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The New Terrorism-Governance Nexus

Areas of Limited Statehood, Non-State Armed Groups and the Transformation of the Middle East

Israel is increasingly surrounded by areas of limited statehood where, to varying degrees, central authorities compete for security, as well as political, economic, and ideational power with a range of armed non-state governors. This was the key issued addressed by a workshop jointly organized by the International Institute for Counterterrorism (ICT) and KAS Israel. The workshop was held at the IDC Herzliya campus, starting with a public lecture event on the evening of the 11th of February 2014, and continuing in a round-table discussion for the next two days.

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Some of the non-state governors in the region constitute established, highly institutionalized quasi-states, whereas others are looser, more diffuse actors. Some are engaged in an active insurgency against the host state, whereas others operate in limited areas or have achieved some kind of symbiotic relationship with the weak host state, but still act independently from it.

Whereas non-state governors like Hezbollah, Hamas and Kurdish groups have been part of the regional mosaic for decades, new players have proliferated across large parts of North Africa and the Middle East – most notably in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Sinai, Sudan, Libya, and the Sahel region – particularly since the advent of the “Arab Spring” three years ago.

This reality is rapidly transforming the security and geopolitical topography of the region, yet it is doing so in ways that are still poorly conceptualized, let alone clearly understood. Against this background, the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at IDC, Herzliya, and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung’s Israel Office (KAS Israel) composed a specialized workshop titled: “Areas of Limited Statehood and Armed Non-State Governors: Exploring the Terrorism-Governance Nexus”. During the workshop an expert group of scholars and practitioners convened for a structured brain storming exercise on the terrorism-governance nexus.

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

The first day was opened by greetings from Michael Mertes, Director of KAS Israel, Dr. Boaz Ganor, the Deputy Dean of the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy in Herzliya and the CEO of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Dr. Amichai Magen, senior researcher and head of the terrorism & governance desk at ICT.

The keynote speaker of the evening was MK Lt. Gen. (ret.) Shaul Mofaz, Member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, former Israeli Defence Minister and former IDF Chief of Staff. Later in the evening, the expert group of scholars and practitioners met for a dinner invitation with Senator Alexandr (Sasha) Vondra as the keynote speaker.

In his speech, Senator Vondra addressed the challenges the liberal democracies have faced since the beginning of the 21st century. He stressed that the vital interests of the European Union and Israel are inseparable, and that one should not be distracted by the fact that the EU seems to pay a lot of attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the settlements in the Westbank.

The modern nation state is being weakened from two sides – “from below” through regional and separatist tendencies (see Catalonia or Scotland), and “from above”, through supranational and transnational actors. Therefore the question arises whether the conventional institutions of the international system – based upon the principle of the nation-state – is suitable to deal with these challenges.

Vondra named three developments which sparked a period of intellectual re-orientation in the West: The terror attacks of 9/11 dramatically exposed the asymmetric threat to the liberal democracies, while the economic crisis of 2008 revealed their economic vulnerability. The political defeat of the EU against Russia in 2012/2013 in the matter of the controversial association agreement with Ukraine showed the West the limits to its influence and expansion opportunities: It has enormous difficulty coping with the pressure of autocratic actors who use energy supply as a political weapon.

Vondra acknowledged that he drew a rather pessimistic picture. He therefore finished his speech with the uplifting outlook that the community of liberal democracies should, and also can, do something against these tendencies. Considering that perspective, a solid cooperation between Europe and Israel will be even more essential in the future.

Wednesday, 12th of February

Panel 1: Introduction and Conceptual Building Blocks

The two day workshop started with a conceptual outline of the idea of statehood and, based upon that, a definition of the concept of non-state actors. A sovereign state may be expected to fulfil the following functions: to hold the monopoly of legitimate use of coercive force, to maintain a reasonably effective administrative capacity, to provide essential public goods, infrastructure, health services and education, and to be a legitimate sovereign according to the Hobbesian social contract theory.

