Empowered Groups, Tested Laws, and Policy Options: Report on an International Seminar on Transnational and Non-State Armed Groups

Published: 
Nov 2007

The rising importance of non-state armed groups is heightened by three post-Cold War phenomena: the increased fragmentation of states into smaller self-governing entities, the augmented privatization of warfare, and, by virtue of the expansion of global communication networks, the inflated accountability of states towards non-state actors. This context has influenced significantly the emergence of modern transnational and non-state armed groups (NSAGs) — i.e., groups that use force, flow across state boundaries, utilize global communication and transportation networks, seek international influence, and increasingly undertake military operations against dominant states. The key markers of how contemporary conflict between states and NSAGs varies from classical state-based warfare are to be found primarily in tactical and strategic differences. The increased (quantitative) participation of NSAGs in conflict presents in and of itself a strategic challenge for states. Since the events of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath, Al Qaeda and its associated groups, for example, have decentralized and diversified their activities significantly. Almost systematically, NSAGs have proven through their military aptitude that they can innovate faster than states. It, thus, became a strategic test for states to transform and adapt their intelligence and war-fighting capabilities to face these new contests and such mutation. From the tactical perspective, one of the most important developments is the increasingly unconventional and irregular means and methods used by transnational NSAGs. This is also one of the areas that conventional military forces have struggled to respond to. It is important in this changed context to differentiate between non-state armed groups, acknowledge their complexity and broadened goals, and register the implications of such development for states (which are themselves just as variegated as NSAGS). The ability of an NSAG such as Hezbollah to rely on local support, or at least tolerance, is another important modern-day advantage of armed groups that render conventional military tactics much less effective, if not obsolete in some cases. Such evolution underscores the fact that many an NSAG — whether as sophisticated as Hezbollah or more fluidly organized — is well suited to engaging in protracted conflicts in which no decisive military victory is required. For indeed the groups do not, by virtue of their asymmetrical stan