Urban Guerrilla Warfare: The Threat Of The Future?

With unprecedented levels of connectivity and digital literacy globally, the way in which potential threats and conflict are being planned and exercised have drastically evolved. Despite the current global security environment being geared towards peace keeping and counterinsurgency, the ability of non-state actors to coordinate and carry out damaging attacks has dramatically increased and threatens both regional and global balances of power. The ability of non-state actors to utilize and mobilize technology to evolve their organizational advantages is most clearly expressed through the emergence of urban guerrilla warfare. Believed to be founded by Michael Collins, commander of the IRA, urban guerrilla warfare involves the transition of the unconventional warfare tactics of non-state actors into an urban environment. Asymmetric warfare is not a contemporary phenomenon. In fact, since the Napoleonic wars, 80% of all conflict globally has been intra-state or involved a non-state actor. However, although historical examples of urban guerrilla warfare are plentiful, from the Red Army Faction 1970-1988 in Germany, Iraqi insurgency from 2003-2011 and Hezbollah from 1985 to present, technology has opened up the space for engagement and the capacity of non-state actors to inflict harm.

Mao Zedong stated that the “guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea”. Indeed, urban guerrilla warfare continues to capitalize on a societal dependence, which is not always amicable. The crucial difference, and one of the most concerning elements of urban guerrilla warfare, is the transition of an almost parasitic reliance of societal resources to the use of a population as leverage. In places like Tunisia, urban sites are targeted to generate greater publicity.

It may seem confusing as to why contemporary non-state actor groups have moved into urban settings rather than the traditional urban landscapes that had proved highly advantageous in places like Vietnam. A reliance on landscape is still critical in asymmetric warfare, however an urban terrain now provides better coverage among what Dr. David Kilcullen calls ‘human clutter’, or the onslaught of data, messages, phone calls and internet connectivity that works to camouflage guerrilla communications. As found by the 15 year longitudinal study, ‘‘Terrorism in Cyberspace: The Next Generation’ terrorist groups view and use the internet as an “ideal arena”. With a lack of regulation, rapid flow of information, easy access and anonymity, cyber space has become a highly useful platform which dissolves in an urban environment.

What is worse is that the ability of non-state actors to utilize the cyber weaknesses of State’s power regulating technology and urban smart systems was a limit telegraphed through Western involved in the 2003 Iraq War. Through involvement, not only was there an unconscious transition of technology hardware to insurgents but also a transfer of knowledge about cyber weapons, platforms, and information and communications technology (ICT). Now, urban guerrillas and terror groups even use apple maps to plant landmines and WhatsApp to communicate, recruit, spread propaganda and gather information for actual and cyber-attacks.

With the colossal misstep of the Iraq War, the US and its Western allies have been locked in a crippling path dependency within the global security environment. Combined with the rising influence of urbanization, population, littoralisation and connectivity, the hostilities associated with uneven and combined development will only intensify with rising population rates. In this environment, conflict is predicted to exacerbate with urban environments becoming disaggregated battle spaces for insurgency and ‘urban sieges’. The irony is that methods of counter-insurgency and interventionist strategies have been key to the evolution of these new threats. Effectively, whether through natural or artificial selection, the interventionist wars of the US and its allies have bred a better class of terrorist. With the growth of cyber-terrorism, the narrowing of information to more vulnerable audiences and the support of lone-wolf attacks, it has proven ineffective to fight ‘fire with fire’.

Although encrypted ICT has proven concerning valuable tools for groups such as Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah to communicate ‘off-grid’, it is not to say that states are not consciously learning. Alongside forming their own ‘electronic armies’, as of 2013, the US National Security Administration operated two monitoring programs of data and phone calls that effectively prevented over 50 potential terror attacks.

Non-state actors, guerrilla forces and terror groups have utilized cyber space, versatile technology, and urban settings to overcome the asymmetries of conventional weaponry between themselves and states. As the situation begins to tilt more towards a concerning equilibrium point, Australia and its allies are in a unique situation. It is critical that Western allies utilize a quickly closing window of opportunity to explore and open new avenues and strategies to mitigate and regulate cyber space. What is a critical lesson is that these potential adversaries are coalescing around conditions created by the West. Whether the future is bipolar or multipolar, it is clear state involvement has created more problems where it has sort to fix them.

Abbey Dorian
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