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The Marauder as an Asymmetric Operational Concept

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The Marauder as an Asymmetric Operational Concept

Chris Flaherty


The marauder is an enduring concept in warfare, as it is in culture. The name ‘marauder’, has been given to military vehicles, planes, and wartime units. This paper begins with the marauder in the 18th century, where it is frequently mentioned as a disordering force in operations, and a breakdown in military discipline. However, in this period marauding also became the basis of raiding tactics. The paper then transitions to the modern era, where the marauder is a universal concept in operations spanning a wide spectrum, whether it is civil policing and security, or the military level; the marauder operates in a similar fashion at either end of the spectrum. Its most basic features are: the marauder operate independently, self-sufficiency, and aggressively hunts its target. A defining feature of the marauder is that it operates outside of the rules and conventions that govern. This feature makes the marauder ubiquitous, giving it a capacity to easily outwit and overwhelm its conventional opposition.

The final part of this paper with look at the relationship between the marauder and the lone-actor. It will be argued that the marauder is an example of asymmetric operations. The definition of asymmetric (in operations):

“In military operations the application of dissimilar strategies, tactics, capabilities, and methods to circumvent or negate an opponent’s strengths while exploiting his weaknesses.” (U.S. Department of Defence, 2018)

The argument taken here is that even though the marauders’ tactics and weapons can be commonplace, its actions nevertheless falls into the realm of asymmetric operations as its motivations and intent operate outside of the conventional realm of possibilities.

The 18th Century and Napoleonic Wars

An English military treatise, from 1761 advises that a Regimental Colonel:

ought to be very rigid with regard to the Regularity of the Service, make Discipline be exactly observed in his Regiment, and, above all, prevent Marauding.” (Millar, 1761)

This same treatise, further advises:

“In the Field, when a Regiment has ... live stock … to keep a guard of a Corporal and four trusty men upon his flock, at all times during the Campaign, both as a protection against stragglers and marauders.” (Millar, 1761)

Marauding soldiers was a common disciplinary problem in the 18th century, and Napoleonic era. Frequently, the marauder is mentioned in military texts, were soldiers individually and in armed gangs left their units attacking their own side’s supplies and stores, as well as looting local villages and civilians. The scale of this ‘land piracy’ problem was so endemic, that the marauder phenomenon caused serious problems for armies.

The history of the soldier-marauder, especially in the Napoleonic period where the phenomenon reached endemic proportions is quite complex, and not well documented. This paper will only present a short overview of instances where soldier-marauders arose. Wellington’s dispatches make frequent mention of both British and French marauders and attempts to deal with them, such as this 1810 peninsular campaign account:

that in consequence of information received from the country people that between 200 and 300 marauders were destroying the habitations and committing dreadful outrages on the few peasants that fell into their hands ... I detached the Major da Praca Fenwick with 150 recruits and militia yesterday evening to disperse or bring them in, in which he has succeeded, killing a few men, and making 28 prisoners, with the loss of only 2 men.” (Wellington, 1844)

It is not entirely clear if these marauders were French or British, as Wellington’s dispatches do mention ongoing missions picking up French marauders. However, in one 1811 account he specifically reports:

“complaining of the conduct of certain British soldiers near Alemquer, supposed to be employed to press cars. As repeated orders have been given in the British army to prevent the employment of soldiers in this manner, I conclude that these soldiers are marauders from some regiment, or detachments on their march.” (Wellington, 1844)

An account from the 1812 Russian campaign at Smolensk, states how the garrison was too weak to protect the food stores, and that the:

“marauders were already trying to storm the magazines, and he ... [the French Commissariat officer at Smolensk] ... had almost no troops to stop them.” (Lieven, 2009)

The identity of these marauders is not indicated, but it is suspected these were French soldiers.

