Small Wars Journal

The New Era of Non-State Actors: Warfare and Entropy

Thu, 08/24/2017 - 11:05pm

The New Era of Non-State Actors: Warfare and Entropy

Jason Thomas


This paper argues that while conventional military tensions are building with North Korea, Western allies should prepare for a dramatic increase in conflict against non-state actors engineered by, with and through States whose resource and strategic geo-political interests are in direct competition with the West.  These small wars will continue to rise and fall in their intensity across existing fronts, such as Afghanistan and Yemen, and evolve across new mediums of conflict such as cyber, economic and the infiltration of our borders by violent and non-violent supporters and facilitators of these non-state actors and their State sponsors.  New non-state actor relationships could also form where both parties conceive a mutually beneficial interest.  The preparation, planning and implementation to counter this future trend will require non-linear strategies as well as our own novel symbiotic relationships that neutralise the effectiveness of non-state actors threatening our foreign and domestic security.

Whether al Qaeda (AQ), the so called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Antifa G20 rioters, Somali pirates Wikileaks, the Taliban, Hezbollah or trans-national criminal organisations, non-state actors continue to demonstrate their capacity to impact warfare, security, geo-political stability and investment around the world.  For example, outside the July 2017 G20 meeting in Hamburg rioters demonstrated how quickly a non-state network could create chaos within a modern, stable and economically strong major European city.  As military historian Max Boot (2013) explains it is guerilla warfare that has dominated conflict throughout history.  In their examination of the use of non-state actors by Russia in the context of the crisis in the Ukraine, German and Karagiannis (2016) explain that in the post-Cold War era there has been a change in the distribution of power throughout the international system.  This has seen the emergence of non-state actors threatening to alter the hegemonic dominance of traditional state-based power.

All the aforementioned non-state actors not only continue to survive but appear to thrive in spite of the technological and economic force applied against them by States and coalitions of States.  Since the Treaty of Westphalia, while brutal, predominantly it appears to have been easier for States to defeat States in war than non-state actors, (see Jones and Johnston 2013).  Significantly many of these non-state actors are borderless in their actions, reach and sanctuaries.  Logistic supply routes, financing or non-aligned local support multiplies the challenge to neutralise the effectiveness of these non-state actors.  An example is the Abu Sayaf Group (ASG).  In September 2015 ASG were able to conduct a kidnapping around the waters of the Southern Philippines city of Davao and ferry their victims some 500kms by high speed boats, bunny-hoping along supportive seaside villages to their suspected base in Basilan and Sulu.

Intentionally or unintentionally these non-state actors appear more effective at penetrating the moral and mental elements of COL. John Boyd’s (1987) continuum of conflict than States who remain fixed on the physical.  If anything captivated the attention of the Western public regards ISIS and the conflict in Syria and Iraq it was the horrific beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers filmed live and published on social media and not the hot battles on the ground or the strikes from the air.  Like the recidivism of Malaria before artemether-lumefantrine, these non-state actors retain a presence within the system, engaging our armed forces and law enforcement at will or when their State sponsors decide to distract Western allies while constantly occupying and draining our military and economic resources.

Theoretical Frameworks

One of the most modestly insightful military-academics, Dutch Air Commodore Dr Frans Osinga (2006), argues that “the current Western mode of thinking and waging war, which is founded on Clausewitzian principles, is giving rise to non-Clausewitzian styles of warfare, with obvious consequences for the state of strategic theory.”  An attachment to Clausewitz has not benefitted Western strategic approaches to what William Lind (1989) described as “fourth generational warfare” against technologically weaker, non-state actors.  This Clausewitzian mindset may have resulted in the slow recognition by governments of alternative conflict paradigms, whereby the predominant game has been the physical destruction of the enemy. 

In a critique on relearning counterinsurgency warfare, Robert Tomes (2004), cites Van Creveld from his work The Transformation of War, in which he argued that, “nuclear weapons would lead to the decline in traditional armoured warfare and the rise of insurgency, terrorism and subversion,” (Tomes, 2004, 18).  While its construct has been heavily critiqued, it could be argued the Lind et al ‘generational’ concept of warfare is an applicable theoretical framework through which to analyse the argument in this paper.  Even though the historical description by Boot (2013) demonstrates non-state actors in warfare are predominant, perhaps imagining ways in which they could be used in the future, is required.  In the pursuit of their ends Frank Hoffman (2007) argues adversaries will use all capabilities available to them in future war.

