A seaside suburb of Dakar, Senegal’s capital, Guédiawaye boasts a new coastal highway, large stadiums for wrestling and soccer, and new urban parks that even have marshes to manage periodic flooding. By all appearances, it is a growing, productive community. Yet underneath, the city struggles with high crime rates, environmental degradation, extreme poverty, unemployment and a disturbing growth in the number of suspected extremists.

Police vehicle in Senegal

Following the November 2015 Paris gun assaults by ISIS that killed 130 people, authorities across the globe cracked down as they spotted signs of radicalization. Natives of Guédiawaye were arrested in the sweep—a man now imprisoned in Niger was found trying to set up a terror cell in his native Senegal, and his wife and another woman were accused of hiding money to support the group. In 2016, authorities investigating another case found evidence of efforts to establish a Boko Haram cell in Senegal. Now, following incidents in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, Senegalese officials are concerned that terrorists could strike Dakar as well.

Though Senegal is a peaceful, moderate Muslim majority country, terrorism and extremism loom increasingly large. A string of Senegalese nationals have been arrested as suspected extremists and terrorists. Boko Haram and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are active in the region. Terror attacks in nearby West African countries have raised concerns.

Earlier this year, in the midst of the expanding local narrative about the threat of radicalization, authorities and citizens in Guédiawaye realized they already had a venue through which they might get ahead of the growing problem of extremism. They began to use a collaborative approach developed by the U.S. Institute of Peace, Justice and Security Dialogue (JSD), to consider how to prevent extremism.

With funding from the U.S. State Department, the dialogue process launched in 2016 in Guédiawaye as part of a six-country, regional project to increase trust between civilian security services and communities. The dialogues unite police, gendarmerie and communities facing a range of security challenges, and provide them with structures and skills to work together to address these challenges at the local level. It is an approach that USIP has used successfully in some 15 countries around the world to strengthen government-citizen relations, with consequent benefits for governance.

Through the dialogues, Guédiawaye’s local police, municipal authorities and civil society organization leaders—including representatives of youth, women and religious groups–have conducted regular, methodical discussions on fighting banditry, a crime they identified as having the largest negative impact on their community’s safety. But the steady stream of news highlighting the arrests of suspected local radicals prompted the addition of conversations on preventing and combatting extremism in addition to other concerns.

More Arrests of Extremists

When I landed in Dakar in April, newspapers were reporting more arrests of extremists in and around Dakar. I was there to participate in a Justice and Security Dialogue session that focused on addressing radicalization. I joined some 50 community leaders in City Hall during their two days of discussion on how to spot and address signs of radicalization. Participants debated how to distinguish between meaningful and meaningless trends, and began crafting recommendations for working together to combat troubling developments in the community.

Six months of cooperation and communication was already producing results for them in terms of their primary focus—reducing local crime. The mayor of one of Guédiawaye’s five county boroughs (“communes d’arrondissement”) recounted how better communication with the police commissioner resulted in more frequent neighborhood patrols. The president of the Association of Women of Sam Notaire said that, as a result of the dialogue, she’s no longer afraid to speak with police and sees them as more responsive to reports by the community’s women.

The head of a Christian church discussed how the dialogue enabled him to work with city authorities to ensure soccer fans and parishioners didn’t cross paths on Sundays. As a result, churchgoers didn’t have to contend with fights among rival teams’ fans, lowering tempers and grievances within the community. The police commissioner said she is shifting the department’s approach to be more collaborative, rather than repressive.

There is hope that the cooperative linkages that have been created through this dialogue process can be harnessed to stave off extremism. General Lamine Cisse, a former minister of the interior who aided the country’s first peaceful transition of power in 2000, chairs the board of USIP’s local partner organization, Partners West Africa Senegal. He feels that using the dialogues to address radicalization demonstrates how they enable communities to come together and address the most pressing law enforcement and justice concerns. He said JSD is unique in Senegal because it is one of few efforts able to focus on preventing the emergence of extremism.

U.S. attention and funding to end violent extremism is focused most on places like Syria and Iraq, where the scourge is particularly evident and widespread. To stem the tide of radicalization and the flow of foreign fighters, though, efforts to prevent recruitment and radicalization will be essential. Local, community-led collaborative efforts like the Justice and Security Dialogue program in Guédiawaye will be critical to success.

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