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Responding to a Terror Attack: A Strong Cities Toolkit

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— 3 minutes reading time

This Strong Cities Network Toolkit offers a guide for local governments in formulating a sensitive and effective response in the wake of a terror attack.

The motive behind an act of terror is not just to inflict violence, but to create societal fear and division. In the immediate aftermath of a terror attack, national authorities take the lead in emergency responses, reinforcing public safety and launching criminal investigations. However, as the days, weeks and months progress, the impact of a terror attack can run deep, causing untold social consequences across communities and across geographic borders. Communities, no matter how resilient, require strong local leadership to help them heal and recover.

Mayors and locally elected officials have a critical role to play in stabilising, reassuring and tackling social division in the aftermath of an attack. In the past decade, terrorist methods have evolved from the pursuit of ‘hard’ targets symbolising the state and its institutions, to an increased focus on ‘soft targets’. The Global Terrorism Index 2020 highlights that ‘[e]ven in conflict situations, civilians are most likely to be terrorist targets’. While total global deaths from terrorism fell for the fifth consecutive year since their height in 2014, the surge in far-right political terrorism over the last five years depicts a worrying trend in broadening the reach of terrorism, especially in increasingly polarised societies.

The impact of terrorism on urban centres has never been greater. Violent extremist groups encourage small-scale attacks that target civilians where they are most vulnerable as ‘soft targets’, from crowded places to faith institutions, turning cities into battlegrounds. Between 1993 and 2000, the number of terrorist attacks in cities more than doubled. Were it available, more recent data would likely paint a bleaker picture. With this shift comes increased pressures on public institutions to establish clear roles and protocols for responding to attacks and planning ways to mitigate impact for their constituents.

With the development of this toolkit, we offer mayors, their cabinets and city officials a framework to develop and deliver activities in the wake of such an event in a way that complements, rather than duplicates, national government action. The toolkit draws on a series of interviews with city members from across the Strong Cities global membership, desk-based research and the expertise of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) in addressing hate, extremism and polarisation at the local level.

Strong Cities has approached these issues with a fresh perspective, providing a blueprint for city leaders and local authorities who look to reassure citizens and inspire trust during times of perceived insecurity, instability and trauma. The first chapter focuses on community engagement, setting out how authorities can leverage existing networks to determine the impact of an attack, identify the most appropriate victim support mechanisms, and promote social cohesion for the community at large. The second chapter focuses on communications and seeks to guide local authorities in developing outreach plans that de-escalate any rising tensions and strengthen a city’s sense of identity, morale and cohesion. The third chapter provides an overview of how cities can ensure their communities benefit from appropriate psychosocial support. The fourth chapter provides a summary of key considerations to guide city leaders in the immediate aftermath of an attack, when tensions are at their highest. Finally, worksheets, further tools and resources in the two annexes can be used to support this work and monitor social media platforms, which can be a powerful tool to inform all aspects of the city’s response.

The role of cities in responding to terrorist incidents should not be underestimated. The duty to engage multiple actors, while also reassuring communities and setting an example of strength and unity, may be daunting, but is vital if cities are to remain resilient in the face of attacks. This toolkit has been informed by a global network of mayors, policymakers and practitioners who have contributed their time and expertise to provide a well-rounded, informed and versatile toolkit. We hope it can serve as a roadmap for local authorities in establishing their own strategy.

This resource is available in English and French.