The New Normal: Urban Violence in the 21st Century

by Margarita Konaev

Urbanization is a relentless trend, and as cities grow and expand, armed conflict and violence are urbanizing as well. In recent years, cities like Aleppo, Sana’a, and Mosul have been largely destroyed in wars that involve conventional state forces fighting different insurgents and terrorist groups, armed groups battling each other, and third parties providing support to both state and non-state actors. Terrorist groups and ‘lone wolf attackers’ sponsored or inspired by the Islamic State have orchestrated sophisticated and deadly bombings, shootings, vehicular and suicide terrorism attacks on major cities across Europe and Africa. And even traditionally rural insurgent groups such as the Taliban and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) are increasingly targeting cities, with devastating consequences for civilians.

Meanwhile in Latin America, urban violence is largely fueled by confrontations between government forces, criminal gangs, and transnational drug trafficking organizations, as well as fighting between the criminal groups themselves. And while standard definitions of armed conflict don’t adequately describe the security challenges in countries such as Honduras, El-Salvador, Mexico, and Brazil, cities in this region have some of the highest rates of homicide in the world.

The nature, scope, and severity of the violence are distinct in each country and region. But the urbanization of violence is a global phenomenon.

The Push and Pull Factors behind the Urbanization of Violence

In essence, the rise in urban violence is a response to changes in global and sub-national demographics, growing inequality in urban areas, and increasingly unstable political conditions in developing countries.

Historically, the shift from small, rural settlements to larger, dense urban areas has been closely linked to industrialization and economic growth. Economic development has propelled urbanization, and in turn, urbanization has been a powerful engine behind economic growth and poverty reduction. Unfortunately, recent urbanization trends in developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, have not followed the same trajectory.

While cities such as Cairo, Kampala, Lagos, Dhaka, and Karachi have grown very rapidly, local and national economies have often lagged behind, and governments are failing to meet the ever-expanding demand for public services and infrastructure. Today, around a billion people live in sub-standard conditions in urban slums and informal settlements, largely without access to basic services such as housing, running water, sanitation, health, and education. In many such areas, the volatile combination of poverty, youth unemployment, inequality, marginalization, poor governance, and weak rule of law has created a fertile ground for the proliferation and expansion of criminal networks, recruitment into gangs and rebel groups, and social and political unrest.

It is also not a coincidence that different violent groups – insurgents, terrorists, narco-traffickers, and criminal gangs – are increasingly choosing to target and fight in cities. Cities have always held significant strategic, political, psychological, economic, and logistical value, serving as the epicenter of government power, industrial and financial activity, and cultural life. Globalization and urbanization have increased interconnectedness, and today’s cities are linked and networked more than ever before through transportation, trade, commerce, migration, and modern communication systems. Regardless of their motives, then, cities offer violent groups with a broad range of high-visibility soft targets, ranging from airports and train stations to religious and cultural sites to hotels, shopping malls, and concert venues.

Emerging technologies are changing the security landscape in important ways, and advances in surveillance techniques and aerial detection capabilities are another contributing factor behind the urbanization of violence. Major developments include airborne synthetic aperture radar systems that can peek through foliage, darkness, rain and even dust storms to reveal real-time, high-quality tactical ground imagery and satellite-based imagery and signals intelligence capabilities that can identify and locate radio transmissions even in remote mountain areas. These advances have made the classic rural guerilla warfare settings less safe for violent groups.

Cities, however, tend to negate the material and technological advantages of modern militaries. The complex physical terrain – multistory buildings, intricate street patterns, underground transportation tunnels and other structures and obstructions – hinder the performance of conventional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems and interfere with communication signals. Equally important is that in cities, insurgents, terrorists, and criminal elements can more easily avoid detection by blending into the local civilian population.

For governments and security forces, this rise in criminal and political urban violence and the growing trend for armed groups to fight in cities present an array of multi-dimensional and continuously evolving challenges, especially with respect to minimizing civilian casualties and collateral damage to critical urban infrastructure. Law enforcement and police forces are generally the first line of defense against rising rates of urban violence. But they often lack the necessary manpower and resources to effectively counter powerful violent groups, and in many cases, are plagued with corruption, inefficiency, and a troubling record of human rights violations. Conventional military forces, on the other hand, are predominantly trained, organized, and equipped for battle in open terrain against peer adversaries and not for operations in densely populated urban areas. Indeed, this is in part why recent conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen have witnessed such extensive destruction and disproportionately high rates of civilian casualties.  

Future Directions for Research on Urban Violence

The rise in urban violence is likely to continue, as political, criminal, social, and interpersonal violence will increasingly intersect, overlap, and converge in fragile, densely populated cities.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer a number of promising areas for future policy-relevant research on this critical attribute of modern conflict.

First, violence and conflict in cities endanger the civilian population more so than any other operational environment. Yet, to my knowledge, there are no studies focused explicitly on the causes, conduct, and consequences of violence against civilians in the context of modern urban conflicts. In fact, much of what we know about when and why civilians are likely to be targeted and killed in war comes from research on rural guerrilla insurgencies and historical studies of blockades and bombings – environments very different to today’s urban conflict zones. By focusing on cities and parsing out why and how various violent non-state actors treat civilians, such research can advance our knowledge of the drivers and manifestations of wartime violence against civilians as well as help identify ways to enhance practical protections for people living in conflict-affected cities.

Second, non-state actors are exploiting the connected, networked nature of modern cities with new tools at their disposal. Over the past few years, insurgent and terrorist groups including ISIS, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the Donetsk People’s Republic, as well as Colombian and Mexican drug cartels such as Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, have made use of commercial and even military grade drones for reconnaissance and surveillance. And in October 2016, ISIS became the first non-state group to kill troops on the battlefield using drones armed with explosives. Non-state groups have also proved quite skilled in utilizing social media platforms and messaging apps such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Telegram to organize and coordinate operations, attract new recruits, spread propaganda, and inspire sympathizers around the world to mobilize and act for their cause.

One direction worth exploring at this intersection of technology and urban violence is the symbolic and perceptual value of technologies compared with their operational and tactical utility. Are non-state groups primarily using drones for their propaganda value, to demonstrate a high level of capability and technological sophistication? Or do drones provide significant and otherwise unattainable tactical advantages, especially in urban settings? Another line of inquiry could identify and analyze the key similarities and differences in insurgent and terrorist groups’ use of social media compared to that of criminal organizations and drug cartels, and assess them in the context of the urban environment.

These questions can help us better understand the primary motivations and goals behind the use of these emerging technologies. Such research, in turn, can weigh in on whether and to what extent existing policies to counter non-state actors’ exploitation of emerging technologies correspond to the challenges at hand, as well as contribute to the development of future policies in this rapidly evolving domain.

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