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Urban Guerillas

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Today's Insurgents Are Fighting Their Battles on City Streets

Most insurgencies have been quintessentially rural struggles. Guerrilla bands have historically relied on dense, leafy jungles and rugged mountains to organize clandestine resistance movements. But urbanization and population growth have contributed to the rise of campaigns in teeming cities such as Baghdad and Damascus. This trend toward urban insurgencies likely will have a profound impact on the nature of insurgency and counterinsurgency.

An insurgency is a movement by irregular military forces and political organizations to overthrow a constituted government or secede from it, using subversion and armed conflict. Over the past decade, the United States has been involved in multiple counterinsurgencies, from the Philippines and Colombia to Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite a current political distaste in Washington, D.C., for counterinsurgency campaigns, however, insurgencies will not go away. But the nature of insurgency may evolve.

Rural areas have been the heart of historical guerrilla campaigns, including those inspired by the Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong and the Argentine rebel Ernesto “Che” Guevara. “The countryside is the basic area for armed fighting,” wrote Guevara in his classic book Guerrilla Warfare. Most insurgents view rural areas as more difficult for government forces to access, penetrate for intelligence purposes and control because the populations are more dispersed. Both Mao and Guevara were inspired by Marxist-Leninist principles, and their primary constituencies were agrarian communities that had been “oppressed” by local governments.

While all counterinsurgencies re_quire competent security forces and reliable intelligence, rural campaigns are different from urban ones in several respects. In some rural campaigns, counterinsurgent forces have implemented resettlement strategies to facilitate population control in rural areas.

As part of the Briggs’ Plan (a military plan devised by British General Harold Briggs) during the Malayan Emergency, a guerrilla war that lasted from 1948 to 1960, the British resettled Chinese squatters, estate workers and villagers into compact “new villages” and established surrogate special constabularies. Although resettlement was sometimes harsh, the new villages and local forces protected the population and were an important component in a counterinsurgency campaign that defeated Communist guerrillas.

In addition, counterinsurgent tactics are sometimes different, since government security forces need to cover large swaths of territory. They have often used fixed-wing aircraft and attack helicopters to target insurgent strongholds. In Afghanistan in the 1980s, for example, the Soviet military relied on high-altitude carpet-bombing and Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters to depopulate rural areas that remained outside Soviet control. Hundreds of thousands of “butterfly” mines attached with fins to float down gently poured out of Soviet aircraft. Once on the ground, they maimed insurgents by blowing off their legs or feet.

More recently, counterinsurgents have relied on precision-strike capabilities such as armed drones to target insurgents in rural villages. The United States has used Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles to conduct reconnaissance and to strike insurgents in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen.

Urban Battlefields

While many of these strategies and tactics have been common in rural areas, the battlefield is becoming increasingly urban. In 1950, for example, 14 percent of Africa, 18 percent of Asia and 41 percent of Latin America all hotbeds of insurgency were urban, according to demographic data from the United Nations. By 2030, however, 48 percent of Africa, 56 percent of Asia, and 83 percent of Latin America are projected to be urban. Virtually all of the expected growth in the world population could be concentrated in urban areas of less-developed regions, which have an increased likelihood of insurgency.

Another trend is the growth of urban agglomerations, or areas that include the population in a city and the suburbs, which are linked together in an extended urban area. In 2011, 23 urban agglomerations qualified as megacities because they had at least 10 million inhabitants. By 2025 there likely will be 37 megacities. Several urban agglomerations already have been affected by insurgencies, including Cairo, Jakarta and Karachi.

The urbanization of insurgency will force groups to organize and fight government forces in heavily populated areas. Government security forces often have better intelligence penetration in urban settings. As Guevara acknowledged, the urban guerrilla “must be considered as situated in exceptionally unfavorable ground, where the vigilance of the enemy will be much greater and the possibilities of reprisals as well as of betrayal are increased enormously.”

Despite these challenges, insurgents and terrorists sometimes can blend into densely packed cities if they have supportive populations. In Pakistan, for example, al Qaeda and other militants have used cities such as Karachi and Peshawar for refuge. In Iraq, insurgents established strongholds in sympathetic neighborhoods of Baghdad. And in Syria, the Free Syrian Army has relied on supportive populations in Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and other cities.

