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A Look at the Future of Ungoverned Spaces and Terrorism
Today's Washington Post has an interesting look at one of the growing challenges of statelessness and where much of the world is heading. It also has stark implications for terrorist organizations and their ability to operate.

The story looks at police attempts to take over the Santa Marta favela in Rio de Janeiro, where drug dealers have long been the primary, if not sole, source of authority.

Using tactics similar to the U.S. "surge" strategy in Iraq, police are seeking to build permanent bases among the population, fix broken services, gather intelligence, and stick around so the drug traffickers lose their operational freedom. The story showed that there was much to be done to allay the fears of the civilian population and win them over in some fashion.

What is striking is that, while we often look at ungoverned spaces (generally a misleading term because, while the state does not govern there, some person, criminal organization or militia almost certainly does), we view them as vast swaths of territory with little population and empty territory where one could hide.

In reality, many of the "stateless" areas are in the rapidly-growing mega-urban centers that are growing up around the world. See National Geographic map for a fascinating and terrifying graphic of the trends.

In these urban settings, there are densely-populated sectors where the state has no presence or power. These areas offer an entirely different set of challenges from stateless territories that are both larger and much less densely populated.

There are some parallels between the kind of stateless regions faced in the urban centers of Iraq and those faced by U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

It is these important differences in terrain, population density and types of "ungovernability" that make replicating the surge strategy in Afghanistan so difficult.

The war in Afghanistan is largely a rural insurgency, with a strategic rearguard areas in Pakistan, and with hostile and vast geographic spaces. Iraq, in many places, was a door-to-door urban combat setting, with high population densities, small geographic areas and a host of other challenges.

In a broader context, the stateless urban areas offer series of advantages over more remote areas. These include the ability to hide or go undetected for long periods of time and remain anonymous, the possibility of carrying out attacks with far greater impact, easier access to financial institutions and logistical centers , etc.

From Lagos to Buenos Aires to Los Angeles, it is these areas where the possibility of getting "lost" and blending in are far higher than in remote areas. The ability to connect into the criminal networks that operate in many of these urban areas (often controlling them) is also attractive.

Some cities, like Medellín and Bogotá in Colombia have shown a remarkable ability to reassert beneficial state control over urban areas that had recently been lost, so it can be done.

Mega cities is not an area of much study or understanding, and I certainly do not have expertise in it. But we better start developing that expertise and ways of thinking about stateless urban regions, and learning the lessons of others, if we hope to tackle the threats these areas pose.

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