[Candyce Kelshall] Breaking the World: Violent Transnational Social Movements?

The creation of a new world system, not a change in the current system is arguably the agenda behind the rise in transnational terrorist threats. The fact that groups like Al-Shabab, Boko Haram and ISIL persist despite degradation attempts might indicate that our approach is based on an outdated definition of these organisations.

Hitler was not referred to as a terrorist. He was considered a threat to the Westphalian system. He broke the rules of the International system, ignored state boundaries and limitations. He operated OUTSIDE of convention and OUTSIDE the parameters of the International system, in order to create and populate a new world. It could be argued that transnational terrorist groups such as ISIL and Boko Haram are doing exactly the same. They are seemingly exterminating those who do not FIT into their new system. They invade states and violate borders in order to spread their ideology. There is also another commonality in the structure of the threat. This commonality is arguably the key to unravelling these organisations.

The possibility should be considered that these groups do not fit the category of terrorist, and yet we refer to and fight them as such. Terrorist groups are single purpose, political units who use violence to achieve an objective. They operate WITHIN an existing system seeking to CHANGE that system, hence their revolutionary nature. Their terrorist nature is based on the fact that the change they desire may become possible, by creating fear and intimidation, designed to deter actors within the state structure, or government, from pursuing set courses of action. Current violent transnational threats do not conform to this pattern of behaviour and yet we persist in defining them using these parameters. We also persist in trying to address them, using methods which are proven to work, within state based paradigms. Arguably this is one of the reasons why groups such as Al Qaeda persist despite the might and power of the most technologically advanced militaries, pursuing them for over a decade.

Western states and arguably the state based system as a whole, is configured to respond to threats which occur along recognisable patterns, operating WITHIN the state system. The International state system is well equipped, both tactically and strategically, to deal with state on state threats as well as non-state actors. International law and the rules of the Westphalian state system, govern how states respond to state threats to their territory, and sovereignty.

Violent Non state actors, those using illegal force, challenge the state‘s authority on matters occurring within state borders. They aim to change the way the state addresses social and political issues and use force and violence to achieve recognition for these objectives. Transnational terrorist organisations, however, conform to neither of these descriptions. Because they operate outside of our understanding of the state and the state system, they need to CREATE a new system in which they can function. Their aim is not to change the system but to break the system, and create a new one.


It is possible that incorrect definitions lead to incorrect policy and poor results. In fact it could be argued that the results of traditional attempts to deal with current security threats might actually enable and worsen the threat by lengthening their life span. Current security responses to threats of this nature, may also act as recruiting tools which widen the catchment of these organisations.


It would seem that the methods applied by these groups befuddle the state system. The aim of these groups is not to change the way states behave but rather, to change the very nature of the states themselves and the way states relate to each other. Threats which do not conform to expectations, arguably, leave the liberal Westphalian system, effectively defenceless, as state responses are designed to deal with the known, the familiar and the ‘already existing’. There is a variety of conventional and asymmetric force multipliers available in the arsenal of state response to deal with ‘already known’ threats, however, dealing with transnational terrorist groups which may not be traditional terrorist groups, as we know them, arguably requires the ability to respond, using non-traditional solutions. Fighting the unplanned for, and unknown, means using the only available means. The growth of the threat, indicates that the methods being applied are arguably, not effective. The effect of this inability to deal with the unexpected, allows transnational terrorist agendas, the space to take root and spread, in equal measure, in the face of systemic ad hoc and knee jerk responses. Their legitimacy and spread increases daily despite concerted effort. A new approach may be indicated, rather than more of them same. Arguably it is’ more of the same,’ which created the problem.


Transnational ‘terrorist groups’ might therefore be considered social movements which generate global polity around a central idea. Carpenter’s concept of Transnational advocacy networks might shed some light on how these groups develop. Multiple groups with similar ideas align themselves with each other, focusing on different aspects of the same issue. They promote and recruit through shared ideas and values. They are made up of individuals who have no desire to change the current system but instead, wish to create a NEW one. Somali pirates, who are enjoying a recent resurgence in attacks are a classic example. While they are not one homogenous group they arguably, individually, operate along similar structural design as groups such as Boko Haram, ISIL, Al Shabaab and most Transnational organised criminal organisations. While acknowledging the difference in fields of operation between these groups, the important element to consider, is the commonality in structure. They share ideas and methods but need not necessarily communicate as their goals are the same, while the method and beliefs may vary. This commonality in ‘structure’- the non-existence of structure, due to their social makeup, is what enables these groups to flourish, expand and grow, even in the face of active degradation efforts which are rooted in third and fourth generation tactics. These groups, while socially unstructured are functionally defined.


The first four generations of warfare have all been focused on territorial objectives. These include either conquering an enemy to gain or hold territory and are state based either for prestige purposes or political purposes. First generation warfare was fought in lines and columns. Second generation warfare developed the concept of fire and movement. Third generation warfare included defence in depth and infiltration. Fourth generation warfare seeks to overthrow an established state government through insurgency or other violent actions. It seeks to create change IN the state. 4G warfare is asymmetric in nature but has specific state or territorial control objectives.

Fifth generation warfare has no single, state objective. Its methods are hybrid (both conventional and asymmetric) and its decentralised, polycentric and segmentary nature enables buy in from multiple social and national groups along loosely defined agendas or ideology. It can be all things to all, who share any aspect of its central interest. Fifth generation warfare is both functional and regional in nature. 5G warfare is a misnomer however. The social nature of the organisations and its root in social polity via the internet and social mobility means that any warfare conducted against these groups strengthens its numbers. Group members don’t have to agree with all the ideas or fight for all the objectives, in the same roles as other members, they just have to believe in an aspect or some aspects of the fight. In this way there are multiple segments of the organisation with different specialisations and abilities all working toward and sharing one general idea or objective.

They are hybrid in nature in that they operate as terrorists using asymmetrical warfare but they also have conventional defence and offensive, standing armies. Their expansion into multiple territories is relentless because their transnational nature implies a lack of recognition and an inconsideration of state limitations. Violent Transnational social movements are able to flourish because state responses end at state borders. Where this occurs these groups adapt and shift efforts accordingly.

State response is therefore ineffective in dealing with these organisations since state response is based on the individual national interests of states. These vary and therefore the joined up efforts needed to combat transnational groups are dependent on individual political will, state finances and national social polity. Wheras, transnational groups have one interest –their own broad agenda. By virtue of their transnational makeup, their agendas have no state borders and consequently no end to their horizon. Adnani the spokesman for ISIL has already declared that it is ready to redraw the world upon the prophetic methodology of the caliphate. “Our goal is to establish an Islamic state which does not recognise borders.” In light of such objectives and the ease of recruitment via social polity, which enables the massive multi-national membership of violent transnational social movements, it is imperative that we begin thinking differently about dealing with these threats. Guns cannot kill ideas. Guns strengthen ideas. The death of one ideologue creates 100 more fighters for the cause. The solution, arguably does not lie in our current tactical approach. Cutting off the head, by drone, only multiplies the enemy.

Featured Image: The Whirling Blog (http://www.thewhirlingblog.com/2012/08/12/positive-outlook-lets-all-be-a-little-courageous/)

FIFTH GENERATION WARFARE terrorism Violent Transnational

Originally published at www.bisconia.com on April 20, 2015.