Preparing for Complex Conflicts

By Dr. Robert D. Lamb & Melissa R. Gregg1

(Re-published from US Institute of Peace Fragility Study Group Policy Brief No. 7 | October 2016) The United States and its partners have not been unambiguously successful in most of the conflicts they have been engaged in since 9/11. In some cases, conflicts that had seemed settled erupted again under different guises. Combatants that had appeared defeated emerged under different names. Partners that had seemed reliable turned out to have different agendas. Successful operations have rarely led to strategic success. In short, tactics, alliances, motives, and players shift so quickly now that existing analytic “conflict lenses” sometimes make today’s conflicts look more kaleidoscopic than focused – shift your perspective just a little and the whole picture seems to change.2

“We consider a conflict to be complex if it involves more than two sets of direct combatants, uncertain or unstable alliances between them, fragmentation within at least one of them, involvement by external supporters who themselves are global competitors, and opacity in the motivations and objectives of at least one major combatant group.”

In the face of this complexity, how should the U.S. government organize and position itself to protect its interests and contribute to a stable international order in the future? Some scholars and practitioners have suggested the answer lies in finding ways to be more adaptive and innovative – more like startups and venture capitalists than government bureaucracies.

But what does that mean in practice? What are the systemic challenges the United States would need to overcome to prepare adequately for conflicts that realistically are not likely to be susceptible to normal planning?

Conflicts as Complex Systems

This policy brief – based on a year of research, including a literature search, expert consultations, a focus group, and a simulation exercise3 – addresses these questions and recommends some experiments and investments that can be made early in the next administration to position U.S. institutions for the longer-term reforms that will be needed to engage more intelligently and strategically with complex conflicts (at all stages) in the future.

Evidence is accumulating that conflicts are increasing in complexity (even as they are arguably decreasing in number). Today’s wars tend to involve more uncertainty, more volatility, and more actors with domestic, regional, or international affiliations. Parties to conflict are increasingly likely to be highly fragmented, use interconnected social networks (proximate or distant), and engage in competitive alliances out of expediency or necessity, rather than ideological alignment, trust, or a desire for power sharing. Even after rates of violence fall, the instability of these alliances can increase the likelihood of conflict recurrence and disrupt the transition to peace. In complex wars, it can be unclear what winning might even look like.4

Fragility has a similar complexity. The “absence or breakdown of a social contract between people and their government,” as the Fragility Study Group defines the term,5 is generally reflected in a lack of consensus over the system of governance that different populations within a defined territory would consider legitimate. When a governance system suffers from “deficits of institutional capacity and political legitimacy that increase the risk of instability and violent conflict and sap the state of its resilience to disruptive shocks,”6 the result is that different political groupings find ways to fend for themselves – allying with other groups when convenient, competing with others for resources and influence, carving out their own safe spaces where possible, partnering with outside patrons when necessary, and communicating different narratives to different audiences to maximize whatever benefit can be achieved. In a sense, fragility is a complex conflict that has not yet turned violent.

“Conflict systems are like ecological, electrical, and biological systems. They absorb inputs that can change the status of the system and generate outputs.”

For the sake of this brief, we consider a conflict to be complex if it involves more than two sets of direct combatants, uncertain or unstable alliances between them, fragmentation within at least one of them, involvement by external supporters who themselves are global competitors, and opacity in the motivations and objectives of at least one major combatant group. Fragile environments are complex if, instead of combatants, politically significant population groups interact with similar degrees of uncertainty, instability, and opacity. More formally, we consider fragile and conflict environments to be systems, and complex ones to be complex systems.

Conflict systems are like ecological, electrical, and biological systems. They absorb inputs that can change the status of the system and generate outputs. In conflict systems, inputs can include weapons, money, recruits, knowledge, diplomatic cover, and other resources that come from outside the system. Status variables, which measure overall changes in the system, can include levels or types of violence, control of territory, changes in power and legitimacy, and other dynamics of concern. Outputs can be whichever status variable is of greatest interest – for example, which combatant controls the most territory, or how many civilians are being killed – or can include externalities such as refugee flows, the risk of uncontrolled disease outbreaks, or geopolitical tensions that spill over beyond the conflict.7

To understand complex systems, it helps to learn how different factors (variables) affect each other and how their interactions affect the outcomes of interest (i.e., status and outputs).8 In other words, it helps to understand the components of the system and the linkages between them. In conflicts, components can include combatants, legitimacy, finances, resentment, extremism, social networks, rumor, population subgroups, territory, and anything else that affects the conflict. The linkages between these components can be simple, as in a transfer of funds that increases the resources available to purchase weapons. Linkages can also be very complicated. Complications can include negative feedback loops (which counteract the effects of certain inputs), positive feedback loops (which exponentially amplify outcomes), multiple causality (in which one variable is affected by a lot of different variables in a lot of different ways), and delays between causes and effects.

Because of these complex internal dynamics, inputs can create cascades of effects (second- and third-order or higher) that make it extremely hard to predict what effects they ultimately will have. Large inputs can have no discernible effect. Small inputs can sometimes have very large effects. Multiple inputs can increase a system’s unpredictability exponentially. In short, anything one does in a complex conflict can have unexpected consequences – or none at all …

Read the full report here.

