Theater of Cruelty

Urban warfare and lack of social stability

CONFLICT / The fact that unemployed urban youth go into drug dealing, street gangs, militias and sectarian political organizations is not surprising. Yet something else may be more important than crime prevention and counter-terrorism.


Cities are the battlefield of the present and especially the future. The war in Ukraine is about control of cities. Terrorist attacks on a shopping center in Nairobi, a luxury hotel and railway station in Mumbai, the government quarter in Oslo, a primary school in Beslan and residential areas in Aleppo all point to urban "war zones" as central. The number of armed conflicts between states has been significantly reduced in recent decades, even though there is an ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. 70 percent of today's conflicts take place in urban areas with slums as a starting point. It is a global tendency that neither organizations for military strategy nor development have internalized. Conflicts arise where the people are. That is, in cities.

"The total war" belongs to history. It was NATO's and the Warsaw Pact's paradigm and involved fighting in open landscapes with infantry
units, armored vehicles, artillery and jet aircraft. Much of what you thought you understood in Afghanistan or Iraq's mountain and plain landscape does not apply now. The conflicts of the future will not take place in the countryside in landlocked states, but in densely populated urban areas, often with a coastline. Mariupol is a tragic example.

Civil war

Nine out of ten conflicts are civil wars, and they have major regional consequences. The UN's goal is to limit the number of killed and wounded and to avoid protracted urban guerrilla wars. Violence against the local population must be kept to a low level. This means attention to surgical point attacks, where a building, a floor or an apartment-
it is the goal. International media are often present and report continuously with the local population as victims or spectators.

Given these developments, it becomes necessary to focus attention on human security – which consists of a range of biological, social, economic and political needs.

Urban poverty is crucial for people's vulnerability and ability to withstand internal and external shocks. The slum is the battlefield of the poor in their daily struggle for survival. International and Norwegian development organizations have probably not realized that this poverty is more dangerous, but also different from the rural poverty they have been used to encountering. Urban poverty is today the foremost face of inequality. It creates more marginalized people.

Pentagon doctrines

According to the UN's settlement programme, the world's slum population is growing by 25 million people per year. In China alone, ten million people move annually from the countryside to the big cities along the coast. Unlike in previous waves of migration, the people who move are poor. As a growing economic elite completes the construction of the electric fences around residential
their quarters, they lose contact with and understanding of the poverty they themselves in many cases have left behind. From this follows an "automatic" criminalization of the urban poor – which will probably create an urban future with endless contradictions and struggles.

The United States supports a "protracted world war against criminalized segments of the urban poor."

American and European foreign policy institutes and think tanks have probably so far turned a blind eye to the planet's slums. UN organiza-
tions, the Bretton Woods institutions and foreign ministries show little interest in the alleys, sewers, apartment complexes and dilapidated buildings that make up the world's slums – a misery which logically is the result of a lack of urban planning and reform. But the Pentagon's doctrines have been reformulated so that the United States can support a "protracted world war against criminalized segments of the urban poor," according to the United Nations.


Regarding the recent terrorist attack in Nairobi: This is a big city with extreme population growth and a lack of social stability. It opens up for "conflict entrepreneurs" (gang leaders, mafia bosses and militant extremists). Their ability to control lies in creating predictable rules that make people feel safe. If they manage to build peace and order through persuasion, administrative means or coercion, loyalty is achieved regardless of people's sympathy. In Nairobi, gangs such as Mungiki have over the years worked to control the slums – which huser 60 percent of the population on 6 percent of the city's area. A few years ago, Kenya's Center for Crime Research identified 46 such gangs across the country. Many are as violent as Al Shabaab – the "movement for young fighters" – which has its starting point in Somalia, but which now operates in several countries in Africa.

That unemployed youth orient themselves towards jihadism or enter urban "self-sufficiency economies" such as drug sales, street gangs, militias and sectarian political organizations is not surprising. To avoid this, it is more than ever necessary to invest in young people as positively active and productive members of society. Because young people in the slums are desperately looking for opportunities that can contribute to normality, structure and regularity, but find them to an ever lesser degree.

Civil society

The attack in Nairobi shows a tendency where armed terrorist groups have adopted means that are reserved for state military units. But the technology is also used by organizations that work for human development. For example, mobile and satellite telephony is used by movements such as Slum Dwellers International to build networks and social capital, for savings and microcredit, for mapping plots of land and other assets. Poor people have nothing to lose. They do not want conflict, but economic development opportunities, safety and security. Could this not be more important than crime prevention and counter-terrorism?

As a result of globalisation, democratization and multi-party government, development actors are currently emerging at neighborhood and street level. These are groups and initiatives that NGOs and international donors, especially for formal reasons, do not reach. But half of the slum's residents are under the age of 18. And uncoordinated project approaches lead to fragmentation and conflict.

As chairman of the Security Council in January, Norway gave an important speech to Prime Minister Støre during the "Open debate" with the title "War in cities". Protection of civilians during armed conflict”. But whether bytematics – not least the challenges related to the situation of women and children – will become a priority topic area within our humanitarian policy – the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not given any answer.

Eric Berg
Erik Berg
Erik Berg worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs / NORAD from 1978 to 2013. He now heads Habitat Norway.

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