TCS Daily

Al Qaeda for the Good Guys: The Road to Anti-Qaeda

By Josh Manchester - December 19, 2006 12:00 AM

Stateless warfighting organizations are all the rage these days. From Al Qaeda to Blackwater, they come in all shapes and sizes and pursue all varieties of ends. Consider: Al Qaeda is an organization funded by a Saudi tycoon's heir, and exists to pursue strategies that are wholly outside the realm of policies of any given state. Indeed, it seeks to topple the governments of many states in the Middle East, from which it draws many of its recruits and funding.

The Mahdi Army is a large, subnational Iraqi militia of something on the order of 30,000. It gives loyalty to a Shi'ite cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, whose motives are suspect to say the least. Does he merely desire to defend Shi'ites, or does he wish to seize power in Iraq?

Now shift gears a bit and consider Blackwater, the world's foremost private security company. A recent article in the Weekly Standard described its capabilities:

*A burgeoning logistics operation that can deliver 100- or 200-ton self-contained humanitarian relief response packages faster than the Red Cross.

*A Florida aviation division with 26 different platforms, from helicopter gunships to a massive Boeing 767. The company even has a Zeppelin.

*The country's largest tactical driving track, with multi-surface, multi-elevation positive and negative cambered turns, a skid pad, and a ram pad for drivers learning how to escape ambushes.

*A 20-acre manmade lake with shipping containers that have been mocked up with ship rails and portholes, floating on pontoons, used to teach how to board a hostile ship.

*A K-9 training facility that currently has 80 dog teams deployed around the world. Ever wondered how to rappel down the side of nine stacked shipping containers with a bomb-sniffing German shepherd dog strapped to your chest? Blackwater can teach you.

What's the purpose of this organization? In a nutshell, the Standard article reports that it is "supporting humane democracy around the world."

What is the future of the relationship between states and such stateless warfighting organizations as those mentioned above? Why might states come to rely more and more upon stateless proxies? Here are a few reasons:

1. A lack of other means: Many states lack the means to perform their own security effectively. This lack can be manifested in a variety of ways: Some states may not have access to the force-multiplying effects of technology; others may not have the funding to provide for standing forces, in which case proxy forces can offer their services in what is essentially a lease-like arrangement; finally, some states may not be able to employ their forces as efficiently or productively as the private security sector. Blackwater claims, for example, that it can sometimes do with ten people what takes the US government 100.

2. Plausible deniability: This is a famous phrase often attached to the work of intelligence agencies. In this context it has two flavors: first, a fear of retaliation. Some states may wish to pursue policies covertly that would bring harsh and swift retaliation from their enemies if they were overt. The use of proxies in pursuing such policies might be one way to avoid such retaliation. This mainly applies to weaker states. The second flavor is fear of attribution. Many states wish to pursue policies covertly that if pursued overtly would bring massive opprobrium upon them, from the press, their own electorate, their allies, or the "international community." Stateless actors might allow a bit of discretion or separation that would otherwise be impossible.

3. Circumvention of Laws: States may wish to circumvent their own laws or international regulations in the pursuit of certain policies. One solution is to make a deal with a stateless organization that can operate with much more extralegal freedom than can a state organization. Consider: an intelligence organization can certainly operate across borders illegally. But a stateless proxy can do so with much less fear of retribution, for either it or a sponsoring state.

4. A Lack of Political Will: There may be times when states are compelled to pursue policies that their populations cannot stomach. In this case, the introduction of state forces is impossible. Stateless proxies might take their place, either covertly or overtly.

Aside from the interests of states, consider the future of private security and stateless warfighting organizations from the perspectives of those organizations themselves. Here are some considerations:

1. Externalities in the international order: Al Qaeda exists to promote ideas which no state is willing to address. It aims to create a Caliphate. In a similar vein, various NGOs and activist groups exist to promote ideas which they perceive as being neglected by states. Some of them wish for more state action. Others may one day wish to take action on their own. Finally, consider genocides, which most states will condemn, but which few will commit their own resources to stopping without a compelling national interest. Blackwater has offered to send a brigade of peacekeepers to Darfur if someone will pay for it.

2. Financing: The paucity of financing options for stateless warfighting organizations indicates that they will often turn to states for income. Aside from state sponsorship, only a few other pathways are open: running legitimate businesses; gaining donations from individual or corporate supporters; or criminal activity, like kidnapping or theft.

3. Legitimacy: One of the biggest public relations problems for companies such as Blackwater is the recurring taint of being considered a firm full of mercenaries. States may be able to offer some stateless warfighting organizations a degree of legitimacy that will ease their ability to operate in some countries, raise financing and hire key talent.

The world of stateless warfighting organizations - many of which will become state proxies - is here to stay. It will be fraught with controversy as the issues delineated above seep in and out of the news.

In the part two of this series, I'll look at what an al-Qaeda for the good guys would look like.

Josh Manchester is a TCSDaily contributing writer. His blog is The Adventures of Chester (


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