Bob Lamb is a visiting research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College and an adviser on strategy and policy through his consultancy, RD Lamb LLC. Melissa R. Gregg is a Ph.D. student in criminology at Simon Fraser University with a research focus on international criminal law and violence against women.

The Fragility Study Group (FSG)  is an independent, non-partisan, effort of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Center for a New American Security, and INSCT collaborator the United States Institute of Peace. INSCT Faculty Member David Crane is an FSG Senior Advisor. The chair report of the study group, U.S. Leadership and the Challenge of State Fragility, may be accessed here.

This brief is part of a series authored by scholars from the three institutions and others who advised the effort, that build on the chair report to discuss the implications of fragility on existing U.S. tools, strategic interests, and challenges. The complete list of policy briefs may be accessed here.


1 Bob Lamb and Melissa R. Gregg are advisers to the International Peace and Security Institute (IPSI), an applied-research and experiential training organization based in Washington, D.C., through which much of the research for this project was carried out. This policy brief is a preview of a longer monograph being prepared by the authors and others. The authors would like to thank Kevin Melton for his collaboration on this research as director of IPSI’s Kaleidoscopic Conflict Project.
2  David Crane, a lawyer and international prosecutor whose research is focusing on a potential war-crimes case against Bashar Assad, coined the term “kaleidoscopic conflict” to describe the complex war in Syria and the likely trajectory of warfare in the future. The authors are grateful to him for initiating the project through which this research was undertaken. 
3 References for evidence presented in this paper will be provided in the authors’ forthcoming monograph.
4 For example, the Syrian regime and the Islamic State group are fighting each other. The United States opposes both, so it supports, for example, Kurdish fighters, who also oppose both. But it also supports a regional power that opposes both the Islamic State group and the Kurds – and it is therefore only a slight exaggeration to argue that almost anything the United States does in the Syrian war can
end up both supporting and opposing its adversaries and opposing and supporting its partners.
5 William J. Burns, Michèle A. Flournoy, and Nancy E. Lindborg, “Fragility Study Group: U.S. Leadership and the Challenge of State Fragility” (United States Institute of Peace, Center for a New American Security, and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 2016).
6 Ibid.
7 Whether any particular variable is considered an output or a status depends mainly on what questions are being asked about the system and how it is being modeled. Status variables are usually called “state” variables by scholars, but status is used here because, among policymakers, “state” generally implies a political unit in the international system (e.g., “fragile states”) and the authors want to strongly encourage readers not to think of conflict systems as being coextensive with (political) state borders. A good introduction to complex systems in the context of conflicts is Giorgio Gallo, “Conflict Theory, Complexity and Systems Approach,” Systems Research
and Behavioral Science, 30 no. 2 (2013), 156–175. For a discussion of the “standard approach” to modeling complex systems, see James Lyneis and James Hines, “The Standard Method for System Dynamics Modeling,” Worcester Polytechnic Institute, class handout for SD554 Real World System Dynamics, Spring 2007.
8 System dynamics modeling, political economy analysis, control (or cybernetic) theory, and design thinking are all useful approaches to understanding complex systems and identifying paths through them to achieve some future objective.

It’s Time to Drop Preconditions & Re-Open Talks with North Korea

By Frederick F. Carriere, Louis Kriesberg, & Stuart J. Thorson

North Korea’s demonstrations of the ever-improving effectiveness of its nuclear weapons capabilities—including its fifth and most powerful nuclear test last month—are gravely dangerous.  Too readily, they can result in devastating military actions.  While both candidates for US president have rightly denounced such a show of force, neither has offered a plan to steer us off the current course toward escalation. Now is the time, during the presidential campaigns, to propose and discuss more effective policies.

“The US should undertake exploratory indirect and direct talks with North Korea immediately, with the goal of laying the foundation for serious and successful negotiations following the inauguration of the next US president.”

Alternatives to the long-failed US policy to reverse North Korea’s nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs need to be developed.  While both US policymakers and the candidates alike seem to compete to be tougher in dealing with North Korea, North Korea has steadily improved its nuclear weapons and missile capabilities. Yet, complex negotiations in the mid-1990s produced the Agreed Framework and halted North Korean weapon development for a time. Unfortunately, President George W. Bush brushed the progress aside and named North Korea as one of the three countries in the Axis of Evil, which entailed severe demands, sanctions and threats. These policies have essentially continued to this day.

A more creative and plausible strategy would be to reassure North Korea that its existence would not be threatened if it ceased to rely on nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.  In reality, neither the neighboring governments nor the US government should want a sudden collapse of North Korea.  That would result in the potential loss of control over nuclear weapons, factional fighting or even civil war within North Korea, massive refugee flows and huge economic costs for South Korea.

Tough sanctions when joined with tangible benefits of interest to North Korea might result in a desired shift.  The Iran and the P5+1 deal was achieved by tough sanctions but combined together with recognizing Iran’s right to develop peaceful nuclear programs, and by excluding numerous other issues of contention from the negotiations.  The negotiations leading to a comprehensive plan for reversing the Iranian nuclear weapons took years, but began with exploratory conversations between high level Iranians and some aides in Barack Obama’s election campaign, before he became president. The lessons learned in negotiating the Iran deal need to be applied to North Korea.

