The losing war against ungoverned spaces
We are now living in an era where ungoverned spaces, long the accomplice in jihadist activity, are playing a starring role.
One of the biggest counterterrorism concerns for the United States and its allies since the attacks of September 11, 2001, has been managing the dangers posed by ungoverned spaces. While al-Qaeda stars as the primary villain in The 9/11 Commission Report, the U.S.’s definitive account of those attacks, ungoverned spaces feature as a critical henchman. We are now living in an era where ungoverned spaces, long the accomplice in jihadist activity, are playing a starring role. At this point, it can be definitively said that ungoverned spaces that jihadist groups can exploit have multiplied exponentially, that this growth is largely (though not entirely) a phenomenon of the post-Arab Spring world, and that there are no quick fixes to this predicament. For a long time to come, the world will see jihadist groups exploiting geographic spaces where internationally -recognised governments are unable to extend their writ, and utilising these spaces to hone their militant capabilities, spread chaos into surrounding regions, and sometimes impose their hardline version of sharia (Islamic law).
This is precisely what the post-9/11 wars fought by the United States and its allies were supposed to avoid.
The Problem of Ungoverned Spaces
A RAND Corporation report on ungoverned spaces published in 2007 utilises four variables to measure ungovernability: “(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.” By these metrics—really, by any reasonable metrics—the problem posed by ungoverned spaces is growing.
The 9/11 Commission warned that to carry out catastrophic terrorist attacks, militant groups require sanctuaries that provide “time, space, and ability to perform competent planning and staff work,” as well as “opportunities and space to recruit, train, and select operatives.” Such sanctuaries can be found in ungoverned spaces. And although The 9/11 Commission Report focused primarily on the importance of ungoverned spaces for groups planning terrorist attacks, ungoverned spaces allow jihadists to do much more than merely plan these attacks.
Indeed, ungoverned spaces are integral to the full range of jihadists’ strategic goals. Access to ungoverned space allows these groups to destabilise and delegitimise the states they oppose. Jihadists can train insurgent fighters, launching attacks from their safe havens and ducking back into ungoverned territories when counter-insurgents attempt a riposte. Successful jihadists may become the governors of these ‘ungoverned’ spaces, imposing sharia over them.
Of course, jihadists don’t magically appear wherever central governments are weak. The aforementioned RAND Corporation study concluded that the likelihood of terrorist groups emerging in ungoverned territories depends on ‘conduciveness’. The RAND researchers explained that the variables determining conduciveness were adequacy of infrastructure and operational access (transportation and communications networks that jihadists can use to coordinate operations), availability of sources of income (local funding sources that jihadists can tap into), favorable demographics (groups and populations potentially receptive to jihadist ideology), and invisibility (the ability of jihadists to blend into local environments and avoid detection).
The point is, several things have to go right for jihadists to exploit spaces where a central government’s writ is weak. And many things have gone right for them in the post-Arab Spring world.
September 11, 2001: A dearth of ungoverned spaces
At the time of 9/11, al-Qaeda was an insurgent organisation with access to only a limited number of ungoverned spaces. The fundamentalist Taliban, which emerged from the lawlessness that enveloped Afghanistan in the wake of the Afghan-Soviet war, ultimately took control of about 90 percent of the country. The Taliban provided al-Qaeda with safe haven, which al-Qaeda used to establish training camps, plan operations, and expand its organisational reach.
But Afghanistan was one of the few places at that time where al-Qaeda could exploit an ungoverned space. Chechnya had become something of an ungoverned or under-governed space following its 1994-96 war of liberation against Russia, and some jihadist militants found that they were able to operate in the Muslim-majority republic. However, jihadists’ 1999 incursion into neighboring Dagestan for the stated purpose of establishing an Islamic republic prompted a Russian counteroffensive into Chechnya that by 2001 had sharply reduced the amount of ungoverned space available to militant groups, and put the Russian military on a trajectory to make additional gains. Southern Somalia was also an ungoverned space as of 2001—characterised by a weak central government and a proliferation of violent non-state actors—but al-Qaeda found it too tough a neighborhood in which to operate easily. As a study published by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center in 2007 demonstrates, al-Qaeda operatives who tried to set up shop in Somalia during this period often found themselves victimised by warlords and bandits.