Non-state actors such as Wikileaks, Antifa and other similar non-military framed organisations are now relevant more than ever in their efforts to cultivate instability, compromise national security and generating moral and mental entropy within Western democracies. Wikileaks for example never targets China, North Korea, Iran or other non-Western States.  As retired US Marine COL. Hammes (2004) explains, non-state actors in the form of the media, religious movements, terrorist groups and drug cartels are turning their issues international.  Many of these non-state actors continually demonstrate the asymmetric weakness of the State and the near total erosion of information control by governments.  Even when efforts are non-violent, being pursued outside jungles, deserts or mountains, does not mean they cannot be framed in the context of warfare.  Revolutions, insurgencies and terrorism are augmented by a variety of facilitators that form symbiotic relationships and can be oxygenated through non-violent supporters who have infiltrated our politics and civil society to subvert and influence our system. 

Non-state actors and States that use them as proxies have understood, faster than Western governments, the power of decentralised, globally networked operating frameworks.  Complexity theory is another relevant and applicable framework from which to consider the morphing of actors and means, many of which are even yet to be devised, (Arney 2011; Lawson 2013).  This potential application of this confluence of ideas is reinforced when combined with Boyd (1987) statement on strategy whereby the purpose was to connect oneself with many centres of power and influence as possible while isolating one’s opponent from many centres of power and influence.  Fellman, Bar-Yam & Minai, (2015) apply insightful critical analysis in the application of complex systems theory to counter terrorism and insurgency.  In an evaluation of human social progression, including changes in warfare, using complexity theory Pugesek (2015) describes each point of emerging change as a Fibonacci interval, a numerical sequence described by thirteenth century Italian mathematician, Otto Fibonacci.  When considered in the context of non-state actors being used by States, the Fibonacci sequencing demonstrates how every member of each node along the network can be a force multiplier for instability, warfare and terrorism, greater than the original impact of the initial instigator.  In addition, at each Fibonacci interval where an innovation enters the frame, such as social media, the effect is exponential.

Following her analysis of over 350 primary and secondary sources COL (Ret.) Jennifer Hesterman (2013) provides a compelling case for the use of sociological and organizational theories for understanding the rise and fall or illicit organisations.  As Hesterman (2013) explains they all have stakeholders, customers and products that require an organizational network that fosters recruitment, planning and execution.  Using social networking phenomenon, Hesterman (2013) reveals how it is the ideal platform for previously unconnected organisations to spy, recruit and disseminate propaganda, with a large focus the flow of money.  As with multinational corporations in this hyper-connected era, the stakeholders and customers of criminal organisations can be linked to or are connected with those on the periphery of other non-state actors such as terrorist organisations, insurgencies, cyber criminals and international drug cartels. 

Like ideology and the internet e-commerce, or the ability to freely transfer funds has become a borderless process.  In August 2017, the FBI revealed how a senior ISIS militant funneled money to alleged ISIS operatives in the US via eBay.  This case highlighted the audacious actions of terrorists to blend financial transactions within what has become for many of us a normal medium for millions of consumers.  Following on a case involving an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate a Saudi Arabian Ambassador a former Drug Enforcement Agency Head, Asa Hutchinson, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying, there was "a significant amount of overlap" between drug organizations and terror networks in parts of the globe, notably Afghanistan.” (Wall Street Journal, October 2011).

A biological conceptual framework also offers a powerful lens through which strategists and tacticians could project how the threat from non-state actors will evolve into the future.  One of the most inspiring minds on developing adaptable security models was the late Raphael Sagarin, a marine biologist from Arizona who studied organisms in the rock pools along the US Pacific Coast. As Sagarin (2012) explained, the 3.5 billion years of evolution and Charles Darwin’s ideas on the origin of species offer countless lessons for security against terrorism.  As with biology, warfare and conflict place opponents in highly competitive environments. Being able to survive and regenerate is critical for terrorist and insurgent groups in the face of threats from counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency operations.  One of Sagarin’s close colleagues was Geerat Vermeij, a paleo-biologist.  Vermeij specialized in exploring the power of organizational systems.  Sagarin cites Vermeij who explains how a structure of semi-autonomous parts under weak, central control provides the most flexible, adaptable and reliable means of making unpredictable challenges, predictable.” Most significantly, both Sagarin and Vermeij observed the countless and seemingly unexpected symbiotic relationships that are ubiquitous in nature.  As we see in our cities with the G20 rioters, antifa, Islamic extremists within our communities and social activist groups, all quickly manoeuvre between causes and targets.  As in nature, they form seemingly incongruent relationships with other groups, all of which maintains donors, supporters, mass-media recognition and in many cases pose a destabilising threat to the state.