Following this outline, areas of limited statehood are characterised as areas where the government is unable or unwilling to fulfil the requirements of normal statehood, which results in a security gap, a capacity gap, a legitimacy gap and a human wellbeing gap. Falling short in one or more of these areas of state responsibility will not immediately result in a “failed state”, but indicates increasing ungovernability, which the authority may still be able to reverse.

Areas of limited statehood are not confined to territories within legally defined borders: They can appear in maritime areas as well as in aerial or cyber spaces and transcend borders. One can therefore speak of a spill-over effect of areas of limited statehood, for example when a massive influx of refugees from one ungovernable area destabilises another region.

However, one may not say that areas of limited statehood are (totally) ungoverned spaces. The latter do not really exist, since whenever state authority decreases and leaves a vacuum, forms of non-state governance most certainly press in. This does not necessarily need to be a bad development: Non-state actors can provide services one would expect from the state, like private security companies may do. Only when the alternative (non-state) system does not contribute to a stability enhancement of the area and when the non-state actor additionally begins to compete with the state – mostly through armed guerrilla groups or terrorism –, this development increasingly endangers the state and its ability to govern. The problem is that states in which the domestic sovereignty has broken down are still considered to be sovereign under international law. Accordingly, non-state actors enjoy protection by the principles of territorial integrity and non-intervention in internal affairs. From a legal point of view, intervention by the international community therefore becomes difficult if not impossible.

Panel 2: Regime Type and Political Violence by Non-State Armed Groups

The second panel focussed on the correlation between terrorism and democracies and the actual effectiveness of terrorist activities on the political reality.

A general rise of the number of democracies since the 1960s may concur with the decrease of the overall number of inter-state conflicts. However, instead of conflicts between states, we now see an increasing number of intra-state conflicts between non-state actors and states. It was then argued that democratic systems in general experience less insurgency conflicts than non-democratic ones, since non-democratic states pursue a more suppressive policy that might contribute to the emergence of insurgencies. While in areas with strong infrastructure and government the use of violence against state authorities commonly assume the form of terrorism, guerrilla warfare in areas with vast and/or difficult terrain is more appropriately described as insurgency.

The degree of development and wealth in a region will encourage terrorism but discourage guerrilla warfare. However, when faced with actual insurgent groups, democracies seem to have a smaller chance to win such a conflict. This may be explained by an aversion of voters to violence, by institutionalized moral and legal constraints limiting actions against insurgents or by the fact that insurgents who target democracies are “tougher”. The experts present disputed these conclusions, not least because there is no evidence of insurgencies in full-fledged democracies.

As for the effectiveness of terrorism in the light of political reality, two cases were analysed: the terror-attack of 9/11, and the Israeli overall situation from 1988 to 2009. In Israel, terror-related data were compared to the election studies by the Israeli Democracy Index, which showed the unexpected result that after a (wave of) terror attack(s), people were less supportive of right-wing parties, more susceptible to accepting territorial concessions and more sympathetic towards the creation of a Palestinian state. In general, it can be said that terror caused a shift to the left of the political spectrum.

The scholarly opinions however differ, with some claiming that terrorism might bring about change of the political reality, while others deny this. In the case of 9/11, it was argued that ever since the attacks there has been an enormous backlash against the Muslim community and a considerable rise of hate crimes against Muslims in the United States. In the aftermath of 9/11, there have also been more intra-marriages and a higher fertility within the American-Muslim communities, while inter-marriages decreased, Muslim communities grew more and more isolated, and assimilation came to a stop. Even though this may not have been the intention of the terrorists, one can see that acts of terrorism do influence the status quo in society.

