Terrorism, LE, and the Relevance of Failed States

At state police headquarters, the criminal intelligence section received a tip from a Laundromat manager – Hispanic – that a group of young men (West Africans, said to be from Nigeria) had moved into the upstairs apartment and were acting suspiciously. Sometime later, a patrol officer determined that the men were West Africans from Ghana. It was not known whether they were students or perhaps employed either full – or part-time. The still unanswered question was whether, solely on the basis of the information provided, the young men should be considered a security threat.

In a December 2005 DomPrep interview, former Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) R. James Woolsey said the front line of intelligence-gathering in the war against terrorism is at the local level. He also provided a number of examples similar to the one above. Local law enforcement (LE) knows its territory best, he commented, and through good police work is better able to recognize anomalies that might indicate terrorist activity. Somewhat ominously, he also emphasized that local authorities should not assume that the federal-level intelligence community is going to be of much help in providing actionable intelligence indications and warnings (I&W) to local LE agencies. Just the opposite, in fact. On balance, he suggested, the flow of I&W information could easily be upward – from local to federal.

Local LE agencies have always had to be aware of the larger context in which they operate – and today that context is inescapably global. So the question remained: Are the Ghanaians likely to be terrorists? There is a related question of a more practical nature: Given the fact that police resources are almost always scarce, how much manpower and/or other assets should the department allocate to determine the answer to the first question? Here, a relatively quick answer could be developed by knowing a little more about Ghana itself – e.g., whether it is, in fact, what is called a “failed state.”

Breeding Grounds for Catastrophe, Destabilization

The term failed state gained considerable traction in Washington after 9/11 when the White House’s 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy document concluded that “America is now threatened less by conquering states than … by failing ones.” In a failed state, a government has lost control of its territory and lacks the authority to make collective decisions and/or the ability to deliver public services. As for the populations of failed states, they may refuse to pay taxes; they may participate fully in the black-market economy; or they may engage in large-scale civil disobedience.

“Struggling states,” says the State Department’s Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization, an important but relatively unpublicized entity that monitors and coordinates the U.S. response to failed and failing states, “can provide breeding grounds for terrorism, crime, trafficking, and humanitarian catastrophes, and can destabilize an entire region.”

Among those nations generally regarded as belonging in the category of failed states are the familiar ones: Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and Sudan. Countries such as Bosnia in the Balkans and several nations in Africa (Angola, Burundi, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe) are considered by many to be failing states – i.e., countries whose central governments are losing their hold on power and/or territory. Other reckonings would flag Colombia, whose otherwise strong central government does not control all of its national territory, as well as Pakistan, Georgia, Albania, Yemen, Nigeria, and Indonesia.     

Twelve Indicators and Two Billion People

Last year, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the independent research organization Fund for Peace, and Foreign Policy magazine studied the makeup and characteristics of failed states. They arrived at twelve indicators common to failed or failing states and developed a list of sixty such states ranked in order of their vulnerability to violent internal conflict. [For a comprehensive discussion of this first annual “Failed State Index” visit the link provided at the end of this article.]     

The Failed-State study calculated that perhaps two billion people worldwide live in failed or failing states, which are characterized by a host of social, political, and economic problems ranging from armed conflict, widespread lawlessness, and human rights violations to famine, disease, environmental degradation, and massive refugee movements and other population displacements. In addition to possessing weakened central governments, failed or failing states that have been de-legitimized, or even criminalized, may be home to competing politico-economic entities – e.g., warlords, drug cartels, paramilitary political opposition parties, ethnic nationalists, and dictatorial clergy – all of whom demand political allegiance. These same states may also, willingly or unwillingly, provide sanctuary to terrorist networks.

In today’s increasingly dangerous world, it is obvious that failed and failing states should be on many other radar screens in addition to those monitored by diplomats and the military. If former DCI Woolsey is correct, local LE agencies should develop an increased awareness of international problems that might well affect their home communities, for what goes on today in Nigeria, Colombia, and Afghanistan may have relevance tomorrow on the front lines of homeland security – in the apartment above a local Laundromat, for example, where a node or cell for a globalized non-state cartel or criminal network (whether its stock in trade is drugs or terrorism) may be operating.  

“We face a foe more dangerous than a traditional nation-state,” writes former CIA officer Michael Scheuer – as “Anonymous” – in his Imperial Hubris, “because it has a nation-state’s goals and resources, draws manpower from a 1.3 billion-person pool, has no fixed address to attack, and fights for a cause in which death while killing enemies earns paradise.”