While every nation has a duty to ensure its economy and armed forces can confront conventional threats from States, as with history, the future will see more warfare and entropy induced destabilization from non-state actors by, with and through States.  Imaging the kind of synthesis between States and non-state actors and then designing adaptable responses may be more successful if approached with the mindset required to accomplish the infamous Boyd (1987) “snowmobile experiment” set out in his presentation The Strategic Game of ? And ?  As Hesterman (2013) argues any analysis of the “terror-criminal nexus requires a fusion of imagination and dot connecting intuition, corroborated, foundational evidence.” (Hesterman, 2013, p. xviii).  

The point of offering these small number of theoretical concepts from which to critically analyse and synthesize new and evolving threats is to demonstrate that whatever construct is used we should not be limited by conventional risk standards that focus on the most likely, but the least expected.

Strategic Context

In the context of the threat from North Korea, on August 1, 2017,  United States (US) Senator Lindsay Graham, emphasized that “if thousands are going to die, they will die over there.”  Other more rational non-allied states will have calculated the calamity of a state-on-state war with the US and its allies such as Australia, Great Britain and NATO members. Conversely, as David Galula (1964) explained, “protracted guerilla warfare is so cheap to maintain and so expensive to suppress, can eventually produce a crisis within the counterinsurgency camp,” (Galula, 1964).  Therefore, a cheaper, entropic inducing option is shape and engineer multiple “wars of the flea” across a variety of terrains, through complex, networked, borderless and dynamic non-state actors.  The long term threat from non-state actors was recognised in the Australian Government’s 2016 Defence White Paper where the report specifically factors them into preparations to detect, deter and defeat their ability to impact on Australia.

The paradigmatic shift in warfare identified by Roger Trinquier (1964) following World War II, was true then as it is for the foreseeable future.  That is, how warfare is “an interlocking system of actions – political, economic, psychological, military-that aims at the overthrow of the established authority in a country and its replacement by another regime.” (Trinquier, 1964, p.5).   The difference now is that instead of seeking to overthrow the established authority of Western governments, the modus operandi has shifted to penetrating deep within all layers of a Western country’s government, economic, cyber security, media and civil society in order to subvert and influence.  This is in addition to the control of fragile or failing states within regions with porous borders, under competition for resources.  When advantageous to this formula, States can non-state actors, directly or indirectly, to indefinitely distract and drain Western military forces engaged on the ground or on the sea.   An example of alignment from a geo-political context was the attack on Camp Shaheen just outside Mazar-e-Sharif on 21 April 2017.   The coordination resourcing and direction for that attack required direct investment from regional players who perversely benefit from the indefinite presence of US and Coalition forces, as well as from the on-going destabilisation of Afghanistan.

One risk factor of these small wars is the potential for an increase in diplomatic tensions between those Western governments involved and other countries that hold conflicting geo-political positions and strategic interests.  Examples are the on-going conflict in Afghanistan, the communist guerilla insurgency of the New People’s Army in the Philippines, previous Syrian support of the Kurdish PKK, and Iranian support of Hamas, (see Byman, 2005 and Ekmekci, 2011).  In his work on pirates, terrorists and warlords, Norwitz, (2009) explains whether motivated by greed or political ideology, the common thread that has run through many of these groups since feudal times is the connection to a political power.   Tensions between India and Pakistan often surface through non-state actors such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, as demonstrated in the 2008 Mumbai attack.  As Indian Police Services Officer, Inspector General Shapoo (2016), explained, the September 2016 attack on the Indian army base at Uri in the state of Jammu and Kashmir by Lashkar-e-Taiba triggered one of the worst crisis between the two states in decades.  While there is a strong historical context to both these complex geo-political issues, behind many of these inter-state tensions is the use of non-state actors.  While not novel, the point is the use of non-state actors will increase across new porous lines of attack and through relationships against Western strategic interests.

