The Threat of Urban Terrorism

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By Ryan Pereria, Columnist

US Attorney General Eric Holder warned that the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris were indicative of terrorism’s next wave: leaderless jihad carried out by small cell networks. In the February attacks, two teams of lightly armed jihadists using armed assault, police executions, hostage taking, and barricade standoffs terrorized Parisians for 72-hours.[1] This attack on a Western ally in Europe begs the question: are major US cities vulnerable to so-called “urban siege” attacks?

In urban siege attacks, terrorists attack soft targets like transportation systems, restaurants, and shopping malls in major cities. The terrorists flee the initial scene of attack, lead authorities on a manhunt, and kill civilians for as long as possible before dying as martyrs in a final standoff. By remaining at large and amassing casualties along the way, attackers prolong coverage of both the standoff and the terrorists’ motives and messages. By attacking soft targets, terrorists present policymakers with a conundrum: increasing security measures at shopping malls, sporting events, and popular tourist hangouts makes them less accessible to the public and makes terrorists seem omnipresent.

The Paris tactics will not go unnoticed by aspiring terrorists and have already been glorified in AQAP and Islamic State propaganda. It takes a tactically proficient law-enforcement agency to pin down a lone-shooter; it is far more difficult to thwart the kinetic momentum of several individual shooters or cells.[2] Small teams of lightly armed terrorists can move from target to target, sowing confusion, creating the impression of a larger attacking force, and dispersing law enforcement resources, all the while adjusting tactical plans to respond to security agencies and prolong the siege. With single-shooter attacks, authorities can mass forces to thwart terrorist motion. When forced to deal with multiple attackers and concurrent incidents, authorities have to disperse forces across large urban battle-spaces, making it easier for terrorists to escape their initial attacks and evade authorities. The Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly led 88,000 police and military personnel on a 72-hour manhunt.[3] Coulibaly threatened to murder hostages if police tried to end the brothers’ standoff, forcing the authorities to simultaneously coordinate raids against the two separate hostage-barricade sieges. If the hostage-barricade raids had not been timed properly, it is likely that more than 17 individuals would have died in the attacks.

Unlike Paris, attackers in the United States will more likely be homegrown terrorists lacking connections to foreign terrorist organizations. Of the three individuals involved in the Paris attacks, at least one, Cherif Kouachi, travelled to Yemen and received training from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP has tried to attack the homeland since 9/11, but all of its failed or thwarted plots were intended to be spectacular operations using sophisticated explosive devices to down US airliners. Given the difficulty of infiltrating one operative, let alone an entire cell, into the United States, it is likely AQAP will continue to plan 9/11-style operations using lone attackers while encouraging sympathizers in the West to attempt less difficult small arms attacks on their own.

Security agencies are concerned foreign fighters radicalized by the Islamic State will return home to conduct terrorist attacks. However, this is a much larger concern for Europe than the United States. Nearly 4,000 Western Europeans have allegedly fought alongside Sunni jihadists while only one hundred Americans are believed to have joined the fight.[4] Of these fighters, many will die in combat, some will travel to other conflict zones, and others will return home disillusioned and traumatized. If the past is any indication, very few of these fighters will return to conduct jihad in the West. Thomas Hegghammer’s study of Western foreign fighters involved in past conflicts found only about one in nine went on to plan homegrown terrorist attacks.[5] America’s geographic distance from Syria and Iraq, sizeable intelligence budgets, and a smaller pool of foreign fighters means the United States will more easily track at-risk individuals than Europe.

Yet, even without formal training or combat experience from AQAP, ISIS, or other terrorist networks attackers can cause casualties and paralyze life in major cities. The Tsarnaev brothers terrorized Bostonians for five days, killing three civilians at the marathon and one police officer before authorities finally ended the attack. Mr. Holder’s warnings about the likelihood of Paris-style attacks in US cities should not go unheeded.

Thankfully, major US cities have prepared to respond to these scenarios. In Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, he explains that cities have installed computerized CCTV and biometric surveillance systems around financial districts, embassies, tourist hotspots, sports arenas, and shopping malls. In the event of urban siege, such surveillance systems help provide the situational awareness necessary for fast-response teams to intercept the targets. Police departments are also training and equipping specialized units to quickly respond to and neutralize these threats. For instance, the New York Police Department’s Strategic Response Group and Emergency Services Unit, trained in the use of heavy weapons and close-quarter battle techniques, are deployed around high-risk targets like Times Square.[6] Since 9/11, first responders and emergency medical personnel have coordinated with police departments and federal agencies to red team potential urban siege attacks. This joint planning can minimize casualties by preparing emergency personnel to evacuate victims and bystanders while police and federal agencies’ counterterrorist operations are ongoing.

It is not the magnitude of the threat of “urban siege” attacks that we should be preoccupied with. It is how society reacts to them. We should avoid overreacting to violence just because the attacker couches his actions in Islam. By hyping the threat of Islamist terrorism, we risk alienating American Muslim communities and discouraging them from cooperating with law enforcement agencies. This would undermine efforts to prevent attacks before they materialize. Muslim self-policing has helped expose and foil numerous homegrown terrorist plots.

After right-wing extremist Anders Breivik killed 69 civilians the Prime Minister promised, “The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness, and greater political participation.” On the attacks’ third anniversary an opinion piece argued, “Breivik’s stated aim was to spread conflict, but his acts brought Norwegians together.”[7] Americans could learn a thing or two from Norway.


Ryan Pereira is a first year student in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, studying Arabic and concentrating in terrorism and sub-state violence.  He has previously worked with START Consortium on topics as varied as international aviation cargo security, the similarities and differences between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s ideological underpinnings, and the radicalization of bioscientists in the Middle East and North Africa.  His research interests include takfiri jihadist groups, insurgency and counterinsurgency, and the intersection between technology, organizational learning, and the changing nature of terrorist operations.  



[1] Elise Viebeck, “Holder: French attacks point to US threats,” The Hill, Jan. 11, 2015.

[2] Adam Elkus and John P. Sullivan, “Preventing another Mumbai: Building a Police Operational Art,” CTC Sentinel, June 15, 2009.

[3] Pierre Bienaime, “France Has Mobilized 88,000 Personnel After the Paris Shootings,” Business Insider, Jan. 8, 2015.

[4] Peter R. Neumann, “Foreign fighter total in Syria/Iraq now exceeds 20,000; surpasses Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s,” ICSR, Jan. 26, 2015.

[5] Thomas Hegghammer, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists’ Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting,” American Political Science Review, Feb. 2013.

[6] J. David Goodman, “Bratton Says Terrorism and Protests Will Be Handled by Separate Police Units,” The New York Times, Feb. 2, 2015

[7] Judith Rodin The Resilience Dividend: Managing Disruption Avoiding Diaster, and Growing Stronger in An Unpredictable World (London: Profile Books: 2015).

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