Protecting Cities: The battle against terrorism
Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. Over the next 30 years, that figure will likely increase to 66 percent. As cities grow demographically, ensuring their security becomes more of a challenge and yet a significant priority. Faced with the criminal terrorist attacks by which many have been targeted, legislative, judicial, and executive branches of both national and international governments have been adapted and mobilized.
Deployment of police forces in France, photo by Augustin Dirand
The word 'terrorism' was first employed during the French revolution of 1789. At the time, it designed the violence with which governments in Paris tried to impose their new order on reluctant citizens. The first meaning of the word 'terrorism', as recorded by the Académie Française in 1798, was 'system or rule of terror'. The term has since then traveled centuries, and its definition naturally altered. As one contemplates the current issues that impact cities, it is natural to wonder about the origins of this phenomenon and how the very nature of terrorism has evolved since its origination.
Terrorism was not always as we know it to be today. Its history is as much European as Middle Eastern, and as much secular as religious, even if there are some common threads that can be traced through the history of terrorism. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, it underwent a radical change, coming to be also associated, as it still is today, with non-governmental groups. In the half-century following World War Two, terrorism stretched beyond the assassinations of political leaders and heads of state. More particularly, terror attacks began taking place in several European colonies, parallel to the rise of opposition against imperialist powers. These acts generally had two distinct purposes: to put pressure on the colonial powers so as to hasten their withdrawal whilst intimidating the indigenous population into supporting a particular group as the emerging post-colonial state government. Throughout Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, terrorism began expressing revolutionary socialism and nationalism, but also religious doctrines. During the prominent conflicts in Vietnam, Cuba and Algeria, assassinations of policemen and officials, kidnappings, bombings, and hijacking of aircrafts introduced a new dimension of terrorism in which civilians were also targeted.
In the 1970s, a new face of terrorism was revealed: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lead to suicide bombings in which there was a new element which had not been evident two or three decades earlier: Islamic religious extremism. This modern dimension of terrorism developed in the 1990s, after Osama Bin Laden founded the fanatical Islamic movement Al-Qaida (The Base). Its public statements were an odd mixture of religious extremism, contempt for existing Arab regimes, hostility to US dominance, and insensitivity to the effects of terrorist actions. Due to hostilities following interventions from Russia and the USA in Muslim countries such as Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, it became an ambition to resist western dominance. In pursuit of these ambitions, terrorist attacks killed hundreds in bombings of US embassies in Africa in August 1998. This new kind of movement had a cause, network, and was not confined to any one state. What is more, its adherents were willing to commit suicide if it meant inflicting destruction on the enemy, as they did on September 11. The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon confirmed that terrorists were now engaged in a campaign of suicide and mass murder on a huge scale. It stretched far beyond a simple form of political rebellion and indicated that the intention was to cause a maximum amount of damage and casualties. Terrorist organizations expanded with the start of the 21st century, and other groups emerged across North Africa and the Middle East such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS across Iraq and Syria.
Since the 9/11 attack on New York, many other world cities have been affected by terrorist attacks, such as Moscow, Madrid in 2004, Paris in 2015, Brussels in 2016, London and Barcelona in 2017. Cities contain many popular and crowded places, such as concert halls, football stadiums, or even metros, making them prime objectives for attacks, such as the one that took place during an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. In addition, world cities such as Paris, New York and London represent economic and political powers very present in the media, and many terror groups thus target them to maximise their impact and influence. Therefore, different actors have been obliged to intervene as to strengthen their security systems. To fight terrorism, international, national and city governments have adapted their legislation and taken it into their responsibility to protect world cities.