Wellington often complained about marauders in the British army, during the peninsular campaign and this endemic problem and its lawlessness is the actual origin of Wellington’s description of some of the soldiers under his command as ‘scum’ (Wellington, 1838). This is explained in his letter to Earl Bathurst (dated 2nd July 1813):

“I enclose the copy of a letter from the Governor of Vitoria, which shows how our men are going on in that neighbourhood. These men are detachments from the different regiments of the army who were sent to Vitoria the day after the battle, each under officers, in order to collect the wounded and their arms and accoutrements. It is quite impossible for me or any other man to command a British army under the existing system. We have in the service the scum of the earth as common soldiers.” (Wellington, 1838)

Wellington in this letter complains about the legal problems he is having enforcing discipline in the army. His letter also illustrates the scale of the marauding problem he was faced with, presenting the following calculations: On the 17th June, the total British forces were 41,547 rank and file; and then, on the 29th June, there were 35,650 rank and file. This he calculated representing a reduction of 5,897. He further calculates that his losses from the battle of Vitoria were 3,164; which included 200 missing. He concludes that the rest of the ‘losses’, was, “diminution from irregularities, straggling, &c., since, for plunder, is 2,733”. Remarkably, nearly half of Wellington’s supposed total losses in the wake of the battle of Vitoria can be attributed to soldiers leaving and marauding.

Wellington’s observations as to the high number of marauders was not confined to the British, as it is recorded that in Napoleon’s last campaign in Germany that, “bad organisation of his administrative services, which almost compelled the soldier to maraud, in order to live.” (Petre, 1912) The scale of this phenomenon was massive, and appears to have run into the thousands, and in one reference, from the last German campaign:

“inclusive of 3,700 ‘missing’, of whom 800 were prisoners, and the rest marauders and stragglers, many of whom rejoined later, or turned up at Dresden.” (Petre, 1912)

In 1815, the marauding problem in the French army on the road to Waterloo reached uncontrollable proportions; a French gendarme officer reporting to Napoleon:

“The marauding and the disorder are renewing themselves in the army ... I have chased away and assembled a lot of stragglers who took drinks and food by force. I have stopped the looting of the grains and the fodder of many farms that the artillery and their crews were removing in disorder… I have to beg you to observe that, even if I have a thousand gendarmes, it will not be possible to suppress the disorder if the gendarmerie is not respected and also the general orders, if the officers do not maintain the discipline and the obedience, at last if the regiments don’t keep order themselves and execute the orders of the Emperor.” (Radet, 1815)

The attitude of senior Napoleonic commanders to soldiers marauding appears to have ranged from indignation, as in the case of Wellington, who saw it as indiscipline; or something that was accepted, and almost encouraged as a practice. It appears that commanders only curtailed marauding if there was pressure to do so (as appears the case from the examples given in the full 1815 letter of Radet). An account from the Italian campaigns:

“villagers ... sent some people to General of Brigade Rampon, who commanded the troops camped in this area, to give him news of what had happened and also to beg him to use his authority to remedy these disorders. And he promised that he would stop them, adding that if the villagers were disturbed in the future by marauding soldiers, they should defend themselves with stones, poles, and other similar weapons, but they should not use muskets.” (Esdaile, 2005)

Marauder Hyper-Violence

The fighting behaviour soldier-marauders was known to be extremely violent, as one account from Spain in 1811, attests:

“a group of deserters who had their stronghold in caves at L’Alforja. Formed up in two groups, they had swept down on the soldiers, seized sixteen mules loaded with flour that had just been taken from the French, and mercilessly killed the commander of the detachment as he lay wounded on the ground.” (Esdaile, 2005)

One of the Spanish officers who recounts this episode, only survived as he hid in the house of the village priest. Undeterred, the marauders:

turned all the houses upside down. Frustrated in this object, they had then destroyed all the weapons they could find (so as, one presumes, to frustrate the possibility of pursuit), and finally left to the accompaniment of claims to the effect that they had a monopoly on violence in the area.” (Esdaile, 2005)

At its core, the marauder represented a breakdown in military command and control where soldiers became an uncontrollable element operating outside the standard system of regulation and rules that govern military behaviour. The examples from the 18th century and Napoleonic era show the marauder as a chaotic factor, beyond just a break-down in military disciple; the marauder represents a hyper-violent and largely unpredictable foe who emerge in large numbers and struck with impunity.

