Violent Non-State Actors in the Age of Social Media: A Twenty-First Century Problem Requires a Twenty-First Century Solution

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross,  “Violent Non-State Actors in the Age of Social Media: A Twenty-First Century Problem Requires a Twenty-First Century Solution,” Georgetown Security Studies Review, pg. 43-49, February 2017


There is an interesting debate about contemporary violent non-state actors (VNSAs): Have we seen this all before? One article I habitually assign to classes I teach about VNSAs is Reyko Huang’s “The Islamic State as an Ordinary Insurgency.” [1] Huang argues that the Islamic State, or ISIS, “is hardly unique among armed non-state organizations.” Addressing various factors that commentators believe distinguish ISIS from past VNSAs, Huang argues that none of them are truly new. ISIS is no more brutal, she argues, than the Khmer Rouge or the RENAMO movement in Mozambique; it is not unique in “mobilizing its own interpretation of theology as part of an ideological-political campaign”; numerous previous VNSAs also built “networks of traffickers, dealers, and middlemen to secure enormous wealth from natural resources”; and the fact that ISIS created systems of governance does not distinguish it. Huang contends that rather than trying to normalize ISIS, she wants to produce more rigorous thinking about the group by demonstrating that it “is not as exceptional as observers and the media have often characterized it.”

I like to assign Huang’s article because each step she makes is logical and correct in and of itself—yet her conclusion is entirely wrong. Figuring out why it’s wrong takes a lot of work; my students are typically persuaded by her points.

So where does Huang’s argument go wrong? If the factors that might distinguish ISIS from other VNSAs are only those that she considers—brutality, theology, profits, or governance—then her answer is correct. But here’s a different frame for distinguishing ISIS from its predecessors: speed, scope, and impact. No previous VNSA has, without state support, expanded as rapidly to become a strategic challenge in as many countries as ISIS. No previous VNSA has been able to spearhead a terrorist campaign akin to ISIS’s Ramadan 2016 offensive, which killed hundreds of civilians in high-profile attacks across ten countries. [2]

Put simply, the inputs that make ISIS may look like the VNSAs of old (though Huang’s examination of each input individually may be an error, as the group may look distinctive when they’re examined in combination), but the outputs are, to this point, unique. The uniqueness of the results ISIS has achieved is, of course, due in large part to advances in technology. No other major VNSA was able to take advantage of social media right out of the gate as a means of recruiting, and thus spreading its movement globally. No other VNSA has had the communications capabilities and end-to-end encryption needed to provide the advantages of physical terrorist networks to operatives who have never had in-person contact with the group’s members in the way that ISIS has with its “virtual planner” model. [3]

It may be objected that these differences are a product of ISIS’s operating environment, rather than being inherent to the actor itself. But such objections miss the point. It is impossible to categorize an actor as an “ordinary insurgency” if exogenous factors make it function in fundamentally different ways than insurgencies of the past.

ISIS is distinctive. And the truly worrying news is that its uniqueness may not last, because other VNSAs can use current and future technologies to replicate, and even expand upon, its successes. This is why it matters whether we categorize ISIS as an ordinary insurgency or recognize that we are seeing something new: VNSAs are empowered, relative to the state, in a way they have never been since the Westphalian state achieved its absolute dominance over competing forms of political organization during the twentieth century.

That “Westphalian moment” is now coming to an end. And it is vital that we not deceive ourselves into thinking we are now experiencing something that we have already seen in the not so distant past.

Misunderstanding the Problem: The al-Qa’ida/ISIS Competition

Not only is ISIS’s distinctiveness unlikely to last; it is not even the most formidable VNSA challenger that we face.

One of the major defining storylines in the Middle East and North Africa is the competition between al-Qa’ida and ISIS for dominance over the transnational Salafi jihadist movement. Even a cursory analysis of this intra-jihadist competition highlights how the problem set of VNSAs has often been misunderstood by analysts. A couple of years ago, the vast majority of analysts concluded that ISIS had overtaken al-Qa’ida. In its most extreme form, this argument contended that, “al-Qa’ida is most certainly a distant number two in jihadi circles,” and suggested that the group could even disband before 2016. [4]

ISIS was expected to fundamentally disrupt the al-Qa’ida network, and analysts believed there was a real chance that al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula or al-Qa’ida’s Somali affiliate al Shabaab would defect entirely and join Team ISIS. None of this occurred. While ISIS is now perceptibly weakened since its height in 2014-15, al-Qa’ida is perceptibly stronger. The divergent trajectory of the two groups was foreseeable even when analysts believed that ISIS either had eclipsed, or was in the process of eclipsing, al-Qa’ida.

