Now that ISIS’s caliphate has collapsed in Syria and Iraq, terrorism hotspots like the Sahel and Southeast Asia are capturing attention. But rather than focus on large swathes of ungoverned spaces, policymakers should emphasise countering violent extremism in urban areas.
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In May 2017, ISIS-aligned fighters captured the city of Marawi in the southern Philippines. Security forces fought a five-month battle to regain control of this city of over 200,000 residents. How did ISIS come to contest this urban area? No longer satisfied with hiding in remote areas, ISIS fighters in particular have begun to view cities as viable headquarters for directing domestic and international campaigns. Marawi represents only one of many cities to fall in recent years: Syria’s Raqqa in 2013, Iraq’s Mosul in 2014, Libya’s Sirte in 2015, Yemen’s Mukalla in April that year and Sheikh Zuweid in Egypt that July. Failed cities have become a major, and arguably neglected, vulnerability for countering extremism.
This trend emerged in mid-2014 when ISIS fighters chased Iraqi security forces out of Mosul. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stood at the lectern in Mosul’s al-Nuri Mosque and claimed leadership over a “caliphate”. At the time, most experts believed ISIS commanders would focus their efforts on solidifying control over territory in Syria and Iraq, and not attack the West. They were wrong. In November 2015, Abdelhamid Abaaoud and eight additional assailants conducted a series of suicide bombings and armed attacks in Paris on behalf of ISIS. One hundred and twenty-nine people were killed. These attacks demonstrated, beyond a doubt, that ISIS’s ambitions were greater than the borders of its so-called caliphate. ISIS leaders also viewed countries in the West as adversaries and developed a campaign to confront them.
Failed cities have become a major, and arguably neglected, vulnerability for countering extremism.
Over the next 24 months, from November 2015 until October 2017, other external operations—attacks conducted outside Syria, Iraq or other ISIS-controlled territories—followed. My research has found that the group’s commanders planned, financed or enabled 167 external operations from safe havens in Syria and Iraq. ISIS propagandists inspired an additional 85. Not all these plots succeeded, but security forces were stretched thin trying to disrupt the onslaught. Beyond external operations, militants in Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Yemen, the Philippines and six other countries declared areas under their control as ISIS ‘provinces’. The United States and its allies concluded they would need to eliminate ISIS safe havens in Syria and Iraq if they wanted to halt the group’s expansion and anti-Western attacks.
Failed City, Failing State
Raqqa was the linchpin. The Syrian city fell to forces fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in March 2013. A year later, ISIS leaders named Raqqa as the group’s capital. Additionally, many of ISIS’s external operations were traced back there. Yet Raqqa was a failed city in a failing or fragile state. As such, it presented myriad challenges for anti-ISIS operations: a dense population held hostage by militants, narrow streets, concrete buildings, underground defensive tunnels and no credible military partner. Now, over a year after the Syrian Democratic Forces—a mix of Kurdish and Arab militias—cleared ISIS out of Raqqa, it is easy to forget these challenges. But they are likely to emerge again.
Much has been written about the challenges urban environments pose to military forces. The US and its allies encountered many of these during Operation Iraqi Freedom, including battles in Fallujah, Ramadi and Sadr City. Indeed, it is not unusual for terrorists or insurgents to control urban neighbourhoods. Think of Belfast’s dividing walls. Until recently, similar no-go neighbourhoods existed in Bogotá, because they were controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. In the April 2002 Battle of Jenin, Israeli forces fought street by street against Palestinian militants to reduce attacks from a nearby refugee camp. Yet the militant groups in these urban havens did not conduct external operations; their attacks were focused inwards, on the UK, Colombia and Israel, respectively. This simplified the response.
In contrast, ISIS orchestrated both local attacks and external operations from Raqqa, and this urban haven represented a direct threat to the West. Given the Assad regime’s brutality, the US and its allies were not willing to partner with it against ISIS. More stand-off measures, such as drone strikes, also had proven insufficient for Raqqa. This created a strategic trilemma for the US and its allies: deploy large numbers of Western forces to clear ISIS fighters out of Raqqa; partner with local militias for the clearing operations; or accept the likelihood of more Paris-like attacks.
The US and its allies have faced similar difficult choices in recent years. Raqqa was not unique. In February 2015, ISIS fighters took control of the Libyan port city of Sirte, the birthplace of former strongman leader Muammar Qaddafi. ISIS leader Baghdadi sent his confidante Abu-Nabil al-Anbari from Syria to Libya to oversee this effort and boasted of a caliphate with three axes: Mosul, Raqqa, Sirte. This led many experts to view Sirte as a possible alternative headquarters for ISIS, including its external operations. US and British forces responded by supporting local militias with approximately 500 airstrikes in effort to remove ISIS fighters. Thus, although not all extremist groups have mimicked ISIS—Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb all continue to operate primarily in remote areas—enough have tried to make this trend worrisome.
Thus, looking forward, it is not difficult to imagine similar scenarios. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula could once again secure control over Yemen’s Mukalla and revitalise its campaign against the US homeland. Al-Qaeda or ISIS fighters could establish new headquarters in Idlib or other northeastern cities in Syria, attracting another wave of foreign fighters. ISIS militants could succeed in their efforts to push Egyptian security forces out of Sheikh Zuweid. ISIS-Philippines could regain control over Marawi. In each of these scenarios, the US and its allies would be presented with the same situation as in Raqqa: terrorists using an urban safe haven as a base of operations to threaten the West.
Just as a shift by terrorists towards cities poses challenges to militaries, it also presents opportunities.
It is not all bad news. Just as a shift by terrorists towards cities poses challenges to military forces, it also presents opportunities, especially for civilian agencies and international aid programmes that support them in fragile states. Indeed, the international community is well placed to help inoculate cities in fragile states against terrorists. Preventive measures taken now could obviate the need for future military interventions in cities. Urban residents regularly access social media, for example, which provides more opportunities for counter-propaganda and other forms of counter-messaging.
Beyond counter-messaging, ‘exit lanes’ in urban centres—for example, deradicalisation programmes for existing ISIS recruits or susceptible youths as an alternative to prison—can also lessen the potential burden on security forces. And when these more preventive measures fail, law enforcement functions as the most important counter-extremism instrument in cities. Training and other assistance programmes to judicial systems therefore represent an essential avenue for preventing the spread of violent extremism in fragile states. Notably, the Global Counterterrorism Forum has already begun to move in this direction, but much more could be done to bolster vulnerable cities. It simply requires a shift in mindset from viewing the threat of violent extremism as emerging from failed states in their entirety to focusing more on cities.
Kim Cragin is a senior research fellow at the US National Defense University. The opinions expressed here represent her own views and are not those of the National Defense University, the US Department of Defense, the US government or the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
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