In a parallel way, the US should undertake exploratory indirect and direct talks with North Korea immediately, with the goal of laying the foundation for serious and successful negotiations following the inauguration of the next US president.  To start, the US should drop all preconditions for restarting talks with North Korea, including demands for prior steps of denuclearization by North Korea.  Also, the US should get the ROK on board and then announce a cessation in the US-ROK joint military exercises with a review in 18 months.  This would be a belated, if unspoken, positive response to the DPRK offer of last spring.

The denuclearization of the Korean peninsula depends on the sequence of steps taken to achieve it. Given its enormous power advantage, the US should take the initial step.  Most critically, these US initiatives would provide time for serious US-DPRK negotiations on concrete steps such as nonaggression pacts and freezes to take place. If, however, no progress is made, a return to the status quo ante is still possible.

Public discussions of an alternative North Korea policy that has a better chance of producing security for the United States, its allies, and other parties in the Asia-Pacific region should begin now.

Frederick Carriere is Research Professor of Political Science in Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. He has worked on issues involving the Two Koreas for nearly five decades, in his current positons and his previous positions as Executive Director of the Fulbright Program in South Korea and Executive Vice President of The Korea Society in New York City. He has extensive experience with Track II meetings as well as educational and cultural exchanges between the US and North Korea.

Louis Kriesberg is Maxwell Professor Emeritus of Social Conflict Studies and the founding director of the Program on the Analysis and Resolution of Conflicts, at Syracuse University.  He has published numerous works in the field of conflict resolution, including Realizing Peace: a Constructive Conflict Approach.

Stuart Thorson is Donald P. and Margaret Curry Gregg Professor Emeritus in Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. He has co-edited two books on conflict resolution and numerous articles and book chapters in the areas of foreign policy, decision-making, computer modeling, and democratic theory. Thorson is a founding member of the National Committee on North Korea and the US-DPRK Scientific Engagement Consortium.

Running for Cover: SU Syria Conference Welcomes Experts From Around the World

Running for Cover event stirs a day of thoughtful discussion and debate about Syrian conflict, media, politics

(Re-published from Newhouse Center for Global Engagement | Oct. 11, 2016) The Newhouse Center for Global Engagement hosted a daylong event Oct. 6 to examine accountability in the Syrian Conflict. “Running for Cover: Politics, Justice and Media in the Syrian Conflict” brought together expert panelists from around the world and stirred a day of dialogue in the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium at Newhouse.

“This is no doubt the humanitarian and political crisis of our generation.”

“The Geopolitical Situation in Syria”


  • Lamis Abdelaaty, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Maxwell School
  • Bassam al-Ahmad, Executive Director, Syrians for Truth and Justice
  • William Banks, Director, Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism
  • Mehrzad Boroujerdi, Chair of Political Science, Maxwell School
  • Sherine Tadros, Representative and Head of New York (UN) Office, Amnesty International

running_for_cover_100616Professor Ken Harper opened the event by calling attention to the photos of people affected by the Syrian Conflict, displayed inside and at the entrance to the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium, which were provided by Pictures of the Year International.

“I wanted to make sure we’re surrounded by the faces of those being affected,” he said. “Everything we’re doing (with this event) is out of respect for those who are suffering.”

Panelists used the discussion to put the conflict in an historical context, look at the international response to events and begin to explore possible solutions. “This is no doubt the humanitarian and political crisis of our generation,” said Sherine Tadros, who facilitated the panel. “Four hundred thousand people have been killed—including at least 15,000 children.” But, Tadros added, “We hear so much about Syria that it’s almost difficult to be shocked anymore.”

Panelists discussed military interventions and the hurdles to a diplomatic solution in Syria, stemming in part from the differing goals and motivations of the many players involved—including Russia, the Islamic State, the Kurds, the U.S. and others. “This war may last another 10 years,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi.

Boroujerdi said he feels the common portrayal of the conflict—freedom fighters versus a single dictator—is “the wrong narrative.” He also warned that removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power would not be a simple solution. “He may be a dictator, but he’s a dictator with a social base.” Bassam al-Ahmad said dividing the country would also be questionable, given the diversity of the people, but that he believes decentralization may be an answer.

Tadros said that while many are pushing for a no-fly zone, she fears the ramifications of this approach. “It sounds very good: let’s ground all flights and then no one will bomb Syria,” she said. “But then you’d have to enforce that. And in the process of enforcing it, you’d essentially be starting a world war … It’s a huge escalation. And there is a theory that you have to escalate the situation to deescalate it, but many people will die if a no-fly zone is imposed.”

Panelists also discussed Syrian refugees, noting that while the world only seemed to take notice once refugees started arriving in Europe, the crisis had already been ongoing in the Middle East. “The real refugee crisis is in Syria’s neighboring countries,” said Lamis Abdelaaty, noting that Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have the largest population of Syrian refugees, and that less than 10 percent have gone to Europe. Tadros said the idea of a refugee crisis in Europe comes not from the numbers of people seeking shelter there, but from the unwillingness of many EU countries to cooperate in terms of burden-sharing. Abdelaaty pointed out that the future of Syria is being jeopardized by the vast numbers of children in refugee camps who are missing out on an education.

—Wendy Loughlin

“Accountability for Atrocity”


  • Bill Wiley, Executive Director, Commission for International Justice and Accountability
  • Radwan Ziadeh, Senior Analyst, Arab Center Washington, D.C., and Founder and Director, Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies
  • David Crane, Founding Director, Syrian Accountability Project, Syracuse Law

Few will dispute that horrific crimes are being committed every day in Syria. But in times of war, when the normalcies of life and society are thrown into chaos, who is held accountable for their crimes—big or small?

During the “Accountability for Atrocity” panel, Syracuse University College of Law professor David M. Crane said investigators will construct a crime map to document and track verifiable incidents. That type of work is being done by organizations such as the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, founded by Bill Wiley, one of the other panelists.

Wiley said his organization tracks crimes and builds what he calls a “structure” of people to lay out a chain of responsibility. In a situation like Syria, Wiley said his commission would not start with a target like Presiden Bashar al-Assad since he has likely not committed the actual crime.

“It would be beneath them to dirty their hands,” he said. But they are responsible for the crimes because they happen on their watch. Through the gathering of facts and documenting power structures, Wiley and the commission can connect high-level individuals to low-level acts.

Panelist and Syrian Radwan Ziadeh seemed to express his country’s frustration in the lack of accountability for years of atrocities. Ziadeh, a senior analyst at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C., compared the world’s refusal to intervene in Syria to the lack of attention paid to the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s, when millions of people died at the hands of the country’s leader.

Crane encouraged the audience to continue talking about Syria.

“You don’t have to go out and save the world,” he said. “Lead a discussion over coffee. Be aware. Everyone in this room can do something.”

—Emily Kulkus

  • To read the entire blog, click here.
  • To read SU Chancellor Kent Syverud’s “Bleeding Orange” blog on the #SUSyria conference, click here.


Public Health as Foreign Policy: Trauma in the Arab World

By Ryan Suto (MS/MAIR/JD ’13)

(Re-published from LobeLog | Oct. 7, 2016) If Washington wants to decrease volatility and violence in the Arab region, US foreign policy must advocate for the treatment of conflict-related mental health issues among Arab publics.

In the months after the outbreak of the Arab Spring protests in early 2011, President Barack Obama emphasized that the United States will continue to pursue core interests and principles, including opposing “the use of violence and repression” and “safe-guarding the security of the region.” Since that time, war, civil conflict, and political upheaval have spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

“These findings suggest that PTSD and other trauma-related mental health issues resulting from widespread conflict are, and will be, a public health crisis in the Arab world.”

Rather than arming specific groups or continuing to sell arms to repressive regimes, US foreign policy would be better served by more long-term, holistic approaches to combating violence and promoting security. One such approach would be mental-health advocacy.

At home, the United States is beginning to understand the importance of mental health: President Obama has several times allocated funds to bolster mental-health access and treatment in the United States—notably during his push to end gun violence, and again during his push to curb the opioid abuse epidemic in the country. Congress is currently considering over a dozen domestic mental-health-related pieces of legislation. Although the federal government has found that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) “is associated with an increased risk of violence,” no such connection has been made within foreign policy.

PTSD is the most common mental health issue resulting from episodes of combat, social upheaval, and violence found throughout many Arab countries. Although life-long PTSD is best predicted by the number of traumatic events experienced, trauma can result from violence, recurring memories, displacement, and ubiquitous fear. Using examples from around the world can be illustrative: During conflict in Burundi, war-related psychological distress was found in 44% of individuals studied during conflict and 29% two years after conflict, whereas 57% of Ugandan students exhibited “clinically significant” levels of PTSD four years after the end of war. In East Timor, grief and a sense of injustice “exerted a considerable effect on PTSD symptoms” among those studied. Researchers in Guatemala, meanwhile, found that community social psychology is important to understanding political and economic community development. Each conflict and cultural context produce different symptoms in victims, which vary in responses to trauma, requiring treatment to be as locally tailored as possible.

These findings suggest that PTSD and other trauma-related mental health issues resulting from widespread conflict are, and will be, a public health crisis in the Arab world. In Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon contemporary violence and conflict pre-date the Arab Spring. In Syria, Yemen, and Libya, the tumult of 2011 rages on as civil war. In Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and elsewhere, the aftermath of political repression has been neither fully addressed nor resolved. Large portions of these communities have survived torture, witnessed murder, experienced political or religious oppression or discrimination, or have been displaced, abused, or exposed to traumatic violence. In what is undoubtedly the direst example from the Arab world, 45% of Syrian refugee children studied display symptoms of PTSD, 44% depression, 25% daily psychosomatic pains, and 20% daily headaches. Despite these limited studies, a vast majority of cases of trauma in the Arab world will go undiagnosed and untreated. Trauma among Arabs will have long-term consequences for both individuals and communities throughout the region for generations …

To read the full blog, click here.

INSCT alumnus Ryan J. Suto (MS/MAIR/JD ’13) is a writer on the United States and the Middle East. He graduated from Syracuse University’s Law and Public Diplomacy program, where he received certificates of advanced study in Middle Eastern affairs, international law, and postconflict reconstruction.

