Terrorist attacks on cities are effective. Few attackers can inflict massive casualties and property damage, and while bomb attacks are over in a flash, sieges can last several days, and remain international news stories throughout.
More such attacks on cities are likely, particularly in developing countries, where terrorists can exploit the teeming slums to conduct their bloody business.
In the attacks on Mumbai in 2008, assailants from the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba landed by sea and infiltrated the dense urban waterfront through a slum near the Colaba district. Locals saw them land, but mistook them for the usual smugglers or illegal immigrants. Over the next three days, 164 people were killed, and at least 300 were injured.
For terrorist groups, the most wretched urban areas also provide a steady flow of recruits, and safe bases from which to plan and coordinate attacks. Law enforcement in these areas is limited, and in the most extreme cases, so-called “no-go area” slums are completely outside the control of the local government. In these places, terrorism will flourish.
The size and number of no-go areas will only grow in the coming decades, as cities buckle under the weight of explosive growth. Three billion new city dwellers are expected in developing country cities before 2050. New migrants will settle in the crowded slums that encircle each city, where there are few employment opportunities and the local government provides no services.
In Nairobi, Karachi, Lagos, and other cities, gangs and militias fill the vacuum. They consolidate wealth and power by controlling the passage of food, water, and fuel into the city center from the surrounding area. Conflict between gangs is dragging these areas into further disorder – a chaos in which terrorist organizations would surely thrive.
Luckily, urban planners, community groups, local governments, and the international community recognize the urgent need to establish a state and NGO presence in these areas. We must engage the disenfranchised and dedicate resources to alleviating poverty.
A UN-Habitat program in Cape Town seeks to upgrade neighborhoods with water and electricity to encourage respect for the community and discourage violence. Prevention programs like Cure Violence (formerly CeaseFire), which was founded by a doctor and has operations in more than 20 cities worldwide, treat violence as a disease. Cure Violence “inoculates” members of the community, puts “violence preventers” out on the street to identify at-risk kids, and is open 24 hours/day.
Violence, though, is just a symptom of a larger problem: the exclusion and marginalization of millions in congested cities. If countries can successfully encourage the economic growth required to lift the poor into the middle class, crises will be averted. If they cannot, slums will be fertile ground not only for enormous suffering, but also for the terrorism of tomorrow.
David Kilcullen was the Chief Strategist in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department (2005-2006). He then became a senior counter-insurgency advisor to General David Petraeus from 2007 to 2008, as he helped design and monitor the Iraq War troop surge. He was then a special advisor for counter-insurgency to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at that time as well.