China’s reclamation and militarization of artificial islands within the South China Sea presents a significant strategic focal point from which to consider the use of non-state actors.  Not only to take territory, but to defend and if required attack.  As regularly well documented, any incursion by foreign vessels to within 12 nautical miles of any of these Islands are met by Chinese military vessels.  Yet the beginning of China’s moves to claim these seas and area around these Islands began through the use of fisherman.  In fact, China has the largest armed non-military fishing fleet, or ‘fishing militia’ in the world, (Reuters 2016). According to a Reuters 2016 report whose details can be triangulated with other similar reporting, the fishing fleet based on Hainan Island receives everything from military training and fuel subsidies.  In 2012 – 2013 Islands previously claimed and occupied by the Philippines in the Spratly archipelago found a constant flotilla of fishing boats harassing and pushing out Philippine vessels.  Any retaliation by the Philippines or threat of action was met with a mea culpa by the fisherman or counter threats by the Chinese government as the fisherman were Chinese citizens.  As with the consequences of any conventional military engagement with North Korea, it is far more economical for China to use non-state actors to push its hegemonic, strategic and resource claims and potentially use them for more aggressive, but low-level conflicts. 

China’s use of non-state actors in respect to the South China is also an example of what Liddell Hart described as pure grand strategy reminiscent of the Greek military commander Epaminondas (418 – 362 B.C).  Instead of a confrontation in the open, in the middle of Sparta territory Epaminondas founded new cities at Mount Ithome and Megalopolis.  This resulted in an infiltration of Sparta’s population, the creation of an insurgency and the loss of the majority of its workers.  Significantly, it carved out an influence over more than half of Sparta’s territory, controlling trade and economic routes.  No battle was fought, not an arrow was fired nor a spear thrown.  In his retelling of this anecdote, Liddel Hart described it as pure grand strategy.  Its so-called string of pearls and one-belt-one-road strategy could be framed in a similar ‘Epaminondasian’ grand strategic maneuver.

Considering the future, one might reflect on how non-state actors could be used to orchestrate the ideas entertained by two senior serving Officers from the Chinese military.  Three years before the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, COL. Qiao Liang and COL. Wang Xangsui (2002), wrote Unrestricted Warfare, advocating the use of non-military methods of waging war to defeat technologically superior opponents, such as the US.  As David Adams (2003) explains, it is a means of placing an opponent in a bad position while avoiding direct, conventional military conflict.  These non-military methods suggested by Liang and Xangsui include disrupting the West’s dependence on networks of trade, telecommunications, transportation, electricity grids, information technology (such as incessant hacking), as well as mass media and financial and economic manipulation.   The authors also advocated manipulating the West’s commitment to international rules and conventions, such as the Laws of Armed Combat.  Liang and Xangsui believed in fully exploiting the way the West imposes political and moral restraints on how its military can fight.  Perversely, the authors describe a potential attack on the World Trade Centre or a bombing attack by Osama bin Laden. 

In a similar exploration of future insurgencies, Jones and Johnston (2013) assess how over the next decade China could amplify its support and use of insurgencies.  Jones and Johnston (2013) identify four factors that have the potential to increase China’s application of non-state actors such as insurgencies.  These include: (1) a continuing rise in its economic and military power, (2) an increase in its global interests, (3) limited power projection capabilities, and (4) progress on its capabilities to support insurgencies and counterinsurgencies.  This paper suggests other factors such as China’s domestic demand for raw materials as its population and industry requirements demand.  These insurgencies or other non-state actors whether cyber or maritime may not be activated to specifically target the US, Australia or other Western partners but could be employed against smaller nations allied to the West, thereby placing the US and its allies on the horns of a dilemma in how to respond.

