Cities become battlefields of terrorism as world continues to urbanise

November 26, 2015

  • Cities or megapolis have emerged as preferred targets of terrorism;
  • Attacks in rural areas fade out of public eye;
  • Strengthening of counter-terrorism units in cities could significantly blunt the objectives of terror groups;
  • Modi government’s smart cities initiative useful opportunity to build a strong security system;
  • States need to find a balance between deterring or destroying a terrorist group AND upholding its democratic; and
  • Assimilating disgruntled and marginalised citizens imperative to weed out the scourge of terrorism.

Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

Editor's note:

This article first appeared in Mint on November 22, 2015. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.

The recent series of dastardly and heinous attacks in places as dispersed as Baghdad, Beirut, Bamako, Kabul and Paris by myriad terrorist outfits ranging from the Taliban to Islamic State and al-Qaeda hold several important lessons for international efforts to counter terrorism.

First, cities, especially those with a significant international presence (such as Bamako, one of the fastest growing cities in Africa and the world with a population of two million) or megapolis’ that are centres of the globalised world (such as Madrid, London, Mumbai or Paris) have predictably emerged as the preferred targets of terrorism for a number of reasons. In contrast, attacks in rural areas, such as Gurdaspur, fade out of the public eye.

The role of cities as engines of global economy coupled with their dense populations, openness and dynamism makes them particularly attractive for assault. Unsurprisingly, even small groups of less than 10 have effectively terrorised and paralysed a city for days. Consequently, as the world continues to urbanise—more than 50% of the global population will be living in cities by 2030—cities will become battlefields of terrorism. How acts of terror are prevented and dealt with in cities will be significant in blunting the objectives of terror groups.

This is being increasingly recognised and acted upon by national and local leadership. Most recently, following the Paris outrage, French President Francois Hollande called a special meeting of all city mayors to strengthen their ability to prevent and combat attacks. Similarly, cities such as New York have dedicated counter-terrorism units whose personnel are not only proactive in the city, but further afield in countries where such attacks are planned and practiced.

In contrast, Indian cities, even after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, remain woefully ill-prepared at the local level to respond to, let alone prevent, such attacks. Here, the government’s smart cities initiative is a useful opportunity to build the necessary resilience of Indian cities to protect themselves against acts of terror.

Second, cities and states—particularly democratic ones—struggle to find the appropriate and effective response to terrorist groups, which will on the one hand deter or destroy the terrorist group and on the other uphold the democratic and pluralistic values that the states are built upon. Often, given the traumatising and stunning nature of the attacks, states are inclined to prioritise the former at the cost of the latter.

However, the shock and awe of urban terror attacks notwithstanding, it is important to remember that no terrorist group has ever succeeded in entirely defeating and overwhelming a state. The only exception is the Taliban-al-Qaeda combine, which was able to capture Afghanistan in the 1990s. However, even this group was able to accomplish this reportedly only with the help of other states—notably from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Thus, states confronting terror attacks can choose the time and place to retaliate, although managing public outrage is a formidable challenge.

Finally, in many of these incidents—notably Paris and London—the attacks were carried out by disgruntled and marginalised citizens, holed up in their suburban ghettos, bitter at being excluded from the mainstream polity and prosperity of their countries, and seeking extremely destructive ways to express their grievance. This is evident from the fact that over a thousand French citizens and around 750 Britons have joined Islamic State. In the long run, assimilating such individuals (mostly belonging to the minority) would be imperative to weed out the scourge of terrorism. India, which has lost only 100 or so of its citizens (despite its much bigger population) to this extremist cause by building a viable counter narrative and an inclusive pluralistic society, needs to ensure that both are strengthened.

Countries can choose to ignore these lessons from the new wave of terrorism only at their own peril.