This week, Mumbai mourns the fifth anniversary of the 26/11 attacks, which scarred perhaps forever its psyche and left an inerasable imprint of anxiety on many of its citizens.
Five years later, many questions linger as does the fear that
such an attack could recur at any time.
David Kilcullen is one of the world’s leading experts on terrorism. The Australian-born retired colonel served as chief
strategist in the Office of the Coordinator for
Counterterrorism at the State Department from 2005 to
2006. He then advised General David Petraeus for two years,
2007 and 2008, helping to create what came to be famously
known as The Surge, the US military’s operation to vanquish
terrorists and insurgents in Iraq.
Thereafter a special advisor on counter-insurgency to then
secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, Dr Kilcullen now runs
Caerus Associates, which advises private clients and nations
His latest book, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of
Five years after the attacks in my home city Mumbai, are
the Urban Guerrilla (Oxford University Press), ‘offers a com-
pelling case on the spread of urban warfare in coastal cities
across the world, representing the future of conflict.’
Dr Kilcullen spoke to India Abroad on e-mail about the
lessons from Mumbai and the coming threats to the planet’s
there cities you believe are more vulnerable to terrorists?
Why do you believe these cities are more vulnerable?
Many of the planet’s largest cities are increasingly vulnerable to conflict — including terrorism — as a result of massive
population growth, urban overstretch and lack of government presence in some areas — all of which create urban
“no-go” areas that give cover to violent groups including terrorists — combined with massively increased connectivity, so
that violence which emerges in one city can have major
Terrorism won’t be the only, or even the most important,
problem in these cities — it will
be just one aspect of city systems under stress, as coastal
cities in the developing world will be forced to absorb 3 billion new urban dwellers by 2050: The same number of people that it took all of human history to generate, across the
entire planet, right up until 1960.
Could the Mumbai attacks been possible without the con-
nivance and sophisticated planning of the Pakistani military?
In your understanding, did the Lashkar-e-Tayiba have the
tools to mount such a precise military operation?
Can such a terror operation be mounted without the partic-
ipation of State actors?
As the case study of Mumbai in my book shows, the terrorists who attacked Mumbai had professional help, not only in
planning and preparing for the attack, but in command and
control and intelligence support they received from an Le T
safe house in Karachi as the attack was unfolding.
There is circumstantial evidence that retired — and possibly active duty — members of Pakistan’s intelligence service
and Special Forces were in some way connected with the
However, the attackers were not themselves military operators, and the successful attack indicates both their high
standard of training, preparation and equipment, and their
extreme ruthlessness and willingness to commit atrocities.
“Loose sponsorship” by people associated with a State —
rather than by State institutions itself — gives terrorist
groups key elements of support without exposing their sponsors to retaliation.
It is unfortunately only likely to increase.
There has been the fear that terrorists may detonate a ‘dirty
bomb’ in a city. How real is such a threat?
In what forms can we expect the next terrorist threat to our
It’s certainly possible that a terrorist group may set off a
dirty bomb — whether chemical, biological, radiological, or
nuclear in nature — in an urban environment, and urban
“no-go” areas offer both cover/concealment and a densely
packed cluster of targets.
That said, terrorists can also carry out extraordinarily effective attacks — as in Nairobi this year, or
Mumbai in 2008 — with just small arms and
grenades, so even without such a “dirty” device the
risk is very real.
As Mumbai showed, and the Nairobi Westgate
Mall attack reinforced, “guerrilla-style terrorism” —
where terrorists build an attack team close to their
target, use local cover and draw on the natural flow
of large urban areas to hide their activity — has
increasingly become the method of choice for terrorist groups.
Urban terrorism is on the rise in Pakistan where
the terror template from Iraq of random mass mur-
der has been copied with brutal ferocity.
What can a government do in such circum-
Would you advocate that the security forces mount
a counter-terror operation of even greater ferocity to
exterminate the enemy, the way, for instance, Peru
and Columbia confronted Shining Path and FARC?
In fact, the Colombian government’s approach to
dealing with the FARC in recent years relied heavily on civil democracy programs and on building a
partnership at the grass-roots level between communities and the police, military and civil officials
charged with protecting them.
As the classical counterinsurgency theorist
Bernard Fall once said, ‘A government that’s losing
to an insurgency isn’t being out-fought — it’s being
I think this is a key lesson for any government confronting
an urban terrorist threat: Not only is it impossible to be more
brutal or ferocious than modern terrorists, it’s foolhardy to
take that approach.
In the book I put forward what I call the theory of competitive control, which shows that governments and non-State
armed groups alike gain control through a spectrum of persuasive, administrative, and coercive measures.
Terrorists can always be more brutal than governments at
the coercive end of the spectrum, but where governments
have the advantage is in the persuasive and administrative
parts of the spectrum.
Terrorists can easily out-compete governments in terms of
brutality, but there’s no way they can compete with a government’s ability to administer, persuade and bring benefits to
With the American and ISAF (International Security
Assistance Force) pullout from Afghanistan next year, do you
think that terrorists like the Pakistani Taliban and the
Lashkar could join forces to mount a mixture of 26/11 and
Peshawar operations with greater frequency in India?
Do you think India is more vulnerable to terror attacks than
any other country in the world?
It’s possible that militant groups could join forces to attack
India after the ISAF withdraws from Afghanistan. It’s at least
equally possible, however, that these groups will be drawn
into a struggle for control in Afghanistan itself, should a
power vacuum emerge after the international troops leave.
I do, however, think that India has a range of threats to
consider — from sea-borne terrorism in the style of the 26/11
attacks, to the increasing urbanization of Naxalite and
‘NOT ONLY IS IT
Maoist groups, to the rise of urbanized violent crime and
From the standpoint of people who live in rapidly growing,
massively over-populated, densely connected cities, the very
environment itself may become a threat if we don’t plan for
ways to deal with the coming era of massive urban growth in
crowded, networked environments on the world’s coastlines.
‘There is circumstantial evidence that retired — and possibly
active duty — members of Pakistan’s intelligence service and
Special Forces were in some way connected with the attack’
IMPOSSIBLE TO BE
MORE BRUTAL OR
FOOLHARDY TO TAKE
THAT APPROACH.’ Women and children run for safety as security forces provide cover during the Nairobi Westgate Mall siege. GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS