The Changing face of global terrorism

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IN the backdrop of the recent attack in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, it becomes amply clear that global terrorism has taken a completely new shape. The evidence was already there but this attack by Al-Shabab clearly indicates and reinforces the changing patterns of global terrorism. The gunmen entered the mall, took hostages and killed about 70 people in the process. They used advanced weapons and latest cellular technology. What is most striking about the attack is that it was broadcast to the entire world in real time, and that precisely underlines the changing face of global terror.

The pattern of global terrorism has undergone a drastic change in the last 10-15 years. Be it the bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi in 1998 or the 9/11 attacks, it is clear that this warfare is an increasingly urban phenomenon now. It is no more restricted to the mountains where it was more of guerilla warfare. The 2008 attack in Mumbai was another indicator of this growing and palpable shift, where the theatre has shifted to the urban centres. 

The reasons for this shift in strategy could be many. The most noticeable are the fact that urban centres provide a lot of soft targets for the terrorists where maximum damage can be inflicted, with very little effort and causing maximum impact. Be it places of worship, shopping malls or any other market place, people in such situations are just sitting ducks. This changed tactic also provides the visibility to the attackers, which they desperately seek, through visual, print and social media which helps them make their political statements more forcefully. It will also be in place here to mention that such attacks last for longer time, sometimes few days which create more impact than an attack in a far off mountainous area would cause.

From different cities like Karachi, Mumbai and Nairobi, it is very apparent that urban centres and the infrastructure available there, like shopping malls, hotels etc are the future battlegrounds. Wars in remote hilly and mountainous terrain like in Afghanistan have become rarer and instead the shift of the conflict has shifted to the cities. With massive urbanization, especially in most parts of the developing world, and the complexities this rampant and often haphazard urbanization throws up, terrorists will increasingly vie for their share. 

Such attacks are carried out with long, detailed and meticulous planning. Al-Shabab had carried out extensive surveillance of the Westgate Mall before they went in for the kill. Similarly in case of Mumbai, the attackers took more than one year to plan and then execute it to perfection. Both these attacks lasted for a few days, inflicted high causalities resulting in high impact.

Even among the urban centres, it looks like the coastal cities are more prone to such attacks, given the easier entry and exit routes such cities provide to the attackers. The broadcast of such horrendous attacks in real time also helps their handlers to co-ordinate and control these attacks more effectively, reacting to the response of the State.  Another aspect of these attacks seems to be focused on foreigners so that it generates maximum international attention by generating more news coverage. Such gun battles, compared to bombings have a much higher impact because they can last longer and the contact between the attackers and the victims is more intimate, thereby generating more fear among the populace. Such tactics are also used to demonstrate to the public that they are helpless. This new warfare   is also a demonstration of new found tactics in which non-state armed groups are using capabilities that were once the monopoly of nation-states. It is time the world moved on from the way it looked at terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11 and wake up to this new reality. 

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