Marauder as a Tactical and Operational Concept

European armies at the beginning of the 18th century often adapted marauding-like attributes when it came to the irregular tactics needed for foraging (Perlestam, 2011). The operational concept underpinning the use of flying (horse) artillery became very much associated with the phrase—ubiquitous: present, appearing, or found everywhere; not only seen in the motto of the royal artillery, but as well representing the military application of the marauder concept.

Significantly, in the Napoleonic period the marauder became the basis of cavalry disruption operations. In the 1813 German campaigns, the Russian advance force under Tettenborn consisting of Cossacks and hussars, and this force captured Hamburg and Lubeck. They upset the local French administration and raised the country-side in local insurrection (Oman, 2015). The 1813 Tettenborn raids also surprised and took Bremen, far in the rear of the army of the French Marshal Davout.

The 1813 Tettenborn raids had as its key feature the use of large bodies of cavalry, that were led far into the French rear-echelon areas. It has been argued, that this peculiar campaign was ahead of its time, and very similar to the cavalry-led raids in the American Civil War, some fifty years later (Petre, 1912). In the 1813 raids, these were generally carried into country areas, where the inhabitants were often sympathisers with the raiders, whom they supplied food, forage, and information (Petre, 1912).

Operating far ahead of the advancing army, the aim was to disrupt, capture supplies and convoy wagons. Such an episode is recorded around the 17th June, during the retreat of the British in 1815, when the 2nd Division lost some one hundred carts and wagons to French marauding cavalry (Glover, 2015).

The Wild Predator Case

The wild predator case study directly connects contemporary analysis of the lone-actor shooter with the older notion of marauder; in that case study:

“The basic problem identified in the analysis of a wild attacker is that his or her highly aggressive predatory tactics combine with the largely erratic nature of his or her attacks, delivers a successful suite of tactical options. Security and policing are forced to defend against attacks that can come at any target without warning.” (Flaherty, 2015)

Using the 2017 Las Vegas shooting as an example, illustrate how working outside the legal and jurisdictional limits places an opportunistic shooter at a distinct advantage over regular security and policing. In that case, the Las Vegas shooter was able to exploit the disconnect between two security and policing precincts, namely the hotel and its security, and that of the event ground on the other side.

The tactics employed by the Las Vegas shooter exploited a problem identified in building security standards, where one of the security questions that can be asked in a building vulnerability assessment: is how does the building effect the security of other buildings around it? (see FEMA 426; Flaherty, 2009). One of the practical problems with this type of security analysis is that because of jurisdictional and organisational division, it is very difficult for security in one place to take care of the security of another completely different entity, unless there is some type of third-part coordination.

Employing one of the simplest and well-known tactics of the sniper—to shoot at a target from high-far perch, the Las Vegas shooter nevertheless had a distinct tactical advantage. Effectively able to leverage of the fact that his actions were free of any scrutiny in the setting-up of his attack because it was not a direct security threat to the hotel. The other advantage he had, was that the event security was not focused on any outside, or high-rise threats, as might be the case for higher level security operations, where a saturated deployment takes control of all the possible vantage points. In the case of the Las Vegas shooter, for his plan to work, the hotel was extreme high-ground for a successful strike on the event below him.

Looking at the Las Vegas shooter as an example of marauding, it can be argued that he was able to exploit the disconnect between two security precincts. This represents an example of the, ‘range verses territory engagement’ that was developed as a scenario-game between various players, one of whom was a marauder who had the ability to range over a number of adjacent ‘territorial’ areas, each of which were ruled by independent rulers, called ‘territorial rules, or sovereigns’:

“called territory rulers … [who operate] … according to the notion of territory control. They are ‘ruled’ by various cardinal rules, that inhibit operational flexibility, such as, the territory rulers cannot form coalitions to attack … Whereas their opponent … fair-evaders, criminal trespassers or terrorist attacker … have evolved a ‘ranging’ strategy involving nomadic behaviour that does not recognise or care about territory sovereignty.” (Flaherty, 2012)

Figure 1: In the range verses territory scenario-game, the ranging-marauder was able to exploit the fact that each territorial sovereign could not help another, after the ranging-marauder passed from their territory into another (Flaherty, 2012).

