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Policing Urban Conflict: Urban Siege, Terrorism and Insecurity

7 MINS READApr 19, 2018 | 21:15 GMT
Getty Images / TONY KARUMBA / Stringer

Cities have been the foci of culture, trade, and political life throughout history. When the social contract breaks or politics fail, they have been the focus of conflict and violence as well. In the vacuum of power, terrorists, rebels, and criminals time and again seek to reset the political, social, and economic equilibrium through violence. This violence has always occurred in cities but as the world becomes more urban, cities become inseparable from global conflict. This central role was recognized by Algerian separatists during the Battle of Algiers and its future importance forecast in Carlos Marighella’s Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla. From the Casbah to urban Brazil, to the streets of Europe and alleys and hotels of Beirut, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Nairobi, and Mumbai, urban terrorism continues to evolve.

As seen in my previous essay "Urban Warfighting and Classic Siege" classic siege continues as a mode of contemporary warfare despite its indiscriminate and brutal burden on civilians. Recently, holding cities under siege has been complicated by chemical attacks against civilians such as those seen in Syria. This stark reality is complemented by the use of urban terrorism as a mode of warfare both within and outside the war zone. A potent variation of urban terrorism and guerilla warfare is the combined arms swarming attack known as ‘urban siege.’

Virtual Siege in the Streets

Mumbai in many ways became the template for amplifying urban terrorism into an effective tool of psychological warfare where tactics and fear are manipulated to disrupt urban life and influence political discourse. As such ‘modern urban siege’ became a metaphor for an evolved urban campaign. From the first 26/11 Mumbai attack in 2008 where multiple teams conducted several near-simultaneous ‘swarming’ attacks at several locations using combined arms and multiple attacks (bombing, targeted killings, drive-by shootings, building takeovers, and hostage-barricade situations) the terrorists sowed confusion and fear during 60 hours of violence creating a ‘virtual siege’ throughout Mumbai.  

Variations on this tactical template were seen again at the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Kenya, the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks in Paris where a ‘spectrum of armed assault’ started with an attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper followed by a three-day killing spree where attacks—including hostage-takings (sieges) and killing a police officer—were distributed in time and space around Paris and its environs (a variation of ‘pulsing’). The January 2015 Paris attack was followed by a similar sequence in November 2015. The 13th of November attacks involved three teams: one where three suicide bombers attacked a soccer game at the Stade de France; another where three attackers detonated themselves after taking hostages at the Bataclan concert hall, and complemented drive-by shootings targeting restaurants and cafes. The sequence culminated in a barricade situation at an apartment where police neutralized the remaining suspects before they could conduct additional attacks. These attacks followed the Mumbai template. As we have seen, attacks against cities persist and some of them follow the ‘urban siege’ template to amplify fear. The swarming-style, virtual ‘urban siege’ didn’t replace classic siege, indeed both forms of siege co-exist and are deployed in different operational contexts across the spectrum of contemporary conflict.  For example, while the Islamic State (ISIS) has been linked to ‘urban siege’ in Paris, it has both conducted sieges and been besieged in classic siege operations in Iraq and Syria, showing continuity in urban tactics.  

Urban Insecurity and Contested Zones

Urban violence and endemic insecurity is turning the cities of Latin America into contested zones.  Mexican cartels wage battles in the streets resulting in mass graves and fueling endemic corruption. Intense street battles for control of the lucrative plazas (geographic nodes) for distribution of narcotics place police and citizens in the crossfire of warring criminal cartels and their sicarios (hitmen). Ambushes of police, kidnapping and murder of mayors and journalists punctuate the competition for turf and profit. In El Salvador, like Mexico, battles between rival gangs have challenged state capacity and triggered corruption of the political process as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Eighteenth Street (Barrio 18) compete for control of the criminal economy and challenge the state. In Brazil, gangs are seen as potentially influencing upcoming elections and dominate urban favelas, prisons, and the underworld alike. Brazil’s military has assumed control of policing in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil’s military is increasingly called to perform stability and support missions supporting law and order (known as missões de garantia de lei e ordem) reinforcing police. Specialty police approaches like Rio’s UPP – Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora – or police pacification units apply a hybrid counterinsurgency (COIN) – community policing approach to the high intensity challenge to state solvency (legitimacy and capacity) seen from the blurring of crime and war in the favelas and narco-cities dominated by alternative governance and illicit markets.  

Deadly Urban Riots

Urban riots are another challenge to security.  These can range from spontaneous eruptions of community frustration or discontent (local mobs) to orchestrated communal violence to organized rebellion posing strategic challenges. Recent instances of ‘barbarization’ as exemplified by the use of rape as a political tool for stimulating ethnic riots in India illustrate the complexity of riot response. Riots like counterterrorism require specialized police skills and at times require military support and intervention. Intervening in riots is complex and requires sustained training and analysis of tactics for intervention.  Indeed, response goes beyond crowd control tactics and response. Demonstrations are another variation of crowd power demanding subtle and nuanced intervention. They occupy the border between ‘political’ and ‘criminal’ events and if mismanaged can exacerbate conflict. Geospatial (terrain) and social (crowd type and dynamics) must be accurately assessed (together as geosocial intelligence) before framing response options. Developing the most effective response structure for addressing urban unrest requires an understanding of the city, the populace, and the capabilities of responding agencies (police, gendarmeries, military) and defining their interaction and operational disposition in both focal points and distributed areas of operation.

Conclusion: Responding to Urban Conflict

Urban conflict requires developing and applying the most effective combination of organizations (police, gendarmeries, military forces) in conjunction with civil authorities. These forces must balance civil liberties, community life, and operational security requirements. The response must address tactical and operational dynamics with strategic context. This demands not only tactical excellence but also the need for operational command and control supported by intelligence—essentially a robust urban C4ISR capacity bridging police, military, and civil defense capabilities.  The integration of police-fire service-EMS (emergency medical and hospital) capacities (collectively civil defense) and civil-military co-ordination will be addressed in the next essay in this series.

Policing is a core capacity that must be expanded and nurtured. Indeed, crime and victimization continue and are often heightened during protracted conflicts demanding an on-going or intra-conflict approach to urban security and policing. These responses are complicated and stretch the capacity of even the most capable urban police services. This requires police to interact with military responses. Joint doctrine development, training, and exercises for ‘whole of government’ response to urban operations are therefore essential. The acute onset of urban violence and terrorism makes surge capacity for maintaining order essential. Some of this need can be filled by law enforcement mutual aid, but the complexity of cities and their dense target potential demands military support as seen in France’s Vigipirate operations where the army (and of course the gendarmerie) augment local patrols.  

The need to develop and refine urban operations capabilities is an emerging requirement for urban security worldwide. The need for expeditionary police (EXPOL) or stability police forces (SPUs) like Italy’s Carabinieri and France’s Gendarmerie, and more recently the European Union’s composite European Gendarmerie Force (EUROGENDFOR) is increasingly recognized as a way of bridging the civil-military capability gaps found in protracted conflicts and insurgencies complicated by criminal violence, transnational organized crime and corruption. These EXPOL capabilities are likely to become an emerging facet of future international and non-international armed conflict.

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