Food, water, and energy insecurity, as well as economic and social inequality, form a “nexus” of issues that create an environment that breeds violent extremism, according to a senior US State Department official.
“Cities are drivers, byproducts, and stabilizers of security,” said Nancy Stetson, US special representative for global food security.
“But without the right resources, they can be threat multipliers,” she added.
Stetson spoke at the Atlantic Council in Washington on June 22 at an event hosted by the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security. The event was the latest in a series on urban-focused security challenges. Eric Rosand, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; Judith Hermanson, president and CEO of the Global Coalition for Inclusive Housing and Sustainable Cities; and Ian Klaus, senior adviser for global cities at the US State Department, also spoke at the event. Peter Engelke, senior fellow at the Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center moderated the discussion.
The event was held in the wake of major urban terrorist attacks that have occurred within the past year, including in Brussels, Amman, Paris, and—most recently—in Orlando, Florida. The attacks have raised questions regarding the varied challenges surrounding urban security and counterterrorism.
“The terrorist threat is not only more global than ever, but it is also more local than ever,” said Rosand. “More attention should be given to the role urban communities can play from getting individuals to turn to violence.”
Rosand spoke of how the youth of Amman—the Jordanian capital—are “vulnerable to violent extremism” because of the city’s underdevelopment, specifically due to a lack of places of refuge besides “the Internet and the mosque.” He stressed the need for local programs to engage members of the community.
Analysts cite a June 6 attack on a Jordanian intelligence agency facility on the outskirts of Amman as a symptom of the deterioration of the country’s security amid rising unemployment, debt, and inequality.
Stetson noted the importance of providing basic resources to city populations, detailing how Hafez al-Assad—the former president of Syria—retained the “hearts and wants of the people” by controlling food distribution systems. Once this system was compromised with the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, cities devoid of resources became ripe for recruitment by extremist groups.
“The power of militant groups in finding recruits is to fight poverty, not terrorism,” said Hermanson referring to recruitment efforts carried out by terrorist organizations such as al-Shabaab in Nairobi, Kenya, that use access to food and water as leverage for those living in cities devoid of resources.
Hermanson noted how a broader sense of marginalization can lead to extremist tendencies: “It has been shown that when [people] are feeling less insecure and have access to city services, they feel more included and are less likely to turn to violence.”
Analysts have cited community marginalization as a potential motivator in the context of the attacks in Orlando, Brussels, and Paris.
In the Paris and Belgium attacks, some of the assailants were French and Belgian nationals. The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) claimed responsibility for both attacks. Analysts have questioned whether the attackers’ Muslim identity and a sense of isolation from European society at large may have catalyzed their allegiance to ISIS.
In Orlando, after shooter Omar Mateen pledged allegiance to ISIS and opened fire in a gay-friendly nightclub on June 12, it was revealed he may have been a member of the LGBT community himself, prompting analysts to speculate whether a feeling of marginalization may have spurred the attack in this case as well.
All panelists emphasized the need for greater inclusivity within cities and urban communities as a means to promote positive mental health and cultural integration.
In Colombia, Medellín stands as an example of a city that has successfully used inclusivity and resource access to mitigate urban violence. In what was once one of Colombia’s most impoverished and crime-ridden cities, Sergio Fajardo Valderrama—Medellin’s mayor—has introduced infrastructure such as escalators and metro lines to connect formerly poor areas to the center of the city. Following the introduction of these initiatives, drug-related and other criminal activities have decreased while foreign direct investment, economic development, and tourism have increased. The city’s efforts were applauded when it was selected to host the regional World Economic Forum for Latin America earlier in June.
Moving forward, Klaus called for greater cooperation between national governments and international organizations in a concerted effort to combat violent extremism and urban insecurity. He cited the example of Habitat III, an international forum hosted by the US State Department that will take place in Quito, Ecuador later this year in October. The forum seeks to write a “new urban agenda” by promoting the exchange of knowledge between developing cities, engaging leaders from the local level in high-level dialogues, and coordinating the efforts of various stakeholders.
Remarking on the upcoming forum, Stetson noted: “Cities are critical to sustainable development. With Habitat III, we have a chance to set the course for not a couple years, but years to come. With that, we can either make cities drivers of development or widen poverty, inequality, and insecurity.”
Meghan Rowley is a communications intern at the Atlantic Council. You can follow her on Twitter @megs_rowley.