Small Wars Journal

Criminal Insurgencies

The Strategic Realities of Twenty-First Century “Small Wars”— An Opinion Essay

Sat, 05/22/2021 - 2:36pm
The traditional distinctions between crime, terrorism, subversion, and insurgency are blurred.  This new dynamic involves the migration of the monopoly of political power (i.e., the authoritative allocation of the values in a society) from the traditional nation-state to unconventional actors such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), transnational criminal organizations, Leninist-Maoist insurgents, tribal militias, mafia organizations, private armies, cartel enforcers, third generation gangs (3GEN Gangs), and other modern mercenaries and entrepreneurs. These actors conduct some form or level of war against various state and non-state adversaries and promulgate their own rule of law—within alternatively governed spaces—within the societies they control.  That activity creates an ambiguous bazaar of violence where criminal entrepreneurs fuel the convergence of crime and war.

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Well, They're Not About Taking Over the Government

Sun, 03/11/2012 - 8:29pm

A few years ago Latin American specialists began warning the defense community at large that the Mexican cartels constituted an insurgency in the actual sense, though one that was strategically different from the ideologically-inspired ones with which we are all familiar. By now, the weakness of the oft-repeated response that "Well, they're not about taking over the government" ought to be plain. Sure they are. The pattern of cartel corruption of local governments in some areas of Mexico makes that plain. They just care about influence and compliance with their wishes, not about traffic law and picking up the garbage at the curb.

Some still think this is only about crime. It is not. Considering the full scope of criminality and terrorism in today's world, on a spectrum ranging from the local gangs inside the United States to the confluence of the cartels, international terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and criminal states like Iran and Venezuela -- there are others -- it seems obvious that what we're seeing is a new wrinkle in warfare itself, consisting of the blending of the huge resources of the black economy (estimated at a fifth or more of the world's GDP) with transnational state and criminal organizations that wage economic, cyber and kinetic warfare outside the bounds of what we have come to think of as "established" rules of warfare.

One ominous and imminent development along this line is the recent move by Iran to collude with the Mexican cartels -- the Zetas, specifically -- to strike targets inside the United States. Given the ongoing issue of Iranian nukes, international sanctions (which will not come fully on line until the summer), Israeli pressure to strike and the covert war inside Iran itself that includes the assassination of four nuclear scientists, the probability of an Iranian terror campaign inside the United States cannot be discounted. There are operational and strategic issues involved in the potential Iranian strategy and the US response that have not been fully -- or even partially -- discussed. Thanks partially to 9/11, we are much better prepared now to deal tactically with events -- remember that when the Quds representative reached out to the Zetas, he hit a DEA informant instead -- but thus far we are only playing defense.

On a larger canvas -- if a "larger canvas" can be found than dealing with attacks inside the US against our government & people -- is the whole issue about the conduct of war in the 21st century. We now have "criminal" nation-states that collude with existing transnational criminal and terrorist groups to make money, corrupt international financial systems and attack other states, all the while maintaining the rights & privileges of traditional states. We have these transnational groups that themselves attack states -- as the Mexican cartels are doing in Mexico, throughout Central America and along the Andean Ridge and we have the international, state-sponsored terrorist groups like Hamas, AQ and Hezbollah. All of these organizations are attacking, in one form or another, legitimate states and their populations. In many ways, Russia is very nearly, if not already, such a criminal state.

Their transnational nature means that they maintain viable "rat lines" across borders around the world, along which they move drugs, traffic in human beings (who are either voluntary refugees or slaves [ see the sex trade out of the Balkans]), arms or money, which moves through the international banking system, including US banks. Eventually, nuclear materiel, either finished weapons or otherwise, will move in those channels as well. And, I might add, one criminal state -- Iran -- is also developing IRBMs and shorter-range missiles at a good clip.

Defense specialists would so well to remember a quote from a nineteenth-century European general who complained about Napoleon that he never fought war according to the rules. We have even a more abrupt shift before us, which I believe is the decay of the old international "way of war" and the emergence of ... something else. What are we going to do about it?