Running for Cover: We Must Recognize the Critical Role Reporters Play in Syria & Other Conflict Zones

By David M. Crane

(Re-published from The Huffington Post | Oct. 6, 2016) September 2016 marks 70 years since the conclusion of the Nuremberg Trials and the sentencing of Nazi personnel most responsible for the deaths of millions before and during World War II. As Immediate Past Chair of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamesville, NY, and a former Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court of Sierra Leone, recently I attended the 10th International Humanitarian Law Dialogs in Nuremberg, Germany, to mark this anniversary and to remember the legacy of this groundbreaking example of international criminal procedure and transitional justice.

“At Nuremberg I was reminded of the critical role journalists play during conflict and in postconflict justice.”

At Nuremberg I was reminded of the critical role journalists play during conflict and in postconflict justice, by bringing to light war crimes and crimes against humanity and by providing international prosecutors with information to help build cases against those who believe that war offers impunity from the law. In the case of World War II, the conscience of the world was shocked by the photographs of concentration camp victims taken by Margaret Bourke-White and by the word-pictures painted by radio reporters such as Edward R. Murrow and Larry LeSueur. Later, testimony from concentration camp survivors, as well as film and photographs, was used in the Nuremberg Trials as evidence of Nazi atrocities.

The importance of journalism during and after conflict has not diminished any since 1946. Today, my focus is on the Syrian Civil War and on two initiatives begun at Syracuse University College of Law. Both the Syrian Accountability Project (SAP) and Impunity Watch work to account for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by all sides of the conflict and to pressure the international community to plan for some form of postconflict justice mechanism.

My work and that of my students relies heavily on accurate reporting on the ground in Syria, whether it’s to help build a “crime matrix” that might be used by a future international prosecutor or to inform the public of the suffering of ordinary Syrian citizens. We rely on both professional journalists working for the few traditional news agencies left in Syria, such as Reuters and the BBC, as well as independent reporters and citizen journalists, whose outlets might be less familiar: Women Under Seige, World Crunch, or Bellingcat.

The dangers reporters are facing in Syria are getting worse. Syria has always been one the most challenging countries in the world for journalists. Now it could be considered the most dangerous story to cover. Atrocities against journalists in the civil war range from the high profile beheadings of James Foley and Stephen Sotloff, to reporters—such as Marie Colvin of the Times of London—being caught in indiscriminate bombing, to kidnappings, to threats and intimidation against journalists and ordinary citizens trying to document their lives.

What are the consequences for a conflict when journalists are targeted, threatened, attacked, or killed? Some answers readily come to mind. Large news organizations tend to reduce or even end coverage. Less news from this region leads to a diminishment of the conflict in the public’s mind, and therefore less pressure on governments to bring hostilities to a peaceful end. The news vacuum is often filled by propaganda.

Independent reporters are doing their best under extreme conditions, but their images and stories are lost in white noise, especially in a US presidential election year. Sometimes an image from Syria that shocks the conscience does resonate. Recently, a CNN anchor broke down in tears when she reported on Omran Daqneesh, the little boy covered in blood and dust sitting in an ambulance after a bombing attack on Aleppo. This iconic photo was taken by Mahmoud Raslan, a photographer for a small start-up news agency, the Aleppo Media Center. It’s as powerful a photo as that of Phan Thị Kim Phúc running from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War.

Yet how quickly the photograph of Daqneesh was forgotten as the US news cycle ground on relentlessly …

To read the complete article, click here.



Preserve Social Media Data to Ensure Justice for Syrian People

By David M. Crane & Jennifer M. Grygiel

(Republished from | Oct. 3, 2016) Social media has taken the world by storm. Platforms and the prevalence of mobile phones have changed the culture of how we connect to the Internet and each other. How we view the world. What we see. And for many is now a part of our everyday being.

“Buried within this tsunami of information is possible criminal information that can be used as evidence to prosecute domestic or international crimes.”

Real-time connectivity and access to information is now the norm. We don’t just connect to our friends and family; we are connected to people around the world. We are world citizens communicating via binary code — the universal language that our machines speak in.

The web has opened up places that would be closed to us otherwise. We have newfound access and the ability to see into the dark corners of the world where conflict and impunity reign. We are able to gain knowledge but also bear witness to crimes against humanity, suffering and tragedy. Social media in particular has shed light on what is happening in South Sudan, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Colombia, Myanmar and Venezuela. Atrocities are more difficult to cover up and hide when citizens have the ability to document and publish the truth via social media.

Since March 2011, during the Arab Spring, the people of Syria began their long march to freedom down an uncertain road. Information began to flow out of the country slowly at first, then as a torrent of data. The data is collected daily by the media, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), governments, citizens as well as authoritarian regimes. Almost all of it raw, unverified and void of authenticity. The sheer volume of data creates challenges.

Buried within this tsunami of information is possible criminal information that can be used as evidence to prosecute domestic or international crimes. Organizations that are working to collect and utilize this data are overwhelmed by the volume, analysis and technology limitations …

To read the whole commentary, click here.

INSCT Faculty Member David M. Crane is a law professor at Syracuse University College of Law. He is an expert in war crimes. Jennifer M. Grygiel is assistant professor of communications/social media at SU’s Newhouse School of Public Communications.

