Ungoverned Spaces: What Threat do they Pose?

Ungoverned Spaces:  What Threat do they Pose?

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.

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.