Ungoverned Areas Pose Transnational Threats


Shortly before 10:00 AM on July 18, 1994 a heavily loaded van lumbered up to the front of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA), the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires. The driver was Ibrahim Hussein Berro, a 29 year old member of the External Security Organization (ESO) of the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon (1). He had volunteered for a suicide bomb attack against the AMIA. The van was a vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) constructed of over 600 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil. When Berro detonated the bomb in the densely populated area it collapsed the five story building killing 85 people and injured hundreds more. According to Argentina’s intelligence agency, the Secretaria de Inteligencia, Berro and his handlers entered Argentina through the Tri-Border Area (TBA); the triple frontier bounded by Puerto Iguazu, Argentina; Ciudad del Este, Paraguay; and Foz do Iguanzo, Brazil.

Like other regions of the world that operate beyond the bounds of formal state authority, the TBA exists in a semi-anarchic netherworld of lawlessness that attracts drug traffickers, arms dealers, smugglers, money launderers and terrorist groups. To date, supporters of Middle East terrorist groups operating in the TBA have confined their activities to ideological, financial, and logistical support and no operational cells have been found. However, the presence of Hezbollah is troubling because all of the group’s cells retain an operational capability. And the funds raised in the TBA support terrorist violence elsewhere.

Ungoverned areas like the TBA are a growing concern because they can provide safe havens for transnational terrorist groups. The failed Christmas Day 2009 underwear bombing by Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab on Northwest Airlines flight 253 enroute to Detroit from Amsterdam was traced to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operating in Yemen, a country with vast ungoverned areas. Similar areas include Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), stateless Somalia, and Africa’s desolate sub-Saharan Sahel. In 2003 the American Central Intelligence Agency identified more than fifty ungoverned areas around the world that are conducive to illicit activity including terrorism. (2)

Recognizing the dangers posed by ungoverned areas, the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States declared ‘‘America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones.’’ (3) Failed states, or ungoverned areas in otherwise viable states, are defined by the inability to exert government authority over their territory.(4) The absence of state authority leads to a wide range of security problems including civil conflict and war, humanitarian crises, drug, arms and human trafficking, piracy and refugee flows. The chaos of ungoverned areas can be used to shield terrorist groups from international counterterrorism efforts. Ungoverned areas also provide cooling off areas for operatives, logistics bases for attacks like the bombing of the AMIA, fundraising and recruiting pools from diaspora communities living in the region.

In the past 10 years in the TBA alone, counter-terrorism forces have uncovered more than 50 people suspected of sympathizing with extremism and financing terrorism.(5) In 1996 Brazilian police discovered that Marwan al Safadi was living in the TBA. Safadi is an explosives expert accused of having participated in the first attack on the World Trade Center in New York City in 1993. In November of that year Paraguayan authorities discovered that Islamist groups in the TBA were planning to blow up the US Embassy in Asuncion. A raid on Safadi’s apartment in Ciudad del Este uncovered explosives, silenced weapons, false Canadian and US passports, and a large amount of cash. (6)

Travel to Ungoverned Areas and Participation in Jihadi Activities

Foreign travel to ungoverned areas is a key indicator of Western Muslims on a trajectory to radicalization and participation in Jihadi activities.(7) Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad placed a VBIED near Times Square in New York City on May 1, 2010. He was trained in bomb making by Taliban affiliates after travelling to the ungoverned area of Pakistan’s FATA. A common factor in the background of the perpetrators in nearly every major jihadist plot against Western targets in the last two decades is travel to ungoverned areas in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

In September 2009 the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation executed Operation High Rise by arresting Najibullah Zazi and two accomplices before they could carry out a trio of suicide bombings on the New York City subway system. Timed to coincide with the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Zazi had travelled to North Waziristan in Pakistan’s FATA in August 2008 and received explosives training at an al-Qaeda training camp. He was recruited by Adnan el Shukrijumah, formerly a legal resident alien living in Florida. Shukrijumah is currently on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Terrorists list and operates from Pakistan.

The first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 was masterminded by Ramzi Yousef who had trained in the Khaldan al-Qaeda camp on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Ahmed Ressam, who plotted to blow up the Los Angeles, California airport on the eve of the Millennium in 1999, also trained in al-Qaeda’s Khaldan camp. Key operatives in the suicide attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the attack on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen in 2000, trained in Afghanistan. So did the 19 September 11th hijackers who flew airplanes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. As did the leader of the 2002 Bali attack that targeted Western tourists killing more than 200 people.