The Al-Qaeda Franchise: The Expansion of Al-Qaeda & Its Consequences

By Isaac Kfir

Review of The Al-Qaeda Franchise: The Expansion of Al-Qaeda & Its Consequences by Barak Mendelsohn (Oxford, 2016)

In The Al-Qaeda Franchise, Barak Mendelsohn offers an interesting view of al-Qaeda’s strategy over the last decade, specifically what he describes as its franchising strategy. The book, with a rather ambitious thesis, assesses how this franchising strategy impacted the organization and in doing so makes some suggestions to policymakers as to how they should devise a counterterrorism strategy. In making this argument, Mendelsohn seeks to show that the franchising strategy has not made al-Qaeda more dangerous nor stronger, but rather has weakened it, as it has had to adapt to local conditions and demands.

“Mendelsohn’s argument is that although in 2003 and 2004 when policymakers looked at al-Qaeda’s operation in Saudi Arabia and Iraq and saw an organization they thought was strong, in fact it was far from that. “

The book has two principal sections. The first, which is far more interesting, lays out the theoretical framework, whereas the second part, chapters 6 to 9, provides case studies to support Mendelsohn’s theoretical exposition.

The author’s theoretical framework is effectively a typology of formal organizational expansion, where he distinguishes between absorption, branching out, unification, and umbrella groups (each is given its own chapter later on in the book, though the main focus of the book is with the branching out strategy). These approaches to expansion are distinct, and although there may be some overlap, by his focusing on the type of expansion, insight emerges as to the objective of the organization and the threat they pose. Such an approach could be enormously useful for policymakers as they struggle with various counterterrorism policies.

In discussing the various expansion strategies, Mendelsohn correctly asserts that organizational expansion operates at a higher level than operational adaptation in that the former demands a willingness to accept structural changes, whereas the latter focuses mainly on tactics. In laying out this basic premise, Mendelsohn provides support to those who argue that al-Qaeda’s ideology is not merely theological, emphasizing a need for strict adherence, but rather is flexible. Put differently, instead of seeing al-Qaeda as an uncompromising, dogmatic terror group, Mendelsohn sees it as a rational actor, committed to expanding its influence even if it is at the cost of its theological cohesion.

To understand the expansion strategy, particularly when it comes to branching out, there is a need to consider what Mendelsohn calls the actors-based perspective and the arena-based perspective. The former essentially refers to psychological elements that impact upon the group and its leaders. The latter has three considerations. First, ideational values. This means that an arena becomes attractive to a group not only because of religious or historical aspects, but also for ideological reasons. Thus, Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Palestine, for instance, are attractive to a group such as al-Qaeda, as each combines all three elements: religion, history and ideology. That is, these locals have religious, historical and ideological values for existing and having potential recruits.

The second consideration is a strategic value, which is when an organization identifies certain fronts as being vital for its overall mission success. In the case of al-Qaeda, its strategic area of choice was the Middle East, as noted by al-Zawahiri in 2001 when he called for the organization to establish a base in the Middle East. Oddly enough though, al-Qaeda has not been very successful in this region; as seen for example with its failure to establish a base in Saudi Arabia or Palestine. The third consideration is internal characteristics, because when one introduces new actors into a group, the group naturally changes.

The next chapters analyze the franchising strategy. The first attempt was in Saudi Arabia, with the founding of an al-Qaeda branch in the Kingdom (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and the merger with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group, Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (TWJ, Organization of Monotheism and Jihad), which operated in Iraq following the US invasion.

Mendelsohn’s argument is that although in 2003 and 2004 when policymakers looked at al-Qaeda’s operation in Saudi Arabia and Iraq and saw an organization they thought was strong, in fact it was far from that. The al-Qaeda branch in Saudi Arabia had suffered devastating losses mainly because of the counteroffensive policies of the Saudi regime. This not only claimed the lives of al-Qaeda recruits, but forced the regime to take a proactive stance against the organization …

To read the whole review, click here.

Isaac Kfir, Associate Professor at Tokyo International University, is an INSCT Research and Practice Associate.

New York: Proposed Regulations for Cybersecurity Come up Short

By Christopher Folk

(Re-published from | Sept. 15, 2016) Governor Cuomo released proposed regulations for cybersecurity yesterday through the Department of Financial Services (“DFS”) that would require Covered Entities to hire Chief Information Security Officers (“CISO”) and perform a number of other cybersecurity tasks which seems like a good step towards enhanced cybersecurity, but is it really?

First, let us examine what entities are actually covered under these new “regulations.” Under § 500.1 Definitions

Covered Entity means any Person operating under or required to operate under a license, registration, charter, certificate, permit, accreditation or similar authorization under the banking law, the insurance law or the financial services law.

A person is further defined as any individual, partnership, corporation, association or any other entity.

So take the realm of persons and entities engaged in business in New York and extract out the piece that includes: banking, insurance, and financial services and you have the business sector that would be impacted by Cuomo’s regulations.

Now that we have identified the “who” let us examine the “what.”  Under these regulations, each covered entity must develop a cybersecurity program designed to “ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of the Covered Entity’s Information Systems (“IS”).”

