A Look at Transnational Crime from a National Security Perspective

Andrew Trabulsi, entrepreneur, consultant, and co-editor of Warlords, Inc.: Black Markets, Broken States, and the Rise of the Warlord Entrepreneur, joined me on Covert Contact (episode 42) to discuss the growing impact of transnational crime and how it intersects with destabilizing forces ranging from empowered individuals, to terrorist organizations, to rogue governments.

The key question at the heart of this discussion is our response. How can large bureaucratic organizations, such as the U.S. intelligence community, position themselves to counter incredibly nimble (and increasingly empowered) actors who are unconstrained by law or ethics? We just scratch the surface here but this episode will be followed by several more focused discussions with Andrew as we search for answers. You can listen to the episode here.

This episode is part of a longer discussion that will span two episodes. The second will be released as episode 44 sometime in mid-April. Subscribe to Covert Contact on iTunes (or elsewhere) to have episodes delivered directly to your device as soon as they are released.


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Ungoverned Spaces: What Threat do they Pose?

Since the attacks of 9/11 there has been much research and policy work done on ungoverned spaces.  An early discussion of ungoverned spaces occurred in February, 2004 when the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, provided a statement for the record to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence [1].  His 2004 definition of the term spoke to “geographic areas where governments do not exercise effective control….Terrorist groups and narco-traffickers use these areas as sanctuaries to train, plan and organize, relatively free from interference.”  From a U.S. perspective, the idea that ungoverned spaces pose a threat to U.S. interests is continued today in the 2015 U.S. National Security Strategy [2] which states that “[a]n array of terrorist threats has gained traction in areas of instability, limited opportunity, and broken governance.”  This article will discuss the term ungoverned spaces; what it means, its ties to human nature, how ungoverned spaces in and of themselves are not a threat, as well as outline a broad concept for action and identify one additional consideration.

The English philosopher and physician John Locke put forth the idea of perfect freedom as mankind’s natural state in 1689 [3].  With Locke’s ideas as a basis, it follows that mankind will seek this natural state, thus avoiding government, or any force that attempts to govern it, whenever possible.  This is evident today where people migrate from an oppressive country to a less oppressive one or when people in the U.S. move from one state with restrictive laws to a different state with less restrictive laws.  You likely did the same thing when you were a kid, always preferring to stay overnight at the friend’s house whose parents were lax and allowed you to misbehave in any number of ways.  Therefore, if seeking ungoverned, or more precisely less-governed spaces is part of mankind’s natural state, how are these spaces a threat?

The most wide-ranging definition of “govern” from Merriam-Webster [4] states “to control, direct, or strongly influence the actions and conduct of [some thing or group].”  Note that this definition is not related to government per se but instead on influencing actions. From a national security perspective, this could be one country trying to govern the actions of another country or group to ensure they do not pose a threat to the former’s interests.  Based upon this, it isn’t the space lacking governance itself that is the threat, but more correctly the behavior of the people that occupy that space.  Accepting that as true, while the behavior of the people within the ungoverned space may pose a threat, addressing it by military action alone cannot positively impact its driving factors [5].  In an effort to address these driving factors, the 2015 U.S. National Security Strategy [6] proposes “work[ing] to address the underlying conditions that can help foster violent extremism such as poverty, inequality, and repression.”  The 2015 U.S. National Security Strategy [7] goes on to say that the United States “will continue to work with partners and through multilateral organizations to address the root causes of conflict before they erupt and to contain and resolve them when they do.”

Taking the above factors into account, a combined approach is clearly necessary.  Immediate threats posed by the behavior of the people that occupy the ungoverned space are likely best addressed through military action.  Diminishing the ability of the people in the ungoverned space to train and equip their organization is likely best addressed by military, intelligence, and law enforcement actions. Addressing the factors that drive the people to choose this behavior is both a civilian government and community-based endeavor. 

The friction points with any such combined approach are capability and patience.  While many nations have military personnel who can deploy and either conduct offensive operations or train partners, a similar capability to address driving factors does not presently exist. What nation has the “Good Governance Mobile Training Team” on standby for overseas deployment to teach other countries to govern in a manner that does not drive their people to take up arms?  Even if this capability did exist, what country has the patience to utilize it for twenty, thirty, or even more years in order to address these driving factors?

An additional consideration worthy of note is that the ungoverned space threat model assumes that a person travels to the ungoverned space only to receive training and then travels to another location to conduct an operation.  This may have been the case for the 9/11 attacks, but what about less-sophisticated plots?  Three individuals already within your country who have cellular phones and rifles can wreak havoc.  In such a case, where is the ungoverned space?  I submit that the ungoverned space was actually their minds.  Rather than having a mind governed by constructive thoughts put in place by family and community and encouraged to grow in an environment of good governance, it was ungoverned space and thus able to be influenced by violent extremist ideologies.     

[1] Jacoby, L. E. (2004, February 24). DIA Director Statement for the Record to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Retrieved February 13, 2016, from http://7.iwar.org.uk/homesec/resources/threats-2004/jacoby.pdf

[2] Obama, B. H. (2015, February). National Security Strategy. Retrieved February 22, 2016, from https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2015_national_security_strategy.pdf

[3] Locke, J. (1689). Two Treatises of Government. Retrieved February 13, 2016, from http://www.csus.edu/indiv/s/simpsonl/hist162/locke.pdf

[4] Merriam Webster Definition of “Govern” 3a. (n.d.). Retrieved February 14, 2016, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/govern

[5] Program on Extremism | Center for Cyber & Homeland Security | The George Washington University. (n.d.). Retrieved February 14, 2016, from http://cchs.gwu.edu/program-extremism

[6] 2015 National Security Strategy.

[7] Ibid.

Phil Walter has served in the military, the intelligence community, and the inter-agency. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not contain information of an official nature. He tweets @philwalter1058 and blogs at www.philwalter1058.com. This is a companion piece to episode 40 of the Covert Contact podcast.


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Podcast: Covert Contact Wraps up 2015 with William Tucker

Regular contributor William Tucker joined me for the final episode of 2015. We discussed holiday terror alerts, Poland’s unusual raid of a NATO-linked counterintelligence center that it operated with Slovakia, the U.S. Army Europe counterintelligence division’s release of a mobile app for soliciting tips, and more. We closed out this episode with thoughts about the year ahead. We looked at Asia, Russia, Mexico, the future of ISIS – and what may rise when it eventually falls.

Covert Contact is going to get off to an interesting start in 2016 but I can’t reveal some of the guests just yet. I’m excited and I think you will be too. Subscribe on iTunes, or through any number of other platforms, to get episodes delivered directly to your computer or mobile device as soon as I release them.

Your feedback is appreciated. Please don’t hesitate to reach out and tell me what you like, or don’t like about each episode.


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Podcast: Understanding the Limits of Intelligence and Counterterrorism

In episode 31 of the Covert Contact podcast I’m joined by Patrick Skinner, Director of Special Projects for The Soufan Group. Patrick is a former CIA case officer who specializes in counter-terrorism issues. Patrick’s background in both law enforcement (US Air Marshals and the US Capitol Police) and intelligence has positioned him to understand the full array of challenges we face in our intelligence and counterterrorism efforts and it is those challenges that we focus on in this podcast.

How dow we deal with unpreventable attacks? How do we attack root causes? How can an enormous bureaucracy like the U.S. government adapt to fight incredibly agile adversaries? Does consumer encryption really present a significant barrier? How do we find the balance between human intelligence and technology driven collection? We cover it all – and then some in this episode.

Related Links
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About Covert Contact
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