Over the past two years, jihadist terrorism in Berlin, Brussels, Jakarta, Nice, and Paris have put cities at the centre of discussions about security and resilience. Around the world, municipal leaders are being forced to take the initiative in responding to immediate threats, rebounding from devastating attacks, and cultivating a resilient community psyche.
But cities are not just targets of terrorist attacks—they are sites of radicalization and recruitment by terrorist organizations. Many recent attacks have not been carried out by foreign nationals from the other side of the world, but by homegrown extremists from the other side of the tracks. The fact that so many recent attacks have been perpetrated by disaffected locals puts cities at the centre of a parallel discussion about the relationship between security on the one hand, and pluralism and social inclusion on the other.
Recent expressions of nationalist sentiment in the United States and Europe, not to mention efforts to curtail religious liberty in the name of security, have shown how easy it is to pit security and resilience against inclusion and how often we assume that pluralism produces vulnerability. In reality, resilience, security, and inclusion are each part of the multiphase work of countering violent extremism (CVE). An effective global response to terror must put cities at the centre of CVE efforts that move from the immediate and local to the long-term and global. These efforts must include policing the streets, planning for social and economic integration, and policy advocacy that leverages the influence of cities and city networks to collaborate toward national and global responses.
WHY WE OVERLOOK CITIES
While cities are at the geographic centre of CVE efforts, they are often at the political margins, overlooked by those who instinctively turn to the nation-state for policy solutions and invisible to many who are confused about the relationship between urbanization and religion.
For centuries many social scientists saw the growth of cities as an existential threat to religion. Urbanization was assumed to disrupt relatively stable social institutions and practices that marked rural life, including religious institutions and practices. Even the proliferation and differentiation of religious institutions in cities was assumed to point toward religion’s decline in the face of advancing secularization. The voluntarism of religious practice in secular states, coupled with the diversity of institutions in the city, was understood to be just one more step toward religion being a strictly private and individual matter. Moreover, the dichotomy between secular and religious mapped neatly onto related dichotomies between urban and rural, between progress and backwardness. Progress toward a secular urban age was assumed to eclipse the backward, rural, and religious. Many assumed that these hand-in-hand trends of urbanization and secularization would lead away from conflict toward an enduring peace—not an entirely unreasonable assumption in the wake of the so-called wars of religion that ravaged Europe between the early sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries.
The late eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century provided ample, if not incontrovertible, evidence that urbanization and secularization were indeed correlated, especially in Europe. Urbanization came along with national political regimes of state-sanctioned secularism that limited and quarantined religious practice. Scientific knowledge challenged religion as a source of authority. Industrialization introduced new rhythms and practices of social life. Through the 1950s, the growth of cities seemed to deliver on its disruptive promises. As French sociologist and legal historian Gabriel Le Bras wrote in 1956, “I myself am convinced that of 100 rural people that come to live in Paris around 90 stop practicing their religion when they get out of Gare Montparnasse.”1
But the thesis that urbanization and religion were competing forces proved difficult to maintain in the face of historical inquiry into pre-industrial urbanism, mounting evidence against religious decline in the mid- to late twentieth century, and the role of religion in early twenty-first century global affairs. Pre-industrial cities were hubs of religious activity. In the twentieth century at the global scale, patterns of religious activity did not appear to decline as consistently in correlation with urbanization as many at first expected. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, right around the time that global population crossed the 50 percent-urban threshold, it became increasingly clear that religion was playing a key and often salutary role in political and social life around the world. Indeed, religion can and does thrive in an increasingly urban world. As Peter van der Veer writes, “The idea that religion can be urban, modern, innovative, and creative instead of rural, traditional, conservative, and repressive… has won ground in the past two decades.”2 Indeed, many cities are home to an especially diverse and impressively vibrant array of religious institutions and practices.
COOPERATION OR CONFLICT?
While those who assumed a straightforward relationship between urbanization and religion— more and bigger cities, less religion—were wrong, many cities became places of considerable religious diversity, bringing together adherents of various religions and none at all, shifting the question from “religion or cities?” to “cooperation or conflict?” To which of these outcomes does religious diversity in an increasingly urban world lead? This is clearly a question that is close to the heart of countering violent extremism in cities.
