This interview aired on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday 25 September 2013. This transcript of the interview is published with kind permission of the BBC.
R4: David Kilcullen is an expert in counter-terrorism and in his new book he writes about what he calls ‘the coming age of the urban guerrilla’. What does that mean, ‘the urban guerrilla’?
DK: What we’ve seen in Nairobi and what we’ve seen in a number of other recent significant terrorist attacks like the November 2008 Mumbai attacks is a real focus by terrorist organisations but also by some criminal groups and gangs on dominating and disrupting urban populations by shutting cities down. This is something that is going to continue to be in the repertoire of these groups in the future.
R4: But haven’t terrorists always looked for the softest and most vulnerable target, and when it became much more difficult to blow aeroplanes out of the sky, for instance, they turned their attention somewhere else?
DK: That’s true, but what’s different know is that the population of the planet is becoming much, much more urban so in the next thirty years we’re going to see three billion new city dwellers just in coastal cities in the third world. So to put that in perspective, it took all of human history until 1960 to get to three billion people across the entire planet so we’re talking about an enormous transformation in the demographics of the globe in the next generation where we’re going to have what some theorists have called a ‘planet of slums’ — the coastal slum settlements that connect existing cities.
R4: And, apart from anything else, that is a breeding ground—it’s a cliche, I know—but it’s a breeding ground.
DK: Well it’s certainly a playground as well as a breeding ground for all different types of non-state armed groups.
R4: Because people, and this is obviously an impossible question to answer, but people who are hugely deprived, people who live thoroughly miserable lives, are more likely to become terrorists? Can you’d draw a link there? Are disaffected people much more likely to become terrorists or helpers for terrorism, aids of terrorists if you like, than those who have powerful ideological commitments?
DK: There’s actually not a strong link between extreme poverty and support for terrorism, but what we’re seeing in a lot of the places we have studied and that I wrote about in the book is what I would call ‘urban overstretch’ where the pace and scale of rural to urban migration is over-stressing urban systems where there aren’t enough police, there’s not enough electricity, there’s not enough access to water, to sanitation, but now with dramatic increases in connectivity people are very much more connected with cell phones and satellite televisions and so on than they used to be, and that allows things to spread much more quickly than used to be the case.
R4: And it makes a single terrorist cell, therefore, capable of being much more effective?
DK: Yes, and I think that’s why we see moves towards attacks like what we’ve tragically been seeing in Nairobi because if you go into a shopping mall and set off a bomb it’s over in a fraction of a second and the aftermath lasts a day. If you go in with ten people with just small arms, it’s cheaper and easier to do that and you get four or five days of continuous media coverage and it generates a much more significant impact when everybody is on Twitter and everyone is on their cell phone. It’s just an entirely different milieu for this kind of operation.
R4: So you expect to see more of that sort of thing?
DK: Yes, unfortunately.
R4: And coming from where specifically?
DK: I don’t think that you can put your finger on one specific source. I think, in this case, you’re going to see terrorists like Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab in the global picture over the next generation, but if your city is half underwater because it’s a coastal city and there’s not enough food or electricity or cooking oil, and there’s no police and there’s serious crime — if you live in a city like that, the fact that there’s also a group of terrorists out there is a problem but it’s not your major issue. I think we’re going to start to see all sorts of other concerns arise around what a lot of people call ‘social conflict’, as distinct from terrorism and insurgency, that may actually loom larger in the next generation.