Why Terrorists Do Not Need Territory

Micah Zenko and Amelia Mae Wolf of the Council on Foreign Relations have a smart piece in Foreign Policy. They dispel the conventional notion that safe havens are required for terrorists to thrive, an assumption that is actually in some dispute among scholars of terrorism and civil wars. The issue is relevant to recent discussions over U.S. policy toward Yemen. Yet, as Zenko and Wolf find, of the 63 most recent jihadi terrorist plots or attacks targeted the U.S. homeland, half of the perpetrators were based in the United States, while around 20% were based in the UK. So then why are we spending between $4 trillion and $6 trillion on denying terrorists safe havens in Iraq and Afghanistan?

The concept of controlling territorial space informs Western conventions of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. Areas inhabited by groups deemed dangerous or unlawful need to be cleared, the logic goes. Not unlike the clearing of protesters who “occupy” central squares, or land occupations by campesinos in Latin America to protest unequal land distribution – there is a tendency by the state to seek control over peoples that resist order. Washington’s post-9/11 approach to countering transnational terrorist networks follows a similar logic. Yet, not all of these ungoverned spaces are monolithic spaces of Hobbesian disorder that threaten our existence as potential terrorist safe havens. They are natural, if non-integrated, parts of the international system. Too many non-state pockets of the globe constitute “imaginary spaces” whose threat level is often embellished and, in some cases, nonexistent.


A Fragile Concept

The concept of territorial space provides one of the central tenets to counterterrorism theory. The United States emphasizes capturing and killing terrorists, while denying them safe havens – a central plank to U.S. counterterrorism strategy since 9/11. The attention paid to ungoverned spaces has only grown in importance. As the counterterrorism expert Daniel Benjamin once remarked in reference to Pakistan and Somalia: “These weakly-governed or entirely ungoverned areas are a major safe haven for al-Qaida and its allies and to dismiss their significance is to misunderstand their historical importance for training, recruitment, and operational planning.” The emphasis placed on denying territorial safe havens draws heavily from earlier counterterrorism memos circulating through Washington’s defense circles. According to Senate testimony by former CIA director George Tenet, the agency designated 50 zones after 9/11 as “ungoverned spaces.” The Department of State, including the National Intelligence Council, have also identified states at risk of collapse – what USAID calls its “Fragile States Strategy” – and seen as high risks of fostering terror, crime, and disease.

The denial of global terrorism safe havens is also a key part of counterinsurgency planning. Writing on stabilization in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps’ 2006 Counterinsurgency Field Manual, Sarah Sewall asserts that we “must do more than simply buttress a government in order to legitimatize a state. It must buttress multiple failing state structures to legitimize the interstate system … But success may also require creating sub- or supra-state authority to secure ‘ungoverned spaces’ around the globe. The strategic objective is to equip local entities to contain security threats, forcing terrorism and internal threats back into a criminal, or even political, box.” A 2006 Rand Study suggests stopping the spread of global jihad not unlike how Washington fought against European fascism and Marxist-Leninism: Through a Cold War-like containment strategy that denies these groups sanctuary. “Preventing the reconstitution of a sanctuary anywhere in the Muslim world is therefore a critical requirement of U.S. counterterrorist strategy,” the report reads.

Yet, as a few scholars have pointed out, sometimes it is states’ perceived orderliness that makes them more attractive safe havens, not their disorderliness or failed state status. As Ken Menkhaus writes, “The fact that Kenya has played such a robust role as a safe haven compared to neighboring, stateless Somalia is significant, a reminder that ungoverned zones may be less attractive than weak states for certain terrorist activities.” Moreover, the largest buildup of radical Islamist forces in Somalia coincided with that country’s greatest period of law and order in recent memory – from 2006, when the Islamic Courts defeated the U.S.-backed militias and imposed Islamic law in Mogadishu. Despite its most-failed state status, al-Qaeda in the 1990s did not find a welcome sanctuary in Somalia for obvious reasons: Failing states cannot assure the security and safety for their inhabitants, something that terrorist bases require. In this sense, an absence of institutions is less comforting than a functioning state apparatus. “What made Afghanistan so useful to al-Qaeda from 1995 onwards was not an absence of state institutions,” notes a 2006 West Point study, “it was that al-Qaeda could operate under the protection of a sovereign state, relying on that state’s sovereignty to shield its infrastructure from potential attack by Western forces. Operating in a security vacuum, where training camps and the like can be more readily attacked directly by the United States and indirectly by local allies, is much less attractive.

