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This article was published in the April 2005 volume of the SWJ Magazine.

Terrorism and Cities

A Target Rich Environment


It should surprise no one that the North Vietnamese chose to strike Hue and Saigon during their 1968 Tet Offensive; that attacks by Tamil Tiger bombers have focused on the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo; or that New York City and Washington, D.C. were the foci for the aggressions of September 11, 2001.  Cities are the richest of terrorist targets.  They are rich in significance due to their density of high visibility and politically symbolic features.  They are opulent in the attention they bestow on those committing a terrorist assault; television, radio, and print media representatives are inevitably immediately at hand, likely in considerable numbers.  There is a wealth of concealment and support for individuals preparing to perpetrate an act, especially in those urban areas of the developed world in which virtually every nationality and demographic group are found in some numbers.  The sheer density of activities per unit of time means that a man or woman rarely attracts notable attention unless their behaviors are of a character so unusual as to dramatically contrast with others in the immediate vicinity.  This abundance of activity allows perpetrators to enter, exit, or pass through an urban area with relative ease.  Familiarity with one's neighbors and the homogeneity of most rural environments mean that a stranger attracts immediate notice.  The outsider is in contrast often the norm in large towns or cities, allowing him or her to move about and mingle effectively unnoticed.

Urban areas are also affluent in relevance to the daily lives of much of the world's population.  Over half of earth's population resides in built-up areas.  Most developed nations are in particular highly urbanized; many developing nations have extraordinary rates of escalating urbanization.  Television and motion pictures frequently focus on the lives of individuals residing, working, or seeking new beginnings in cities.  An attack on a rural target may be difficult to relate to for those not in the immediate vicinity, especially a strike involving lives in a distant nation.  The ubiquity of urbanization, on the other hand, means that images of destruction and descriptions of metropolitan havoc are readily comprehended by city dwellers anywhere.  Tragedy among Japanese farmers is likely to stimulate little sympathetic understanding in many parts of the world, not because there is a lack of compassion but rather because the farmers' lives are so alien to most hearing of the event.  Contrarily, many residents of New York, London, Moscow, Hong Kong, Cairo, and Calcutta had little trouble envisioning the consequences of the September, 1995 Tokyo subway nerve agent attack.

Cities are rich in the extent of consequences an attack can precipitate.  Urban events are far more likely to have local, regional, national, and international impact than is the case in any but the most exceptional rural incidents.  The September 11, 2001 strike on the World Trade Center had financial and commercial aftereffects that permeated the most distant economies.  While there is some redundancy in world financial and commercial systems, there is also great interdependence, a series of interrelationships that ensures a blow against one point is felt throughout affected economic sectors.  In comparison, redundancy in the agricultural sector comes with less interdependence; a strike might well be of considerable magnitude but have only regional or national consequences.  Other suppliers readily stepped forward when the British beef industry suffered a bout of foot and mouth disease in 2001.

Surprisingly, perhaps, a terrorist group may find metropolitan areas in developing nations even more lucrative than those in developed countries.  A native metropolis frequently offers perpetrators a larger and more secure support base on which to draw.  Indigenous terrorists are likely to find a greater proportion of residents sympathetic, or at a minimum apathetic, to their motivations. Predominant demographics can facilitate anonymity.  The successful attacks on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, and federal building in Oklahoma City are three instances in which the similarity of terrorist characteristics and those of the indigenous population worked against preemptive detection.

These many factors ensure that cities will continue to attract the attentions of undesirable non-state actors and state-sponsored irregular aggressors.  Two elements are especially notable in the battle against urban terrorism.  First, any resolution should incorporate all of a state's means of favorably influencing the desired outcome.  Success is rarely attainable without an orchestration of appropriate economic, political, diplomatic, and other means in addition to those involving the military.  This is particularly true when there are even moderate constraints on the use of force.  Second, public preparation linked to an effective response system is crucial.  Urban residents must be convinced of the need to support anti-terrorist efforts and told how to assist in countering the threat.  Given their willing participation, the public must further be convinced that their cooperation will result in effective action.  There is a need to demonstrate to the man or woman on the street who makes a report that justice in dealing with legitimate threats will follow.  (There is similarly a requirement to demonstrate that deliberately false reports, whether made for the purpose of settling scores or other reasons, will result in punishment of the accusers.)

