Cities are the new frontline of terrorism. The goal of today’s terrorist is not only to target civilians and spread fear, but also to turn city residents against each other.
Whether in Baghdad, Brussels, Kabul or Paris, violent extremists are looking to suppress normal city life, separate people from one another, and drive residents into mental fortresses. Once physically and psychologically segregated, this makes it easier to sow mistrust and dissent.
There is a perverse logic to 21st-century terrorism. By goading governments and majority groups into retaliation, terrorists draw new recruits to their cause(s). In extreme cases, as the fall-out from 9/11 shows, the strategy works a charm.
Why cities matter
That terrorists target cities makes sense. Cities are under assault precisely because they are centres of political, economic and cultural power.
For centuries, diverse communities have assembled in cities. Cities instinctively accommodate difference and disagreement. They require sophisticated forms of accommodation and co-existence to survive. Yet even the most plural cities are vulnerable to rupture.
This is precisely the reason why ethnically and religiously mixed neighbourhoods, concert halls, nightclubs and parades are under attack. It is no longer a question of picking out a specific group based on their ethnicity, religion or sexual preference, but rather paralyzing the city. As a senior ISIS operative recently observed “my advice is to stop looking for specific targets. Hit everyone and everything.”
When communities stop interacting, when they self-segregate, then some of their members become more susceptible to exploitation, radicalization and violent extremism.
How terrorists target our cities
Veteran police officer John Sullivan coined the term “urban siege” in 2009 in the wake of the Mumbai attacks. The terrorists in India were highly organized and received guidance and real-time logistical support from offsite handlers in Pakistan. They were also hyper-connected: operatives were equipped with smartphones and used social media to coordinate operations and disrupt efforts to slow them down.
To Sullivan, “urban siege is a metaphor for complex, integrated tactics that disrupt urban life and spread fear … including swarming attacks with multiple, simultaneous and serial targets and symbolic venues … that combine armed assault with media manipulation.”
Several recent urban sieges stand out. Take the case of the al-Shabaab take-over of Westgate mall in Nairobi in 2011 that killed 67 people, injured 175 more and lasted more than four days. ISIS and al-Qaeda operatives applied similar approaches in Paris in January 2015, leaving 17 people dead and 22 injured.
They struck Paris again in November 2015, killing 130 people and injuring 368, with 88,000 security personnel involved in tracking down the killers. A spectacular bombing attack in Brussels in March 2016 resulted in 32 civilian deaths and 300 injuries. The attack lasted just a few minutes, but Belgium and other countries heightened security for months, long after the dust cleared.
In each case security officials were unprepared for a prolonged “run and gun” and lock-down that followed in the heart of the French, Belgian and Kenyan capitals.
There are also a growing number of attacks led by remotely radicalized terrorists applying similar tactics to urban siege. For example, the April 2013 Boston Marathon attacks involved two pressure cooker bombs, which killed three people and injured 264 others. The city was locked down for two days as a dramatic manhunt unfolded.
Likewise, the San Bernardino attack in December 2015 involved a mass shooting and attempted bombing, with 14 killed and 22 wounded. While the attack took just four hours, its aftershocks continue reverberating across the US. This was followed in June 2016 by the attack on an Orlando nightclub, killing 49 and wounding 53, the deadliest attack since 9/11.
Not the cities you might expect
Urban terrorism has been around for a while. Well before 9/11, US cities suffered attacks from “home-grown” extremists. Likewise, many European cities experienced terrorism throughout the 20th century. According to the Global Terrorism Database, Europe has experienced more than 16,000 terrorist attacks since the late 1960s, with most of them occurring during the 1970s and 1980s.
Even so, urban terrorism appears to be getting more lethal: the number of people dying from terrorism around the world increased significantly over the past decade and a half. In 2000, roughly 500 people were reportedly killed due to terrorism. By 2014, the number increased twenty-fold to 12,000.
While the rising frequency of urban siege tactics might not come as a surprise – after all, the world’s population is increasingly concentrated in cities – the location of them might. Given the headlines that follow high-profile terrorist attacks, you’d be forgiven for thinking that North American and Western European cities are the primary sites of urban siege.
In fact, the risks of urban terrorism are much greater in hundreds of lesser known cities in the Middle East, North, East and West Africa, and Central and South Asia. Many of these cities are overrun by terrorism and are especially vulnerable because they have such weak security institutions.
Note: The spike in the Americas in 2001 was due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Since 2006, the proportion of killings by urban terrorism in Asia among the world total, has always been above 75% (it was 92% in 2007).
According to our latest survey of over 2,000 of the world’s largest cities, Baghdad, Mosul, Mogadishu and Ramadi were among the most terrorism-prone for the period 2000-15. Ramadi, Maiduguri, Al-Hasakeh, Faloojah, Aleppo, Aden and Sana’a were also among the list of cities experiencing the most risk.
Put simply, cities in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen are vastly more vulnerable to devastating extremist violence than any urban centre in North America, Western Europe or East Asia.
To put the numbers in perspective, there were 3,659 terrorist-related deaths in all Western countries combined between 2000 and 2014. In Iraq, there were 13,076 in 2014 alone. This is not to minimize the real threats facing cities in the West, but rather to put them in a global context.
Note: Urban terrorism peaked in 2006 and again in 2011.
Threats from all sides
Another surprise we came across in our research: the threats aren’t necessarily coming from where you might expect them. While the risks of foreign (and foreign-inspired) extremist violence are real in North America and Western Europe, homegrown threats are surprisingly common.
A 2015 survey of over 480 US law enforcement agencies revealed that anti-government extremists – and not those motivated by Islamic Jihad – are the greater risk to day-to-day safety and security. Close to 75% of all responding police departments describe anti-government extremism as among the top terrorist threats. Just 40% of respondents described al-Qaeda or other like-minded groups as the top threat – the same proportion listing environmental extremists.
There is some justification to the preoccupation of US police with home-grown threats. According to New America, there were an estimated 94 Americans killed by Jihadist terrorist since 2001 and roughly 55 by right- and left-wing extremists over the same period.
Claiming back our cities
What do all these separate developments mean? That no matter where you are in the world, urban sieges will continue. They are also likely to become even more common in the fastest growing parts of the planet, especially Africa and Asia.
But that doesn’t mean we should stand idly by and watch it happen. In fact, there are steps we can take to deter and minimize the risks.
At a minimum, cities need to become more resilient to urban terrorism, whether foreign or locally inspired. While there are potentially useful strategies to defend and “harden” targets with blast walls, attack-resistant bollards and shatter-proof glass, more investment is needed to strengthen inter-city cooperation, bolster police-community relations and strengthen intelligence, security and emergency response services.
City planners can also introduce strategies to undermine radicalization by strengthening social bonds between different urban communities. More interaction between different ethnic and identity groups – not less – is key to building social cohesion and efficacy.
As Sullivan observes, “urban siege demands an urban terrorism prevention strategy. Cities are more than just a collection of targets. They are living political, social and economic ecosystems that are connected and can be exploited to spread fear and fragility or hope and resilience.”
London’s mayor Sadiq Khan recently said that the threat of terror attacks is “part and parcel of living in a big city”. He is right. The real challenge is how to effectively mitigate and respond to urban terrorism in a way that does not destroy the cosmopolitan, diverse and dynamic character of cities to begin with.
Robert Muggah is research director of the Igarapé Institute where Katherine Aguirre is also a researcher. Robert is on the Forum’s Council on the Future of Cities and Urbanization and the steering committee of the Global Parliament of Mayors. He is grateful to John Sullivan for his inputs.