Nor is recruitment for nonstate actors a surer thing in weaker states. For example, unemployed Somali men with militant skills were actively recruited by the wave of militias proliferating in the 1990s, which made it more costly for al-Qaeda to outbid these homegrown actors. When al-Qaeda arrived in Somalia, writes Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations, “They were ignorant of the local culture, politics, and economics, and they underestimated the costs of operating in a non-functioning state.” The group found itself paying extortion money to local bandits and vulnerable to the whims of warlords. Somalia’s complete lack of infrastructure posed logistical and operational challenges. Al-Qaeda operatives there complained of lack of potable water, poor communications, suspicious locals, and even lousy food. Culturally it was apart and distinct from al-Qaeda. As Peter Bergen puts it, “Somalia is probably too anarchic, and possibly too African as well, for the largely middle-class Arab membership of al-Qaeda.” Like several places on the world map labeled as “failed” or “ungoverned,” Somalia was alternatively governed, beholden as it was to tribal laws, customs, and dispensation of justice.

Sometimes it is states’ perceived orderliness that makes them more attractive safe havens, not their disorderliness or failed state status.

The United States’ conception of security is fixated on its perceived ability to control and defend territory and physical space. Derek Gregory describes this posture as the “everywhere war.” Policymakers in Washington preach the need to protect the “homeland”; counterinsurgents speak about the need to “clear, hold and build” territory, particularly urban areas, and how security spreads via the image of an “oil spot”; defense analysts talk up the need to create “humanitarian corridors” and “safe havens.” These policies are all incumbent on the notion that controlling territory brings civilization and order, and that surrendering space accomplishes just the opposite, a Cartesian zero-sum game whereby progress is quantifiable by territory controlled. The perception, moreover, is that these areas have resisted or subverted state intervention, defined by instability and extremism, which pose a threat to the West, whether through drug trafficking, organized crime, illegal immigration, or transnational terrorism. A case in point is the jungles of rural Colombia or desert sands of Somalia.

This defense posture assumes, however, that these spaces lack the capacity – or will – to be governed in a Western or Weberian sense of the phrase. Moreover, by labeling states as “failed” or “fragile” assumes that these states were at one point successful, which is rarely the case. Yet, this posture demonstrates a misunderstanding of how transnational social actors engage with and operate within these ungoverned spaces. Often these areas are not ungoverned, but alternatively governed, as Yale’s James Scott points out. “[T]he distinction between the ‘governed’ and the ‘ungoverned’ is an apparent social fact, he writes but it is even more firmly installed in linguistic usage and popular consciousness.” Several of these weak states exhibit “strong societies.” This theory rejects the narrow state-society prism through which some sociologists view state formation, as the state is just one institution among many – tribal sheikhs, local strongmen, warlords, and other nonstate actors – angling for power and control over societies.

There is a further misconception among some Western policymakers that these areas require more “stateness,” a linear, neo-colonialist viewpoint that assumes “strong” and “weak” compose opposite ends of the development spectrum, when in fact they often operate in symbiosis with each other. As Sarah Chayes notes in her new book, Thieves of State, endemic corruption is not a sign of weak state capacity but actually quite the opposite. This misperception gets magnified by those who equate the combination of resource scarcity, tribalism, and a lack of governance as presaging a “coming anarchy” or “savagery” across the undeveloped world. It also assumes that the antidote is more “nation-building” – that is, to bring governance to all the world’s ungoverned spaces, usually through military coercion, which not only ignores local realities but also is a misuse of resources. If we believe that all space is based on a kind of social production of meanings, then such “ungoverned spaces” may be merely imaginarily constructed as part of our hegemonic discourse – Gramscian tools whose aim is to reproduce our dominance, not secure the homeland or fight terrorism. As Sir Adam Roberts of Oxford University dryly noted, to deny sanctuary to terrorists is “a recipe for [a] revival of imperialism.”