The cybersecurity program must:

  • identify internal and external cyber risks;
    • identify Nonpublic Information (“NpI”) stored by Covered Entity’s IS
    • identify the sensitivity of NpI
    • identify access to NpI
  • use policies, procedures and also defensive infrastructure to protect IS from
    • either unauthorized access; or
    • other malicious acts
  • detect cybersecurity events;
  • respond to identified or detected cybersecurity events to mitigate;
  • recover from cyber events and restore normal operations and services; and
  • fulfill all regulatory reporting requirements

Furthermore, a cybersecurity policy must be implemented and maintained and must minimally address the following:

  • information security;
  • data governance and classification;
  • access controls and identity management;
  • business continuity and disaster recovery planning and resources;
  • capacity and performance planning;
  • systems operations and availability concerns;
  • systems and network security;
  • systems and network monitoring;
  • systems and application development and quality assurance;
  • physical security and environmental controls;
  • customer data privacy;
  • vendor and third-party service provider management;
  • risk assessment; and
  • incident response …

To read the whole post, click here.

Christopher Folk is a candidate (2017) for both a master’s in Forensic Science and Technology (Syracuse University) and a Juris Doctor degree (SU Law). Also a software engineer, Folk’s legal externship is with Chertoff Group company Delta Risk, where he focuses on legal and policy analysis pertaining to US and International cyber law.

“Lone-Wolf” Terrorists Rarely Act Alone, So Let’s Stop Calling Them That

By Corri Zoli

(Re-published from, Sept. 14, 2016) There is a disconnect between what we talk about when we talk about terrorism and the facts evident in recent attacks. Take the idea that recent attacks in Europe are disconnected from global terrorism and are instead the acts of “lone wolves.”

“‘Lone-wolf terrorist’ should be replaced with what is really at stake: ‘low-tech terrorism,’ a term that shifts how we orient ourselves to this global problem.”

That was the narrative yet again after the Nice attack of July 14, 2016. It later emerged that seven accomplices of Tunisian-born French resident Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel—who drove a 20-ton truck into Bastille Day crowds—were charged with aiding in “murder by a group with terror links.” Such accomplices contradict the “lone wolf” concept that fails to acknowledge a link between perpetrators and terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida or Islamic State.

In too many cases, the same story of the lone-wolf terrorist has been used to describe incidents in OrlandoSan Bernardino, Ottawa, Bavaria, Belgium, RiyadhSydney.

Social scientists and legal scholars value “case facts” in their research on terrorism. With a data-driven view of the often painful facts associated with an attack, we can better advance our efforts to prevent terrorism. In that spirit, I make some recommendations for scholars, public servants, journalists and members of the general public who want to understand how terrorism is evolving.

Scripted & Orchestrated Violence

First, “lone-wolf terrorist” should be replaced with what is really at stake: “low-tech terrorism,” a term that shifts how we orient ourselves to this global problem. After the initial shock of an attack, later analysis often shows that more than one person was involved, that an international network was used, and that the perpetrator’s violence against civilians was scripted and orchestrated.

The Nice attack, for instance, was as part of multinational criminal infrastructure. Bouhlel was a resident of France and a Tunisian citizen who used weapons from Albanian contacts, communicated plans to contacts in Syria, sent images of his conduct and money to Tunisia, and scouted attack sites, per instructions from Mideast operatives.

Some terrorist acts may appear isolated, random, and spontaneous—but that does not mean they are.

Even if personal motives are found — mental health, vendettas, workplace grievances—savvy jihadist recruiters have often “touched” these individuals because of them, radicalizing them online via a tight-knit network of seasoned operatives.

Ultimately, the “lone wolf” concept misunderstands the nature of terrorism, which at its core is an act of strategic communication. It’s about a weak group spreading a violent message using cheap and convenient means of attack: knives, homemade bombs, IEDs, cars, trucks, etc. This form of violent communication involves teamwork, whether direct “material support” or shared ideological, communications, criminal and recruiting networks. Some terrorist acts may appear isolated, random, and spontaneous—but that does not mean they are.

Better understanding these loosely organized jihadist networks means we have a chance to topple terrorism’s organizational edifice. That means paying attention to individual terrorist acts and linking them to global trends, such as those tracked by the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorist Data (GTD) project. Such data show increased jihadist attacks globally, thousands of jihadist groups adept at “low-tech” violence, and a broad use of various methods against “soft” targets.

Data also show how recent attacks follow a conventional approach, in which operatives — no matter how plugged into the group — play a key role before, during and after an attack. Terrorists announce their goals online, as they are trained to do, declare allegiances, make martyr videos, or post extremist material on social media. Contrary to the lone wolf myth, terrorist communiqués reveal group commitment to organizations and causes, a large audience for such material, and willing participants worldwide.

Spreading Weapons, Money, & Ideology

Terrorism is built on real—but often hidden—global logistics, social and communications networks. Three of these were used in this summer’s spate of attacks in Europe: trafficked weapons, illicit money transfers and online ideological communications. Many groups, including ISIS, go to great lengths to cover their organizational tracks, creating covert units—such as Emni—to “export terror abroad,” including over 140 attacks worldwide since 2014. An imprisoned ISIS recruit recently told a New York Times journalist that ISIS undercover operatives are common in Europe to recruit new converts who are used as “clean men” (not yet in intelligence agency databases) to “help link up people interested in carrying out attacks” …

To read the full post, click here.

