ISIS, al-Qa’ida, and their affiliates have proven themselves resilient, determined, and adaptable, and have adjusted to heightened counterterrorism pressure in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere. The return or relocation of foreign terrorist fighters from the battlefield has contributed to a growing cadre of experienced, sophisticated, and connected terrorist networks. These savvy terrorists can better plan and execute terrorist attacks.
The City Pair Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Partnership Program is an important tool to enhance our partnerships in a comprehensive approach to counterterrorism. Established in 2011, this program has equipped dozens of local stakeholders with the knowledge and resources necessary to push back against terrorism, both in the United States and in countries vital to the protection of our homeland.
The City Pair CVE Partnership Program involves two-way pairings between international and domestic communities to encourage peer learning on local efforts to counter terrorism. Delegations often include local government officials, local law enforcement officials, community leaders, youth leaders, civil society leaders, social service providers, religious leaders, and local practitioners. Bringing these leaders together reinforces the whole-of-society approach to CVE recommended by the Global Counterterrorism Forum in their upcoming Good Practices for Addressing the Challenge of Returning Families of FTFs document.
The activities of the program are designed to exchange and solidify the good practices used by both sides. Most foreign delegations spend a few days in Washington, D.C., to learn how U.S. government agencies interact with civil society and subnational government entities. The delegates then travel to a partner city for a week of in-depth meetings and engagements with U.S. counterparts. One to three months later, a return delegation of those same U.S. counterparts visits the foreign delegation’s city for similar meetings and engagements. Connections are maintained and strengthened through workshops, speaker programs, small grants, video conferences, and participation in the Strong Cities Network. These partnerships are facilitated in the United States by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which organizes quarterly community engagement roundtables around the country.
The first City Pair CVE Partnership Programs were a series of visits between U.S. and German cities from 2011-13. These pairings connected Berlin and Hamburg with Detroit and Houston (2011), Dusseldorf and Cologne with Chicago (2012), and Dusseldorf and Hamburg with Chicago and Seattle (2013). Based on positive feedback from this program, the U.S. Embassy in Brussels recommended that the Belgian city of Vilvoorde participate in this initiative. This city of 42,000 people made headlines in 2014 when it had the highest per capita number of foreign terrorist fighters in Western Europe. Despite local leaders’ best attempts to address this issue, systemic challenges remained.
The next pairing brought Columbus and its neighboring suburb Hilliard in Ohio together with Vilvoorde as they had been already partnering with the private sector and foundations for several years to provide after-school programs for youth vulnerable to recruitment by gangs and terrorist organizations. Hilliard developed innovative programming, including some focused on youth empowerment led by the Hilliard Police Department and its school resource officers. Columbus also worked with one of Ohio’s largest mosques and civil society organizations serving a recently resettled Somali community to help address grievances and facilitate community resilience.
The Vilvoorde delegation applied ideas from the pairing to improve coordination between law enforcement, city officials, and community members. One tangible change was to require mandatory diversity training in the police force’s strategic plan. Since the City Pair CVE Partnership Program and implementation of Vilvoorde’s CVE- and community-focused programs, there have been no known documented cases of foreign terrorist fighter travel. Mayor Hans Bonte and Vilvoorde’s CVE coordinator continue to credit U.S. partners and good practices from the pairing for inspiring their disengagement programs for returned foreign terrorist fighters and the development of other programs. Mayor Bonte also shares Vilvoorde’s story with other mayors around the world through the Strong Cities Network.
Another successful city pair partnership was launched in 2017-18, between Manchester and Boston. In May 2017, a suicide bomber killed 22 people and injured hundreds more outside of an arena where an Ariana Grande concert had just ended in Manchester, the United Kingdom. While Manchester had long prided itself as a resilient city, it was searching for the most appropriate way to commemorate the one-year anniversary of this terrorist attack. In December 2017, a delegation from Manchester visited Boston to learn how they handled the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. The Manchester delegation met with Dave Fortier, a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombings and founder of One World Strong to better understand how to support survivors of terrorist attacks. The U.S. Embassy London continues to leverage these pairings by facilitating follow-on activities and grassroots initiatives to support law enforcement, at-risk youth, and community organizations in the United States and the United Kingdom.
So far, 16 city pair partnerships have emerged involving cities from Belgium, Canada, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The Strong Cities Network has also used this model to engage cities from Canada, Kenya, Norway, Pakistan, Senegal, and the United Kingdom. An additional five City Pair CVE Partnership Programs are planned over the next year involving Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, and Trinidad and Tobago. With the security challenges posed by homegrown terrorists as well as returning FTFs and their families, the Counterterrorism Bureau, in partnership with our overseas missions and regional and functional bureaus, plans to expand the City Pair CVE Partnership Program to cities in other regions that could benefit from this program.
About the Author: Michael Duffin serves as a Policy Advisor in the Bureau of Counterterrorism at the U.S. Department of State.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.