Security Studies Program Seminar

Armed Groups:
A Missing Dimension of Intelligence Reform

Professor Richard H. Shultz, Jr.
Director, International Security Studies Program
The Fletcher School , Tufts University

September 21, 2005


The purpose of this talk is to examine the challenges posed to states by armed groups. These non-state armed groups include terrorist groups, militias, insurgents, and criminal organizations. I argue that since 1990, these challenges have reached a level at which these groups pose a strategic threat- that is, they threaten to have a strategic impact on the states they target.

I will divide this talk into three sections. First, I will address the subject of armed groups and the dimensions of this challenge. Second, I will address the question, "How have the US policy and intelligence communities focused on this challenge?" Third, I will examine current plans for intelligence reform, particularly how these reforms have emphasized the threats posed by armed groups and whether reform should focus on organization or bureaucratic culture.

There are a number of important differences between the types of groups that make up the armed groups category, but there are also some common factors, including:

•  All armed groups challenge the authority and legitimacy of the state.

•  The belief in the use of violence is widespread among the leaders and followers in armed groups.

•  Armed groups use violence to achieve their goals.

•  Armed groups operate within state borders, across state borders, and, in some cases, on a global scale.

•  Armed groups are not unitary actors: many such groups are composed of rival factions.

Armed groups are thus very different from states as intelligence targets. Furthermore, many groups have sophisticated intelligence and counterintelligence branches.

Why do armed groups pose a serious challenge? Increasingly they are the primary cause of international violence and war. Therefore, the concept of armed groups is receiving much more attention these days. There are several growing data sets of armed group activities.

According to the IISS data, armed groups may act unilaterally, multilaterally with other armed groups, or in conjunction with states or particular groups or elites within states. The Ba'athists in Iraq initially acted unilaterally, and are now moving in a more multilateral direction, with increasing trends of cooperation among armed groups in Iraq . In Afghanistan, the regional militias pose a significant problem; many of these militias work closely with criminal organizations operating in the area. Criminal organizations often work closely with political elements within a state in an attempt to co-opt particular groups of elites. Examples of states where these activities are common include Mexico, Columbia, and other Central American countries.

Thus, the phenomenon of armed groups is a complex one. How does this phenomenon affect US policy? Some armed groups, especially Al-Qa'ida and perhaps Hezbollah as well, have the capacity to strike high value targets across the globe. Prior to 9/11, US policy-makers treated these terrorist threats as a law enforcement problem, and the pre-emptive use of Special Forces was limited in combating these groups. Furthermore, resources devoted to the problem of armed groups were minimal. After 9/11, when the Bush Administration declared war on terrorism, agencies responsible for addressing the threats posed by armed groups received a massive influx in resources. In addition, 9/11 provoked fundamental changes in US strategy, particularly the introduction of pre-emption as a central strategic concept.

Obviously not all armed groups can have such a dramatic impact as Al-Qa'ida. Some groups can have a regional impact where the US is vulnerable to the use of more standard terror or insurgency tactics. This is clearly the case in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Other groups represent a more protracted threat: they may have a destabilizing effect, but are a sub-strategic policy problem. But groups do learn from each other and adopt each other's successful tactics. There is constant dialogue on the various Jihad websites about the use of force and power projection precisely for this purpose.

Some analysts argue that armed groups provide an opportunity for the US or other states, in that they can be used as a tool to fight against other armed groups. Should the US support such groups? I argue that there are times when armed groups may provide such an opportunity, but this view is controversial. The US has a long history of supporting one armed group against another, as in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, etc. While some of these efforts have been operationally successful at the time, they have also had unintended and occasionally unwanted consequences. Afghanistan is the obvious example of this problem.

The fact is that armed groups are here to stay. I believe there are five important reasons why this is so:

  1. Armed groups emerge and flourish in weak states or failed states. Since the problem of state failure is prevalent worldwide, armed groups will continue to take root in these countries.
  2. The amount of ungoverned territory in the world is increasing, and this ungoverned space provides a safe haven for armed groups.
  3. Intra-state conflict involving armed groups will continue to be a prominent form of violence around the world.
  4. Radical Islam, which is a motivating ideology for many of the armed groups that threaten US interests, shows no signs of disappearing.
  5. The potential for one or more armed groups to acquire weapons of mass destruction makes them considerably more dangerous and complex as a policy problem.

I will now turn to the US intelligence community and the ways in which it has succeeded or failed to address the problem of armed groups. When the US intelligence community first emerged in the post-World War II period, it focused almost solely on state-level threats. As the decades passed, states ceased to be the only security-relevant actor in the international system. President Kennedy identified insurgency as a significant security problem and demanded that information be gathered regarding these issues. However, the information gathered and experience obtained from conflicts such as the Vietnam War did not necessarily survive from administration to administration, and armed groups continued to be viewed as an extraneous factor. The Reagan administration identified the problem once again, while simultaneously viewing certain resistance groups as opportunities to be exploited in the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union. CIA Director William Casey pushed the intelligence community to develop intelligence and operation capabilities regarding armed groups.

In the post-Cold War period, armed groups once again fell off the radar, reappearing only in a serious way after 9/11. After 9/11, the intelligence community established a new organizational structure to deal with the challenges of armed groups. However, I argue that a change in intelligence culture, from state-based threats to a sub-state focus, is more important than the bureaucratic restructuring. That change in culture has yet to fully materialize.


Summarized by : Adam Brody

back to seminar schedule, Fall 2005