Outside of these theatres, ungoverned spaces that jihadists were likely to exploit remained an aberration at the time of 9/11, and seemed to be shrinking. The Algerian civil war was grinding to a halt as government forces reasserted control over rural areas that militant Islamic groups had previously utilised as safe havens. And Egypt’s militant groups had been largely sidelined after a 1997 terrorist attack against tourists in Luxor provoked Hosni Mubarak’s regime to launch a multi-pronged crackdown. This decline in Egyptian militancy reduced the likelihood that jihadists would be able to capitalise on ungoverned space in the country in the near future. Given this overarching situation, when the 9/11 Commission recommended, “terrorists should no longer find safe haven,” that seemed both a reasonable and realistic goal.
U.S. policies and post-9/11 ungoverned spaces
Policies that the U.S. pursued in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks unintentionally accelerated the growth of ungoverned spaces. The decision to go to war in Iraq was one such policy. Contrary to popular perception, the decision to launch the Iraq war was influenced not by an overestimation of jihadist groups, but by a dangerous underestimation of how they could destabilise a post-invasion environment. Indeed, “flypaper theory”—which was articulated, among others, by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanche—held that jihadists flocking to Iraq was actually a good thing because the U.S. could kill or capture them there, rather than taking the risk that these militants would attack America.
The U.S. failed to anticipate that upending the existing political order in Iraq would create ungoverned space that jihadists could exploit. By overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime and then pursing de-Baathification policies, the U.S. government completely dismantled the pre-2003 Iraqi state. Its fall left behind a country riven by sectarian conflict and highly dependent on U.S. assistance, and a government unable to project power across vast swaths of Iraq. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the Islamic State’s predecessor, capitalised on the absence of order. It became one of the most powerful insurgent actors during the Iraq war: For example, in an August 2006 intelligence assessment, Col. Peter Devlin described AQI as the “dominant organisation of influence” in Anbar province.
Around the time AQI’s power was at its apex, jihadists also began to more successfully navigate anarchic Somalia. In June 2006, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) seized Mogadishu, the country’s capital. The ICU was an umbrella organisation consisting of a diverse array of Islamist movements: Though these included some Islamist groups whom outside observers regarded as moderate, they also included al-Shabaab, which served as the ICU’s youth wing and would go on to become al-Qaeda’s recognised affiliate in Somalia. Concerns that a terrorist safe haven could take root in Somalia prompted the U.S. to back Ethiopia’s invasion in December 2006. However, the invasion galvanised the Somali population and sparked an insurgency. Al-Shabaab’s power continued to grow during the course of the insurgency, and by the time Ethiopia withdrew in 2009, the militant group had become the primary ruling force in southern Somalia.
But by the start of the Arab Spring protests in January 2011, it appeared that Somalia and Iraq were perhaps only temporary openings for the jihadist movement. By 2011, African Union forces and the U.S. were in the process of fashioning a strategy to push al-Shabaab back from its powerful perch in southern Somalia. The outcome of the Iraq war was considered even more devastating for transnational jihadism. AQI massively overplayed its hand in Anbar province, brutally suppressing all potential opposition and enforcing a harsh version of sharia that was at odds with local customs. This prompted a backlash, and eventually the anti-al-Qaeda Awakening (Sahwa) movement helped produce the jihadist group’s near-total defeat in Iraq. AQI’s failed experiment in Anbar seemed to suggest that jihadist groups were incapable of gaining local support and effectively holding ungoverned space because of their brutality and uncompromising ideology. Many observers also believed that AQI’s defeat had irrevocably dimmed al-Qaeda’s brand globally.
Ungoverned spaces in the Arab Spring
When the revolutionary events of the Arab Spring began, U.S.-based terrorism analysts largely concluded—incorrectly—that the revolutions were devastating to the jihadist movement. Indeed, analysts viewed the Arab Spring as a repudiation of al-Qaeda’s violent strategy, and asserted that al-Qaeda would fail to gain public support from local populations in the future.
However, analysts’ sanguine view of the Arab Spring overlooked the possibility that replacing powerful, albeit autocratic, regimes with weak and fragmented governments would increase the amount of ungoverned space in the Middle East and North Africa, and thus play directly into the hands of jihadist organisations. Far from being the final nail in the coffin for transnational jihadism, the Arab Spring gave the movement new life, as jihadist groups capitalised on post-revolutionary governments’ struggles.
Indeed, this underestimation of jihadist groups in the Arab Spring environment led to policies that provided them with even more opportunity. One such blunder was Western states’ decision to topple Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya.
