RAND Study Analyzes Ways to Reduce Terrorist Threat from Regions with Weak Governmental Control

For Release

August 23, 2007

Governments around the world should take a new approach to fighting terrorism by treating regions where governmental control is weak as a distinct category of security problems, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

It is not enough to simply focus on individual regions like the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and how they become havens for terrorists, according to the study titled “Ungoverned Territories: Understanding and Reducing Terrorism Risks.”

“Ungoverned territories are areas where the central government's authority is weak or non-existent, and they can generate a myriad of security problems,” said Angel Rabasa, a RAND senior policy analyst and lead author of the report. “All these areas have certain elements in common. In order to design appropriate responses, the factors that produce ungoverned territories and their effects on U.S. security interests need to be analyzed and understood.”

The report by RAND, a nonprofit research organization, notes that ungoverned territories are pervasive throughout the world. Based on the dominant features of each of these territories, Rabasa and his colleagues identify three basic types of ungoverned territories, each with a different kind of prescribed policy response:

  • Contested governance. Local forces are actively challenging the government's authority. In these cases, military assistance to a friendly government would be appropriate.
  • Incomplete governance. The ruling government lacks the resources and the competencies to project effective rule into the region. Here, international assistance should focus on institution-building efforts.
  • Abdicated governance. The government has effectively abdicated its responsibility to produce public goods. One policy option in these cases would be to use development assistance as a tool to encourage these governments to assume their responsibilities in the neglected areas.

“Although ungoverned territories may have different sources that require different policy mixes, U.S. policy must always address the two sets of attributes that make some of these territories actual or potential terrorist sanctuaries – the lack of an effective state presence and the conduciveness of these territories to the presence of terrorist groups,” the report says.

Researchers examined eight specific regions on four continents, including both Muslim and non-Muslim regions: the Pakistani-Afghan border region; the Arabian Peninsula; the Sulawesi-Mindanao arc in Southeast Asia; the East African corridor from Sudan and the Horn of Africa to Mozambique and Zimbabwe; West Africa from Nigeria westward; the North Caucasus in Russia; the Colombian-Venezuelan border; and the Guatemala-Chiapas (Mexico) border.

Ungoverned territories can be failed or failing states, poorly controlled land, or maritime borders where the central government's authority doesn't extend. They also can include airspace, such as the air routes through South and Central America and the Caribbean, which drug smugglers use to transport illegal drugs.

These ungoverned areas are not lacking all governance. However, the national government may be challenged by local or rebel forces; may be unable to maintain a presence stronger than competing groups; or may have just ceded its responsibilities in marginal areas to other entities, much as some states on the Arabian Peninsula rely on local tribes for border security.

In addition to the lack of an effective state presence, the ungoverned territories also have additional factors that can make them actual or potential terrorist sanctuaries, including remote geography, opportunities for illegal activities to fund terrorism, and even support from the native population through cultural ties.

Many of the international crises that have prompted U.S. intervention since the end of the Cold War have come from ungoverned territories. Until recently, these territories were of little interest to the U.S. national security community unless – like the coca-growing areas of South America during the 1990s “war on drugs” – they generated problems for the United States that required action.

The recognition that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 evolved out of al-Qaeda's formation in Afghanistan has led many national security experts to believe that the front lines of the war on terrorism are in these ungoverned territories.

The study says the U.S. government's main current focus is addressing specific problems that arise from ungoverned territories, such as terrorism, narcotics trafficking, illegal arms trafficking, and proliferation of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials and weapons.

But the report recommends specific steps that include: re-evaluating development assistance as a tool; promoting competent government practices; helping friendly governments improve roads, medical systems, law enforcement and other infrastructure; addressing profound official corruption directly; denying terrorists local sources of income; and making terrorists' “invisibility” more difficult to achieve.

Richard H. Solomon, president of the U.S. Institute of Peace, praised the report. “At a time when notions of “nation building” are held in low repute, this book provides a well-structured assessment of the dynamics of ungovernability and realistic guidelines for economic and security assistance programs,” Solomon said.

The study was conducted in the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE, a federally funded research and development center for studies and analysis aimed at providing independent policy alternatives for the U.S. Air Force.

In addition to Rabasa, other authors of the study were: Peter Chalk, Kim Cragin, Theodore W. Karasik, Jennifer D.P. Moroney, and John E. Peters, all of RAND; Lt. Commander Steven Boraz, a U.S. Naval Fellow at RAND; and Kevin A. O'Brien, formerly of RAND.

The report is available at www.rand.org.

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