Panel 3: Regime Stability in the Middle East: An Analytical Model to Assess the Possibility of Regime Change

The model presented was aimed at predicting the stability of Middle Eastern regimes with the purpose of being able to foretell the failure of a political body in the area. In the model, four key factors were considered:

1. Domestic: The degree of military loyalty and the influence of religious elites

2. International: The probability of intervention or support from outside

3. Economic: The macroeconomic situation and the regime’s awareness of economic disparities within the society

4. Factors hindering regime change: Control over the media, minority rule, strength of the opposition

Taking these categories and using them to recalculate the recent regime changes throughout the Arab Spring, the program was tested and refined, but failed to comprehensively discover the unexpected regime changes in Egypt and Syria. The model presented was appreciated as an attempt to grasp the rapid, unpredictable changes in the Middle East, but since it did not consider all aspects necessary and could not deliver a viable solution to actually calculate regime stability, it was also met with strong criticism.

Panel 4: Armed Non-State Governors: A Typology

Armed non-state governors cannot be simply called “terrorist-groups”, since terror is only one of the several tactics insurgency groups use. Usually, guerrilla warfare is an integral part of their modus operandi: However, in the 1980s and 1990s the term “terrorism” was disconnected from the modus operandi of insurgent groups. This happened due to the terrorist activity of groups like the RAF (Rote Armee Fraktion), i.e., ideologically motivated, urban-based student groups, not guerrilla fighters, who were defined by the West as mere “terrorist groups”. However, groups committing terror attacks – which are a way of creating fear among opponents – do not necessarily evolve into insurgent groups, since this requires a greater amount of organisation and preparedness.

In addition, one can see a new phenomenon emerging – the “hybrid terrorist organisation”. “Hybrid” means that a terrorist organisation extends its activities into civilian fields; it does no longer solely commit terror attacks. The thereby emerging “hybrid” is partly illegal – through its continuous terror attacks –, but also gains a partly legal aspect – represented by a social welfare apparatus and political involvement. At this stage the patron state, or the authority of the area where the organisation is acting, has to turn a blind eye in order for the terror organisation to succeed in building their non-terrorist activities.

The social and political branches of the organisation then commit themselves to the goal of winning the hearts and minds of the population of the host state for their cause. Through the establishment of schools, hospitals and other services alike, the organisation indoctrinates and recruits the civilians in its environment. While the terror attacks themselves are rather affordable for the organisation, financing the social programs aiming to win the hearts and minds of the population is rather expensive. At this stage the terror organisation needs a “sponsor state” in order to become a successful hybrid organisation.

When the organisation is eventually participating in an electoral process, it can count on the support of the followers it has gathered through its educational and social programs. As soon as it wins a foothold in the political spectrum, it comes very close to establishing itself as a legitimate substitute of the actual authority in the country or region.

The third stage, which leads to the legitimisation of the hybrid organisation, is international recognition. However, the international community does not provide any incentives to force these groups to abandon their military and terrorist capacities and intentions in this process. This is often based on the tacit assumption that the terrorist element will be “healed” through the democratic process, since terrorist groups will refrain from violent acts once they are accepted as a legitimate negotiating and coalition partner and can make their voice be heard in the political system. But since the internal hierarchical structure of terror organisations does not necessarily turn democratic after an electoral victory, the political power and the social network of the group will subsequently be used by the terror organisation to win more followers, who will then also be involved in terrorist activities.

Panel 5: Hezbollah as Governance Actor: Vanguard and Archetype?

Hezbollah may be seen as a totally novel hybrid organization, grown out of an original, vanguard terrorist branch to which a social sector and a political sector were added. When evolving in 1982, during the Lebanese Civil war, Hezbollah started out exclusively as a terrorist organisation. What made it stand out from the other “resistance” groups of the Civil war was its hate of Israel. Since 1986 the movement developed a social sector and in 1992 started engaging in Lebanese politics.