Some suggest that urbanization is likely to promote cooperation by bringing adherents of different religious traditions—or none at all—into close proximity. See, for instance, the case of Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions—a single building at the heart of one of the world’s most densely settled, productive, and influential cities, in which more than one hundred languages are spoken and a diversity of religious groups is represented. Gordon Mathews’s research on Chungking Mansions suggests that diverse religious practices may flourish together and that their adherents may be collaborators in a thriving community, especially in the context of independent forces of inclusion and integration, such as cosmopolitanism, liberal economic policies, and the rule of law.3 Such examples suggest that religion can be, as van der Veer writes, urban, modern, innovative, and creative, and that cooperation in the midst of difference is possible.
However, close proximity among those who do not share religious beliefs may also create an environment that stimulates boundary policing and emphasizes difference, rather than commonality. Some believe this promotes fundamentalism and radicalization that lead to conflict and violence. For those who advance this hypothesis, pluralism plus proximity produces pandemonium. Nothing about the religious diversity guarantees a salutary outcome; nothing about the urban ensures the urbane. Religious institutions and practices can defy even van der Veer’s dichotomies—they can be urban and repressive or even violent.
The tendency toward conflict may be especially strong when religious intolerance, political disenfranchisement, social exclusion, or lack of economic opportunity are layered on top of religious diversity. Indeed, disentangling the religious and social roots of radicalization has been notoriously difficult. Recent terror attacks potentially illustrate this point. Most of the terrorists who attacked Paris on the night of November 13, 2015 and then Brussels in March of 2016 were homegrown in Europe’s global cities. While they had ties to the Islamic State, they were not deployed from Syria or Iraq, but from Paris and Brussels—the same cities in which they had been radicalized. For some, these were the same cities in which they had been born. The attackers evaded detection and eluded authorities with the support of local networks of disaffected residents who had varying degrees of experience with, loyalty to, or interest in the Islamic State, but considerable experience on the social and economic margins of prosperous global cities.
GLOBAL CITY GREY ZONES: ISIS’S PARADOXICAL STRATEGY
Global cities are not only the kinds of places that may, under the right circumstances, breed terror, but they are exactly the kinds of places where terrorists will focus their fight. Many have suggested that global cities make obvious targets for terror because they occupy an especially conspicuous role on the world stage. Unlike rural areas ravaged by terror—parts of Nigeria under constant threat from Boko Haram, for example—global cities concentrate institutions with worldwide influence, including the media. A successful attack in a global city is a guaranteed spectacle.
It is true that global cities include important targets, symbolic and otherwise, and that even a foiled attack on a global city brings significant media coverage, but among terrorist organizations ISIS is driven by a more treacherous logic to target global cities. An article in the seventh issue of ISIS’s propaganda magazine, Dabiq, suggests that the terror group intends to target and wants to eliminate “the grayzones,” areas where Muslim—especially moderate Muslim—and non-Muslim populations live in close proximity.4
Global cities are the world’s quintessential grey zones. While diversity is not the defining feature of global cities, they do concentrate diverse populations in close proximity—the incredibly wealthy and the profoundly distressed, the elite and the marginalized. This diversity is not limited to socio-economic status. Global cities bring together adherents of diverse religions, or no religion at all, in ever closer proximity. If we needed further evidence that global cities are the grey zones ISIS has in mind, photos from the Dabiq article, “The Extinction of the Grayzones,” should suffice. The article was featured on the cover along with a photo of two elderly Muslim Parisians holding signs that read, “Je suis Charlie” in the wake of the January 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices. The article itself featured photos of Parisian Muslims praying near another sign that read “Je suis Charlie” along with photos of the aftermath of bombings in London and Madrid. By declaring war on grey zones in order to simplify loyalties and limit empathy between Muslim and non-Muslim populations, ISIS has implied jihad against global cities.
This ISIS strategy is paradoxical and maybe completely incoherent. The fact that Paris and Brussels attackers were homegrown suggests that global city grey zones may be a source of radicalization necessary for sustaining a long-term terrorist campaign in Europe. If radicalization is in some cases partially dependent upon densely populated and religiously diverse communities, a strategy of eliminating grey zones in favour of a stark black-and-white divide between Muslim and non-Muslim populations might undermine the ability of ISIS to radicalize new members. In other words, ISIS’s target list and its recruiting areas may be the same. To a certain extent, they may be at odds with themselves.