Libya’s post-revolution trajectory is the most dramatic example of how Arab Spring political developments created additional ungoverned space and fueled the resurgence of jihadist actors. The Libya war left behind a shattered country that was the very definition of an ungoverned space, as the “central” government couldn’t execute basic governing functions even in its own capital. With Libya’s government incapable of projecting power and highly dependent on unpredictable revolutionary militias to maintain internal security, jihadists, drug traffickers, and human smugglers carved out spheres of influence over vast swaths of Libya.
The Libya intervention also indirectly produced another ungoverned space in north Mali where jihadists became a powerful force. Thousands of Malian Tuaregs went to Libya to fight as Qaddafi’s mercenaries, and as the New York Times noted, after his defeat they “helped themselves to a considerable quantity of sophisticated weaponry before returning to Mali.” This reinvigorated the Tuareg rebellion against the Malian state, and—in part because the Tuaregs had lost Qaddafi as a sponsor—jihadist groups were able to forge an alliance with the Tuaregs rooted in convenience far more than ideology. Within months after the fall of Qaddafi’s regime, northern Mali had fallen into the hands of jihadist actors.
Though a January 2013 French military intervention dubbed Operation Serval pushed the jihadists from areas they controlled in north Mali, jihadists evaded capture by moving to other ungoverned spaces in neighbouring countries. The jihadists’ effortless move across porous borders in the Sahel underscored a basic fact of the current security environment: Ungoverned spaces are expanding at a rate that outpaces the international community’s ability to respond.
But the Syrian civil war provided jihadists with their best opportunity to seize ungoverned space, and revitalised an Iraqi insurgency believed to be dormant at the time of the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. Jihadist groups, including the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, have been major players in the civil war, and have managed to gain control of significant territories. In only the latest sign that ungoverned space is growing in Syria, Nusra and allied forces captured the city of Idlib from Bashar al-Assad’s regime in late March. Meanwhile, the Islamic State’s sweeping June 2014 advance into Iraq, where it still controls a significant geographic expanse, is a striking demonstration of how ungoverned space in one country can create instability in neighbouring states.
And that’s not all. There is Yemen, where the Houthi military offensive and ongoing civil conflict has destabilised the Yemeni state and created new ungoverned space, which al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has exploited to expand its presence. Broad parts of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula can be considered an ungoverned space, where Egyptian security forces are trying to cope with the exponential growth in jihadist militants. There is northern Nigeria, where the brutal Boko Haram group controlled territory the size of Belgium earlier this year before suffering a recent string of defeats at the hands of four African states’ militaries. Even Tunisia, justifiably held up as an Arab Spring success story, has experienced a growth in ungoverned space, as the post-revolution government struggles to establish control over the country’s western mountains, where jihadists have a significant presence. The proliferation of ungoverned space in neighboring Libya has further exacerbated Tunisia’s security situation: Earlier this year, Tunisian prime minister Mehdi Jomaa described the deteriorating situation in Libya as the greatest threat to Tunisian stability.
Then there is Afghanistan, home to the first of the post-9/11 wars that were supposed to deprive jihadists of their safe havens. After a costly fight that will soon enter its fourteenth year, and that has claimed around 3,500 coalition lives, the Taliban remains in control of much of eastern and southern Afghanistan. The Taliban is even expanding into new frontiers in parts of northern Afghanistan, such as the remote province of Badakhshan. Even worse, all signs suggest that the Taliban will intensify its offensive and take more territory from the Afghan government as U.S. and coalition forces reduce their presence in the coming years.
From whatever angle one analyses the war against ungoverned spaces, Western countries and their allies are losing. No longer does the 9/11 Commission’s exhortation that militant groups should be deprived of safe havens seem attainable.
There is plenty of blame to go around, and finding our way out of this mess will be a long-term project. The truly remarkable thing is how quickly the situation in the Middle East and North Africa was transformed from one of almost unbridled optimism on the part of observers—at the start of the Arab Spring—to one where the spread of ungoverned space, and indeed jihadism writ large, appears inexorable.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. Nathaniel Barr is a threat analyst at Valens Global, a D.C. based consulting firm that focuses on the threat posed by violent non-state actors. A specialist in the North Africa region, Barr recently co-authored a full-length study analysing European policymakers’ possible approaches to the crisis gripping that area.