Chattanooga, Tennessee Mayor Andy Burke speaks about his city’s experience with terrorism at the Strong Cities Network Global Meeting in Aarhus, Turkey, in 2016.  He is seated between Anaheim, California Mayor Tom Tait (left) and Vilvoorde, Belgium Mayor Hans Bonte (right)—Photo courtesy of Mike Duffin.

By Mike Duffin

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.

Cities around the world are under threat from terrorist organizations and individuals that plan, direct, and carry out attacks against landmarks, large gatherings, and other soft targets. These horrific acts are meant to instill fear, advance political agendas, and establish the strength of the terrorist organization. For all the perceived vulnerabilities of a city, there are an equal – if not greater – number of assets that keep cities safe, strong, and resilient.

Terrorism in an urban environment is not a new phenomenon. Dating back to the Sicarii – a group that used assassination as a tactic to encourage resistance against the Roman occupation of Jerusalem nearly two millennia ago – groups and individuals often select cities as their preferred theater of operation to employ terror. In modern times, cities like Beirut, London, Mumbai, New York, and Paris have each seen terrorist organizations and individuals of varying ideologies attack their people, buildings, and infrastructure.

Cities have responded to the threat of terrorism by installing barriers and closed-circuit cameras in strategic areas, as well as hiring additional law enforcement personnel. However, even with increased security budgets, cities will likely still face some level of threat, particularly in the age of “Do It Yourself Terrorism,” where anyone could plan an attack based off instructions found on the Internet. To prevent such attacks, cities can work with the federal government and their communities to develop effective countering violent extremism (CVE) programming.

The goal of CVE is to empower communities to recognize the warning signs of radicalization to violence, to develop methods to prevent it, and to intervene when it does occur. Until recently, most cities and other local governing bodies had left CVE efforts to national governments, but they are perhaps the best positioned of any entity to mobilize stakeholders and resources. These efforts are sometimes misunderstood, largely because of the conflation between CVE and surveillance. In the United States, federal law enforcement agencies have safeguards in place to ensure there is an appropriate separation between community outreach and intelligence gathering and criminal investigations.

CVE is a relatively new practice, but it borrows heavily from the decades of work done on prevention and intervention related to gang recruitment. Lessons learned from suicide prevention and alcohol and drug recovery efforts are also invaluable. One challenge in dealing with violent extremism is justifying the resources against other priorities when, for many cities, attacks by violent extremists are relatively rare. By connecting with counterparts with similar experiences, cities can learn from each other and develop effective and cost-efficient CVE strategies that respect the civil liberties of all people. This is why initiatives like the Strong Cities Network, a global network of cities united in countering all forms of violent extremism, are so important.

Launched in September 2015 with seed money from the U.S. Department of State, as well as funding from the governments of Denmark and Norway, the Strong Cities Network is run by the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue. The network features capacity-building workshops, exchanges involving local policy makers and practitioners, innovation grants, and a password-protected online library and forum to exchange good practices on CVE. The founding members serve on the Steering Committee, which oversees network policies. The network has grown to more than 120 members across six continents, including cities like Beirut, Berlin, Dakar, Dhaka, London, Los Angeles, Medellin, Mombasa, Mumbai, New York, Paris, and Tunis. There are also smaller members like Kacanik that have experienced a high per-capita number of cases of radicalization to violence. This city of about 30,000 people in south-central Kosovo has seen at least 30 of its residents depart for Iraq and Syria to become foreign terrorist fighters.

Large or small, many cities want more help in preventing the stabbings, shootings, bombings, and vehicular homicides perpetrated by ISIS, its followers, and other terrorist groups over the last few years. Strong Cities Network members from Colombia and Peru share lessons learned from their decades of experience countering terrorist organizations such as FARC and the Shining Path, respectively. Other members also look to Los Angeles for insight from the Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD), which is a public-private partnership that conducts prevention and intervention programming, as well as the city’s long-standing efforts to address violent extremism through community partnerships.

Community resilience is another major theme of the Strong Cities Network, which members such as Chattanooga and Orlando clearly demonstrate. Even before the Pulse nightclub attack in June 2016 – perpetrated by an individual who did not live in the community – Orlando had gone to great lengths to encourage social cohesion. Police coached vulnerable youth in sports leagues and the city engaged community groups on a regular basis. At Mayor Buddy Dyer’s press conference in the wake of the attack, he was flanked by members of the Muslim and LGBTQ communities who wanted to show solidarity with each other. Similar to the “Boston Strong” campaign in response to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Orlando has turned its resilience into civic pride. On the one-year anniversary of the attack, the city sponsored “Orlando United Day – A Day of Love and Kindness,” which featured a series of events to commemorate those killed and the survivors.

