paris attack

The horrific terrorist attack in Paris was likely modeled on an earlier terrorist horror, the November 26-29, 2008 attack in Mumbai, India, in which ten terrorists killed 164 and wounded more than 300.

wrote former CIA analyst Bruce Reidel in the immediate wake of deadly multi-pronged attacks on Paris last Friday. The massacre was yet another gruesome episode in a trend that has taken the world of national security by storm over the last decade – the “Fidayeen” model of assault, where disparate but coordinated attackers simultaneously unleash an onslaught on civilian, predominantly urban targets. Many of the world’s major cities have found themselves on the receiving end of this brutal tactic which is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

In a previous article for The Diplomat, I had highlighted India’s recognition of this as one of their seminal security threats. However, it would be a mistake to assume that other Asian nations need not be as cautious as their giant neighbour. As analysts project into the future, it becomes clear that many of the ingredients that allow for a successful urban assault thrive in the region. The United Nations estimates that by the middle of the century, the world’s population will touch the 9 billion mark, with over 6 billion of them in urban areas. Asia in particular will see a growth of nearly 2 billion people by 2050, with a steep rise in interconnected, littoral communities. Within just the next five years, it is estimated that 13 of the world’s 25 megacities will be located in Asia and the Pacific. In essence, what this means is that the entire coastline of the giant continent will become susceptible to attacks like what was seen in Paris and Mumbai.

So what are these ingredients that help facilitate such ‘Fidayeen’ offensives by terrorists? A crowded theatre of operations to spread panic and maximise casualties, vulnerable borders (either terrestrial or maritime) which allow trained operatives to infiltrate their target state, ethnic or religious tensions that can be exploited for recruitment, and law enforcement agencies with unsophisticated rapid-response mechanisms. It would be useful to analyse these factors on an individual basis, looking at how they might impede Asia’s urban security in the future.

Firstly, Asia’s waters are becoming notoriously difficult to control, with the Strait of Malacca now the biggest hotspot for international piracy in the world. Pirates have often been able to hide themselves among fishing boats, disguised as civilians and preying on the vulnerable only when it suits them. One must remember that Mumbai’s assailants entered Indian territory amphibiously, using tactics that are virtually identical to the modus operandi of modern pirates. The terrorists are alleged to have departed from Pakistan on a boat, after which they hijacked the MV Kuber, an Indian fishing vessel. It was through this that they managed to get into Indian nautical waters undetected. In 2015, South East Asian waters have seen at least one hijacking of a tanker every fortnight by pirates, let alone mere fishing vessels.  If a Mumbai-style attack was planned on a South East Asian littoral city, any competent group of armed fighters would be able to replicate this method of infiltration easily, given the staggering amount of hijackings in the region.

Land borders are not significantly more secure either, with human trafficking and illegal immigration raging from one end of the continent to the other. Asia’s conception of ethnicity and identity is far different from what one sees in the West. Most of its borders today are the results of colonial rule, with indigenous groups in several countries simply unwilling or unable to recognize what they see as poorly conceived colonial boundaries.

Pertinent to the issue of porous borders is the uncomfortable truth that ethnic diversity has become an extra tool that has played into the hands of transnational outfits like ISIS. Though the perpetrators of urban terrorism can be foreign operatives like the Lashkar-e-Toiba in Mumbai, they are just as likely to be home grown insurgents as well. The Kouachi brothers from the Charlie Hebdo attacks for example, were both born in Paris. With the question of ethnicity already so volatile in the region – numerous insurgencies have been waged in the name of language, religion, race and ideology in Asia – the increasing number of urban attacks is only likely to fuel tensions between communities and in turn, feed from it. For policymakers in Asia, it is now more vital than ever before that the continent’s young demographic is engaged with on a regular basis to prevent radicalization while maintaining the inclusive tradition of the region.

Aside from the diversity of the population, the sheer size of it presents security challenges as well. It is home to some enormous urban populations, which are the ideal targets for such attacks. Out of the fifteen most populous cities in the entire world, ten are from Asia. High-density populations are often vulnerable to panic and terror, especially with coordinated gunmen or bomb blasts ravaging the city. The larger the population, the larger the hunting ground for an armed insurgent. Crowded cities in the region often have “no-go” areas where law enforcement does not exercise absolute power, sprawling slums or ghettos which would allow assailants to virtually vanish once their objectives are complete, and independent power centres like criminal gangs and political figures -all of which would complicate even basic counter-terrorism measures during such an attack.

Finally, rapid-response is presently a huge challenge in Asia, most of whose cities are not economically comparable their Western counterparts, and unable to invest in the sophisticated law enforcement resources and mechanisms which would ideally help repel a Fidayeen assault.  During last week’s attacks in Paris for example, the response from local enforcement was virtually immediate. When the Charlie Hebdo murders took place, 88000 personnel were deployed in various capacities over the three-day manhunt. During the Westgate Mall attack in Kenya and the Mumbai attacks in India, it was impossible to respond with the same sort of urgency or firepower, given the lack of similar resources and training. Even if such cities are better prepared today, the strain which such requirements put on a city’s security apparatus will inevitably become an enormous burden to bear.

The threat of urban terrorism is thus a stark one that Asian law enforcers and strategic analysts would do well to give a lot of thought to. As modern technology makes it increasingly easier for transnational terrorist organizations to capture the world’s attention by holding its cities hostage, States no longer enjoy a considerable margin of error in planning their preparation and response. The balancing act required while protecting urban civilians without militarizing urban spaces outright will be a tricky one. And none will have to collectively walk this tightrope more delicately than the nations of Asia.

By Nilan Niruthan



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