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Are 'Ungoverned Spaces' a Threat?

Author: Stewart M. Patrick, Senior Fellow and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program
January 11, 2010

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The attempted Christmas attack on Northwest Airlines flight 253--traced to an al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen--has brought renewed attention to the dangers posed by the world's "ungoverned spaces." Yemen now joins Pakistan's tribal belt, stateless Somalia, and Africa's trackless Sahel as a perceived haven for the world's most dangerous terror network.

A concern about anarchic zones outside formal state authority is understandable. On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda launched its devastating attacks from one of the world's most war-torn and poverty-stricken nations, convincing the Bush administration that the United States was "now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones." Two years later, CIA Director George Tenet identified fifty lawless zones around the world where terrorists and criminals might set up shop with impunity. The Pentagon soon launched an Ungoverned Areas Project (PDF) and directed its Combatant Commands to build the capacity of fragile states to control their borders and territories.

President Barack Obama shares this threat assessment. The world's "impoverished, weak, and ungoverned" states, he declared during the presidential campaign, have become "the most fertile breeding grounds for transnational threats." Since he took office, senior officials from the State and Defense Departments have reinforced (PDF) this message. As Daniel Benjamin, State's counterterrorism coordinator, recently remarked, "Quite frankly, the problem of un- and under-governed spaces is one of the toughest ones this and future administrations will face."

And yet the concept of "ungoverned spaces" can be misleading, even unhelpful, in the global struggle against al-Qaeda. It oversimplifies the links between state weakness and transnational terrorism, which are uneven and highly contingent (PDF). And it can encourage short-sighted policy responses that focus on the symptoms of state weakness instead of its underlying causes.

One limitation of the concept is its focus on remote locations. This ignores the obvious attraction of teeming, chaotic cities, which can offer terrorist cells welcome anonymity. In Pakistan, many jihadis squeezed out of the tribal areas have now relocated to Karachi and other urban havens (WashPost). It also ignores the power of the Internet, which provides terrorists with an ungoverned, albeit "virtual" haven to recruit, organize, plan, and raise funds. While debate (TNR) continues (WashPost) over whether terrorists need actual physical havens, the web presence (WashPost) of Nigerian would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab underlines the growing role of cyberspace in the decentralized al-Qaeda network.

[T]he concept of "ungoverned spaces" can be misleading, even unhelpful, in the global struggle against al-Qaeda.

More fundamentally, the very notion of an "ungoverned" "safe haven" is arguably a contradiction--at least when it comes to physical sanctuaries. Truly anarchic environments can pose insuperable obstacles to terrorists. Consider Somalia in the 1990s. Osama bin Laden had presumed that lawless country would provide an ideal operating base. But when al-Qaeda operatives arrived in Somalia, they were ignorant of the local culture, politics, and economics, and they underestimated the costs of operating in a non-functioning state. Al-Qaeda's "Africa Corps" found itself at the mercy of bandits and vulnerable to extortion by warlords, and the country's near-total lack of physical infrastructure presented logistical nightmares. If the terrorist group has more recently gained a stronger foothold, this reflects the rise of the powerful Al-Shabaab movement as a political sponsor and ally, as well as the continued radicalization of Somali society in the intervening years.

This suggests a third limitation to the ungoverned spaces concept. The emergence of a true haven requires more than the absence of a state. It requires the support of local power-wielders and the sympathy, or at least acquiescence, of the local population. Most so-called "ungoverned" spaces are in fact alternatively governed, typically by entrenched tribal laws and customs regarding the use of violence, mediation of conflict, and dispensation of justice.  Such regions may be "sovereignty free," but they are rarely Hobbesian.

Terrorists can take advantage of these alternative political orders, brokering agreements with local leaders and entering into tactical alliances with illicit groups--from drug traffickers to insurgents to smugglers--to access secure locations, transport, and communications. The most durable (and dangerous) alliances have been grounded in even deeper ethnic, linguistic, cultural, or political affinities. In Pakistan's tribal belt, the state may have failed, but traditional Pashtun systems of tribal self-government (which have existed longer than most nation-states) has enabled al-Qaeda to flourish, thanks to religious, ideological, and even familial ties to tribal authorities.

This need for support from local power brokers and inhabitants explains why so few of the world's many poorly governed states--even in the Muslim world--have emerged as major sanctuaries for al-Qaeda. The Sahel is a case in point. For years, observers warned that Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad were gravely at risk. And yet the extreme ideology of al-Qaeda has failed to resonate (WashPost) with the region's population, most of whom practice a relatively moderate brand of Sufi Islam. Despite weak institutions, vast un-policed territories, and porous frontiers, the region has failed to emerge (NYT) as "the next Afghanistan."

[The] need for support from local power brokers and inhabitants explains why so few of the world's many poorly governed states--even in the Muslim world--have emerged as major sanctuaries for al-Qaeda.

The jury is out on whether Yemen will become a reliable long-term haven for al-Qaeda. It is clearly more vulnerable than the countries of the Sahel. The ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, Yemen is dominated by more extreme forms of Islam, plagued by insecurity and violence, and home to thousands of jihadi veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war. Yemen is also the poorest country in the Arab world, a critically weak--even failed (Economist)--state, with no pretense of policing its borders or maintaining a monopoly on armed force. Large swathes of its territory are controlled by the country's notoriously fractious tribes, and the country's integrity is threatened by a rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south. Economic prospects are dire, and the nation faces an acute water shortage. The ruling regime, which clings to power through corruption and patronage, has long maintained an ambiguous relationship with Islamic militants, and its counterterrorism efforts (like those of Pakistan) have been desultory.

These vulnerabilities have already provided al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with invaluable openings. Were the country to weaken further, or disintegrate into full-scale civil war, the terrorist network could build on its current alliances with local tribes to extend its presence around the country.

How should the United States respond to the threat of ungoverned spaces in Yemen and beyond? Two priorities seem clear. One is to devote more attention to analyzing--and then undermining--the solidarity that terrorist groups enjoy with local power-wielders and societies in areas outside of state control. This demands much deeper intelligence capabilities than the United States currently possesses. The other, related goal is to encourage weak state governments to deliver more public goods to territories where they currently have only a marginal presence.

To date, U.S. efforts to address ungoverned spaces have focused on helping foreign security forces control their territories and apprehend illicit actors, through measures like the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership and the Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa. While such aid is critical, it must be complemented by governance and development assistance to help build effective, durable, and accountable institutions, and to give local populations a stake in a broader community. Given the distrust many tribal groups feel toward the central government--which they often regard as distant and corrupt--such "state-building" projects will be more effective if they are designed and implemented by local authorities, who can be held to account for the results.

Later this month, the British government will host a conference with the United States, the European Union, Saudi Arabia, the World Bank, and others to discuss bolstering the Yemeni state. A central goal of this meeting--and of U.S. counterterrorism policy in general--must be to convince the people in alternatively governed areas that their grievances can be addressed through political mediation, rather than misguided alliance with the armed jihadist struggle.

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