The recent Riverside terror attack inside Dusit Hotel in Westlands Nairobi is still a raw wound in our conscious.
Cities are the new frontline of terrorism. The goal of today’s terrorist is not only to target civilians and spread fear, but also to turn city residents against each other.
Whether in Nairobi, New York or Paris, violent extremists are looking to suppress normal city life, separate people from one another, and drive residents into mental fortresses. Once physically and psychologically segregated, this makes it easier to sow mistrust and dissent.
There is a perverse logic to 21st-century terrorism. By goading governments and majority groups into retaliation, terrorists draw new recruits to their cause(s). In extreme cases, as the fall-out from US 9/11 terrorist attack shows, the strategy works a charm.
Why cities matter
That terrorists target cities makes sense. Cities are under assault precisely because they are centres of political, economic and cultural power.
For centuries, diverse communities have assembled in cities. Cities instinctively accommodate difference and disagreement. They require sophisticated forms of accommodation and co-existence to survive. Yet even the most plural cities are vulnerable to rupture.
This is precisely the reason why ethnically and religiously mixed neighbourhoods, malls, nightclubs and hotels are under attack. It is no longer a question of picking out a specific group based on their ethnicity, religion or sexual preference, but rather paralyzing the city. As a senior ISIS operative recently observed “my advice is to stop looking for specific targets. Hit everyone and everything.”
When communities stop interacting, when they self-segregate, then some of their members become more susceptible to exploitation, radicalization and violent extremism.
Claiming back our cities
What do all these separate developments mean? That no matter where you are in the world, urban sieges will continue. They are also likely to become even more common in the fastest growing parts of the planet, especially Africa and Asia.
But that doesn’t mean we should stand idly by and watch it happen. In fact, there are steps we can take to deter and minimize the risks.
At a minimum, cities need to become more resilient to urban terrorism, whether foreign or locally inspired. While there are potentially useful strategies to defend and “harden” targets with blast walls, attack-resistant bollards and shatter-proof glass, more investment is needed to strengthen inter-city cooperation, bolster police-community relations and strengthen intelligence, security and emergency response services.
City planners can also introduce strategies to undermine radicalization by strengthening social bonds between different urban communities. More interaction between different ethnic and identity groups – not less – is key to building social cohesion and efficacy.
As Sullivan observes, “urban siege demands an urban terrorism prevention strategy. Cities are more than just a collection of targets. They are living political, social and economic ecosystems that are connected and can be exploited to spread fear and fragility or hope and resilience.”
On the physical part, traditional cities and buildings are constructed in a way that makes them particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Now, architects and city planners are working towards a more resilient future.