The US & the Middle East: 15 Years after 9/11

(Re-published from SU News, Sept. 9, 2016) Fifteen years out from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US, and the war on terror still rages. Osama Bin Laden is dead but US troops, albeit in fewer numbers, remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, and new enemies have risen.

Why has US policy in the Middle East struggled in the legacy of 9/11?

Osamah Khalil, an assistant professor of US and Middle East history in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, notes how the US built up its national security bureaucracy after 9/11—gathering incredible amounts of data—but has not addressed the root causes of instability in the Middle East through broader understanding.

His book, “America’s Dream Palace: Middle East Expertise and the Rise of the National Security State,” to be released in October, highlights how US foreign policy has shaped expertise in this often misunderstood part of the world over the past century and how the relationship runs much deeper than any current conflict.

“It is worth mentioning that these allies have terrible human rights records and their own domestic and regional political agendas, but this has been ignored—and is still being ignored—because they are partners in the ‘war on terror.’”

Q: What has been the aftermath of the US in the Middle East following 9/11?

A: America’s involvement with the area we now call the “Middle East” dates to the mid-19th century, and some scholars argue even earlier. As I discuss in “America’s Dream Palace,” there is a long period of engagement and interaction between the two areas that did not begin with the Sept. 11 attacks and did not end with death of Osama Bin Laden.

In the 15 years since 9/11, the United States remains deeply involved in the region, politically, economically, militarily, religiously and culturally. Although the focus is often on the active conflicts (Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan) and occasionally on the covert operations and drone strikes that are conducted from Libya to Pakistan, the engagement between the US and the Middle East is also deeper and richer than just military affairs and political crises.

Q: What are the threats driving US policy in the Middle East today?

While the general public often understands the relationship between the United States and the Middle East through the lens of current events, crises and threats, this obscures a much longer and deeper engagement. US policy in the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe is driven by interests—material, strategic and ideological. Since the early post-World War II period US foreign policy has been driven by Washington’s decision to serve as the guarantor of global oil supplies, the goal of “maintaining security and stability” in the region from the US’s perspective, and America’s “special relationship” with Israel.

Q: What has hampered the US in its war on terror, even 15 years out from 9/11?  

A: Much like declaring a “war on drugs,” the idea that you can have or should have a “global war on terror” is part of the problem. Terrorism is a strategy, and often a deliberate one, and not an ideology. As I discuss in the book, even the definition of terrorism has not been consistent over the past four decades.

In addition, al-Qaʽida, the organization responsible for 9/11, was very small (with some scholars estimating that it had roughly 3,000 members largely based in Afghanistan and Pakistan). This threat could have been dealt with in a more strategic fashion. Instead, after 9/11, the national security bureaucracy underwent a massive expansion, the largest since the end of World War II, and one of the consequences was an increase in redundancy among the different agencies but not necessarily an improvement in how the US was assessing and analyzing threats.

Nor was there an attempt to address the root causes of conflict and instability in the region. Fifteen years later, this situation has not improved. For example, even though there is a robust and controversial global surveillance effort, the United States still lacks a sufficient number of analysts to quickly and efficiently evaluate the troves of data collected.

Q: What are the repercussions of not moving more quickly to analyze data?

A: This relates to the basic question of why are massive amounts of data (cell phone, social networking, etc.) being collected, including of American citizens, without a warrant. In many cases these are individuals who are not suspected of being affiliated with terrorist groups.

In addition, the database of suspected terrorists is still growing, and yet Obama administration officials concede that those on this list are not at the same level of importance as previous targets. There is no transparency on how or why individuals are added to the database or subjected to warrantless wiretapping or a process to challenge that determination.

Moreover, since 9/11, the United States has relied on regional allies to help with Arabic translation, intelligence collection, as well as arresting and often torturing suspects, including a number of individuals that were falsely identified and accused.

It is worth mentioning that these allies have terrible human rights records and their own domestic and regional political agendas, but this has been ignored—and is still being ignored—because they are partners in the “war on terror.”

Q: Why is the US lacking in analysts?

A: In part this has to do with different and competing priorities as well as manpower and budget constraints. However, ideology also plays a role. After Sept. 11, the George W. Bush administration dismissed the need for area expertise and language training. Fifteen years later, federal funding for university-based language training, including Arabic, has not kept pace with dramatically increased enrollments. Even though the US military was in desperate need for translators, a number of gay and lesbian translators were forced out of the armed services.

Q: In your book, you discuss the influence of think tanks with neoconservative agendas on US foreign policy after 9/11. How has this stymied US efforts in fighting terror? How does the US—and its allies—start to better understand the Middle East?

This was evidenced most prominently—and disastrously—with the invasion and occupation of Iraq. We are still dealing with the consequences of the US-led invasion of Iraq and its implications across the region and internationally today.

As I discuss in the book, the United States has a vast reservoir of expertise on the Middle East in universities and colleges across the country. However, there is a tendency to view those outside of government with skepticism. Instead, the US government has often chosen to embrace the expertise that reflects and reinforces existing US interests in the region and internationally. This contributes to short-term approaches that emphasize crisis resolution or conflict management and ignore the fundamental problems and root causes of conflicts.