A good example of the US preparing to neutralise emerging and evolving non-state actor threats beyond Iraq and Afghanistan is the work of the US Africa Command and Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA).  The stated mission of SOCAFRICA is, “as part of a global team of national and international partners, conducts persistent, networked and distributed special operations in direct support of the United States Africa Command to promote stability and prosperity in Africa.” (Special Warfare, March 2017, p.8).   Across this vast area of operations SOCAFRICA is forming multi-faceted symbiotic relationships with non-government organisations, local governments, inter-agency partners and of course a variety of Africa military counterparts.   The SOCAFRICA mission demonstrates that the tyranny of distance can be overcome by dedicated, consistent and relentless connection building initiatives and operations.  Each layer building towards what Boyd described as a Schwerpunkt understanding across the network.  This initiative is as much about the broader strategic context of geo-political significance where non-state actors or our state competitors can build their own non-state actor networks to frustrate the West’s grand objectives.  As Western governments are painfully learning all space within the so-called gray zone will be exploited and filled by our opponents as we retreat.

Future Small Wars

While every state has an obligation to defend its citizens from any threat, the nature of that threat in the future is likely to come from non-state actors working by, with and through states and from new and evolving non-state actor relationships.  While armed drones have made sanctuaries for insurgents less safe, sanctuaries along porous, poorly monitored land and sea borders will remain a weakness, especially where poorer economies lack the resources to monitor and control these gray zones.  Obviously every future war scenario is impossible to predict. That said, the risk of future small wars being dominated by the exponential application and synthesis of technology, ideology, extremism employed to advance the geo-political strategic interests other states cannot be dismissed. 

As Lele (2014) observes there is likely to be an increase in the composition of warfare where non-state actors use asymmetric methods to target a state’s vulnerabilities.  What should be factored into future planning by the US and its allies, is how States may increasingly use non-state actors to target their geo-political opponents to achieve a disproportionate effect.  Dragging our militaries into protracted conflicts, creating diplomatic tensions and the risk of a perceived over-reaction when too many of the enemy and their supporters are killed in the minds of commentators and acquiescent members of the public. 

As with its initiative in Africa, the US and its allies need to project their strategic imagination into the future, and keep it there.  This may generate further connections and blending of technologies yet to be developed.  As a state’s capacity to control its borders (land, sea, air and cyber) becomes increasingly challenged non-state actors are likely to form new mutually beneficial relationships, synthesized with the least expected applications of weapons, financing, recruitment, infiltration and methods of violence and warfare. Hesterman (2013) argues that previously unconnected groups will work to leverage each other’s skills and resources, going onto say that, “ideology is no con­cern when the shared enemy is “the state,” which seeks to limit influ­ence, power, and money.” (Hesterman, 2013, p. 273).  Those involved with human trafficking, people smuggling, arms and wildlife smuggling would see no issue forming alliances with terrorists, insurgents and where their activities create a distracting menace for government authorities, ignored by our state opponents.

As Romaniuk and Grice (2017) point out the French experience in the Second World War with the Maginot line demonstrated how the future of warfare cannot be predicated on the past. Now the time frame for what constitutes past experiences has an ever decreasing half-life. In other words, our enemy’s O-O-D-A loops are cycling through extremely quickly.  Equally important is the contribution within Romaniuk and Grice (2017) by John Callahan who argues that the non-Western world uses a more flexible, decentralized, and technologically adept approach to warfare than the West.  This is also an idea laced with opportunity for non-state actors and states who use them at the expense of the West.

The capacity to defeat another nation state threatening such as North Korea should always be a fundamental aspect of our government’s long term preparedness.  As with history, the predominant form of warfare will remain small or of low intensity, but with an enhanced lethality and ability to frustrate our geo-political strategic interests.  The counter to this threat requires an even sharper level of precision in all forms, including nano-technology, deeper human terrain exploitation, as well as cultural and face-to-face intelligence gathering.  As Hank Crumpton explained, “whether a single, humiliated Tunisian street vendor who immolated himself and ignited the Arab Spring or a single anarchist group like Wikileaks, which undermined US diplomatic relations, they [non-state actors], represent a new kind of global, asymmetric power,” (Crumpton, 2017, p.323).  Given that opportunity, why wouldn’t the West’s state and non-state opponents exploit these relationships?


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About the Author(s)

Dr. Jason Thomas teaches post-graduate risk management at Swinburne University and specialises in field-based assessments of complex project environments that has included Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Cote d’Ivoire, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Jordan, PNG and the Philippines. This has included working alongside US and other military partners.