Mohammad Sidique Khan, ringleader of the 2005 London subway suicide bombing was trained by al-Qaeda in Pakistan. The British plotters who planned to blow up passenger planes leaving London’s Heathrow airport enroute to the U.S. in the summer of 2006 were taking direction from al-Qaeda in Pakistan. If that attack had succeeded as many as 1,500 people would have died. And the three men involved in the plot to attack the U.S. air base at Ramstein, Germany also had trained in Pakistan’s FATA.

Four Realities Shape the Threat

Four realities shape the threats posed by transnational terrorist groups from ungoverned areas. First, the concept of failed states and ungoverned areas is more nuanced than the stereotypical nexus between lack of governance, remote areas in a foreign country and terrorist group safe havens. Focusing exclusively on remote locations ignores the utility of chaotic, teeming cities which offer terrorist cells vital anonymity. Many jihadis pushed out of Pakistan’s FATA relocated to Karachi and other urban havens. More significantly, ungoverned areas also exist in effectively governed Western democracies where illicit actors take advantage of blind spots in governance capacity and political will, pockets of social discontent, geographical remoteness, or overcrowding.(8) Examples include gang-controlled housing projects in major American and Western European cities, suburban ethnic enclaves, night-time inner-city neighborhoods, and militias and patriot movements in remote and mountainous areas.

Weakly governed areas, even in otherwise well governed nations, exhibit blind spots or gaps in governance that allow illicit actors freedom to maneuver. Criminal networks seek to exploit these gaps as “functional holes” in state capacity. (9) These holes create environments where the rule of law is absent or imperfectly applied, law enforcement and border controls are lax, regulatory and taxation systems are weak, public services are unreliable and corruption is rife. Thanks to poor governance, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime notes that much of Africa has become ‘‘…an ideal conduit through which to extract or transship a range of illicit commodities, such as drugs, firearms…and human beings.’’ (10)

Transnational crime typically reduces state capacity further as criminals burrow into the social fabric of ungoverned areas. They wield corruption to gain protection for themselves and their activities and as a way to open new avenues for profit.(11) Contraband smuggling, counterfeiting, intellectual property theft, financial fraud, high-tech crime, narcotics trafficking and money laundering are a few more prominent activities closely linked to state weakness and ungoverned areas.

An example of the profits to be made is the thriving pirated software business in the TBA. This form of intellectual property theft constitutes an enormous source of funds for transnational criminal syndicates as well as terrorist groups. It is not difficult to see why. An American drug dealer would pay about $47,000 for a kilo of cocaine and then sell it on the street for approximately $94,000 to reap a 100 percent profit.(12) For the same outlay of $47,000, and substantially less risk, an intellectual property thief could buy 1,500 bootleg copies of a popular software program and resell them for a profit of 900 percent. Wholesale pirating and distributing of pirated software, music, DVDs and other intellectual property is one of the mainstays of the TBA trade flow. Its profitability is underscored by a 2001 Paraguayan police raid on the home of Hezbollah operative Sobhi Mahmoud Fayad in Ciudad Del Este. They recovered receipts showing that Fayad had recently sent more than $3.5 million dollars to Hezbollah. Authorities estimate that Fayad sent over $50 million to Hezbollah since 1995. (13)

Poorly governed states dominate both US and UN lists of major drug producing and transiting nations. More than 90% of global heroin comes from Afghanistan and is trafficked to Europe via poorly governed states in Central Asia or along the Balkan route that runs from Turkey through southeastern Europe. Myanmar is the second largest producer of opium and a key source of methamphetamine. Weak states are similarly over-represented among the worst offenders in human trafficking; an $8 billion business that moves 800,000 women and children across borders each year for forced labor or sexual slavery.(14)

Second, not all weak and failed states are afflicted with terrorism because few ungoverned areas are useful as terrorist safe havens. According to one historian ‘‘…in the 49 countries currently designated by the United Nations as the least developed hardly any terrorist activity occurs.’’ (15) Much of the terrorism that does occur is not transnational but self-contained and motivated by local political grievances, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), or national liberation struggles such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka.