From Colonialism to COIN

Early colonization efforts across the Maghreb and Mesopotamia employed a similar binary logic: That nonstate space posed a threat to civilizations and required “pacification.” The French applied this logic to the Berbers and other peripheral regions of Algeria. The English and Ottomans relied on various indirect techniques to divide local tribes and maintain order over peripheral lands. In the modern era, even though armies are more regimented, there still exist hard-to-reach areas beyond the writ of the state, liminal zones where cultures overlap as often as they clash. Mary Louise Pratt’s notion of a “contact zone” – “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination” – is applicable. Others paint less flattering depictions of these frontier regions: James Ron describes them as “weakly institutionalized and often chaotic settings prone to vigilantism and paramilitary freelancing.” Scott describes these peripheral zones as “inevitable by-products of coercive state-making and are found on every continent.” Bartosz Stanislawski refers to “black spots” – blights against the Western world’s consciousness, holdouts of the existing international order. Of course, many of these so-called “quasi-states” are territorial vestiges of the colonial-era drawing of borders that demonstrated a haphazard disregard to ethnic, cultural, religious, or tribal configurations.

That does not mean, to reiterate, that these stateless regions are defined by “anarchy” or run by “savages.” Anne Clunan rejects Eurocentric notions that these enclaves are primitive societies incapable of being properly organized or legibility from above. The problem, she argues, is “far more complex than state failure, lack of state capacity or political will.” Oftentimes, there was no state to begin with. Or, perhaps owing to the nature of tribal or ethnic hierarchies, religious authorities, or nomadic character of local peoples that persisted, not to mention the lack of major conflicts, state structures never evolved in any kind of Weberian or Tillyian sense. But there still exist traditional norms and laws, social hierarchies and indigenous structures, which govern societies, despite the fact that the state remains almost nonexistent. Even the world’s most failed or fragile states are not hotbeds of Hobbesian anarchy. Writing about Somalia, Menkhaus describes zones of local arrangements that draw upon traditional or religious authorities and customary law. “These local systems of governance,” he writes, “are overlapping, fluid, fragile and vulnerable to spoilers, and generally illiberal, but they do provide a measure of security, predictability, and rule of law in the absence of authority.”

It is not clear that all nonstate actors view the benefits of physical territory similarly. Terrorists are seen as nomadic transnational actors in search of territory, refuge, and recruits. Ibn Khaldun reminds us of the downfall of nomadic tribesmen that settle down and civilize but lose their social togetherness, or so-called asabiyyah, which provide incentives to avoid becoming sedentary while allowing for smoother transitions of power from one generation to the next (As the descendants of these nomads grow used to the trappings of civilization, their asabiyyah diminishes). Or consider Mancur Olson’s useful metaphor of a “stationary” versus a “roving bandit”: Early conquerors were driven to settle down not out of any moral principle but by material incentives. Motivated by the specter of warfare and pillaging from other roving bandits, stationary bandits employed consensual rather than coercive legitimation strategies to instill order and collect taxes. Those areas outside the writ of more formalized governance structures appear to provide havens for discontents, including smugglers and other criminal networks. But they are not necessarily spaces inhospitable to all violent nonstate actors.

Indeed, there is fluidity to transnational nonstate actors, whether profiteers like Somali pirates or religious extremists like al-Qaeda, not unlike that of a network of individuals or groups on a social media site, which does not recognize sovereign borders. Nor do they need territory from which to prosper and plan operations. A multibillion-dollar enterprise can be run from a laptop spirited around the globe. Flash mobs and Facebook-orchestrated mass protests in authoritarian states like Russia do not have a central headquarters or a physical address. “If a terrorist group has a physical safe haven available, it will use it,” as Paul Pillar, a former U.S. intelligence officer, noted. “But of all the assets that make a group a threat—including ideological appeal and a supply of already-radicalized recruits—occupation of acreage is one of the least important. The strength of a terrorist adversary, al-Qaeda or any other, does not correlate with control of a piece of territory in Afghanistan or elsewhere.”

