14 Oct

After Bin Laden: A New Urban Terrorism?

Posted By polity_admin_user

Osama bin Laden, leader and figurehead of al-Qaeda, the global terrorist network which shook the world with its dramatic and violent actions against the USA,Europe and beyond, was killed in May 2011 and many other leading figures in the network have suffered the same fate. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan was removed in 2001 and its remnants forced back into the mountains. There has been no repeat of the ‘spectacular’ acts of terrorism that al-Qaeda became renowned for in the first five years of the twenty-first century as national security forces and international security operations have strengthened, putting intense pressure on the operation of the al-Qaeda network which has been increased and maintained. Al-Qaeda seems to have been suppressed but, as recent violent guerrilla attacks demonstrate, by no means are the network and its affiliates defeated.

The Pakistan-based radical Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) killed 172 people in Mumbai in 2008. Last month’s well-planned attack by Al-Shabaab militants on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi,Kenya, killed 67 people (with more still missing). In the same week, Boko Haram gunmen attacked a student dormitory in north-eastern Nigeria killing at least 42 students as they slept.These attacks show that the threat to civilians from terrorist groups adhering to a violent ideology of global Jihad connected to a radical interpretation of Islam remains. American President Barack Obama says that LeT poses a ‘worldwide terror threat’, Boko Haram (‘Western education is forbidden’) is trying to overthrow the Nigerian government to install an Islamic state, whilst the Somali group Al-Shabaab(‘The Youth’), which took over much of southern Somalia for a time before being forced back, is not known for its global reach, though it did merge with al-Qaeda in 2012. [See discussion of cooperation between various groups here: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/Default.aspx?pageID=238&nid=24095]

What these groups (and others) have in common is the desire to establish an Islamic state based on (often strict versions of) Sharia law alongside a commitment to violent Jihad as a means to achieve it. Some may see such an agenda as evidence in support of Samuel Huntington’s(1993/1996) thesis of a coming ‘clash of civilizations’, primarily between Islam and the West. However we should remember that the numbers involved in these militant groups is very small and unrepresentative of the 1.5 billion Muslims around the world.    

Although the groups discussed here operate primarily in developing countries, there is good reason to think that cities in the developed world are not immune. For instance, an unknown number of people from Britain and other developed countries have travelled to Somalia to training camps run by Al-Shabaab before returning, while the group has actively tried to reach the Somali diaspora around the world with its message of global Jihad(Hansen 2013). Britain, Australia, Canada and the USA all declared Al-Shabaab a terrorist organization over the last few years because of the danger posed by its worldwide recruitment methods. [See David Kilcullen’s article: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/27/westgate-mall-attacks-al-qaida]

What the recent attacks do show is that the normal, everyday features of densely populated cities and urban areas have become targets for twenty-first-century urban terrorism and guerrilla warfare. Shopping centres, railway stations, hotels, energy facilities and other parts of the urban infrastructure provide opportunities for small groups of well-organized militants to terrorize civilian populations and disrupt normal life by researching and understanding the urban environment and making use of widely available and relatively inexpensive conventional weapons such as guns.

In urban sociology, the recent ‘infrastructuralturn’ studies the extensive infrastructural networks on which all major cities rely. Much of this infrastructure is invisible most of the time and people only become aware of it when things go wrong. Only when phone lines fail, the Internet inexplicably goes down, roads are closed for repairs, power cuts occur or water pipes burst does the material underpinning of everyday city living come to our attention. And as developing countries have gone through their own rapid,large-scale urban population growth their infrastructure has developed accordingly with a vast network of pipes, cables, roads and railways serving city dwellers. People become accustomed to the reliability such systems afford,and disrupting them, albeit temporarily, is one way that militant groups can have an impact that is disproportionate to their size. In short, urban environments allow groups such as Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram to punch well above their weight.  

What will the consequences of urban terrorism be? After al-Qaeda terrorists flew planes into American targets in 2001, airline security was radically tightened with a raft of new measures put in place to avoid a recurrence. We may expect something similar as a response to the recent urban attacks, which may well change the character of cities as places of individual freedom, creative expression and opportunity. For example, it seems inevitable that surveillance and monitoring will be intensified with more computerized CCTV systems, ID checks, stop and search, biometric surveillance, more use of satellite communications, risk profiling and monitoring of email, mobile phone use and financial transactions (Mills and Huber 2002). Such heightened security measures, according to some scholars, amount to a form of ‘military urbanism’ as techniques and systems designed for use in military conflicts are adapted for use in urban areas (Graham 2010). [See the article on Kenya’s response to the Nairobi attack here: http://www.defenceweb.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=28717&Itemid=113]

It is easy to see how these measures, once accepted as inevitable, could slide into the monitoring and suppression of non-terrorist dissent, urban movements and mainstream protest and demonstrations. If cities and urban life continue to be targeted by militants and terrorist groups, and governments tighten the security and surveillance in cities, then the characteristic qualities of ‘urbanism as away of life’, described by sociologists from Weber and Simmel to Louis Wirth, Herbert Gans, the Chicago School and beyond, will need to be radically revised if we are to understand the experience of twenty-first-century urban dwellers.   


Graham, S. (2010) Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism (London: Verso).

Hansen S. J. (2013) Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, 2005-2012 (London: C. Hurst & Co Ltd).

Huntington, S. P. (1996) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New  York: Simon and Schuster).

Mills, M. P and Huber, P. W.(2002) ‘How Technology will Defeat Terrorism’, City Journal , 12(1) Winter: 24-34.

Chapter 23 contains a lengthy discussion of new and old forms of terrorism (pp.1041-46) and the subject of fundamentalisms is also tackled in Chapter 17, pp:754-59. Given the organizational similarities between international terrorist groups and social movements, it is also worth consulting pp.994-1006 (Chapter 22) on movement types and theories which seek to understand them. On urbanism as a way of life, see Chapter 6, pp.206-12 and for the vulnerable urban infrastructure and military urbanism see pp.212-5 and 233-6. In the Reader, our Introduction to Part 10 (pp.297-99), Readings 14 (Georg Simmel) and 16 (Saskia Sassen) along with Laqueur’s piece on the ‘new terrorism’ (Reading 52) should also be helpful.

Philip W. Sutton