Not all weak and failing states are equally attractive to terrorists. Conventional wisdom holds that collapsed, lawless countries like Somalia or Liberia are particularly vulnerable. However, terrorists are likely to find weak but functioning states like Pakistan or Kenya more desirable safe havens. Such states are failing, but not yet failed states. They are fragile and susceptible to corruption, but they also provide transnational crime syndicates and terrorist groups with easy access to the vital financial and logistical infrastructure of the global economy including communications, transportation, and banking services. (16)

Truly anarchic environments in ungoverned areas can pose insurmountable obstacles to terrorists. In the 1990s, Osama bin Laden assumed that lawless Somalia would provide an ideal operating base. When al-Qaeda operatives arrived there they were ignorant of the local culture, politics, and economics. They also underestimated the costs of operating in a non-functioning state. Al-Qaeda’s expeditionary operatives were quickly compromised and found themselves at the mercy of bandits and vulnerable to extortion by warlords. The country’s nearly complete absence of physical infrastructure presented logistical nightmares rendering it useless as a safe haven.(17)

And not all ungoverned areas are hospitable to terrorist groups. Recent successes by the Algerian government in the violent struggle with the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), formerly known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), has pushed the still violent factions of the group out of Algeria. This spillover of the conflict has led to the widely feared incursion of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups into the African Sahel. However, it has yet to result in significant inroads in the region. The extreme ideology of al-Qaeda has failed to resonate with the region’s population who practice a relatively moderate brand of Sufi Islam. Sufism is a benign and tolerant variant of Islam that is at odds with the virulently intolerant version embraced by al-Qaeda.(18) Despite weak governance, grinding poverty, vast un-policed territories and porous frontiers, the region has failed to emerge as the feared “next Afghanistan.”

Third, weak and failing states may be of declining importance to transnational terrorists. The al-Qaeda threat has evolved from a centrally directed network dependent on a ‘‘base’’ into a more diffuse global movement with autonomous cells in dozens of countries, poor and wealthy alike. The contemporary threat may stem less from state weakness in the Middle East than in the alienation of Muslim immigrants in Europe. Some analysts point out that the new safe havens are as likely to be the banlieues of Paris as the desolate Sahel or the slums of Karachi. (19)

Fourth, few places are actually ungoverned. In reality, where formal governance is lacking or breaks down localized or informal alternative governance often emerges. An ungoverned area is a place where the state or central government is unable or unwilling to extend control, effectively govern, or influence the local population. (20) They are areas where provincial, local, tribal, or autonomous government does not fully or effectively govern due to inadequate governance capacity, insufficient political will, gaps in legitimacy due to corruption and other legitimacy issues, the presence of conflict, or restrictive norms of behavior that condone illicit conduct and abjure compliance with central government authority.

Terrorists in ungoverned areas often seek to leverage the advantages provided by alternative political orders by brokering agreements with local leaders and entering into tactical alliances with illicit groups including drug traffickers, insurgents and smugglers. These alliances provide secure access to locations, transport, and communications beyond the reach of counter terrorism forces. The most durable and troubling alliances are built upon deep ethnic, linguistic, cultural, or political affinities. (21) In Pakistan’s FATA the state has failed but the stubborn, resistant tribal strain of Pashtun self-governance predates notions of a nation-state by centuries. This alternative form of governance has enabled al-Qaeda to defy American efforts to destroy it.

The group has recognized the need for support from local power brokers and the acquiescence of local inhabitants stemming from religious, ideological, and familial ties. To that end, al-Qaeda second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, married a woman from Bajaur and is believed to be hiding in that area. His marriage made him part of the fabric of tribal society and afforded him the protection and privileges of the tribe. In spite of substantial rewards on the heads of al-Qaeda leadership, little actionable intelligence has been forthcoming from sources in those areas. The need for support from local power brokers explains why so few of the world’s many poorly governed states, even in the Muslim world, have emerged as major sanctuaries for al-Qaeda.(22)

Evolving Al Qaeda Leadership Operating from Ungoverned Areas

A new breed of al-Qaeda top level commanders share three traits: they are young; they are American; and they operate from ungoverned areas. They include Adnan el Shukrijumah, the planner behind the Operation High Rise plot described above. A long-time resident of Florida in the U.S., Shukrijumah obtained a green card while living in America for more than 15 years. He is believed to also have conducted preoperational surveillance for an attack on the Panama Canal in April 2001. (23) Shukrijumah replaced captured 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammad as chief of al-Qaeda’s terror operations and is believed to be directing U.S. terrorist cells from Pakistan. (24)

American citizen Adam Gadahn, also hiding in Pakistan, urged U.S. Muslims in 2006 to attack military bases. He singled out California’s Marine Corp Camp Pendleton as a candidate for “a shooting spree.” Three years later, U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan went on a shooting spree at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas killing 13 and wounding 30. Gadahn, 31, is a California native who often acts as a spokesman for al-Qaeda. He has praised the Fort Hood shooting and urged more attacks like it.

