven Blaney said Wednesday as he headed to a summit hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama on countering violent extremism.

Mr. Obama has sought to avoid stigmatizing Islam and drawn fire from critics for his refusal to finger any religion. But Mr. Blaney was blunt and direct in accusing radical Islam as the fundamental threat.

"Canadians are being targeted by jihadi terrorists simply because these terrorists hate our society and the values it represents," Mr. Blaney said, using the Arab word for struggle found in the Koran which – in modern political Islam – has become inextricably associated with groups like Islamic State.

In Washington, the focus of the three-day conclave was on measures to avoid disaffected youth from being lured into extremism and new outreach efforts to engage religious and community leaders in an effort to address the alienation of those susceptible to violent extremism.

In his keynote speech Wednesday, Mr. Obama stressed the importance of taking the long view and winning the battle for hearts and minds, not just seeking military victory on the battlefield.

He appealed directly to prominent Muslims to do more to distance themselves from brutal ideologies and to foster relationships with young Muslims who are particularly susceptible to extremist propaganda.

"Muslim leaders need to do more to discredit the notion that our nations are determined to suppress Islam," Mr. Obama said, referring to the narrative from Islamist militants that Western nations are in a war against Islam.

Youth workers, lawmakers and police chiefs from dozens of countries gathered in Washington for the summit, as well as senior intelligence and security-service officials. The aim was to swap ideas as part of an international outreach effort to counter the now-proven ability of extremist groups to use social media to find, indoctrinate and radicalize individuals.

"There will be a military component to this," said Mr. Obama, who has launched an air war against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and turned to drones armed with Hellfire missiles to target al-Qaeda and other extremist leaders in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. "There are savage cruelties going on out there that have to be stopped," he added, referring to the beheading and immolation of hostages that have revulsed the world in recent months.

But Mr. Obama spent most of his White House speech to focus on a need that he said was greater than military force. "We are not at war with Islam," he said to applause. "We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.

He said "no religion is responsible for terrorism," and told the gathering that the international community needs to "address the grievances that the terrorists exploit" including widespread feeling of injustice and oppression in much of the Muslim world.

And Mr. Obama warned "it will take time, this is a generational challenge."

Parallel to the summit on Countering Violent Extremism, the United States is also hosting a ministerial-level meeting intended to improve information sharing to identify, monitor and track radical suspects, especially as they move to and return from combat zones.

Canada along with Albania, Algeria, Australia, Belgium, Britain, Bulgaria, Denmark, the European Union, France, Germany, Indonesia, INTERPOL, Italy, Jordan, Kosovo, Macedonia, Malaysia, Morocco, Netherlands, Norway, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United Nations are represented.

Mr. Blaney said new measures proposed by the Conservative government in Ottawa will give "security agencies and front-line police the tools they need to protect Canadians against the ever evolving threat of terrorism," adding they will help "prevent violent extremists and their supporters from radicalizing, recruiting, or inspiring individuals or groups to commit acts of terrorism."

Mr. Obama's view that the struggle against radical extremism will be a long one and his effort to enlist the Muslim community has drawn fire from some hawks who want a much tougher crackdown at home and more military action abroad.

Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said that instead of Mr. Obama simply making speeches, he wanted "the President to overhaul his strategy and to develop a bold, actionable plan to confront violent Islamist extremism worldwide and to immediately staunch the flow of fighters."

The President has taken a far more inclusive stance. With "al-Qaeda and ISIL [another name for the Islamic State group] peddling the lie that the United States is at war with Islam, all of us have a role to play by upholding the pluralistic values that define us as Americans," he said in an op-ed published on Wednesday. "This week, we'll be joined by people of many faiths, including Muslim Americans who make extraordinary contributions to our country every day. It's a reminder that America is successful because we welcome people of all faiths and backgrounds."

With a report from Reuters