Neither of these two elements is unique to urban contingencies, but the character of challenges in a built-up area notably influences the nature of both.  The greater density of individuals and groups that must be influenced means that achieving desired objectives will be very demanding of time and resources.  The positive effects of density, which include faster transmission of propaganda, are more than offset by the multiple counter influences that such densities provide. The typical urban resident has a broader spectrum of influences on his or her life than is the case with those living in more sparsely populated environs; he or she therefore has more alternative perspectives impacting his or her daily decision-making.  Northern Ireland provides an effective example; there multiple groups struggle to support their interests, at times using coercion to ensure compliance amongst the hesitant and those supporting alternative stands.  Progress in interdicting support for Unionist and Republican acts of violence has been slow to show itself despite years of orchestrating economic, political, social, and military initiatives.  Similar opposing influences will affect the viability of an education campaign elsewhere.  Success can mean having to overcome generations of deeply ingrained antipathies.  Sometimes little more than an insightful approach is needed to trigger success.  In Greece, efforts to "put the black hat on the bad guys" by advertising the horrors suffered by victims of terrorism was fundamental to undermining popular support for the perpetrators and their causes.  Officials having to overcome such long-standing prejudices are only rarely so fortunate.  Progress is far more likely to demand a long-term, well orchestrated, and carefully managed dedication of economic and other resources to redress actual and perceived grievances.

Educating citizens domestically would include psychologically preparing them for urban terrorist-related events.  Such education would improve national preparedness to detect, counter, and minimize a strike's negative consequences.  A more aware public would know to report a parcel left unattended in a public area.  Its members would understand how to identify and notify authorities regarding suspicious activities.  Ideally they would become savvy in the ways of the terrorist and thus know how to react should an incident occur in their vicinity (for often a first attack is but a means of flushing a greater number and density of targets into the kill zone of a second).  It would be hoped that the educated man or woman would better respond to on-scene authorities' guidance, thereby reducing the incidence of panic, facilitating quarantine procedures should they be necessary, and otherwise causing members of the public to act in the best interests of themselves and others.  Specially targeted groups (e.g., police, fire, emergency medical, hospital, and transportation system employees) would receive training tailored to take advantage of their responsibilities and the constant public presence their positions entail.

Education is but a part of what should be a greater program of preparing a public for urban terrorism, whether domestically or abroad.  Responses to an attack should be in accordance with standing plans and procedures.  Those responses should be rehearsed at multiple echelons by all with relevant responsibilities.  Rehearsals should include devil's advocates' input, that from individuals capable of challenging officials with realistic scenarios (such those involving a city's off-duty emergency response personnel voluntarily rushing to a point of attack, their good intentions thereby putting the city's readiness for subsequent strikes and continuous operations in jeopardy).  Such challenges must incorporate strategic as well as tactical considerations so as to ensure that post-event decisions act to mitigate negative economic, diplomatic, and other consequences.  Effective rehearsals and exercises will therefore require participation by a wide range of parties representing many governmental and private organizations.

That cities offer a wealth of benefits to the terrorist attacker is readily apparent, as is the inevitability of future strikes.  Yet there is also abundance available to others seeking more favorable objectives.  The collective character of many cities' residents has a richness of which those responsible for combating terrorism should make better use.  The residents of London have repeatedly refused to be intimidated by the Irish Republican Army's threats much as they stood fast against World War II aerial bombardment.  Oklahoma City did not break despite the sudden loss of 168 citizens on April 19, 1995.  The attacks of September 11, 2001 let the world see that New York City is more a community than its aloof reputation would have led many to believe possible.  Assaults on London, Oklahoma City, New York, and Washington, D.C. were attributable to those urban areas' political, economic, and symbolic affluence.  The notoriety and other consequences of such strikes did resonate worldwide, but the resonations rapidly took on a character counterproductive to the perpetrators' objectives.  Ultimately it was the bounteousness of the urban residents' character that came to characterize each of these events.  Urban terrorism may never be eliminated, but its probability of success and level of impact can be diminished by initiatives that capitalize on the wealth of support, expertise, and strength of collective character existent in many city populations.

Dr. Russell Glenn, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, spent twenty-two years in the Army, including a tour with the 3rd Armored Division Spearheaders during the Persian Gulf War.  His military education included airborne, ranger, and pathfinder schools and the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS).   Since 1997 he has been a senior defense and political analyst with RAND.

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