American born Anwar Awlaki is al-Qaeda’s top recruiter of Western suicide bombers. He fled to Yemen in the days following the 9/11 attacks. Awlaki has recruited or radicalized countless homegrown terrorists and is believed to be connected to the last three major terrorist acts on U.S. soil; Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan; Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad; and Christmas Day underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab. Widely believed to be bin Laden’s heir, Awlaki has called on American Muslims to turn against their government and has justified killing American civilians. “Jihad against America is binding on every other (American) Muslim,” he said. Awlaki also boasts that more terror attacks will come “from within,” including within the American military.(25)

Samir Khan is a Saudi-born American citizen working in Yemen with Awlaki to target American audiences as al-Qaeda’s newest propagandist. Khan produces al-Qaeda’s slick Webzine “Inspire” targeting Western audiences. It provides aspiring jihadists step-by-step instructions in English on making bombs that can elude bomb-sniffing dogs.(26)

Omar Hammami, known by the nom de guerre Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, is an American-born member of the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab. A former Baptist convert to Islam, Hammami was raised in a suburb of Mobile, Alabama before joining al-Qaeda. At 25, he is a field commander in Somalia. His trainees include dozens of Somali college students in Minneapolis, Minnesota USA including Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalized U.S. citizen. Ahmed was among four people to carry out suicide attacks in Somalia in 2008 against the presidential palace, the United Nations compound and the Ethiopian Consulate. Hammami praised Ahmed as the “first American suicide bomber.”

Operating beyond the reach of U.S. counterterrorism authorities from ungoverned areas, this new cadre of al-Qaeda leaders targets the American Muslim community because they don’t fit the stereotypical “Arab terrorist” profile that Western counterterrorism forces have long feared. As many as three dozen U.S. converts are said to have gone through al-Qaeda training in Yemen where they’ve received Awlaki’s blessing for attacks.(27) Among them are blond-haired, blue-eyed jihadis that have long been sought by al-Qaeda recruiters because they can better avoid the scrutiny of Western counterterrorism authorities.


Many ungoverned areas face severe problems such as armed conflict, crushing poverty, chronic disease, pervasive corruption and lack of education. These conditions can create an atmosphere of hopelessness where extremist messages resonate, particularly among the young. The conditions that cause these humanitarian tragedies also can create breeding grounds for terrorism. However, the overlap between ungoverned areas and transnational threats is not clear-cut or universal. It depends on the type of threat, the specific sources of state weakness, the idiosyncrasies of the indigenous population and informal governance. (28)

Dealing with the threats posed by ungoverned areas is a formidable task. The sheer number of ungoverned areas in disparate locations and the anomalous and intractable problems endemic in each renders counterterrorism efforts difficult and costly. America’s multifaceted response is built on a foundation of improving indigenous counter terrorism capability and fostering cooperation among governments in the affected regions.

Examples of American efforts to counter this threat include the Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative; part of the recently formed United States Armed Forces Africa Command (AFRICOM). It mirrors the approach of AFRICOM’s Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa.(29) These efforts seek to strengthen regional counterterrorism capabilities, enhance and institutionalize cooperation among regional security forces and promote democratic governance. This approach integrates defense, diplomacy and development efforts to bolster security, alleviate acute development and humanitarian issues and foster long term solutions to these problems.

1. Eitan Azani, Hezbollah, a Global Terrorist Organization, Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation, Washington, DC, 2006.

2. George Tenet, Director of Central Intelligence Worldwide Threat Briefing, The Worldwide Threat in 2003: Evolving Dangers in a Complex World, Central Intelligence Agency, Speeches and Testimony, February 11, 2003; retrieved August 2010 from https://www.cia.gov/news-information/speeches-testimony/2003/dci_speech_02112003.html.

3. White House, National Security Strategy of the United States, September 2002; retrieved August 2010 from http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/nsc/nss/2002/.

4. Angel Rabasa, Steven Boraz, Peter Chalk, et al, Ungoverned Territories: Understanding and Reducing Terrorism Risks, (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2007), 32.

5. Renee Novakoff, “Islamic Terrorist Activities in Latin America: Why the Region and the US Should be Concerned”, Air & Space Power Journal International, retrieved February 2009 from http://www.airpower.au.af.mil/apjinternational/apj-s/2008/2tri08/novakoffeng.htm.