When an attack cannot be prevented, it is critical that cities do everything possible to ensure that the cycle of violence is broken. After a former Muslim resident of Chattanooga returned in July 2015 to kill five members of the military, Mayor Andy Berke vowed to prevent acts of retaliation against Chattanooga’s Muslim community. Mayor Berke had experienced discrimination growing up as a Jewish-American and knew that the actions of one individual did not reflect the views of an entire faith community. There were no reported hate crimes against the 1,200 Muslim Americans living in Chattanooga, many of whom participated in an interfaith vigil for the victims. Mayor Berke shared his personal account of that day with 200 other mayors and city officials at the Strong Cities Network’s inaugural Global Summit in Antalya, Turkey, in May 2016.

Internationally, cities are developing innovative ways to counter violent extremism. In Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, law enforcement officials, educators, social workers, and mental health professionals work together to engage vulnerable individuals. Known as the “Aarhus Model,” young people on the path to radicalization to violence are partnered with mentors who have faced similar challenges. This program was originally designed to deal with violent right-wing extremists, but with the rise of al-Qa’ida and ISIS, the program expanded its focus. Aarhus and other cities in Western Europe including Copenhagen, Rotterdam, and The Hague have been critical to mobilizing mayors on this topic. On May 17-19, Aarhus hosted about 500 mayors, policy makers, and practitioners from more than 40 countries for the Strong Cities Network’s second annual Global Summit. The three days of workshops allowed dozens of cities around the world to share good practices on CVE, and it also highlighted several partnerships that have formed between Strong Cities Network members. Danish cities, for example, have been working with their counterparts in Jordan and Lebanon to help them develop prevention networks of their own. Norway will support a similar endeavor between its cities and counterparts in the Middle East and Kenya, which will be run through the Strong Cities Network and the Youth Civil Activist Network (YouthCAN). Cities have also been building their CVE capacities by participating in State Department-funded exchanges.

The State Department’s CVE-focused city-pair program started in 2011 as a partnership with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and involves a two-way exchange of local policy makers and front-line practitioners. One such exchange took place in December 2016 when officials from Marseille visited Orlando and Tampa. They met with Mayor Dyer and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, officials from other branches of the government, community leaders, religious leaders, and CVE practitioners. In April, a U.S. delegation from Orlando and Tampa visited Marseille to learn more about the French experience countering violent extremism. These exchanges emphasize peer learning and are structured so that participants hear a range of perspectives on ways to keep communities safe. Once exchange participants return home, they often try to enhance current programming or develop new initiatives.

The most dramatic example of the positive effects of a State Department-funded exchange program is Vilvoorde, a Belgian city just north of Brussels. This city was once responsible for the highest per capita number of foreign terrorist fighters in Western Europe. After visiting Columbus in September 2014 to learn more about the U.S. experience with social integration, Mayor Hans Bonte and his police chief leveraged lessons learned from the exchange to fine-tune the police department’s community engagement   strategy. Encouraging closer cooperation between police officers and the local community led, in part, to a drop in the number of foreign terrorist fighter departures from Vilvoorde. These exchanges also encourage collaboration among delegates, who may not have known each other prior to the exchange. Such was the case with a Strong Cities Network exchange that brought representatives from 10 member cities from Kosovo and Macedonia to the United States this past spring and the Strong Cities Network International Visitor Leadership Program in March 2016 that brought 19 participants from Canada, Europe, and North Africa to the United States. This past summer, British and U.S. cities participated in two-way exchanges, including London with Los Angeles and Birmingham with Aurora and Denver, Colorado.

The exchange of good practices on CVE among cities, especially through the Strong Cities Network, has promoted vertical integration, which is an approach that welcomes input from communities and national governments. It has even put some mayors on the forefront of U.S. diplomacy. In addition to traveling to Turkey last year, Mayor Berke participated in a State Department-funded exchange in the Netherlands, and he attended this year’s Strong Cities Network Global Summit in Aarhus along with Mayor Tom Tait of Anaheim. He, along with other mayors whose cities have come under attack by terrorists, demonstrate the importance of resilience in the wake of tragedy. 

Mike Duffin is a policy advisor in the Office of Countering Violent Extremism at the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism. He is a 2013 graduate of USC’s Master of Public Diplomacy program, and he holds advanced degrees in journalism from Northwestern University and in international public policy from Johns Hopkins University.