Other areas are perceived to be dangerous or exporters of insecurity because of the happenstance of geography and their proximity to Western areas of concern. In other words, the lack of state rule in, say, the Southeast Asian highlands of Zomia does not warrant the same attention as the lack of state authority in places like Somalia or Yemen. As Chloe Diggins writes: Where Pakistan is of concern because of a number of factors regarding its proximity to Afghanistan (and associated spillover effects), the success of regional military operations, and the nuclear weapon ownership, [the ungoverned space of] Timor-Leste is threatening only insofar as political instability affects local humanitarian projects. The argument here is that different ungoverned spaces represent different threats, and an ungoverned space should not automatically be perceived as a threat to global stability.

To be certain, the whole notion of controlling space, whether virtual or territorial, at the foundation of counterinsurgency can feel muddled and conceptually confusing. After all, if transnational nonstate actors like al-Qaeda are, as David Kilcullen writes, cellular-like organic ecosystems, can’t they adapt and thrive virtually anywhere, regardless of level of stateness? Kilcullen describes nested insurgencies within insurgencies, and tactical alliances struck between various local nonstate actors and transnational ones. Some of these are marriages of convenience – particularly those with drug traffickers, smugglers, and other criminals – but the more enduring ones entail groups that share ethnic, linguistic or cultural ties. There is a reason al-Qaeda has found itself mostly limited to Pakistan’s tribal belts: Not only because of the Pashtun religious and ideological commonalities but also because the organization was founded there in 1988. An ungoverned part of Siberia presumably would not be as welcoming, since safe havens are not readily substitutable goods. “The structures of human association,” writes Alexander Wendt, “are determined primarily by shared ideas rather than material forces, and that the identities and interests of purposive actors are constructed by these shared ideas rather than given by nature.” That is to say, ungoverned spaces are by nature socially constructed – even their anarchy, to paraphrase Wendt, is what we make of it.

This finding is upheld by academics, though admittedly there remains disagreement as to the relationship between failed states and terrorism. In a recent study, Bridget Coggins maintains that not all failed states have similar effects on the likelihood of producing terrorist groups. She finds a number of countries with severe human insecurity problems – Niger, Burkina Faso, Eritrea, etc. – yet pose virtually no threat of terrorism compared to those states with political instability, such as the Philippines, Sierra Leone, or the Congo. James Piazza, on the other hand, finds that states plagued by chronic state failures are significantly more likely to host terrorist organizations that commit transnational attacks, have their natives commit such attacks, and be targeted by transnational terrorists themselves. The prevailing assumption is that failed states provide transnational groups with two distinct advantages: First, these areas can alleviate principal-agent obstacles to establishing organizational capacity (poorer states have poorer capacity to monitor or police these activities). Second, state failure typically provides economic conditions that are conducive to terrorist (or drug cartel) recruitment, an opportunity cost explanation.


Territorial Ambitions

The counterterrorism narrative and discourse on territorial space is disjointed and poorly theorized for several reasons. First, it trumps up the danger of peripheral regions far from the reaches of the metropole, when in fact, as Zenko and Wolf find, terrorist attacks against Western targets often are orchestrated from actors within the Western world itself. In some of the most governed parts of the world – London, Madrid, New York – terrorist cells have trained and operated in broad daylight. In fact, urban environments can give terrorists, be they part of cells or freelance actors, anonymity they might not find in more remote areas. One of the most prominent al-Qaeda cells before 9/11 operated from Brooklyn. When ground offensives pushed al-Qaeda fighters out of South Waziristan, the fighters merely relocated to urban centers in the heart of Pakistan. The 9/11 hijackers hatched their plan in Hamburg, Germany, not a lawless province in Pakistan. The London attacks of 2005 were carried out by British citizens of Pakistani and Jamaican descent who resided and were given sanctuary locally. As Paul Pillar wrote: “The preparations most important to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States.” Michael Scheuer, testifying before Congress, called Europe “the earth’s single largest terrorist safe haven,” and “a “major, consistent, and invulnerable source of terrorist threat to the United States.” These so-called “brown zones” in Western societies are often treated as second or third-tier priorities when in fact they pose as grave a danger as far-flung ungoverned spaces.