6. Matthew Levitt, Hezbollah: Financing Terror through Criminal Enterprise, Testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Washington, DC, May, 2005.

7. Mitchell Silber and Arvin Bhatt, Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat, (New York, NY: NYPD, 2007), 56.

8. Robert Lamb, Ungoverned Areas and Threats from Safe Havens! Final Report of the Ungoverned Areas Project, Prepared for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Washington, DC, 2008.

9. Phil Williams, “Transnational Criminal Enterprises, Conflict and Instability”, in Chester Crocker, Fen Hampson, and Pamela Aall (eds.) Turbulent Peace: The Challenges of Managing International Conflict, (Washington, DC 2001), 97-112.

10. UNODC, Why Fighting Crime can Assist Development in Africa: Rule of Law and Protection of the Most Vulnerable, United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, (Vienna: UNODC, 2005), 26.

11. Patrick Stewart, “Are ‘ungoverned Spaces’ a Threat?” Council on Foreign Relations,
January 2010; retrieved August 2010 from http://www.cfr.org/publication/21165/are_ungoverned_spaces_a_threat.html.

12. Dean Olson, “Financing Terror”, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Vol. 76, No. 2, (Washington, DC: FBI, February, 2007), 4.

13. Mark S. Steinitz, “Middle East Terrorist Activity in Latin America,” Policy Papers on the Americas, Vol. 24, Study 7, Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 2003.

14. Supra note 15, 28.

15. Walter Laqueur, No End to War: Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Continuum, 2003), 11.

16. Ken Menkhaus, “Somalia: State Collapse and the Threat of Terrorism,” Adelphi Paper No. 364 (2004); Greg Mills, “Africa’s New Strategic Significance,” The Washington Quarterly Vol. 27, No. 4 (Washington, DC 2004), 157–169.

17. Supra note 9.

18. Patrick Stewart, “Weak States and Global Threats: Fact or Fiction?” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 2, (Washington, DC 2006), 27-53.

19. Oliver Roy, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (London: Hurst, 2004), 128.

20. Supra note 4, xv.

21. Supra note 4, 18.

22. Stewart Patrick, “Are ‘Ungoverned Spaces’ a Threat?” Council on Foreign Relations,
retrieved January 2010 from http://www.cfr.org/publication/21165/are_ungoverned_spaces_a_threat.html.

23. Supra note 6.

24. Paul Sperry, “Under New American Management Al-Qaida Now Poses Inner Threat,” Investor’s Business Daily, 08/13/2010, retrieved August 2010 from http://www.investors.com/NewsAndAnalysis/ArticlePrint.aspx?id=543760.

25. Cynthia Johnston, Yemen Preacher urges Jihad on United States: Tape, Reuters, March 18, 2010, retrieved August 2010 from http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE62H1VK20100318.

26. Supra note 9.

27. Supra note 9.

28. Patrick Stewart, “Failed States and Global Security: Empirical Questions and Policy Dilemmas” International Studies Review, Vol. 9, No. 4, (Winter 2007), 644–662.

29. Global Security, Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative [TSCTI], retrieved August 2010 from http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/tscti.htm.

Captain Dean T Olson

Captain Dean T. Olson formerly commanded the Criminal Investigation Bureau of an American law enforcement agency, including the agency’s participation in the regional Federal Bureau of Investigation, Joint Terrorism Task Force. He retired in 2008 after 30 years of law enforcement service. He earned a BS in Criminal Justice and a Masters Degree in Public Administration (MPA) from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He also earned a Master of Arts Degree in Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School, Center for Homeland Defense and Security in Monterey, CA. He is a graduate of the 193rd Session of the FBI National Academy and is adjunct professor of Criminal Justice for several Midwestern universities. He has travelled extensively in the Middle East and Muslim lands and he is the author of "Perfect Enemy: The Law Enforcement Manual of Islamist Terrorism," (October 2009) Charles C. Thomas Publishing, Springfield, IL. He is currently completing his second book, "Tactical Counterterrorism: The Law Enforcement Manual of Terrorism Prevention" scheduled for publication October 2011 by Charles C. Thomas Publishing. His areas of expertise include terrorism financing, risk management in suicide/homicide terrorism prevention, agroterrorism, threat assessment of domestic radical groups at risk of escalation to terrorism and Islamist terrorism.

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