Beslan massacreFor the last decade, world terrorism passed through a significant transformation. Any prediction fifteen years ago that terrorists could hijack passenger planes and use them as bombs to kill about 3,000 innocent people in New York, use deadly gas to poison over 5,000 people in a Tokyo subway; take 1,000 schoolchildren as hostages and cold-bloodily massacre over 300 of them in Beslan, as well as use of women and children as suicide-bombers would have been regarded as fiction. Terrorism has become a reality in many countries, and a great number of cities find themselves on the frontline of the new war. The devastating terror attacks on New York, Washington, Madrid, Istanbul, London, Bali, Amman,  and other places show that terrorism is presenting a serious if not deadly problem for the survival of many cities. Recent terrorist attacks on cities heralded an evolution of the nature of urban terrorism that detached acts of violence from the kind of political aims that governments find negotiable. There would be no more plane hijackings and negotiating with governments; no more warnings of bomb explosions; no more classical terror attacks. Cities are facing a much more determined enemy. While old liberation movements used terrorist tactics in pursuit of creating nation-states, the aims of modern international terror organizations such as al-Qaeda are, apparently, quite different: the destruction of secular governments and the bringing of chaos into urban life.

Photo: Beslan School Massacre 2004. Google Images.                               

Historical Context

Urban terrorism cannot be considered an entirely new phenomenon. Urban terrorists have existed for centuries. Starting in the late nineteen century urban renewal projects such as the boulevard constructed by Baron Haussman in Paris made cities unsuitable place for riots, barricading, and protests. (Hobsbawn, 1973; Crenshaw, 1981).  The same renewal, and lack of ability to successfully rebel, however, made cities arenas for terrorism. Meanwhile, the advent of more accurate repeater rifles and, in particular, the machine-gun rendered the city population a helpless mass quickly dispersed or, if need be, slaughtered. (Burton, 1975). In preventing popular insurrections, governments gave an impetus to increase the popularity of individual assassination, sabotage, and acts of terrorism.  However, only recently has urban terrorism become a significant force and actor that influences international affairs, internal, and world politics.  First, demographic revolution is transforming almost the entire developing world from a predominantly rural to a primarily urban society. According to the U.N. World Urbanization Prospects report, a share of the urban population in the world is increasing by 2% every five years. In the year 2030, almost 61% of the world population will reside in urban areas (U.N. World Urbanization Prospects, 2003). Urbanization as a part of the modern trend toward aggregation and complexity has increased the number and accessibility of targets and methods. (Crenshaw, 1981). Second, technological innovations have allowed tracking down most of the rural terrorists and halting their actions. These same innovations have helped the Urban Terrorist accomplish their goals more swiftly.  Terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November of 2008 is a good example how terrorist used google maps and cell phones to target more effectively. Urban jungles, however, allow terrorists to escape and to hide in overcrowded, urban areas. Third, the aim of insurgents and terrorists has changed. The main idea behind urban terrorism is not to change the government but to create chaos and fear, and to show the vulnerability of the government. Fourth, in comparison to target-poor non-urban areas, there are more lucrative targets in urban areas: places of worship, business, diplomatic missions, monuments and foreign citizens. Furthermore, there is an inability of army and law-enforcing agencies to maneuver in urban areas.

Successful Urban Terrorism Campaigns

Gypsies RomeTo date most of the cases urban terrorism do not see many successes. There are several exceptions, however, for example when urban terrorist campaigns often succeed when transpiring over a short period of time. Argentina and Turkey are examples of urban guerilla activities where the insurgents were very close creating liberated areas within the city. The massive urban terrorist campaign that wracked Turkey during the 1970s may provide a model for future urban-based campaigns. During the 1970s, urban insurgents in Turkey seized control over defined geographic areas, established alternative forms of government, exercised a crude form of sovereignty in those areas, and repulsed government efforts to reassert its control, creating, in effect, liberated zones (Taw and Hoffman, 1994). Such an urban strategy has been made possible by increased urbanization and the concentration of large populations of immigrants in clusters in and around cities. In 1960-1970 urbanization became a global phenomenon. From Latin America, where the number of the cities with population of a million or more rose between 1940 and 1970 from five to sixteen,  to Turkey urbanization caused dislocation and internal tensions. The emergence of shantytowns in the vicinity of the big cities provided a great reservoir for dissatisfied elements willing to join a terrorist movement. (Laquer; 1999).

Photo: In 2008-09 the Italian government  demolished a number of Gypsy camps and the Gypsy leading to discriminatory policies and "xenophobia". Gypsies, who immigrated from Romania, populate many regions of Italy and are especially prominent in Rome. Google Images.

You must be logged in to access the rest of this content.

Login form

TRAC is a unique, comprehensive resource for the study of political violence of all kinds.
Already a member? Login here.

Table of Contents

About the Contributor

Anar Valiyev

Dr. Anar Valiyev is the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs. He received his bachelor in history from Baku State University (1999) and a master in history (2001) from the same university. From 2001...