Al-Qa’ida had long wanted to change the way it was viewed in majority-Muslim countries, as documents recovered from bin Ladin’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound demonstrate. In a May 2010 letter to senior al-Qa’ida official Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, bin Ladin proposed a “new phase” in al-Qa’ida’s campaign that would “correct [the mistakes] we made,” and “reclaim … the trust of a large segment of those who lost their trust in the jihadis.” [5] In a separate letter to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the emir of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, Atiyah expounded on the need to win over the Muslim population, noting that “the people’s support to the mujahedin is as important as the water for fish.” [6] Al-Qa’ida leaders even considered changing the group’s name to distance it from the toxic legacy of al-Qa’ida in Iraq (as ISIS was once known), which al-Qa’ida leaders saw as the biggest black mark on their reputation. [7]

In fact, al-Qa’ida did change its name as it expanded into North Africa, using front groups that were labeled Ansar al-Sharia. But no single development gave al-Qa’ida as much opportunity to change the way it was perceived as ISIS’s rise, and al-Qa’ida’s ability to publicly distinguish itself from ISIS. Al-Qa’ida contrasted its more restrained approach with ISIS’s over-the-top brutality; portrayed itself as the more controllable jihadist alternative to GCC states who saw it as a possible asset in their conflict with Iran; and its officials at times exaggerated ISIS’s strategic position and downplayed al-Qa’ida’s own strengths, in order to make al-Qa’ida appear less threatening. Al-Qa’ida has positioned itself, without moderating at all, closer to the mainstream of regional politics. [8]

We can now see the results. Today, al-Qa’ida is able to operate more openly than it ever has. The kind of charities that the United States worked so hard to shut down just after the 9/11 attacks are back in business, with fundraising for al-Qa’ida occurring openly in some countries. [9] Al-Qa’ida’s Syrian branch is now part of a massive coalition known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham with a number of other major rebel groups—some of which were once regarded as moderate by outside observers—and it has opened itself up to growing state support.

In short, while the international community focused on ISIS, al-Qa’ida outmaneuvered the world’s most powerful states, and transformed itself from an international pariah into a stronger organization than it has ever been. The United States’ lack of understanding of what alQa’ida was up to—its myopic focus on ISIS even as al-Qa’ida was in the process of dramatically “rebranding” itself—contributed to al-Qa’ida’s success.

Indeed, the number of times that analysts have fundamentally misread important developments related to VNSAs over the past half-dozen years, only to have these VNSAs prosper due to these flawed analytic paradigms, is striking. The most prominent example is analysts’ misreading of the strategic impact of the revolutionary events that rocked the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. A New York Times article by Scott Shane, published on February 27th, 2011, summarizes the consensus view that then existed:

“For nearly two decades, the leaders of Al Qaeda have denounced the Arab world’s dictators as heretics and puppets of the West and called for their downfall. Now, people in country after country have risen to topple their leaders—and Al Qaeda has played absolutely no role. In fact, the motley opposition movements that have appeared so suddenly and proved so powerful have shunned the two central tenets of the Qaeda credo: murderous violence and religious fanaticism. The demonstrators have used force defensively, treated Islam as an afterthought and embraced democracy, which is anathema to Osama bin Laden and his followers. So for Al Qaeda—and perhaps no less for the American policies that have been built around the threat it poses—the democratic revolutions that have gripped the world’s attention present a crossroads. Will the terrorist network shrivel slowly to irrelevance? Or will it find a way to exploit the chaos produced by political upheaval and the disappointment that will inevitably follow hopes now raised so high? For many specialists on terrorism and the Middle East, though not all, the past few weeks have the makings of an epochal disaster for Al Qaeda…” [10]

