Remarks at the Strong Cities Network International Visitors Leadership Program for Municipal Leaders and Countering Violence Extremism Experts Event

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
March 1, 2016

Sarah, thank you very, very much. Thanks for your great work. Yours, your team, everybody involved in this effort, all of our partners across the State Department and other federal agencies, and thank you very much for organizing this workshop. And thank you all for coming, some of you from quite far away, and we really appreciate the fact that you’re here as our partners from around the world in order to tackle an issue that obviously affects everybody in the world today one way or the other. And everybody has a role to play in countering violent extremism.

The fact is that the battle against violent extremism does not begin on some distant battlefield, but it’s in our own neighborhoods and in classrooms and workplaces and houses of worship, and homes.

And we’ve learned that lesson in bitter ways. We’ve learned it pretty realistically. There are many, many countries – ours included – that have young people, by and large, almost always – who have been seduced into believing that somehow life is better blowing people up and living according to the dictates of someone else rather than the choices that you yourself make. And what people learn very quickly when they get sucked into one of these enterprises is how deprived and stark and horrendous life itself can be. We know this because we know people who are survivors who’ve escaped, and regrettably, too many people are executed summarily when their captors – mental captors, physical captors – learn that they are in fact disaffected and perhaps contemplating escape.

So we know these lessons. We’re learning them. And the question is whether or not we’re going to apply them in a thoughtful way in order to protect ourselves for the long term.

Windsor, Canada learned this very much in a firsthand way last year. Two of their native sons, both in their 20s, had gone to Syria in order to join the terrorists of Daesh. And when Windsor learned this, the citizens of that community were upset; but they were also determined that they weren’t just going to be upset. They were going to do something about it. They were going to try to prevent that kind of tragedy from happening yet again.

And as a leader of the Windsor Islamic Association said, these “two individuals… think the best option is to go overseas and fight. They’re not seeing any other option that is viable.”

Think about that. People come to a place in their life where they don’t think there’s another option that’s viable. Well, that’s not their problem; that’s also our problem. It’s a problem of civic leadership, it’s a problem of education system, it’s a problem of families and homes and the network of the community.

And so Windsor’s leaders – inside and outside of government both – sought to show definitively that turning to terrorism was no option at all.

Religious organizations, schools, nonprofits, and volunteers organized basketball – something as simple as giving people something to do, getting people together, realizing that there was more life outside of their head and outside of their connection on the internet or wherever it was that they began to be radicalized. They organized soccer tournaments in order to connect these local youth with law enforcement. And they hosted community meetings in order to show ways for people to be able to intervene when you began to get a sense that someone was beginning to become radicalized.

They reached out to experts in other cities in order to help their teachers learn how to identify signs of disaffection in order to begin to notice patterns or begin to see some kid that was outside of the mainstream or who might be ripe for the pickings.

And they also got counselors, imams, parents to identify these warning signs before extreme forces could grab them or extreme ideas could inspire them to violence. And above all, they conveyed the message to these young people that they mattered. Sometimes that’s what it takes. Everybody’s been a teenager, and it’s not easy, as we all know. So sometimes people need a helping hand to get over the hurdles of alienation, disaffection, of questions that arise as you begin to learn about life and are confronted with choices.

And like many other cities in this hemisphere – Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia – Windsor recognized that it is local communities where policies touch people, where basic services can be delivered, human needs can be met, and where families first begin to look for security, and particularly where boys and girls begin to navigate that path to adulthood, to identity, to meaning, and to respect.

Put simply, it is undeniable, I think, at this point, that local communities are the place where you can best take the fight against radicalization and violent extremism. That is the place where it has to begin, and that’s what you all have recognized and that’s what brings you here.

So this is groundbreaking. This is important. It sounds pretty basic and pretty simple, but there are just so many places that haven’t even begun to wrap their arms around this simple notion. So yes, it is also true that national policies and global coalitions will also be absolutely critical in the effort to degrade and destroy terrorist networks. That’s what we’re doing in Syria. It’s what we’re doing in Libya. That’s what we’re doing in the region in building a 66-nation coalition that is actively involved on every single front of this fight – not just the kinetic, not just strikes that are dropping the bomb, but cutting off finance, cutting off the internet connections and getting – counter social media message, becoming engaged in preventing foreign fighters from traveling from one airport to another and so forth.

But all of us understand this is not a short-term overnight battle. It’s a long-term effort. I mean, there are millions upon millions of kids out there. Country after country – I’m stunned as I travel around as Secretary of State and I go to these countries and I read the stats on a particular country, and it’s 70 percent under the age of 35, 60 percent under the age of 30, 50 percent under the age of 21. I mean, think about that. And if those kids aren’t in a classroom – and in too many places they’re not – imagine those 12 million displaced persons in Syria today. You think they’re going to school? That’s the difficulty. Some of them are because of the incredible efforts of the global community to provide assistance, the United States having provided $5.1 billion, the largest individual donor. And it’s – some of it’s specifically targeted to get those kids into school.

