The urban guerrilla comes of age

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Marco Werman: Wars are fought in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of places, but these days they are increasingly being waged in the middle of big, dense, urban areas. So argues counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen. Kilcullen has advised many top US officials, including General David Petraeus, and he helped design the American troop surge in Iraq. Kilcullen's new book is called "Out of the Mountains: The Coming of Age of the Urban Guerrilla." As evidence of this trend toward urban war, Kilcullen points to the siege of a shopping mall in Nairobi last week and the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai which involved a hotel and a train station. David Kilcullen: What we're starting to see is a shift away from the kind of rural insurgency that we've seen in the last decade, towards more focus on big urban targets, hotels, shopping malls, railway stations, and a focus on what I've called the urban siege, where people will go in and instead of just attacking and taking hostages or setting off a bomb, they attack and fortify and try to hold an area as long as they possibly can, nearly 100 hours in the case of Nairobi, about 60 hours in the case of the Mumbai attack. And a lot of publicity and influence coming to their respective terrorist groups because of being able to sustain that siege for that length of time. Werman: So who are you arguing is best equipped to try and prevent future attacks like Nairobi or Mumbai in 2008, or what we saw at the Boston Marathon this past April? Is it local police or counter-insurgency units of civilians? Who? Kilcullen: It's paradoxical, but on the one hand there are no military solutions to these kinds of urban overstretch and rapid growth kinds of challenges that are creating the environment within which this stuff happens. But on the other hand, there's no solutions at all without security, and I think it's much better that that security should come from the community itself and from people that live on the street and can identify what's happening in their own environment. It's very unlikely to imagine a scenario where a lot of white guys with guns going in is the best solution. Werman: I'd love it if you compared London, with all its closed-circuit TV cameras, and a place like Nairobi, which I'm sure doesn't have anywhere near the number of CCTVs, and what that actually does to prevent urban terrorism. Kilcullen: London is probably the most heavily instrumented piece of urban terrain on the planet right now. It has about 600,000 closed-circuit or other surveillance cameras. It's certainly true that having that amount of surveillance makes it harder for people to operate in that want to attack the city, but I think to the extent that you put those systems in, without a really strong partnership and collaboration with the local community, what I call co-design, you can actually be also creating a lot of unrest. The violence that happened in 2011 in London, it was a whole series of fairly substantial riots, has been linked in part to dissatisfaction on the part of people who have felt marginalized and disenfranchised within London. They started to see the city as like not their own city but as somebody else's and they just lived in it. Werman: David, tell us about a city that you believe has figured out the puzzle of preventing urban attacks. Kilcullen: What I see is some hope in a number of different community projects around the place. One of them is in Chicago, an organization called CeaseFire which is now across about two dozen cities in the United States and is also in Europe, is a community based program to inoculate communities against local violence and also to put people on the street who can monitor and prevent violence before it takes place. Werman: Can a program like CeaseFire, though, if you're dealing not with gangs but with dogmatically driven extremists, can that succeed? Kilcullen: Urban environment planners and urbanists have talked a lot about co-design and a lot about participatory development. A company out in California called IDEO has pioneered an idea called human-centered design. The challenge that I posed to those guys, which is the challenge that I deal with every day where we work, is how do you do that when somebody's shooting at you, without getting dragged into a conflict that looks like Black Hawk Down in Somalia, which happened 20 years ago today, or something like what we saw in Iraq. And I think that the solutions are almost always things that you don't know up front, going into the challenge. When you actually get on the ground and see how the system flows and how it works, and start listening to people who live there, and combining their knowledge with outside knowledge, that's when the sort of magic happens, if you like, and you start to build together a design that's going to work. Werman: David Kilcullen's new book is called "Out of the Mountains: The Coming of Age of the Urban Guerrilla." Thanks very much for joining us, David. Kilcullen: Thank you. Thanks for having me. Werman: You can always get the latest from The World's newsroom. Be sure to follow us on Twitter, @PRITheWorld. This is PRI.