The atrocities in Paris are not just terrorism: They represent yet another example of an urban warfare attack designed to kill, terrorize and shut down a major city for an extended period of time.
Urban warfare attacks yield significant advantages from a militant group’s perspective. A bombing — suicide attack or not — is generally over as soon as it happens. Urban warfare attacks, by contrast, may not be resolved for days.
The first complex urban warfare terrorist attack launched outside a war zone was in Mumbai on Nov. 26, 2008. Two inflatable boats landed on the coast of the Indian city. Ten fighters from the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba disembarked and separated into four teams.
A terror team attacking the Leopold Cafe and Taj Mahal hotel struck the cafe first, then the hotel lobby. They fired through the windows of the cafe and threw grenades, firing guns indiscriminately and taking hostages. Indian counterterrorism teams couldn’t end the standoff for more than 60 hours.
The Mumbai attackers specifically targeted Western tourists, Jews and Indian law enforcement. The toll was 164 dead and hundreds injured.
The attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in September 2013 represented a more limited target set than in Mumbai, but it was based on the same principles. Like in Mumbai, the target in Nairobi was a public place important to the economy and to tourists. Sixty-three people were killed at the mall.
A few years ago, many observers hoped that the age of catastrophic terrorist attacks — especially in the West — had passed because governments’ intelligence-gathering capabilities would inevitably disrupt large-scale plots.
The Paris attacks put an end to these hopes.
The growth in militancy in Europe (including foreign fighters returning from Iraq and Syria), revelations about Western surveillance techniques that allow militants to adapt, and the proliferation of encrypted communications continue to magnify the risks. The age of urban warfare attacks may just be beginning.