Small Wars Journal

Postcard from Mumbai: Modern Urban Siege

Mon, 02/16/2009 - 11:13am

Postcard from Mumbai


Modern Urban Siege

by John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, Small Wars Journal

Postcard from Mumbai (Full PDF Article)

According to many television news reports, the Mumbai terrorist attacks were a "siege." But there were no catapults, cannons, or breaching ladders. Instead, a dozen men with guns paralyzed one of the world's largest cities, killing 173 with barely concealed glee. Sadly, Mumbai heralds a new chapter in the bloody story of war in cities—the siege of the city from within. The polis is fast becoming a war zone where criminals, terrorists, and heavily armed paramilitary forces battle—and all can be targeted. All the while, gardens of steel spring up, constricting popular movement and giving way to an evolving architecture of fear. The "feral city" and the military colony battle each other for dominance in the urban siege.

Defending against the urban siege requires bridging the gap between police and military, building a layered defense, and fighting to preserve the right to the city. Despite the terrifying nature of the threat, the ultimate advantage lies with the vibrant modern city and the police, soldiers, and civilians tasked to defend it. The key to success lies in the construction of resilient physical and moral infrastructure.

Postcard from Mumbai (Full PDF Article)

About the Author(s)


Very provocative article. I agree that what they offer as suggestions are neither new and novel. I am also in agreement with Bill regarding our inability to implement such suggestions.

There are signficant paradigm shifts that need to occur if we are to attempt to prevent the "post card" from arriving (again) here. The friction point is intelligence and how it is obtained. There will be SIGNIFICANT resistence to forming adroit and proactive intelligence infrastructures. We just spent the past few years decrying mobile phone information collection (much of which is, and has been for many years, collected from listening posts OUTSIDE of the USA).

Additionally, as the authors indirectly point out, many of the vanguard urban terror/insurgent groups used state and societal organs as weapons against the established power structure. Too often, in the 1970's, the intelligence infrastructure in Europe was dismantled by criminal defence efforts during trials involving terror groups such as Bader-Meinhoff et al. Years of network and source operations perished because of the need to provide the defence with access to "evidence." We will face the same here. Gitmo closing will give us an indication where we may be heading.

I further agree that we have so narrowly defined "weapons of mass destruction." Explosive devices detonated in one school per state would certainly be mass destruction at several levels. IMHO this method of definition only served to divide the labor of security and preserve specific niches. And as we have witnessed, not a healthy operational environment nor will having narrow definitions give rise to real operational art, a necessity, directly pointed out by the authors.

Ken White

Mon, 02/16/2009 - 3:25pm

I agree with Bill on most counts. The basic article was indeed a well researched and effective call for some action.

Bill suggests that:<blockquote>"...The days of the centralized elite forces that will respond to a crisis anywhere in the country are over, because they are simply too slow to respond. We need a good enough capability everywhere possible."</blockquote>I very strongly agree. I also suggest this should not be rectified by a new large Federal bureaucracy or the establishment of regional or area teams under an existing large Federal bureaucracy.

There will be claims that a Federal solution is 'more efficient' and more economical -- plus a more rapid fielding is possible. Efficiency does not provide effectiveness and I submit in this situation, effectiveness is far more critical. The seeming short term economy will be offset by long term growth; it will be, after all, a federal program...

The more rapid fielding is a likely story. I offer Homeland Security, TSA (minus the Air Marshals who have seemingly arrived after six years...) and Deepwater as examples.

Let the States do it with 'Stimulus' funding. Each State should formulate their own response plans and / or teams and do it in a manner that is best for their situation. This nation is too large and diverse for a one size fits all Federal solution to this problem and the States are perfectly capable of doing it.

Fifty state solutions will also provide various plans and methods that can be played off each other to leverage best practices and will also in the long run prove not only more effective but more economical.

The Small Wars Journal community tends to focus their collective efforts on the study of security related issues on foreign shores, so it is refreshing to see an article of this caliber co-authored by a Los Angeles County police officer that effectively incorporates many lessons from the SWJ community and applies them conceptually to homeland defense. In my opinion, developing homeland defense options against "probable" threats has been shamefully neglected by the U.S. government. Instead we spent millions of dollars on preparing for the 1% probability of a violent extremist employing a WMD in the U.S. This is analogous to the militarys reluctance to transform because it is focused on maintaining the antiquated doctrine and structure to fight and prevail in a large scale conventional war (another low probability event), while we continue to lose ground and influence around the world to irregular and asymmetrical threats.

As one of the coauthors of a recent Army handbook on populace and resource control (PRC) for counterinsurgency, I see numerous parallels with the authors recommendations for securing our cities with effective historical counterinsurgency practices around the world we studied in preparation for writing the handbook, ranging from ink blots, limiting freedom of movement, continuous contact with the civilian populace, re-establishing legitimacy, etc.. However, this article goes well beyond these tactics and strategies and calls for homeland security reform.

The rapidly changing character of warfare has enabled non-state actors to rise from being a nuisance to a serious threat to our national security, and this is very evident in some cities around the world where the government has ceded control of certain neighborhoods, and in some cases entire cities, to non-state actors.

What they didnt discuss, but perhaps implied, was the frightening agility of these non-state actor networks to evolve and devolve rapidly, faster than our intelligence analysts can monitor. Now we see on an almost daily basis terrorist networks merging with criminal networks, terrorist networks merging with other terrorist networks, terrorist networks devolving into multiple terrorist networks and / or criminal networks, or criminal and terrorist networks merging with State sponsors to facilitate achieving common objectives. It was John Robb who referred to this as an open system, very different from the days when terrorist cells were highly compartmented, thus relatively easily targeted with good intelligence and police work. The threat now is much more amorphous and dangerous, and as the authors suggest requires a much more decentralized and robust response. In short, our old doctrines are insuffient, because they were based on a different type of threat.

While the authors claim that their recommendations are neither new nor novel, the fact remains that we rarely put into effective practice what we "allegedly" already know.

I will only focus on one of their recommendations, which is a call to develop a hybrid police force. In general (as standards vary widely city to city, state to state) our current police organizations are undermanned, under equipped and poorly trained and may not be capable of effectively opposing a serious criminal network, or worse case a terrorist network, such as the Mexican drug cartels. Thus, once again the strong argument for a hybrid police force, much like a constabulary that is capable of walking the beat, collecting intelligence/conducting investigations, and at the same time capable of mobilizing rapidly into an effective SWAT like response force when needed. As the authors state, our police organizations currently do not have this type of operational doctrine, but hopefully we wont have to wait for our Mumbai to address this shortfall. The days of the centralized elite forces that will respond to a crisis anywhere in the country are over, because they are simply too slow to respond. We need a good enough capability everywhere possible.

This was a well written wake up call with recommendations that should seriously be considered by military and police theorists shaping our future counterinsurgency, counterterrorist and police doctrines.