The Phenomenon of Urban Terrorism

Urban terrorism is the use of terrorism in cities and other urban areas, targeting the urban populace. Urban terrorism is not a new phenomenon. Groups have been carrying out terrorist attacks in cities and towns for decades now. In 1995, Tokyo witnessed the subway sarin attack wherein members of the Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas into the metro trains and killed and injured many. Perhaps, the most popular urban terrorist attack is the 9/11 attacks in 2001 where terrorists hijacked four airlines, two of which were crashed into the Twin towers of the World Trade Center. Over the past few years, the increasing cases of urban terrorism are seeing a rise, especially in South Asia.

Urban terrorism in South Asia is a relatively new phenomenon. In recent years, terrorists are visibly moving away from activities near the borders to the cities and towns. India has been witness to several urban terror attacks such as the 1993 Bombay bombings, 1998 Coimbatore bombings , 2000 terrorist attack on Red Fort, 2001 Indian Parliament attack, 2005 Delhi bombings, 2008 Bangalore serial blasts and 2008 Mumbai attacks. In Bangladesh, in 2016, an unprecedented attack on Dhaka Holey Artisan Bakery in Gulshan city resulted in the death of 29 people including 17 foreigners. Pakistan is teeming with urban terrorism with the regions of Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta being hot targets. With the rising geopolitical importance of South Asia and also the importance and international attraction of its cities like Delhi, Bengaluru, Mumbai or Dhaka, it’s not unsurprising that terror organizations are moving into these hubs to accomplish their agenda.

The attraction that urban areas hold for terrorist attacks is apparent. Cities are the nerve centers of a country and a large scale attack on the same would effectively cripple the country. Capital cities usually hold important buildings like the Parliament or legislative assembly and important and populated centers like railway stations, and attacking these strategic sites would be a great accomplishment to terrorists. The choice of targets in the devastating 26/11 was not incidental. The Taj Hotel is a symbol of luxury in Mumbai, its large dome a prominent sight in the city skyline. Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus not only caters to a large number of people but is also a historic site. Leopold Café and Oberoi Trident are landmark places in the city. By attacking these prominent places, the terrorists were successful in bringing the city to a standstill. Post 9/11 attacks, the country faced severe economic effects. There was a sharp decline in the stock market and thereby the economy of the country also declined for a short period.

There are other benefits of using cities as terrorism hubs. Cities and towns are home to a heterogeneous crowd, usually made of people from not just all over the country but all over the world as well. Attacking a populace as diverse as this is likely to have a greater impact. Cities also provide better and easier logistical support. In an article on the IDSA website, Dr. Manoharan discusses the logistical support that is made easily accessible to the terrorists. Food, arms, lodging, transportation are some of the amenities made readily available. Hiding is also simpler because terrorists will find it easier to camouflage themselves in the conspicuousness of complex city infrastructure. City terrains like that in India, which are largely unplanned, are made up of a confusing jungle of tall structures and narrow alleys which make it easier for terrorists to escape. Terrorists also sustain on publicity and promotion of their strength. By attacking high profile targets, due to widespread media coverage, terrorists not only inadvertently get publicity but are also able to project to the world that they are strong enough to enter a country and break its walls.

India recognizes the danger of terrorism in their countries. For instance, in September 2018, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, during a SAARC meeting, stated that terrorism persists to be the single largest threat to the stability and peace in South Asia. With the modus operandi of terrorists shifting considerably, this calls for a change in counterterrorism strategies that are specially adapted to deal with this new phenomenon. Many kinds of research and studies are being conducted to develop a counterterrorism infrastructure to deal with urban terrorism. This would require better collection and analysis of intelligence, enhanced and specialized training to the first responders (police) and the National Security Guard, and possibly better management of city spaces.

Another problem faced in understanding urban terrorism in South Asia is that countries of this region are rife with issues of separatism, sectarianism, and communalism which have on several occasions led to internal violence. The question arises whether these acts of violence find a place in the traditional understanding of terrorism and whether they constitute urban terrorism. This clarity is important to device an effective counter-terrorism strategy.

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