Emerging Threats to Cities 2016

Worldwide Counter Threat Solutions has stated in its blog that “the traditional intelligence community must move to make room for open source. After all we are all in this together.” These are strong words and they are applicable to the analysis of the emerging threats to cities in 2016. A few case studies drawn from open source intelligence (OSINT) from 2014 to 2015 illustrate some of the threats to be addressed by the public, business workplaces, industry, government and specialist counter-terrorist policy and operations.

One form of analysis through OSINT is to cluster cities to identify terrorist motivation, capability, intention, weapons effects, choice of targets and tactics that have severely impacted critical functions of city life and operations.  Using many media and other sources means OSINT analysis has an agility and adaptability to match the constantly changing terror tactics, targets and technology that emerge to threaten the sustainability of cities, and as such is valuable for policy makers and security planners.

Paris Terror Attacks, November 13th 2016 - Islamic State claims responsibility for a series of mass shootings and suicide bombings that killed 128 people at least, in Le Bataclan Theatre, Le Stade de France and other locations. President Hollande declared a state of emergency – dvdbash.com

As a brief example, a cluster such as Paris, Ramadi, Kabul and Karachi brings together cities with vastly different populations, culture and economies. The effects of terror attacks on such a cluster can be used by cities in Europe and many other countries threatened by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) in 2016, particularly countries whose nationals have travelled to the new Islamic State in Syria and Iraq or trained in Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

  • Paris: The availability, response times and capability of the French armed police response to several attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015 reduced the potential for shock effects on the city which recovered within days despite an ongoing search for members of the attack team. Guns rather than explosives proved to be the most potent weapon as there were few casualties from the explosives worn and deployed by the attackers.
  • Karachi: In 2014 Karachi suffered attacks on a naval dockyard with reports of attempts to capture a ship for an attack on a US supply ship and there was also an attack on Jinnah International Airport. In the same year there was discussion in the media about the security of two Chinese supplied 1,100 MW reactors to be built in this city of 20 million people.
  • Kabul: In August 2015 Kabul suffered many attacks including significant ones on police cadets and recruits from a suicide bomber, an attempt on a US special operations base and a massive truck bomb outside an army base in a residential area killing 20 and wounding several hundred. The continuous attacks on Kabul highlight the power of the Taliban to target the city at any time but the city remains resilient. In 2016 the growing presence of IS in Afghanistan may bring new forces and tactics that will test the resilience of the Afghan government.
  • Ramadi In 2015 has demonstrated how a city suddenly collapses under sustained shock attacks deployed by IS with many suicide and other vehicle-borne devices attacking the city’s defenses in May. These tactics caused the Iraqi army to flee leaving equipment that was subsequently utilised by the invading fighters. The Iraqi army claimed the recovery of the city late in December 2015 but there will be uncertainty over the long-term security of the city, which has suffered massive destruction of infrastructure and a displaced population.

Terror attacks on major cities impact on internal and external perceptions of a nation’s capacity to secure the population, industry and trade. By studying clusters of cities under threat of terrorism it is possible to identify policies for city strengthening especially because the analysis of clusters gives a wider focus on changing tactics, targets and technology. The analysis also shows the robustness of cities under very significant attacks. However there are some conditions under which cities can move into a total collapse and be dominated by relatively small numbers of terrorists once the attackers have access to military weapons and are able to psychologically dominate the population. The failure of Ramadi is an important lesson for western cities unused to the concept of fragility in counter-terror operations.

Using OSINT to protect the world’s cities

Cities across the world function in many similar ways and OSINT cluster analysis can open many emerging threat scenarios that will provide data for counter-terrorist policies, operational planning and workforce exercising, and also in the design of self-protection information programs for the public.

Some of the applications of OSINT analysis that have not been widely recognized lie in this type of cluster analysis and also in unusual emerging threat factors that at times may not be recognized because they are not within closed source intelligence capture.  One such example has been the use of two brothers in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

Cities require long-term policy development and this can be well served by scrutinising OSINT databases and identification of unusual factors or new trends.  In hardening the population through understanding terrorism and for advice to industry and workplace organisations, OSINT has the advantages of being tested for confirmation of facts, sourced and with contextual information. The data are open and can be shared with administrators, business workers, and technical specialists in industry, as well as with civilian security personnel who are often in the front line of city attacks. More significantly, the data can help legislators understand future trends and agree counter-terrorism policies. A conclusion is that not only are “we all in this together” but that access to open source data helps us to understand the phenomenon of emerging terror threats in cities and that cities are critical to national security.


Dr Sally Leivesley has read TRITON reports since 2001 and applies the data to training exercises and research.  She is Managing Director of Newrisk Limited, a member of The Exercise Group7 and a member of the Register of Security Engineers and Specialists.