From global to local: Helping US cities and states address domestic violent extremism

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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announcement that it will provide at least $77 million to state and local jurisdictions across the country to protect against domestic violent extremism represents a significant shift not only for a federal agency historically focused on protecting the homeland from terrorist attacks from abroad, but for U.S. governors and mayors who generally have shied away from engaging on the prevention of violent extremism.

This infusion of federal funding to address what the Office of the Director of National Intelligence recently described as the “elevated threat” posed by violent extremist groups in the United States reflects a recognition of the need to mobilize a “whole of society” strategy for addressing the threat. This is particularly significant given the comparative advantage of state and local (compared with national) authorities in identifying and steering individuals away from violence and tackling social polarization and strengthening social cohesion to prevent extremist violence.

Based on the experience of subnational governments around the globe, they are closer to and often better understand the relevant groups and individuals, and are more practical and nimble and less risk averse than their national counterparts. Although cities and states have been essential violent extremism prevention players for several years, including in other federal systems such as Australia, Belgium, Canada and Germany, they largely remained on the sidelines in the United States when efforts to address extremist violence had limited support outside of Washington and the national security community. With the recent DHS announcement, more U.S. states and cities can be expected to join the game.

However, this announcement begs the question: What will be funded? DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that the resources would support primarily “open-source analysis of threats, execution of threat assessment programs, the development and sharing of intelligence across states and between states and the federal government, and the development of training and awareness programs.” While critical investments, they seem to focus on applying existing state and local law enforcement and intelligence tools and capabilities to a new set of threats. If that is what is accomplished, then a great opportunity will have been squandered to confront domestic violent extremism.

These funds offer state and local authorities the opportunity to move beyond law enforcement- and intelligence-focused tasks and leverage their unique role in prevention that taps into their non-security-related capacities and expertise. Hundreds of those involved in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol will be arrested and charged with crimes. However, a majority of them, who were more attenuated with the violence but nevertheless may hold violent extremist views or be on the path to becoming radicalized to violence, will not be. The involvement of non-law enforcement state and local government agencies and actors thus will be critical. Here, governors and mayors may look to international good practices for inspiration and guidance.

For starters, the Global Counterterrorism Forum’s good practices on national-local cooperation in preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) highlight ways that state and local governments can add value — from building social cohesion and communities’ resilience to resist extremist propaganda and recruitment to intervention programs that leverage local services to steer those on the path to violence in another direction.

Governors and mayors need only look north for examples of some of these practices in action. In Canada, municipal governments in Calgary, Ottawa, and Toronto have developed multidisciplinary programs that consist of medical professionals, community leaders, teachers, housing and other local officials, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and, sometimes, the police to identify people at risk and intervene before they commit to violence. The idea is to provide family members with options other than calling the police when they observe that a family member might be becoming radicalized to violence.

Similar programs, often leveraging local crime prevention initiatives, can be found in cities and other subnational governments across Australia, Denmark, Finland, The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.

Such multi-actor programs are starting to emerge in the United States, in Boston, Denver and New York, but these generally have been developed and led by NGOs, rather than by local governments as is the case in most other countries. The limited involvement or absence of local governments negatively impacts the resources and expertise that these programs can draw upon, as well as their sustainability.

Beyond intervention programs, cities around the globe — including in countries as diverse as Germany, France, Kenya, Lebanon, North Macedonia and Sweden — have developed local prevention networks to serve as a central coordinating body for community-level efforts to address extremist violence. They bring together local government officials, social services professionals, teachers and faith and community institutions, and the police. These groups can develop and coordinate effective violence prevention and resilience strategies through activities such as designing teacher training manuals, convening community and youth dialogue sessions, and hosting social cohesion activities.

Many local authorities around the globe who have been active in preventing violent extremism are members of the Strong Cities Network of nearly 150 cities and other local governments dedicated to sharing experiences, pooling resources and “build[ing] a community of cities to inspire local action [against violent extremism] on a global scale.”

Although spearheaded in 2015 by the Obama administration as part of its White House CVE Summit, few U.S. cities have joined the group. This reflects their low prioritization of violent extremism prevention thus far.

Yet, in the aftermath of Jan. 6 and the recent DHS funding announcement and other expected increases in federal support for locally-led CVE initiatives, state and local authorities across the country should join the network to learn lessons and otherwise draw from the experiences of their counterparts around the world. This will help ensure that state and local governments in the United States don’t simply apply their existing security-focused capacities and programs to domestic violent extremism, but also develop innovative, multi-agency and “whole of society,” non-law enforcement-driven approaches that are essential ingredients to reducing this threat. 

This should include building community resilience, engaging and training local practitioners, and developing community-based services to assess and manage persons at risk for violent extremism. To succeed, state and local authorities will need to embrace violence prevention as a priority and to persuade their collaborators and the public why new measures to address this threat are needed. Let this be the transformational moment for state- and local-centered policymaking and programming that this country desperately needs to challenge the recent surge of a long-neglected problem: domestic violent extremism.

Eric Rosand is president of PVE Solutions, LLC, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a former senior counterterrorism official at the Department of State during the Obama administration. Follow him on Twitter @RosandEric.

Stevan Weine is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) College of Medicine, where he also is director of global medicine and director of the Center for Global Health.

Tags Alejandro Mayorkas Counter-terrorism Crime prevention Radicalization Violent extremism

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