Hezbollah defies all labels. It is a unique actor that came into existence through state weakness and now thrives through state strength. Not only is it being supported by the Iranian government and was allowed to remain arm ed after Syria intervened in the Lebanese Civil war, it is also active in the Lebanese parliament and even on the municipality level. Although insurgents and states do not normally coexist, Hezbollah has found a niche to become a tolerated non-state actor, which provides state-like services, e.g. police work, lending programs, agricultural projects, garbage disposal and sanitation. Hezbollah therefore acquired sovereignty “on top” of the state, through overlapping, co-operational coexistence. This results in a situation where Hezbollah may easily win hearts and minds through its services, but the final responsibility, including the blame for grievances, still remains with the state.

However, the recent civil war in Syria and the involvement of Hezbollah in the actual fighting sees the organisation weakened. Not only do they find themselves opposing a radical Islamist Sunni force but their participation also decreases the security of Hezbollah in Lebanon, which can be seen from several Sunni attacks in the Lebanese mainland. This security gap leads to internal criticism and a decreasing to protect the Shiite community in Lebanon, which may easily lead to a loss of supporters.

Panel 6: The Muslim Brotherhood: Spanning the Governance Spectrum From Diffuse Network to Full Statehood?

Although having one name, the Muslim Brotherhood – which has existed for 85 years – is not one coherent movement, but has developed several independent branches. The Muslim Brotherhood is not a terrorist organisation, only its intense hate of Israel connects it with violent groups.

The original Muslim Brotherhood is a grassroots movement with the aim to take care of all Muslims and bring them back to their faith when they have gone astray. This missionary activity, called da’wa, is at the very core of the Muslim Brotherhood. By using social welfare structures to support their fellow Muslim brothers, they intend to spread the message of Islam and recruit new “preachers” for their cause. This system led to the rise of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt who quickly gathered up to 1 million members, and to the establishment of branches in other Arab countries. Although Jihad had always been a part of the Muslim Brotherhood, only under Sayyed Qtub and his concept of Jahiliyya – promoting armed struggle against infidels, even against non-observant Muslims – it became an active ingredient of the movement, forming the vanguard/terrorist wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

However, when the Muslim Brothers decided to become involved in politics, most of them deserted these views and learned how to represent all walks of life through their organisation, not only their members. Since then the Muslim brotherhood has understood they can benefit from democracy, even though jihadi branches still prevail in some countries.

Panel 7: Global Jihadi Networks: Governance, Affiliations, and Cooperation

The last panel of the day focused on the greater Al-Qaeda network and its various forms. Although the core of Al-Qaeda has been weakened since it has been the focus of the “war on terror”, the year 2013 seems to have been a comeback year for the terror network. The Arab Spring lowered the security situation in the Middle Eastern area and left big parts without governmental control. This led to a change within the Al-Qaeda network and influenced the way the organization seeks to achieve its goals:

1. The center of gravity shifted towards affiliates and therefore makes the broader network stronger. While it has been an Al-Qaeda trademark in the past to hit the far enemy, now the near enemy is in the focus, since resources and logistics are bound to the local affiliate groups.

2. The affiliates don’t follow central directives and most likely do not receive central funding. This blurs the lines of responsibility since the affiliates may act alone, together with other Al-Qaeda affiliates or encourage lone wolf attacks. Also not all affiliate groups are called Al-Qaeda, which brings about branding problems.

3. The Arab Spring created new safe havens: Syria is the new focal point for jihadi militants, due to its strategic location vis-à-vis Israel and because fighters have control of whole towns and command over a steady supply of new weapons and manpower.

4. Global jihadist groups should be seen as insurgents, not only as terrorist groups. One can see a greater reliance of the organizations on da’wa – trying to win the hearts and minds of the people – and additionally, a mix of terrorism with guerrilla tactics.

