Commentary: Placing Terrorism in a Violent Non-State Actor Framework for the Great Power Competition Era.

Date01 November 2021
AuthorBjelopera, Jerome P.

Given that the U.S. national security establishment has taken up great power competition (GPC) as its primary concern recently, and terrorism has slipped from the top position, it is time for the security policy community to place terrorism within a new conceptual framework, one that combines terrorists, violent criminals, drug traffickers, insurgents, and others under the heading of violent non-state actors (VNSA). The framework might help order the non-GPC threat landscape for decision makers, facilitate comparative understanding of violent threats to the United States, and drive better-informed prioritization within national security.

In the last several years, the priorities of the U.S. national security establishment have shifted away from terrorism toward addressing great power competition (GPC). Threats from Russia and China deeply shaped both the 2017 National Security Strategy (1) (a) and the 2018 National Defense Strategy, (2) and GPC continues to influence major U.S. security decision making. (3) The widely acknowledged importance of Russia and China--as well as other state actors--in the national security mix has not been accompanied by a reimagining of sub-state violent threats long dominated by terrorism. Twenty years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, it may be time for policymakers to re-conceptualize how they handle terrorism and other violent substate (non-GPC) concerns by grouping together terrorism and like threats.

The large landscape beyond the GPC fence line that features violent actors beckons for a reorganization that breaks down the somewhat artificial but long-established boundaries separating policy responses to terrorists, transnational criminals, cross border gangs, insurgents, paramilitary forces, militias, warlords, and drug traffickers. A new conceptual framework could bound the seemingly divergent security concerns in this landscape and help rationalize policy making. The violent non-state actor (VNSA) concept, one that has circulated among academics and think-tanks for years but never truly taken hold in the policy realm, could be a useful tool for understanding some of the most dangerous threats the United States faces outside of the GPC construct. (4) Its adoption would invigorate moribund strategic thinking around key national security concerns.

As a class, VNSAs challenge the monopolies of force that states try to maintain. VNSAs, of course, test sovereignty in other ways as well. Transnational criminal organizations control illicit markets and govern turf. Terrorists strive to change political and social structures. Insurgencies vie with states for power and woo citizens to their causes. VNSAs kill, maim, or threaten harm in their attempts to control or influence competitors, including other VNSAs as well as states themselves. Of course, VNSAs do not fill the entire non-GPC terrain. The category, for example, excludes pure cyber actors, such as hackers, who are not violent and not linked to foreign governments.

The U.S. government's framing of violent substate threats largely has been based on their motives. The superpower formally designates its foreign terrorist enemies--violent, ideologically driven foes--via well-established processes that focus whole-of-government efforts on a core set of dangerous actors. (5) Other violent transnational enemies bent on earning illicit profits and as a result endangering the lives of Americans have resided somewhere in the background, and several U.S. efforts to catalog and prioritize key players among drug traffickers and organized criminals exist. These, however, do not necessarily focus federal efforts as clearly as terrorist designations. (6) (b)

Several high-profile instances during the Trump administration blurred the lines between terrorism and other national security concerns. Are Mexican drug trafficking organizations terrorists? In late 2019 and early 2020, members of the Trump administration and a few members of Congress very publicly asked this provocative question and briefly considered designating Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations. (c)

In July 2020 and January 2021, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced federal terrorism charges cases involving members of the transnational gang known as Mara Salvatrucha (commonly known as MS-13). (7) In the July 2020 case, DOJ indicted an MS-13 leader for conspiring to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries, conspiring to finance terrorism, conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, and conspiring to engage in narco-terrorism--among other charges. (8) These investigations were products of a major U.S. initiative to dismantle and destroy MS-13. (9)

In April 2019, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security expanded its terrorism prevention efforts to cover other forms of targeted violence. It established the Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention. (d) The office was designed to focus on addressing numerous forms of violence regardless of ideology. (10 )Practitioners have come to understand that terrorism and other types of targeted violence have much in common as problems, and the same or similar preventive tools can be leveraged against them.

The VNSA framework may help drive re-prioritization discussions by combining disparate threats under one structure. This could make it easier to justify shifting resources between thorny policy challenges such as terrorism and transnational organized crime. Said another way, the VNSA framework would get policymakers to rethink mindsets hardwired after 9/11, mindsets that distinguished terrorism from all other violent national security concerns. It would allow for clearer comparative understanding of what exists outside of GPC issues. It would help explain the dynamics involved when weak states--of strategic importance to the United States--are affected by violent groups or movements and how this might shape GPC in those areas. It would help the intelligence community (IC) to map the ways great powers or other strong states might exploit VNSAs to further their own goals.

This essay intends to be policy relevant, not policy prescriptive. It is designed to generate discussion around broad issues affecting interagency national security concerns. Specifically, it walks readers through the concept of violent non-state actors, suggesting how it may be used to reshape thinking regarding threats that exist outside of the great power competition perspective. It proceeds in four parts. The first section focuses on the rise of organized crime and terrorism as distinct national security issues. The second section lays out the VNSA framework. The third section discusses how this framework could be used. The final section discusses key considerations for the future.

(1). The Rise of Organized Crime and Terrorism as Distinct National Security Issues

The following discussion focuses on intertwined USG efforts to fight two prominent VNSA threats: international terrorism and transnational organized crime (TOC). (e) The latter includes drug trafficking; much of the federal government's focus on TOC since the 1980s has involved addressing drug trafficking, especially in the Western Hemisphere. (f) In the late 20th century, U.S. policy embraced international organized crime as a national security threat. For a decade and a half after September 11, 2001, however, terrorism eclipsed most other security issues and the U.S. government heavily reworked its intelligence and security structures to address the threat.

From the 1960s through the 1990s, policymakers worked out a shared general view of what eventually came to be known as transnational organized crime. (g) The federal government refined the basic law enforcement tools that are still used to take down criminal organizations--federal wiretap authority, the use of confidential informants and undercover investigations, federal conspiracy charges, a focused federal counternarcotics effort, and the federal crime of money laundering. The country also promoted to the rest of the world its visions both for policing and how the organized crime threat looked as it pivoted away from the Cold War. (11) Organized crime went from being mostly a domestic law enforcement concern to one that was thoroughly globalized and required the resources of the military and intelligence agencies to thwart. (12)

While organized crime solidified as a national security concern between the 1960s and 2001, the government also took early steps to develop an approach to counterterrorism (CT), particularly confronting international threats. The Department of Justice--specifically the FBI--became the lead agency for investigating acts of terrorism. The Department of State held the primary role abroad. A string of foreign hijackings and hostage situations in the 1980s encouraged the United States to develop long-arm statutes extending American legal jurisdiction to cover terrorists and other criminals who harmed U.S. nationals beyond the country's boundaries. Rendition of terrorists was developed as a tool to bring such suspects under U.S. control while they were abroad, especially if foreign governments were not willing or able to assist in extradition. (13) In the 1980s and 1990s, other fundamental policies and procedures were established, including codifying the State Department's ability to designate foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs). (h) FTO designation paved the way for financial sanction and other judicial solutions, such as the possibility of prosecuting individuals for providing material support to the terrorist organizations designated by the Department of State.

The counterterrorism enterprise vastly expanded after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. At home, the FBI quickly shifted focus to terrorism, doubling the number of special agents covering terrorism--adding about 2,000 agents to its national security programs by June 2002, moving...

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