Maurader 1 image.

Figure 1: Movement of the Marauder-Ranger Over Four Territories

Using the range verses territory analogy in relation to the Las Vegas shooter, he was operating in one security-territory (the hotel) and firing his weapons across the fence-line into an adjacent security-territory (the event space). In effect, the Las Vegas shooter was able to operate in the ‘between space’. This was a key factor in making his attack unhindered. In this example, the Las Vegas shooter as a ranging-marauder was guaranteed success in his attack.

Marauder as an Asymmetric Operational Concept

The marauder operating independently outside of any of the recognised frameworks, or rules that exist for regulating the world, can be characterised as an example of an asymmetric operational concept. Moving outside the rules, was the basis of the first operation launched by the famed British SAS on the German’s airfields in North African, in WW2. The SAS operational concept was based on the total detachment of the British force from its own forces, achieved as a deep manoeuvre into the desert no-man’s land which edged the German and Allied campaign-area. The unique set of geographical circumstances allowed the SAS to strike at the German airfields coming from nowhere and returning to that place, ‘off the map’ so to speak.

The military use of the marauder is traditionally a wild card in combat operations. Part of the tactical uniqueness is their ability to manoeuvre erratically over terrain. This gives several advantages over a conventional force, such as unpredictability of their next move; this also allows for a lack of foreseeable motive to be ascertained by the conventional force, as the marauder-movement is too erratic to meaningfully understand—beyond identifying the marauders’ obvious need to hunt and destroy a target somewhere.

The asymmetric geospatial component to attacks by lone-actors has similarly been identified in recent years, namely their living:

“significantly greater distances from where they engage in precursor preparatory activities than … [terrorist groups] … (median distances of 170 miles to 79 miles, respectively). They also live significantly greater distances from the terrorist incident location than … [terrorist groups] … (328 miles to 118 miles, respectively).” (Smith, Roberts, Gruenewald, Klein, 2014)

This recent analysis illustrates that the lone-actor will often employ the well-known use of an asymmetric operational technique of geographical manoeuvre; that is, striking at a target coming from a faraway place, which does not have an immediate connection to the place that was attacked, and like the previous example of the SAS in North Africa, operating ‘off the map’.

Combining the Marauder and Lone-Actor

A key finding among lone-actors in recent research indicates they:

“engage in significantly fewer precursor … [behaviours] … per incident than do … [terrorist groups].” (Smith, Roberts, Gruenewald, Klein, 2014)

Detachment from traditional command and control is a key marauder trait. This is replaced operationally with command and influence relationships. This is a key factor situating the marauder in the realm of asymmetric operations. Organisationally flat, command and influence relationships have little in the way of a discernible leadership. Free to act chaotically—to the extent that an opponent cannot, with any predictability identify when and where they will be attacked, marauder self-sufficiency and aggressive pursuit of its prey, or object combined with speed, gives it a much greater capacity to overwhelm conventional forces. These traits are viewed as asymmetric advantages, as the conventional forces by their very nature operate within the realm of rules and convention. Their actions are directed by force moderation doctrine.

The marauder/lone-actor phenomenon presents numerous contradictions. Many lone-actors display similar traits, especially the use of common tactical and weapons choices. Few if any, appear to have a cogent connection, or form together into any organised group, beyond the ‘leaderless resistance’, said to have been espoused as early as 1983:

“only a movement based on very small or even one-man cells of resistance … could combat the most powerful government on earth. (Burke, 2017)

Along similar lines, enunciated in terrorist literature in 2004 was the, “maxim … principles, not organisations.” (Burke, 2017) Describing an adaptation of the netwar concept (Arquilla, Ronfeldt, 1996), these are examples of command and influence relationships:

“(i) Actions are independent; (ii) Coordinated collaboratively and consultatively; (iii) ‘Influence’ operates as the attractor and motivator for human-to-human organisation; (iv) Rely on broad ideologies to motivate and direct (which operate as unifying and directing precepts); and, (v) Rely on opinion leaders or intermediaries, who organise, coordinate, and suggest direction.”

