Empowering Cities in the Struggle against Violent Extremism

Posted by Sarah Sewall
November 17, 2015
French flags rest on a portion of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York following a tribute to victims of Nov Paris terrorist attacks.

The horrific attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Ankara are chilling reminders that, in the global struggle against violent extremism, our cities are on the front lines. As with many global challenges, from climate change to human trafficking, cities have an outsized role in developing solutions and are often more nimble and innovative in their approaches than national governments. Because they are closer to local communities, cities are better positioned to forge the grassroots partnerships needed to tackle these problems in a holistic fashion.

In Washington, D.C. this February and again in New York this fall, huge gatherings of national governments underscored the importance of local authorities in tackling this threat at every stage -- from identifying and addressing the local factors that drive people to violent extremist groups, to stopping residents from traveling to distant battlefields, to reintegrating disillusioned fighters who have returned and given up arms.

Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; Bill De Blasio, Mayor of New York City; Loretta Lynch, U.S. Attorney General; Sasha Havlicek, CEO of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (from left to right). [State Department Photo]

Around the world, we have seen cities mobilize local leadership and expertise against the global threat of violent extremism. In Mombasa, Kenya, local government and police expanded outreach to communities targeted by al-Shabaab to provide them with a greater voice in their own security. Local authorities in Aarhus, Denmark, convened communities to develop ways to better identify and divert those on a path to radicalization. In Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis, local officials partnered with academics, social service providers, community leaders, and the private sector to build resilience against violent extremism.

Yet even as more cities around the world experimented with local initiatives, they largely did so in isolation and without the benefit of their collective resources and experiences. For the most part, collaboration between cities in different regions had been ad hoc and lacked focus or structure.                

To address this gap, mayors and local leaders from around the world came together last September on the margins of the UN General Assembly to launch the Strong Cities Network (SCN), a new platform to help cities and other local authorities build social cohesion and resilience to violent extremism in all of its forms. Oslo Governing Mayor Stian Røsland explained that SCN “will enable cities across the globe to pool our resources, knowledge and best practices together and thus leave us standing stronger in the fight against one of the greatest threats to modern society.”

The Strong Cities Network launched in September 2015 on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly [State Department Photo].

Twenty-five cities and local authorities from around the world, from Denver to Dakar, have stepped up to lead SCN through an International Steering Committee. And today, we congratulate the city of Aarhus for hosting the first-ever SCN event in Europe, which will explore effective ways to develop local tools and partnerships to resist violent extremism.

In the months ahead, SCN will also offer members practical resources to strengthen their practices in building local resilience to violent extremism, from measuring the impact of local efforts, to reintegrating returning fighters, to improving engagement with vulnerable communities. The Network will also launch an online hub to share good practices, training modules, and other interactive resources.

As SCN assists local authorities around the world, it will be guided by three core principles:

  •  First, the centrality of civil society’s role in identifying and addressing how violent extremists recruit, radicalize, and mobilize individuals to violence;
  •  Second, the need to tailor Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) efforts to the local context and root them in trust, accountability, and inclusion; and
  • Third, the commitment of local authorities to closely coordinate CVE approaches with the communities they strive to serve, protect, and represent.

Twenty-five cities around the world are leading the Strong Cities Network through an International Steering Committee. [State Department Photo]

I encourage you all to support the Network as it builds momentum in the months ahead by inviting more cities and local practitioners to join, contributing useful new tools, sharing relevant research, or hosting Network trainings. Initiatives like SCN reflect the kind of collaborative, bottom-up effort we need to defeat violent extremism in the long run. In this struggle like so many others, cities have an enormous contribution to make. That is why the Department of State is not only proud to support SCN, but is strengthening our partnership with cities on a host of foreign policy priorities through the Cities@State initiative.

After the sickening attacks last Friday, it is fitting that Paris will host SCN’s first annual summit next spring. There, cities around the world will stand with the City of Light to show how the power of peaceful and resilient communities can outshine the darkness of violent extremism.

About the Author: Sarah Sewall serves as Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.  Follow Under Secretary Sewall on Twitter at @civsecatstate.

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