Ungoverned Territories: Understanding and Reducing Terrorism Risks
Jul 22, 2007
A Unique Front in the War on Terrorism
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Ungoverned territories pose an increasingly urgent threat to U.S. and international security. This research brief describes a RAND Project AIR FORCE study of the factors that give rise to ungoverned territories and make some of them conducive to terrorists and insurgents. This analysis can help the United States and its friends and allies develop more effective strategies to mitigate the threats emanating from these remote territories.
Since the end of the Cold War, failed or failing states and ungoverned territories within otherwise viable states have become a more common phenomenon. These territories generate all manner of security problems, such as civil conflict and humanitarian crises, arms and drug smuggling, piracy, and refugee flows. The events of 9/11 demonstrated how terrorists can use sanctuaries in the most remote and hitherto ignored territories of the world to mount devastating attacks against the United States and its friends and allies.
Despite the increasing urgency of dealing with the threats emanating from ungoverned territories, the international community has not proven adept at developing effective responses. Although analysts and policymakers are aware that ungoverned territories contribute to larger security threats such as terrorism, the phenomenon has not been generally defined as a distinct problem that requires unique strategies and policies to address. A RAND Project AIR FORCE (PAF) study provides this perspective by examining the factors that give rise to ungoverned territories, identifying their salient characteristics, and distinguishing among different types of ungoverned territories. This analysis of ungoverned territories can help the United States and its friends and allies develop more effective strategies to mitigate the threats emanating from these remote territories.
Ungoverned territories are areas in which a state faces significant challenges in establishing control. They can be failed or failing states, poorly controlled land or maritime borders, or areas within otherwise viable states to which the central government's authority does not extend. Ungoverned territories can also extend to airspace. Many factors contribute to making a territory "ungovernable," but the PAF study identified four major variables: (1) the level of state penetration of society, (2) the extent to which the state has a monopoly on the use of force, (3) the extent to which the state controls its borders, and (4) whether the state is subject to external intervention by other states or outside forces. For greater precision, some of these complex variables are broken down into a number of indicators. For instance, state penetration of society can be measured in terms of the presence or absence of state institutions; the state of the physical infrastructure; the prevalence of the informal or gray economy; and social and cultural resistance to state penetration.
Ungoverned territories occur throughout the world, but not all such territories become terrorist sanctuaries. Beyond the natural tendency of terrorist groups to operate in their home areas, there are several factors that make a territory conducive to such groups. The PAF study measured a territory's conduciveness to a terrorist presence in terms of four additional variables: (1) access to infrastructure, (2) local financing, (3) a local population favorably disposed to the terrorists, and (4) invisibility, or those characteristics of the local environment that render terrorists hard to find by the authorities. Access to infrastructure is important because terrorists need communications facilities, banking systems, and a transportation network that provides access to urban centers and potential targets. Terrorists also need to generate income to fund their activities. Unless they can tap into external sources of income, such as remittances from sympathizers or diaspora communities, terrorists may need to trade or tax local commodities such as "conflict diamonds" or illegal drugs. But the most important factor in determining a territory's conduciveness to a terrorist presence is favorable social and demographic conditions that provide a base of support.
The factors that make some territories ungoverned and potentially conducive to terrorist groups play out differently in each case, depending on the circumstances that gave rise to their present condition. Ungoverned territories may be grouped into three types:
Understanding the causes of ungoverned territories and the factors that make them attractive to terrorist groups can illuminate which policy options are likely to be most effective in addressing the problem. Based on its analysis, PAF identified policy implications for the U.S. government, the Department of Defense (DoD), and the Air Force.
The U.S. government should consider the following options to help friendly states strengthen their control of ungoverned territories:
The U.S. government should consider additional steps to help diminish terrorist groups' ability to operate in ungoverned territories:
Given the pervasiveness of ungoverned territories throughout the world, DoD should consider treating this issue as a distinct category of security problems in the Strategic Planning Guidance. The three-part typology of ungoverned territories can provide an organizing principle as DoD reviews its capabilities to handle situations involving contested, incomplete, or abdicated governance.
DoD should include ungoverned territories in its security cooperation guidance. The department may find that dealing with ungoverned territory directly—rather than as a symptom of protracted violence, crime, and poverty—might prove useful. The training of foreign internal defense forces, highlighted as an important part of DoD's security cooperation strategy in the 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review, can play a major role in addressing the ungoverned territory problem.
The Air Force faces operational challenges because of the need to operate from locations in or near ungoverned territories and Title 10 concerns over its requirements to train, equip, and organize forces suitable for the missions and tasks that ungoverned territories precipitate.
Building government capacity and extending a central government's penetration into ungoverned territories is the work of generations. Nevertheless, if the United States works with its partners to achieve these goals, the overall results would help to make ungoverned territories less hospitable to terrorists.
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