Second, U.S. counterterrorism strategy places too much importance of denying terrorists space using a containment strategy, even as these cells are able to spread their reach online virtually. As counterinsurgency expert Andrew Exum put it in 2009, U.S. strategy “betrays an obsession with physical space at the expense of virtual space.” Even though there has yet to be a major terrorist operation conducted and coordinated chiefly through the Internet, the web presents a borderless and endless frontier from which terrorist organizations can recruit, develop, and expand. That is not to say that defense agencies are oblivious to this threat. Considerable resources have been spent to curtail and monitor activity by Islamic extremist organizations online. Groups like SITE Intelligence Group and West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center now troll through countless communications, postings, and ramblings of suspected terrorists online. But the top priority remains militarily preventing territories from becoming safe havens.

Third, this kind of approach to counterterrorism creates this confusing and counterproductive binary of states as governed territories and non-state areas as ungoverned exporters of insecurity, when in fact reality is more nuanced. There are a number of non-state spaces like Iraqi Kurdistan or Somaliland that have seen very little transnational terrorism, despite not given formal recognition of sovereign statehood. Conversely, a number of non-failing states – Mexico, Russia, China, South Africa, etc. – are riven with drug traffickers, organized criminal networks, Islamist organizations, communicable diseases, and other transnational threats. What matters, some scholars argue, is not the level of stateness per se, but rather the level of support for said terrorist group, which is why, say, the Red Army Faction could function in West Germany in broad daylight and the perpetrators of the 2005 London subway bombings could enjoy a “safe haven” in a fully functioning state.

Fourth, emphasizing the need to control physical space puts a greater onus on military solutions. Consider the fact that Obama and his predecessor have ordered 118 drone strikes in Yemen alone as of 2014, killing over 800 people, according to data collected by the New America Foundation. Moreover, this kind of cross-border war wades into gray legal areas – as these sanctuaries are often treated as zones of exemption or exception. Finally, this approach to counterterrorism assumes that all bad things go together: that a security vacuum or area lacking in stateness will naturally be filled by some transnational actor. But that ignores the fact that groups like al-Qaeda require a certain semblance of order, normalcy, and predictability even to operate. Even criminal networks and terrorist organizations require access to financial institutions and communication resources like the internet, which are easier to achieve in thriving states rather than failed ones. In fact, most of the world’s most poorly governed states, even those in the Arab world, are not hotbeds of Islamic extremism. The reason is that transnational actors like al-Qaeda have to negotiate support from local power brokers and tribal chieftains, which can often pose challenges to establishing safe havens. Again, these are weak states but with strong societies.

In short, the fight over territorial space is an unhelpful framework from which to conceptualize counterterrorism gains or losses, as it assumes this false binary between governed versus ungoverned areas. It presumes controlling more space denotes progress in the war against global terrorism when in fact it could mean the opposite – that these transnational actors have moved elsewhere, either online or closer to home. In this sense, these spaces are imagined in terms of the threat they pose. That is, as terrorist organizations become less hierarchical and more cellular, allowing them to organically spread through various nodes and channels, the importance of militarily controlling territory will only diminish. This will challenge Western states’ notions of controlling borders and territorial space through military means. We know that large swaths of the globe remain “ungoverned” in any Weberian sense, yet are not hotbeds of violent extremism. We should not conflate controlling space with defeating terrorism.


[Photo source: Flickr Creative Commons]


Lionel Beehner is coeditor of Cicero Magazine, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale, and a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. He is formerly a senior writer and term member at the Council on Foreign Relations, and is a member of USA Today‘s editorial Board of Contributors.


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