BEYOND SECURITY: GLOBAL CITIES’ THREE HORIZONS FOR COUNTERING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
While the two prongs of ISIS’s approach to global cities may be internally incoherent, both are potentially disastrous. Whether they are targets or recruiting grounds—or, paradoxically, both— global cities stand to suffer. Jihadism is an existential threat to cities. At the same time, global cities represent an increasingly logical entry point for policy interventions that prevent radicalization and violent extremism. While cities in general and global cities in particular might be especially vulnerable, they also feature unique characteristics that have the potential to make them resilient.
An effective response to jihadism must make global cities the focus of a task nearly as paradoxical as ISIS’s own strategy. They must develop policy regimes simultaneously focused on security and inclusion. Security today is as much about monitoring and directing flows of capital, people, and information as it is about defending borders with conventional military forces. It has become increasingly clear that global cities can play a key role in providing security and mitigating violent conflict, while inclusive and responsive global city governance at the same time plays a role in promoting social cohesion and preventing radicalization. A comprehensive policy regime for global cities that simultaneously focuses on security and inclusion can be subdivided into three policy horizons.
THE FIRST HORIZON
The first horizon represents an immediate scale and is focused on policing as well as on various efforts to thwart imminent threats at the local level. Local authorities in global cities play an increasingly important role when it comes to dealing with the more hardcore security issues of counterterrorism, surveillance, intelligence, and protection of critical infrastructure. After al Qaeda’s attacks on New York City, Madrid, and London between 2001 and 2005, we saw a first wave of counterterrorism policy developments in global cities with new security institutions and infrastructure developing on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, this immediate scale quickly became the main focus for many global cities where policies and strategies deal directly with the threat emanating from those actors already radicalized. Greater collaboration between local police and regional and national security forces received considerable attention, but developments have also included augmented surveillance and intelligence capabilities for local police and changes to the built environment.
For example, in the United States, local governments have played an increasingly critical role in homeland security politics.5 Local police forces around the United States have built their own independent information and intelligence networks and intelligence operations through, for example, developing exchange programs, sending their officers to work with other police forces overseas, and creating liaisons with foreign agents.6 In Europe, local authorities are similarly not simply implementing national policies but are also pursuing new types of security policies autonomously. We see a trend in which urban authorities in collaboration with police and the private security industry are focusing on building “defensive urban landscapes” and are “designing out terrorism” or “designing in counterterrorism.”7 For example, London redesigned cityscapes, setting bollards, low-level walls, and planters around buildings so as to inhibit vehicle access and absorb the energy of potential bomb blasts.
More cities must now leverage those developments to assume a leading role in global security and counterterrorism. The strengthening of local institutions and the built environment of cities is key to enhanced security and resilience. Unless global cities are to become militarized zones policed by national armed forces, they must build an internal apparatus with the capabilities to anticipate and deter attacks, to bring criminals to justice, to dismantle the local support networks of potential terrorists, and to rebound in the wake of possible attacks. Governing the global risk of terror must include global cities’ infrastructure and institutions.
THE SECOND HORIZON
Global cities must also leverage local policy, planning, and design efforts to strike a balance between security on the one hand, and openness on the other. To remain globally attractive and competitive, the global city must not only be secure but also stay open, inclusive, and democratic. This second horizon represents a medium policy scale and includes social/ economic integration and anti-radicalization efforts that are still local but speak to more systemic and upstream concerns. This horizon is thus more focused on preventive strategies in countering violent extremism and involves urban planning and policy targeting the root causes of radicalization.
With their potential influence on their citizens’ daily lives, local governments can be more efficient than their national counterparts since hyper-local factors are highly important components in both radicalization and counter-radicalization. Local community and neighbourhood leaders are often the ones best placed to build trust within communities and to warn and convince young people against wrongdoing. This policy approach therefore requires the involvement of many types of local agents, such as youth workers, police, teachers, community networks, and civil society. Local welfare systems and street-level bureaucrats in global cities are increasingly representing a new type of front line in security politics.