An Outdated Paradigm, a Foundation of Violence

Scheuer and a number of other respected authors – e.g., Marine Col. Thomas X. Hammes, retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, and economist Loretta Napoleoni (who has written knowledgeably about the financing of terrorist networks) – are defining new ways of seeing, and thinking, that remove the blinders that have hampered those whose vision has been focused primarily if not exclusively on either the domestic or the international, but not both. Homeland-security solutions, including those in the intelligence I&W category, are “360-degree,” as Hammes would put it.  

These same authors argue persuasively for moving beyond the outdated “territorial nation state” paradigm when assessing enemies – and perhaps the United States itself – in order to respond more effectively to the terrorist threat and eventually prevail. Napoleoni uses the term “state-shells” – undemocratic and hierarchical transnational corporations (TNCs) built on a foundation of violence and the monopoly of economic resources within the ungoverned or lawless territories of failed or failing states.

For his part, Hammes says that today’s globalized political-economic actors are “idea-based” (as opposed to territorial-based) networks – the members of which may feel they have legitimate grievances, but that have only loose communications between and among their cells. “The world [individuals, groups, businesses, nations],” says Hammes, “is organizing into webs for political, economic, social, and even technical purposes.” His point is to state a fact rather than declare outright whether the actor is necessarily good or bad.     

Nonetheless, when a terrorist network, operating from its haven in a failed or failing state, conducts operations within the United States (or any other country), it is engaged in warfare in ways unlike those that would be used by its host state or by any traditional territorial nation-state. The non-state terrorist network does not have to honor obligations with any alliances, and is not politically accountable. Because it has no conventional army in the field, it requires neither significant assets nor logistical capabilities. It can, and does in fact, use everyday materials such as those readily available throughout the U.S. economy that have the potential of being shaped into weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

This potential has profound implications for risk assessment, border protection, and local law- enforcement agencies. It seems reasonable to ask why a cell should or would risk compromising an operation by smuggling chemical/biological/radiological/nuclear/explosive materials into a U.S. port or across a border when it can instead, more easily and with less risk, steal “pre-positioned” industrial materials to fabricate into a WMD.

The Multi-Generational Threat

For some time, the Marine Corps has been calling warfare in the post-Cold War era “fourth-generation” – because it is not about the traditional taking and defending of territory, and governing conquered peoples. “Fourth-generation warfare,” Hammes has written, “is about sending messages to decision makers – usually via the mass of people that supports them.”

More ominously, Hammes has taken a new look at the 2001 anthrax bio-attacks, and calls them an example of “fifth-generation warfare” – by his definition, an operation conducted by a small group of people, perhaps by only one individual. The impact on government of the 2001 attacks was tectonic, forcing an almost complete closedown of all legislative-branch operations and the U.S. Capitol itself, the ultimate symbol of representative democracy. With those attacks, possibly carried out by only one person, a grim message was successfully sent to U.S. decision makers. The lesson learned from that incident has surely been studied by more than one global malcontent.

Intel used to be focused primarily on assessing an enemy’s capabilities through the counting of tanks, ships, and planes. If Hammes is correct in his judgment that the clever terrorist of the future is going to use materials that are already pre-positioned, local law-enforcement agencies may find themselves the driving force in gathering intelligence and sharing information – and, as a corollary, having to rely heavily on their own creativity and resources for the development of future indications and warnings.     

Arguably, local LE agencies may have to extend their current graphical-analysis tools to include data from failed and failing states that could be used to determine patterns, trends, associations, and other information that may have relevance to the fighting of terrorism within their own jurisdictions and indeed the nation.

As for the Ghanaians living over the Laundromat, the analysis provided by the criminal intelligence section at police headquarters precipitated a quick decision on resource allocation: “

The presence of Nigerians might have generated significant interest, given that Nigeria is beginning to fail as a state and is notorious for its criminal networks operating worldwide. The comparatively stable Ghana, however, is not found on any list of failed or failing states. … [For that reason], the department is advised not to expend resources unduly on any follow-up to this tip.”

Woolsey https://www.domesticpreparedness.com/?s=woolsey
Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization 
Failed State Index

John F. Morton

John F. Morton is the Strategic Advisor for DomPrep. He is also the Homeland Security Team Lead for the Project on National Security Reform (PNSR). A member of the DomPrep team since its founding, he has served as managing editor for writer assignments and interviewer for scores of DomPrep audio interviews.



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