Role of Local Government in Counter-Radicalization

by Romeo B. Lavarias

The war against terror cannot be won solely on the battlefield, but instead must be fought with a counter-radicalization strategy. Implemented at the local level (i.e., mayor’s, sheriff’s, and/or governor’s offices), with the coordinated effort of federal, state, and local organizations, this strategy could address and counter the critical factors that make people susceptible to the terrorist message.

Warfare in the 21st century has matured to the point where military technology and force are no longer the keys to victory. Parties in conflict during the 20th century began to realize that success in war meant winning the “hearts and minds” of the people and, to an extent, the enemy forces. In contrast, today’s warfare has become a war ofeas. 

Faced with this unique type of threat, the United States lacks a coherent domestic counter-radicalization strategy to fight against this new type of warfare. In order to neutralize the threat, the United States must develop a counter-messaging strategy to “reinforce, integrate, and complement public communication efforts” that focuses on countering the rhetoric of al-Qaida, its affiliates and adherents, other international terrorist organizations, and violent extremists overseas. Thus, the problem statement involves communication efforts: How can the United States effectively fight the “war ofeas,” and can it develop its own counter-radicalization strategy in order to address al-Qaida’s rhetoric? The unfortunate reality is that the U.S. federal government is unable to accomplish this strategy.  Thus, the role falls to local governments to directly deal with those groups that are susceptible to radicalization.

Counter-Radicalization Czars & Strategies With many federal agencies and departments involved at different levels in their own counter-radicalization strategies, these disparate groups cannot agree on one unified strategy.  Complicating the issue further are the physical breadth and unique communities within the United States that have differenteas (ranging from surveillance of targeted groups to community outreach) on how to prevent citizens from being radicalized and supporting terrorism.  A possible solution would be for local governments to create counterterrorist messaging and provide programs that target individuals who may be susceptible to the terrorist message.

How local governments support the terrorism-prevention efforts of other sectors will be the key to the success of a U.S. domestic counter-radicalization strategy. Local governments must implement support systems to the key priority areas of education, health, economics, criminal justice, faith, charities, and the Internet, which all play a role in the promotion, and deterrence, of U.S. domestic radicalization. Support of these key sectors would be agencies such as the local school board, county health departments, chambers of commerce, and the city and county court systems. Leading the strategy would be the mayor’s and the local sheriff’s offices to coordinate counterterrorism messaging that can be modified for local communities. 

However, such a strategy involves coordinated efforts from a variety of different departments, agencies, offices, and divisions.  In order to organize programs that are intradepartmental with the overall goal of counter-radicalization of local residents, perhaps the appointment of a counter-radicalization czar in local government would be appropriate. This czar would have the authority to cross departmental jurisdictions and mandate cooperation from these organizations in support of counter-radicalization efforts. To avoid accusations that the strategy is a masquerade to spy on vulnerable groups, the czar must not be connected with law enforcement, but rather have a varied professional background in government and/or business, and possibly be a member of one of the vulnerable groups.

Current & Future Efforts Similar outreach efforts have already been implemented.  The City of Minneapolis, Minnesota, which works with the Somali Youth Group and the Broward County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office “Uniting Broward” initiative are examples of programs that reach out to groups targeted for radicalization. They both implement counter-radicalization by working with communities as well as with the public and private sectors to help improve opportunities and strengthen society by reducing inequalities, especially those associated with faith and race.

Local governments seeking to accomplish the same objective should help communities that are susceptible to radicalization by improving their educational performance, employment opportunities, and housing conditions.  Another effort would be to examine the roles that local areas play in forging cohesive and resilient communities by addressing the political and socioeconomic environments that extremists exploit. The local government strategy can significantly support these efforts by providing grants that incentivize local communities to mount such initiatives.

A local government strategy begins with the realization that the United States is facing a range of terrorist threats both domestically and internationally. The most serious threat is from al-Qaida, its affiliates, and likeminded organizations. These groups seek to radicalize and recruit people within the United States to their cause. Although the percentage of Americans who are prepared to support violent extremism in the United States is small, it is significantly higher among young people. During the past decade, the United States has acquired knowledge about radicalization and gained experience regarding the factors that encourage and motivate people to support terrorism and to carry out terrorism-related activities. It is imperative to understand these factors in order to prevent radicalization and minimize the risks that such radicalization poses to U.S. national security. Based on this understanding, local governments can develop the basis of a national domestic counter-radicalization strategy as well as the strategy for their local jurisdictions.