Thursday, 13th of February

Panel 1: “Areas of Limited Statehood as Arenas of Governance Contestation (I): The Syria-Lebanon-Iraq-Turkey Arena”

The third day was started with an analysis of the Syrian situation. It was said that Bashar al-Assad has been too inexperienced to deal efficiently with such a large scale grassroots uprising as it presented itself in early 2011, since it was carried by a mixed group from different backgrounds in the Syrian society and spread fast via modern media such as Facebook and Twitter. The brutal approach which Assad was advised to follow when he violently crushed the demonstrations did not end the manifestations but led to an intensification of the uprising. However, the initial unified approach of the demonstrators vanished, and the opposition fell apart into several, rapidly changing groups, which are often hostile towards each other. Iran chose to support the endangered regime, since there is an ideological concurrence between the Iranian Twelver Shiites and the Syrian Alawites, who can be considered a Shiite sect.

The current goal of the Syrian regime – being mainly supported by the Alawites and the Syrian Christians, and to some extent by urban elites – is to keep the coastal area and the southern parts of Syria under their control, while almost abandoning the other areas of the country due to the heavy guerrilla fights with the diverse rebel groups.

The north is mainly controlled by Kurdish groups who are establishing a safe haven for their people and to a large extent try to stay out of hostilities against the government. The remaining, ungoverned parts of Syria however give space to a competition between the several opposition groups within Syria. The lack of unity amongst them may be explained through the ethnic, tribal and religious diversity within the Syrian population, which does subliminally prevail amongst the mainly Sunni rebel groups.

There are five main categories that can be differentiated according to the raison d’être of the rebel groups: the Nationalists, the Islamists, the “moderate” Salafists, the classical Salafist Jihadis and the extreme Salafist Jihadis. These groups may hold single neighbourhoods, villages or cities, but are not able to cling unto whole areas, and have not managed to unify behind one political leader.

Despite these disagreements – the “game of coalitions” – among the opposition forces, the regime could not win back the remaining areas due to the prevailing intensive fighting. Concerning the rebel groups, a shift towards the Salafist and Islamist spectrum at the expense of the Nationalist forces was predicted by the speakers – mainly caused by the support of Saudi Arabia and Qatar for these groups.

The experts were unanimously agreeing that in the near future there will be no end to the civil war without foreign intervention.

Panel 2: “Areas of Limited Statehood as Arenas of Governance Contestation (II): The Gaza-Egypt-Sudan-Libya Arena”

The Panel on the greater area around Egypt focussed mainly on the events in the Sinai Peninsula, which was described as ungovernable because of its difficult, vast terrain, the lack of a proper infrastructure and the firmly established criminal structures in the area.

The recent situation of ungovernability in the Sinai is also a product of a long term policy of neglect of the area, plus the current, destabilizing development since the revolution in 2011. During the last decades, the Egyptian government focussed its policies on the urban centres of the country. In rural areas it was therefore possible for non-state actors to build a power monopoly and – in effect – rule the area, as long as they kept quiet. This was also the situation in the peninsula where the government never showed any readiness for investment, and additionally marginalised the local Bedouin and Palestinian population by denying them the same rights as the “mainland Egyptians” – for example the right of ownership of real estate. When searching for alternate means of subsistence, they found it first in drug and weapon trafficking, and later in terrorist networks and organisations. After Mubarak had been removed from office, and prisons were opened by the demonstrators, the area was additionally destabilized by the increasing influx of Jihadists and al-Qaeda fighters.

Currently one fifth of the peninsula is said to be under the influence of non-state groups, who possess more heavy weaponry than the Egyptian military. Especially the Jihadists, who returned from Syria with their practical knowledge, pose a threat to the government, since they focussed their activity on the actual Egyptian mainland across the Suez Canal. To counter this development, the Egyptian army started “Operation Eagle” to fight the unlawful behaviour and the Gaza tunnels. 80 to 90% of the 1,700 tunnels were already closed by the Egyptians.

However, it is not enough to weaken non-state actors in the area merely through military actions, while the government does not change its view of the Sinai area and continues neglecting it. The infrastructure and the provision of public goods in the Sinai have to be improved in order to diminish their influence. The inhabitants of the Sinai should be offered alternatives to the criminal life style, which can only be achieved by developing the area.

