Twenty years ago, the primary national security threat for the United States was the USSR, a massive, centrally-controlled, political structure spanning thousands of miles of territory. Now, the U.S.’s principal security focus is a small group, Al Qaeda.
Welcome to the world of non-state actor super-empowerment.
Non-state actor super-empowerment is the increasing ability of individuals and small groups to compete with nation-states in areas as diverse as security, ideology, and identity.
Contemporary examples include: Somali pirates hijacking multi-million dollar military shipments, Hezbollah fighting Israel to a standoff in 2006, or the Movement for the Emancipation of the Nigerian Delta (MEND) disrupting the functioning of Shell oil and thus painfully raising the cost of oil.
Five key factors have driven non-state actor super-empowerment:
1. Technological innovation: Technological innovation fuels warfare. Throughout history we see antiquated procedures used in the face of technological innovation, creating a need to transform strategy.
There are grim realities that come along with technological innovation. The invention of the explosive cap, rifling, and the mini-ball all exemplify the impact of technology on warfare. Over the course of only 40 years the accuracy, rate of fire, and effective range of weapons improved exponentially – generating massive casualties and fatalities because tactics lagged behind technology.
Now, multiply that by 100. Technology and information are increasingly available to almost everyone. The internet has rendered the most detailed information available to anyone who possesses the motivation to do the research. This dynamic shows no signs of slowing. The technology that is available to individuals and small groups is rapidly improving.
2. Social Movement Innovation: As a result of new communications technology more people are able to network with one another and thus form social movements. Although this phenomenon has positive manifestations such as Crossfit.com, it can also have very negative implications. Radicals (white supremacists, ultra-nationalists, and Jihadists) are able to congregate and form tribes.
Individuals who are likely to become radicals are usually the small minority of a population. While they remain isolated their negative effect is significant but contained. When they begin to communicate over the internet with other individuals who share their grievances, they begin to create social movements. Social movements allow these individuals to share information, build communities, recruit new members, raise funds, and develop their ideology. Communications technology has thus allowed the creation of radical social movements that previously would have been much more difficult to form. Because of the technological innovation outlined above, these social movements now have the capacity to be more dangerous than ever before.
3. The ubiquity of small arms, weapons, and explosives: As of 2003 there were over 550 million small arms available across the globe. The accessibility and low price of these relatively simple small arms, weapons, and explosives, make it cheaper and easier than ever before for social movements to arm themselves. See the effects of improvised explosive devices in Iraq as an example of what this means politically and militarily.
4. Technological vulnerability: The increasing complexity of modern civilization has made it more vulnerable than ever to pin-pointed attacks. Skyscrapers, electrical grids, oil pipelines, and transportation systems all make attractive targets, and they are so widespread that they are nearly impossible to defend. The interconnectedness of modern technology, networks, and systems also allows them to crumble like a house of cards when a key link is attacked.
5. Illicit Trade: Illicit trade is an irresistible source of untraceable money. Through gun-smuggling, drug trafficking, and other black market activities, terrorist networks and insurgencies have become dramatically more powerful. Hezbollah has recently been financing itself through the Latin American cocaine trade, while the resurgence in the opium trade in Afghanistanafter the American invasion in 2001 has empowered the Taliban. The Islamic radicals that executed the 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid funded themselves through trafficking in Ecstasy pills. Their apartments were later found with $2 million worth of drugs and cash, or enough money to fund an estimated four 9/11 attacks.
Small groups of individuals can now do more damage, or good, for civilization, than ever before. But the U.S. national security institutions have not adapted to this reality.
Sources for further research:
Derek Leebaert - “To Dare and to Conquer”
Douglas Farah - “Merchant of Death" and http://douglasfarah.com/
John Robb - “Brave New War,” and http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/
Seth Godin - “Tribes,” and http://sethgodin.typepad.com/
Moise Naim - “Illicit”