This U.S. and local government strategy must be guided by principles that are consistent with domestic policy. The principles selected must be of a domestic nature and applicable to the proposed method that will carry it out. They must also be understood at a local level.

Framing a Strategy The following principles could be used to frame a U.S. and local government domestic counter-radicalization strategy.  This strategy:

  • Should be an equal, if not greater, part of the overall U.S. counterterrorism strategy, with the primary aim to stop U.S. citizens from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism;

  • Should address the threat of radicalization from environmental groups to international groups, such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), al-Qaida, the Islamic State group, etc.;

  • Would require the balancing of privacy rights, civil liberties, and civil rights versus countering the terrorist messaging that radicalizes individuals;

  • Would depend on a successful integration strategy; 

  • Would be built on a commitment to localism, where communities and local authorities play key roles;

  • Would be fully funded by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as well as state and county governments; and

  • Must be aligned with domestic priorities and avoid being involved in overseas counterterrorism efforts.

The U.S. and local government counter-radicalization strategy should also address the following objectives:

  • To respond to theeological challenge of terrorism and the threat the United States and local governments face from those who promote it;

  • To prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure they are given appropriate advice and support; and

  • To work with sectors and institutions familiar with the risks that need to be addressed.

In order for the U.S. and local government domestic counter-radicalization strategy to be successful, it must be placed within the DHS to ensure effective coordination, oversight, and accountability. Using a well-thought-out and well-monitored grants program, the DHS would support local communities that wish to address counter-radicalization within their communities.

One of the criteria of the funding would be that, although the role of policing is critical to the U.S. and local government domestic counter-radicalization strategy, it must not become a police program. Therefore, funding can be divided between two key areas: (a) local authority working in association with communities; and (b) monitoring. Through the grant program, communities must be able to implement local initiatives to manage radicalization. Conditions of the grant would require justification, a coordination plan with the different sectors, and performance measures to gauge the program’s effectiveness.

The U.S. and local government domestic counter-radicalization strategy must develop, maintain, and utilize performance measures. Essentially, the strategy must have clearly stated objectives and goals, and the means by which to accomplish them. Developing such a strategy would benefit from examination of similar domestic social programs, including those outside the United States. Once established, the performance standards could be included as a condition of counter-radicalization grant programs.

Local governments must implement support systems in the key priority areas of education, health, economics, criminal justice, faith, charities, and the Internet. Each of these areas plays a role in reducing domestic radicalization.   All the signs of radicalism may have been obvious in retrospect locally, such as changes in behavior at school, isolation from social groups, becoming sympathetic to terroristeology over a period of time, and culminating into the radicalized U.S. citizen.

Since the United States has not truly developed and/or implemented a counter-radicalization plan to handle a new kind of domestic enemy, it falls on local governments to address the issue. The United States is facing an enemy that may not be seen until it is far too late. Therefore, local governments need to develop a counter-radicalization strategy of their own that is implementable at the local level, fiscally supported at the federal level, and targets the groups that terrorists seek to persuade into joining and supporting their cause.


Dr. Romeo B. Lavarias is currently employed by the City of Miramar, Florida, as the city’s operations administrator for its Public Works Department.  In addition, he teaches undergraduate and graduate public administration es at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida.  He has spent his government career working in county and municipal governments in the state of Florida.  His local government experience has included working as a city planner, emergency management coordinator, and public information officer.  He received his bachelor’s degree in political science and master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Florida, his master’s degree in public administration from Baruch College-City University of New York as an Urban/National Fellow, his doctorate in public administration from Nova Southeastern University, and a master’s degree in homeland security from the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS).  At NPS, he explored the concept of a “Counter Radicalization Czar” as part of his thesis. The full thesis that this article is based on is entitled, “Winning the Hearts and Minds: Improving U.S. Counter-Radicalization Efforts Through a Study of the United Kingdom’s Prevent Strategy.”