Cities the world over are considered vulnerable to terrorist attacks owing to certain unique attributes that make them attractive to extremists.
From New York, Madrid, London, Paris and Barcelona in the North, to Nairobi, Bali, Karachi, Mumbai and Mogadishu in the South, cities have been the epicenter of the deadly extremist attacks that have claimed many lives.
Experts caution that as economic, cultural, social and political hubs, cities provide the perfect arena for extremists seeking to amplify the impact of their sinister activities.
The relationship between cities and violent extremism is not new. In an article in the Guardian newspaper, Jason Burke argues that historically, there has been a discernible nexus between the evolution of terrorism and the growth of cities.
He writes, “The history of terrorism is thus the history of our cities. The history of our cities, at least over the last 150 years or so, is in part the history of terrorism. This is a deadly, inextricable link that is unlikely to be broken any time soon.”
Why are cities prime targets for terrorists? A paper titled Cities, Terrorism and Urban Wars published in 2007 by the Crisis States Research Center, traces the intricate relationship between cities and the evolution of urban terrorism.
“The physical environment of the city is important, as is the role of cities in national development, alongside the economies of scale provided by cities in addressing human well-being through public goods and services. All these dimensions are attractive to those seeking maximum impact from their acts of destruction and disruption,” the paper notes.
It further cautions that Cities of the South “are particularly vulnerable because poverty, urbanization and the rapid and unplanned expansion of cities exacerbate the impact of terrorism.”
Nairobi falls in this category and has in the past been a target of extremist elements. Worse is the worrying trend where an increasing number of locals including youth are involved in planning and executing such attacks. The implication of this is that terrorists could be actively exploiting local grievances to recruit sympathizers.
The fact that Nairobi has a large number of informal settlements further amplifies this threat. Dandora, Kangemi, Kiambiu, Kibera, Korogocho, Kawangware, Majengo, Mukuru, Mathare and other crowded suburbs are home to millions of residents yet lack adequate essential services like water, sanitation, roads, security and health.
Numerous studies have shown a causal link between economic inequalities, political marginalization and radicalization to extremism.
The 2006 United Nations Global Counter Terrorism Strategy calls on countries to directly address conditions that are conducive to violent extremism. This is in addition to hard security measures geared to eliminating terror networks posing a threat to national security.
But lately, there has been a shift to Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (PCVE) as a wholistic approach that partially includes scaling up delivery of essential services like health, education, water, sanitation in communities. Investing in the social and economic wellbeing of vulnerable populations is the first step in tackling underlying conditions that extremists are likely to exploit.
Since inception in February 2019, the Nairobi Metropolitan Service (NMS) has been addressing challenges facing Nairobi residents through infrastructure and social development including provision of clean water, sanitation, health facilities and road network rehabilitation.
For example, it has been reported that NMS is spending Ksh 2 billion to build 24 health facilities in places like Kayole, Majengo, Viwandani, Mathare, Korogocho and Mukuru kwa Njenga. This will strengthen access to affordable, quality health care among some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the city.
Ongoing rehabilitation of roads, street lighting and construction of additional police posts will make our city neighborhoods safer and tame crime. So will uprooting cartels that have dominated the water, public transport and garbage collection services.
Besides improving living standards and boosting security, such initiatives indirectly enhance community resilience to social instability and violence, since insecurity creates an environment in which terrorists thrive and recruit followers.
I am aware that Nairobi County is currently developing an action plan on prevention of violent extremism. The plan should integrate a community-centric approach with provision of basic services as a core element. There is need to promote an inclusive city economy where employment and business opportunities are available to all including youth, women and persons with disability.
Nairobi can be a model city showcasing how improving the overall wellbeing of vulnerable communities can help contain violent extremism. This is a sure pathway to a safer, peaceful and prosperous city for its residents.
Mr. Mwachinga is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya. firstname.lastname@example.org