In Scott Shane’s article, the sole dissent he registered to this extraordinarily optimistic view came from former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, who warned about the release of imprisoned jihadists and al-Qa’ida’s ability to expand its geographic reach.  [11] Of Scheuer’s dissenting view, Shane recalled in his later book Objective Troy that he thought at the time: “But surely, … Scheuer’s spoilsport take on the surge of young Muslims demanding democracy and the fall of despots must be wrong.” [12] The giddiness over the Arab Uprisings extended also to the Obama White House, as well as the CIA. [13]

As with the competition between al-Qa’ida and ISIS, the Arab Uprisings did not turn out as the consensus of analysts believed it would. And as with that intra-jihadist competition, misreading the impact of the revolutions proved costly.

The Wrong Toolkit

We need to understand how the VNSA problem set has often been misdiagnosed because the fundamental question, what do we do about it?, cannot be answered without acknowledging this record of analytic error. Are analysts taking the necessary steps to get vital questions about VNSAs right in the future? Contrary to Huang’s argument, today’s VNSAs are very different than those of the past. Contemporary VNSAs are truly a twenty-first century problem. We are combating them with a twentieth century governmental architecture, and analytic errors are one outcropping of our outmoded system.

One of the analogies I frequently use to contextualize the competition between VNSAs and the state is that of start-up companies against legacy industries in the economic sphere. [14] In the economic sphere, behemoth companies like Borders Books or Blockbuster have been completely displaced by younger competitors. Why?

Borders Group, Inc. was once a bookselling empire. At its peak in 2005, the company operated over 1,200 stores across the globe, boasted revenues of $4 billion a year, and employed around 15,000 people. [15] Six years later, it was gone, shuttering the last of its stores. Ironically, the same thing that initially made Borders successful—technological innovation—proved to be its undoing. In 1971, Louis and Tom Borders, two brothers who attended the University of Michigan, devised the “Book Inventory System,” which allowed them to tailor their stores’ inventory to local consumer preferences. The brothers used this innovation to open new stores across the country, and across the world. [16]

The Borders brothers eventually sold the company, and it ended up behind the technology curve. Borders did not launch a website until 1998, three years after Amazon.com appeared. When the chain tried to adopt new technologies, it seemingly failed to understand their purpose. In 2008, Borders launched a program that would allow customers to download books and music, but only if the customers physically entered the chain’s bookstores and used “download stations”—thus undercutting the purpose of online shopping. Borders collapsed in the face of challenges from e-books, Amazon, and even Barnes and Noble, its more adaptive brick-and-mortar competitor.

The fall of Borders is a powerful sign of how legacy companies—established firms that possess strong brand names, but fail to adapt to the new business environment—can fail outright in an age of rapid technological innovation. Other dominos include Blockbuster (displaced by Netflix) and Eastman Kodak, a name once synonymous with photography, which was sent reeling by digital photography. [16] One legacy company after another ended up the victim of outmoded business models, too much bureaucracy, too much overhead, too little innovation and adaptation, and, often, blind adherence to tradition. Start-up firms thrived: sleek and agile companies that could respond creatively to the challenges and opportunities of new technologies. Start-ups upended the status quo.

This is obviously analogous to the forces transforming global politics, where VNSAs have been able to quickly evolve, adapt, and cleverly exploit emerging technologies. VNSAs can be seen as the start-up actors of the political organizing space. Governments, in turn, look a lot like legacy industries.

So what do we do about this? The first step, I think, is recognition of the underlying problem. Getting smarter against VNSAs is not a simple matter of crafting laundry lists of one’s preferred policies, or divining the ever-elusive counterterrorism grand strategy. Rather, it involves recognition that the design of our government is ill-suited to this challenge.

Lao-tzu observed in the Tao Te Ching that, “knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.” [18] When it comes to VNSAs, the fact that we do not know ourselves impedes our understanding of the enemy. To have a twenty-first century toolkit, we must have a government architecture that is equal to the present challenges.