“COMMAND AND INFLUENCE (CI): Is the opposite to centralised control (or C2: Command/Control). Relies on pure ‘Influence’ as a means to organise. It can be an organisation in command, influencing followers; or an ‘influence’ from web and media alone. This enables the self-organisation of a lone terrorist or small isolated group.” (Flaherty, 2003; 2010; 2012)

Figure 2: Rather than the tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) of the marauder/lane-actor, it is their beliefs and behaviours that are the asymmetric component to an operation. As can be seen, the TTPs are no less conventional, than the military, security or policing ones. Both potential combatants share a symmetrical power relationship to each other (Mack, 1975). That is, both opponents share the same conventional operational options. The unknown factor—which shifts the power relationship into an asymmetric one, is that the marauder/lone-actor acts in a completely unexpected manner, operating under motivations and with intentions that cannot possibly be foreseen by their opponents (the military, security and policing forces).

Maurader 2 image.

Figure 2: Beliefs and Behaviours as an Asymmetric Component

One of the key criticisms of the lone-actor is that these are:

“defined by their lack of direction from any group or other individuals in planning or carrying out their attacks. However, many of these perpetrators still have links to violent extremist groups—both in an online and offline setting.” (Smith, Barton, Birdwell, 2016)

While it is without doubt, that lone-actors generally embrace certain common belief systems, these are invariably highly personalised; sometimes into complex personal cosmologies or highly-articulated personal manifestos (Flaherty, 2012). Still others, recently like the Las Vegas shooter, have proved problematic for current law enforcement investigators to identify any real motive for the attack; it is suspected he may have been personally radicalised by some extreme ideology, or acting from extreme anomie. The end-result is that running counter to any influence from other sources (such as the internet which is often cited as the organising medium), the personalisation of the lone-actors’ motives, preparation and final decision to act invariably produce a wild-card situation. This is irrespective of the fact that in many cases there has been a declaration, or a series of declarations made as a significant step in the lone-actor’s kill chain (Flaherty, 2012). This phenomenon is known also as “leakage”; based on, “academic research that has shown that very few violent extremists act without letting others know what they may be planning.” (Burke, 2017)

The significance of the declaration/leakage problem of is that it can form a significant part of the lone-actor’s ideology, as a necessary step in the process of fulfilling the intended meaning of their actions to a wider audience. This paper began with defining an asymmetric operational concept in terms of the individual operating outside the conventional range of strategic, operational or tactical options. However, what is more likely is that the lone-actor is individually employing conventional TTPs, and working from a highly personal or unique world view that is so esoteric, or considered inconceivable, or beyond comprehension of the rest of society. This creates a situation where an individual is truly marauding, acting on motivations that come from nowhere— ‘off the map’, creating a set of operational possibilities that are not foreseeable till they occur. It is because of this asymmetric problem that the marauder/lone shooter continues to arise; not because we do not know they will come—because many have; it is because their conceptual framework is so far beyond the accepted realm of possibility, that they come from nowhere, strike with overwhelming violence, and return to the ‘desert’, only to return again unexpectedly through another who has taken up the mantle.


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About the Author(s)

Christopher Flaherty has a Ph.D. in Economic Relations from the University of Melbourne with a focus on networking. Following this, he pursued a career in defence and security research in the Australian Department of Defence. Christopher has been based in London since 2008. A Senior Research Associate of the Terrorism Research Center (TRC), he regularly contributes to its’ current publications. He is also the co-primary author of Body Cavity Bombers: The New Martyrs (iUniverse, 2013). Two essays of his from 2003 and 2010 were reprinted in the TRC book - Fifth Dimensional Operations (iUniverse, 2014). He is the author of Australian Manoeuvrist Strategy (Seaview Press, 1996). Christopher has been an active contributor on security, terrorism early warning, and related international intelligence issues, including tactics, techniques and procedures analysis, published in the TRC report ‘Dangerous Minds’ (2012). He has a long-term involvement in the development of a ‘Scripted Agent Based Microsimulation Project’, at the University of Wollongong (NSW, Australia).