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Cops Alone Can't Stop Terrorism

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg View. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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Statistically, the odds of being caught up in a terrorist attack in Europe are still vanishingly small. But the Bastille Day killings in Nice, the attack in Ansbach, and the brutal slaying of an elderly French priest in his church near Rouen have punctured any remaining sense that the threat from terrorism is remote or receding. Saturday's machete attack on two female police officers in Charleroi, Belgium only adds to that sense of vulnerability.

London's police chief, Bernard Hogan-Howe, wrote in a blog post last week that an attack in Britain is a question of "when not if." So far, the response seems to be to throw a staggering amount of armor at the problem.

QuickTake Jihad

Last week saw a new 600-man counter-terrorist police force introduced to the streets of London. From their gray Kevlar body armor to their high-speed BMW motorbikes, London's new police are a long way from the traditional gunless British bobbies: Their arsenal includes a Glock 17 pistol and a Sig Sauer MCX carbine gun. Trained to operate on water and abseil down buildings, they are equipped with battering rams and special ballistic shields.

Britain isn't the only country arming itself to the teeth to fight the terrorist threat. In Germany, the government has ended a national taboo that dates to World War II by ordering soldiers to prepare to join counter-terrorist efforts, while France is quickly becoming the kind of police state Donald Trump can only dream of. From the beaches of St. Tropez to London's shop-lined Oxford Street, combat boots and assault rifles are mixing in with flip-flops and beach bags.

All of this armament is understandable. But there is another approach that deserves more attention too.

Programs to detect and prevent radicalization work further upstream. Hundreds of such efforts are now in progress in cities all over the world, deploying a wide range of tools and strategies. They will increasingly be required to counter what French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy recently called "the uberization of opportunistic mass terrorism."  

If policing is about finding a needle in a haystack, these efforts are all about the haystack. "We tend to think that this is such a unique, new and exotic challenge and in some ways it is -- the ideological component especially -- but actually what a lot of people at the municipal level say is that this is another social challenge that can be mainstreamed into our social work and our work with young people," says Jonathan Birdwell, head of policy and research at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

Such programs have been around for years. They vary in scale, approach and even how they define the problem, and so it has been difficult to get a handle on what works and doesn't. That is starting to change.

In May, more than 200 delegates met in Antalya, Turkey, as part of the Strong Cities Network, which connects local officials fighting violence and provides a database of programs and best practices. This includes information on city-wide approaches such as Rotterdam’s Anti-Radicalisation Approach or the Montgomery County Model, but also training resources for initiatives such as Montreal’s Center for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence and resources for front line practitioners such as the UK’s Prevent Training Catalogue.

Inspiration and guidance sometimes comes from the unlikeliest of places. Dr. Seiny Boiukar Lamine, the mayor of Kolofata, in northern Cameroon, spent 50 days in captivity after being abducted by Boko Haram. He escaped and devoted himself to helping his community build defenses against the group, setting up "vigilance committees" in towns and villages, establishing links between local committees and government forces and seeking international support.

In the Colombian city of Medellin, once known as the world's most dangerous city, local authorities reduced the homicide rate by 90 percent -- also through creative community engagement and in part by building libraries and transport links and tackling poverty and isolation in areas where the drug cartels had found easy pickings.

The idea that Cameroon and Medellin have something to teach Colorado and Manchester may seem a stretch, but those working in counter-extremism say there are some broad lessons to be applied.

First, city-led programs are often better than nationally led ones. "If there's anything we learned," says Strong Cities Network manager Rebecca Skellett, "it's that initiative is about being locally designed, locally owned and locally led."

While Britain's much-criticized Prevent program was ahead of the curve in some ways, it discouraged local innovation. It also blurred the line between security intervention and community engagement, leading to criticism that it was discriminatory and counter-productive.

That speaks to the second lesson: "Soft state" functions should as much as possible be separate from security services. "If you are trying to build the trust of the community and running programs with young people as a way of giving them something positive to do and a safe place to talk about these issues, you don't want one of the facilitators to be MI5," Birdwell says, referring to Britain's internal security services.

In a recent survey of youth activists involved in countering extremist messages, less than half thought that law enforcement should be included. While many of those targeted by these programs have little confidence in local or national government, engaging in the community through sports, cultural events, educational programs and peer-to-peer groups is seen as highly effective.

A third lesson is the importance of a multi-agency approach, involving community leaders, schools, religious leaders and nongovernmental organizations. The pioneer in this has been Denmark, which has produced more foreign fighters per capita than any other European country except Belgium. The so-called Aarhus model, named after its second city, engaged community police, social services, youth workers, therapists, and, crucially, returning fighters and former radicals who became trained mentors, to dramatically reduce the number of foreign fighters and extremists. The approach has also been adopted in the capital, Copenhagen.

"To me, it is not a question of emphasizing either policing and intelligence or the local or municipal effort. It is about mutually reinforcing the two where it makes sense," Frank Jensen, the lord mayor of Copenhagen, told me in an e-mail.

A fourth lesson is the importance of social media in disseminating counter-narratives, something most Western governments do poorly if at all. Islamic State is a multi-channel social media powerhouse; Western governments are nowhere in their response.

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue just published results of a year-long pilot study on the impact of counter-narratives. Researchers tracked the impact of 15 videos by three nongovernmental organizations -- in Somalia, the U.S. and Pakistan -- to discourage engagement with violent or extremist groups. The content, approach and target audiences varied, but the slick counter-narrative videos proved powerful, receiving over 378,000 video views and 20,000 total engagements. A handful of respondents in the study asked for help to leave their extremist group.

These programs have a long way to go and remain underfunded. The most comprehensive counter-extremism programs seek not only to prevent radicalization, but also to reintegrate radicalized individuals with exit programs, especially important as increasing numbers of younger offenders are spending time in prison. Cities should never underestimate the power of mentors and former jihadis in getting the message across to young people, as programs in Denmark, Britain and elsewhere have shown.

These efforts can't replace the new robo-cops policing our streets, but they may ultimately do more to make us safer.

(Corrects spelling of Bernard-Henri Levy's name in sixth paragraph and Frank Jensen's in 18th paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Therese Raphael at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at