But for all the kids that are in school, I’m afraid to say to you today there are more that are not. And that’s a problem for all of us, because those kids, each and every one of them are a target for some extremist who wants to grab them while the getting is good, and take their minds and twist them and make them into their convert, and usually their wearer of a suicide vest. You notice you don’t see a lot of the leaders blowing themselves up. They find a lot of young people and get them to go do it. Tells you a lot.

So this is a challenge that we have all come here today to try and meet, and I want to particularly congratulate everybody who has picked up this baton to take up the challenge of a Strong Cities Network. That’s what we need.

We want cities across the globe to help each other to make use of the tools and the capabilities that are available to protect citizens. We want to create more opportunities to learn from one another about what works best in building resilience to radicalization. We want to exchange ideas, best practices. And we therefore can prevent the expansion of these ideologies and movements. And we want to make available the resources that you can use to tailor programs and outreach to the specific characteristics of your own communities. We’re not pretending this is one-size-fits-all and we’re not pretending that we have all the answers. We don’t. You are going to know far better what works in your own community. The idea is here to tailor these things to pick the best practices from various places and make them fit.

We are already seeing results. This is not some highfalutin theoretical concept. We are seeing results now. Danish cities are partnering with Amman, Beirut, and Tunis to share their experience in mobilizing all the tools of local government for prevention and de-radicalization.

We’ve held regional workshops to connect local officials with experts in countering violent extremism, and we will convene our first global summit in Antalya, Turkey, in May.

We’ve also launched a new online hub to provide members with constant access to a database of materials to help communities better protect themselves, to identify early signs of extremism, to engage vulnerable youth, and cultivate partnerships between governments, law enforcements, and religious leaders.

Now, using this hub is going to allow local leaders to learn about the efforts of a city like Columbus, Ohio. I mean, that’s the beauty of today’s world where we could just trade information so easily and virtually. And there in Columbus, the police force holds regular meetings with the Somali-American community and partners with local mosques in order to expand ways for young people to build this sense of purpose and identity.

And we are encouraging national governments to recognize the value of inter-urban collaboration to help cities work together to prevent violent extremism from ever taking root.

The fact is that the Strong Cities Network and other initiatives like it are regrettably – well, I shouldn’t say “regrettably” – are absolutely essential, because even if we didn’t have the challenge of violent extremism, we ought to be doing these things to connect people to their community, to get people connected one to the other. It would still be important in terms of just keeping people out of trouble, out of jail, helping people to find the right path for education and for a future.

So by coming together at this workshop and through this network, we are not only learning about ways to provide security through cities throughout the world, but we are exposing the lies that terrorists seek to convey.

We are demonstrating that the ethnic and religious differences that help to define us are not as powerful as the things that actually unite us and bring us together. We are not all the same – that is for sure – but we are absolutely joined together and unified in our commitment and our determination to have a world of decency in which we respect and love peace itself, and where we can raise our children in safety with respect for rights and dignity of every single human being.

I’ll tell you something, I’m always stunned by it. I mean, just this morning I woke up to the news that we’ve lost two local employees in Peshawar who work with our consulate there, who were going out on a effort to eradicate narcotics fields. And an IED exploded and several were lost and a few of the soldiers who were there to guard them also. Think about that.

So what happens tomorrow morning? They’re gone, but is the community better? Did that explosion tell you what the people who set it off really want? Does it say anything about education, about history, about culture, about poetry, about music, about all the things that we really value in life? It is just stunning to me that people are content just to blow things up without offering one constructive vision of a better world, of a world at peace or anything that embraces any of the values that most of us embraced in coming into this kind of work. It’s the most nihilistic, depressing presentation of life that you could possibly imagine.

And so we have to pick up our game. We have to go out there and keep going out there, notwithstanding the risks, and prove we’re never going to be intimidated, we are never going to be pushed back, we are never going to lose sight of what unites us and what inspires us, what motivates us every day to try to make the world a better place.

Terrorists just want to drag us into the past, into some dark hole where they can control people and make people their sex slave or make people their vassal in every aspect of life and make people their vehicle to go out and create more destruction while they avoid it and stay home safe and sound. These terrorists are literally at war with modernity itself and they want to destroy almost every connection to those values that we cherish so deeply. So I think our vision – I don’t think, I know that our vision is the right vision to organize our lives around, creating a world in which no one can conclude that murdering innocent people is somehow the only truly viable option – please.

So I can’t think of a more worthwhile mission than the mission that you all have come here to organize around. I thank you for being committed to it. I ask you to grow it, to take out of here a renewal of energy and commitment in order to bring more cities to this table and in order to make sure people understand that it is compelling and urgent that we intervene at the earliest stages of life, and we cannot be content to react by sending our troops somewhere to respond when it’s too late. We have to get it in the beginning and cut it off before it becomes metastasized.

And that’s why I wanted to take time to be with you this morning to congratulate you for what you’re doing and to encourage you to take this as far as you can. Thank you all very, very much. (Applause.)