Panel 3: “Policy Roundtable (I): The Challenges of Conceptualisation, Diplomacy, and Law”

The first of the challenges is that international law does only deal with states but not with armed, state-like actors. The second problem is that the Geneva Conventions of 1949 on international humanitarian law were written in the aftermath of the Second World War. In the meantime, they have become too outdated in order to serve as a viable legal framework to deal with more recent forms of violence such as mass bombings, suicide attacks and terrorist organisations. However, armed groups as such – even when not belonging to a state – were given a legal status by international law in order to ensure suitable treatment.

Until now international institutions have not come up with a way of how to deal with weak or failed states, let alone with non-government actors exercising governmental power. This means that in practise the state or authority facing these problems has to improvise. Coping in an ad hoc way with situations not addressed by international legal guidelines may at some point evolve into certain strategic patterns on how to deal with similar situations in the future, but these are of course neither legally binding nor internationally accepted or practiced. The question if a state has to present an armed non-state actor – with whom it is engaged in hostilities – with humanitarian aid, like it is compulsory in the case of inter-state conflicts, is one of these open legal questions.

The main problem in presenting such a comprehensive legal framework is the definition of the non-state actor. How can such a group be held accountable before a court? The answer might be found in the conceptualisation of the non-state actor, according to its form of governance, its internal structure and its choice of targets. Following these criteria one can pursue to outline a legal concept that enables the persecution of such terrorist non-state actors. One way might also be to offer incentives to them to play by the rules, but this requires the involvement of the international community, without which such a system cannot work.

Panel 4: “Policy Roundtable (II): Handling Non-State Governors: Confrontation, Containment, or Engagement?”

Confronting non-state actors is deemed to be difficult since it is not always clear who may be in charge within a particular group. However, it may be possible to engage with some of the players in the area surrounding Israel – be it states or non-state actors – if and insofar as they share the same goals as Israel. Among those are the monarchies of the Middle East as well as certain tribal communities, Druze and Christian groups or even modern “Western” populations who want to keep their secular lifestyle in a highly traditional religious surrounding.

The problem of non-governability must be addressed fast, and based upon the specific characteristics of the area or upon the existing tribal, ethnic or religious structures. Since ungoverned areas are no vacuum but are always filled by non-state governors, it is important to step in before the situation gets out of hand. Ungoverned areas are an international problem and therefore it is advisable to develop an international system to address endangered regions effectively. The model should be designed in such a way that a legal framework allows addressing the phenomenon of violence of non-state actors. The main problem with providing such a “first aid” seems to be that the military apparatus as well as police forces do work within a hierarchical, centralised system which delays the response time due to the chain of command, whereas non-state actors are able to move fast and act flexibly according to the situation.

It is also important to find out the indicators for the decline of governance in an area before it becomes an ungovernable zone, and also for the factors contributing to and prolonging its existence. Supporting the infrastructure, encouraging the building of schools and hospitals in an affected area may even prevent the emergence of violent non-state groups. The approach must be tailor-made in every case – according to the requirements of the area concerned as well as the needs of its population – in order to prevent an area from becoming an ungoverned space. Preventing a security and a capacity gap might be an effective way of countering trends towards terrorism in their earliest stages.

Stefan Wolfrum

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International Institute for Counter Terrorism Konferenz beim IDC Herzliya 11. - 13. Februar 2014 KAS Israel
International Institute for Counter Terrorism Konferenz beim IDC Herzliya 11. - 13. Februar 2014 KAS Israel
International Institute for Counter Terrorism Konferenz beim IDC Herzliya 11. - 13. Februar 2014 KAS Israel
International Institute for Counter Terrorism Konferenz beim IDC Herzliya 11. - 13. Februar 2014 KAS Israel
International Institute for Counter Terrorism Konferenz beim IDC Herzliya 11. - 13. Februar 2014 KAS Israel


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