Technology in the Hands of Insurgents

To communicate in urban areas, insur_gents have increasingly turned to modern technology, which is often more accessible there than in remote areas. These trends will probably continue. According to analysis from Cisco Systems, Internet Protocol (IP) traffic has increased eightfold over the past five years and may increase at least fourfold over the next five years. Overall, IP traffic is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 32 percent through 2015, which suggests that the number of devices connected to IP networks could be twice as high as the global population in 2015.

In addition, the estimated growth of IP traffic from wireless devices, which accounted for only a third of IP traffic in 2010, is likely to grow. By 2015, Wi-Fi and mobile devices could account for as much as 54 percent of IP traffic, while wired devices could account for 46 percent. This growth will not occur just in the West, but could grow at the fastest rates in areas affected by insurgency, such as Latin America (48 percent) and the Middle East and Africa (52 percent).

These developments may be useful for the urban guerrilla. Any insurgent with a cellphone camera, for example, can case a target and collect information. Virtually all insurgent groups likely will create websites, enabling geographically dispersed insurgents to establish relationships with one another and raise the possibility of collaboration and cross-pollination. The social networking features of these websites re-create the cohesive virtual communities of traditional extremist forums on stable and technically reliable sites, which are largely sheltered from denial-of-service attacks by intelligence services.

The proliferation of inexpensive location-masking devices may also complicate counterinsurgent efforts to collect and exploit insurgent communications. Some insurgents have already moved in this direction. Several Pakistan groups, for example, have used social networking and file-sharing services, remote desktop access software, voice over IP and anonymizers to conceal their operational activities, identities and locations.

Insurgents likely will continue to use encryption, location-masking tools and other related technologies to protect their online activities. Anonymizing services and commercial encryption techniques have been available for several years and probably will continue to proliferate, as will many other commercial technologies. The widespread adoption of these tools can be expected to expand as a rising generation of insurgents becomes more familiar with the low cost, ease of use and security benefits of emerging technologies.

For counterinsurgents, designing effective campaigns will require strategies and tactics that maximize intelligence collection and precision strike in an urban environment. Resettlement strategies are less apt to be effective in urban areas, where space to build new locations is limited. As the U.S. military discovered in Iraq, it might be more effective to temporarily cordon off neighborhoods and tightly control population movement to maximize control. In addition, dense environments and rapid communication in urban areas could provide government informants ample opportunity to observe and track insurgent activities.

Limiting Civilian Casualties

One challenge for counterinsurgents, however, could be limiting civilian casualties. While less common than rural insurgencies, urban insurgencies have been the bloodiest type of civil conflict. Since the 1950s, the capital cities of Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia and Turkey have all experienced insurgencies. The results have been devastating: Entire city blocks and sometimes cities have been leveled.

For Western governments whose citizens hold them accountable for human rights, there will almost certainly be limits to civilian casualties. Instead of deploying large numbers of their own forces to cities, outside powers such as the United States may increasingly turn to local allies to prosecute urban campaigns.

In such Iraqi cities as Ramadi, for example, some of the most successful U.S. operations involved supporting local government and sub-state forces. With the assistance of Ramadi’s tribal leaders, the United States helped establish neighborhood watches. Screened members of tribal militias became auxiliary police and wore uniforms, carried weapons and provided security within their defined tribal areas. Combat outposts manned by U.S. and Iraqi forces protected major routes and markets. In a few cases, U.S. forces also offered direct security to key leaders’ residences, including placing armored vehicles at checkpoints along the major access roads to their neighborhoods.

In addition, counterinsurgent forces may increasingly use technical means to monitor and counter insurgent operations and tactics in urban areas. This includes not only defensive capabilities (such as monitoring websites, chat rooms and social media forums like Twitter and Facebook) but also offensive capabilities (such as targeting insurgents using signals intelligence and overhead imagery). Technological advances will give counterinsurgents the ability to improve surveillance and data mining, even with insurgent innovations.

As Mao Zedong argued in his definitive book, On Guerrilla Warfare, insurgencies and counterinsurgencies are ultimately about winning the support or at least the acquiescence of the population. This reality will not change as insurgencies evolve into urban contests. What might change, however, are the strategies and tactics necessary to win. And since governments have won most urban insurgencies since 1945, this trend may be a blessing for counterinsurgents.


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