[1] Reyko Huang, “The Islamic State as an Ordinary Insurgency,” Monkey Cage, May 14, 2015,
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/05/14/how-the-islamic-state-compareswith-other-armed-non-state-groups/.
[2] See Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Nathaniel Barr, “Bloody Ramadan: How the Islamic State Coordinated a Global Terrorist Campaign,” War on the Rocks, July 20, 2016,https://warontherocks.com/2016/07/bloody-ramadan-how-the-islamic-state-coordinated-a-globalterrorist-campaign/.
[3] For more on this model, see Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Madeleine Blackman, “ISIL’s Virtual Planners: A Critical Terrorist Innovation,” War on the Rocks, January 4, 2017,https://warontherocks.com/2017/01/isils-virtual-planners-a-critical-terrorist-innovation/; Rukmini Callimachi, “Not ‘Lone Wolves’ After All: How ISIS Guides World’s Terror Plots from Afar,” New York Times, February 4, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/04/world/asia/isis-messaging-app-terrorplot.html.
[4] Clint Watts, “One Year Later, ISIS Overtakes al Qaeda: What’s Next?,” Geopoliticus (Foreign Policy Research Institute), April 8, 2015, available at http://www.fpri.org/2015/04/one-year-later-isisovertakes-Al-Qa’ida-whats-next/. For a similar argument, see Adam al-Sabiri, “Is an ‘Islamic State in the Maghreb’ Following in the Footsteps of ISIS?,” Al-Akhbar English, October 23, 2014, available at http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/22161.
[5] Letter from Usama bin Ladin to Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, May 2010, SOCOM-2012-00000019, available at http://www.jihadica.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/SOCOM-2012-0000019-Trans.pdf.
[6] Letter from Atiyah Abd al-Rahman to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, date unknown, SOCOM-2012-0000016, available at http://www.jihadica.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/SOCOM-2012-0000016-Trans.pdf.
[7] Letter from unknown al-Qa’ida official, date unknown, SOCOM-2012-0000009, available athttp://www.jihadica.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/SOCOM-2012-0000009-Trans.pdf.
[8] See discussion in Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Nathaniel Barr, “Extreme Makeover, Jihadist Edition: Al-Qa’ida’s Rebranding Campaign,” War on the Rocks, September 3, 2015,https://warontherocks.com/2015/09/extreme-makeover-jihadist-edition-Al-Qa’idas-rebrandingcampaign/.
[9] See David Andrew Weinberg, “Terror Financiers ‘Operating Openly’ in Qatar and Kuwait,” FDD Policy Brief, February 14, 2017, http://www.defenddemocracy.org/media-hit/david-weinberg-terrorfinanciers-operating-openly-in-qatar-and-kuwait/.
[10] Scott Shane, “As Regimes Fall in Arab World, Al Qaeda Sees History Fly By,” New York Times, February 27, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/28/world/middleeast/28qaeda.html.
[11] I made similar arguments at the time. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror (New York: Wiley, 2011), pp. 185-88.
[12] Scott Shane, Objective Troy: A Terrorist, A President, and the Rise of the Drone (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2015), p. 273.
[13] For discussion of the White House’s view, see ibid. For discussion of the CIA’s view, see Michael Morell, The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism from al Qa’ida to ISIS (New York: Twelve, 2015). Morell recalled that his agency “thought and told policy-makers that this outburst of popular revolt would damage al Qa’ida by undermining the group’s narrative. Our analysts figured that the protests would send a signal throughout the region that political change was possible without al Qa’ida’s leading the way and without the violence that al Qa’ida said was necessary.”
[14] For my most comprehensive treatment of this analogy, see Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, “The Lean Terrorist Cell: How Startup Companies and Violent Non-State Actors Are Changing the Old World Order,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Summer/Fall 2016.
[15] Tiffany Kary, “Borders to Seek Approval of Deal with Books-A-Million,” Bloomberg Business, July 1, 2011.
[16] Ben Austen, “The End of Borders and the Future of Books,” Bloomberg, November 10, 2011.
[17] Dawn McCarthy and Beth Jinks, “Kodak Files for Bankruptcy as Digital Era Spells End to Film,” Bloomberg, January 19, 2012.
[18] Lao-tzu, Tao Te Ching, trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York: Harper Perennial, 1988), § 33