National flag on a French official building, photo by Augustin Dirand
As the threat of terrorism has intensified, so have the measures to counter it. In the past few decades, international cooperation between the main actors of counter terrorism has become more and more prominent. A notable example can be found in the EU’s response to the numerous recent attacks against some of its cities. After terror attacks in early 2015, the European commission published a report proposing the creation of a common European Counter Terrorism Center to integrate the continent’s police forces at a supranational level. Furthermore, nations across the world are constantly sharing information with one another through institutions such as Interpol and Europol, which allows a coordinated response in real time, as seen recently after the Barcelona attacks, when photos of the suspects were quickly transmitted worldwide. The UN has also become a key player in the struggle against terrorism. As part of their Global Counter Terrorism Strategy adopted on September 8, 2006, they have developed measures based around two main areas: Prevention and Response. Prevention addresses how to avoid the radicalisation of individuals, which could potentially lead them to committing acts of terror, while Response takes place after an attack has taken place, and addresses how to counter acts of Terror.
Response on a local level has also strengthened. France, one of the countries hardest hit by Islamic Terrorism, has launched the Vigipirate plan, and entered a “state of emergency”, giving exceptional powers to the government for a limited amount of time. The state of emergency allows police to conduct house raids and searches without a warrant or judicial oversight, including at night, and gives extra powers to officials to place people under house arrest outside the normal judicial process and to close places of worship. It also allows for restrictions on large gatherings. President Macron, elected in 2017, has elaborated a response strategy via his counter-terrorism program lead by a new, specialized task force. The new taskforce will comprise around 20 people, chiefly intelligence analysts, who will supervise and oversee all counter-terrorism efforts directly under the president’s authority. It will determine strategies to tackle radicalisation on the internet and the sharing of instructions on how to carry out an attack. There will be a focus on the issue of French citizens trying to return from fighting with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. As part of Vigipirate, over ten thousand soldiers were deployed after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in what was then an unprecedented use of the military for domestic security. Since then, an increased military presence continues to be a key component in counter terrorism not just in France, but all around the world.
The French Vigipirate Logo, photo by Emilie Lapillonne
More controversially, armed forces have also been employed abroad in what is known as the “War on Terror’’, which debuted with the UN sanctioned invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. These operations have intensified even more since the emergence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, with an international coalition conducting thousands of airstrikes on their positions. Some of the key goals of these campaigns is to prevent groups such as Al Qaeda from having secure bases from which to organize attacks, and to capture or eliminate the leaders of such organisations, as shown in 2011 by Operation Neptune Spear, in which Osama Bin Laden was killed by American special forces.
Local authorities are also committed to fighting the inherent causes that, in extreme cases, lead to terrorism. As stated by former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls when addressing the French suburbs known as “banlieues”, often seen as “breeding grounds” for extremism. “When you have such high levels of poverty, where people of similar origins live in similar poverty … it’s not a great surprise that these areas become real tinderboxes.”, suggesting that social problems represent a major factor in radicalisation. Another important element is extremist propaganda, which has become especially widespread with the emergence of groups such as Al Qaeda, and, most importantly, the “Islamic State” organization, who frequently uses social media to influence and then recruit members. To combat this, governments have become more and more strict concerning the Internet. In 2016, Apple was asked to unlock the phones used by suspects in the San Bernardino shootings and criticized after the company’s refusal to do so. Many websites and social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram Messenger are now under constant surveillance and more and more phone conversations can be tracked and intercepted by state or international governments.
French court of appeal, photo by Augustin Dirand
Since the onset of the “War on Terror’’ which has defined counter terrorism in the 21st Century, the threat has considerably evolved, shifting from large scale attacks such as the Twin Towers and Madrid Train bombings, executed by large and coordinated networks, to more unpredictable, smaller scale ones like the Nice or Manchester attacks. Defensive measures therefore need to continually be adapted in this unprecedented asymmetric conflict, with for example the deployment of soldiers and new task forces, but also in more subtle manners with for instance the surveillance of websites. Increasing international cooperation is also a major priority in order to correctly address what is one of the biggest dangers facing cities in today’s chaotic world. Although citizens may be reluctant to adopt some of the new measures that often impact on individual liberties, the battle against terrorism is a prime issue that demands small sacrifices and a general effort from both governments and peoples. Nevertheless, it remains essential to balance these sacrifices as to not substantially lose of our freedom, for as Benjamin Franklin cited: “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”