The Fourth Industrial Revolution will provide insurgents and terrorists with capabilities that, until very recently, were the preserve of large, powerful, wealthy states. The convergence of new technologies will provide them access to relatively cheap, long-range, autonomous weapons. To define the problem this presents to the United States, this paper will first explore the technologies—powerful small warheads, autonomous drones, task-specific artificial intelligence, and advanced manufacturing—that are providing increased range, numbers, and lethality for dramatically lower cost today. It will close the technology discussion with a brief examination of biotechnology, which has enormous potential as a weapon but, fortunately, remains mostly beyond the reach of non-state actors today.

However, the most important point to remember is that while new technologies will make tactical operations against insurgents much more difficult, U.S. failures against non-state actors have consistently been caused by strategic deficiencies not tactical ones. Therefore, following the discussion of emerging technologies, it will examine how changing political, social, and economic conditions are changing the strategic environment of state versus non-state conflicts. Then, tying the technology to these new strategic conditions, it will suggest ways in which non-state actors will exploit the new technologies and new conditions to defeat states. The paper will close with a discussion of what approaches have worked for the United States in the past and how it may be adapted to the new conditions.

Key Technologies

The starting point of the technology discussion must be the recent history of non-state actors’ use of technology. In the 1980s, the author worked with ten different insurgent groups in different regions. Despite U.S. efforts to encourage these groups to use cutting-edge technology, uniformly they refused. Further, if one studies their use of technology, one finds that non-state actors, with the exception of certain drug cartels, primarily use technology that is widely available in their societies. They seemed to do so for two reasons. First, they lacked confidence in cutting-edge technology—and since they were betting lives on it, they were reluctant to use it. They wanted to use technology they were comfortable with and confident in. For instance, when U.S. forces were conducting security operations in Iraq from 2003 to 2008, the Iraqis used common household items such as cell phones, base station phones, and garage door openers to detonate their improvised explosive devices. They did so for good reason. Every neighborhood had a shop that sold and repaired these devices so had the knowledge to modify them for use in weapons. As an added benefit, the use could spread easily across the insurgency.

In contrast, while commercial drones first began flying in the late 1990s, they did not show up in insurgent arsenals until 2014 for surveillance and 2016 for attack.1 It was not until then that hobbyist and commercial drones were widespread in global society. Even then, ISIS required a focused effort to build and operate them. A special unit kept detailed records of operations to improve their effectiveness.2 By 2018, insurgent drone use had spread to Afghanistan. And criminal elements have begun to use drones both for surveillance and to disrupt police operations.3

While it is a bit comforting to know non-state actors have not been at the leading edge of technology historically, we do have to expect insurgent and terrorist groups to use technology as it becomes widely available in civil society.

With that as a caveat, it’s time to look at the new technologies that will present non-state actors with greatly enhanced capabilities in the immediate future. The fourth industrial revolution has already proliferated a series of technological advances that have created a generation of small, smart, and cheap weapons. Progress in small warheads, drones, task-specific artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, and cheap space have converged to provide insurgents with capabilities that used to be the preserve of large, technologically-advanced states. This paper will first examine the technologies themselves, then look at how they empower non-state actors.

Small Warheads

While new explosives are increasing the power of warheads, the most effective use of small warheads is to adopt the concept of “bringing the detonator not the explosive.” Rather than building a system to deliver a large warhead, this concept uses a small, smart drone to detonate the very large explosive potential present in society such as commercial aircraft, fuel trucks, or fixed facilities with fuel, fertilizer, and other industrial chemical storage sites. This is not a theoretical approach. It has already been used repeatedly. From 2015 through 2017, Russian operatives or Ukrainian separatists used drones to drop simple thermite grenades in a series of attacks on Ukrainian government ammunition dumps that detonated hundreds of thousands of tons of explosives.4

A second approach for increasing the destructive power of a small warhead is the use of an explosively shaped penetrator (EFP). An EFP approximately 1 inch in diameter with as little as 1 ounce of high explosive can penetrate up to 1/2 inch of steel.5 Such a device is small enough to be mounted on a wide variety of small drones to serve as the detonator. It could easily detonate the commercial fuel trucks that have been essential to U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is also powerful enough that if fired into the hood of a motor vehicle it will destroy the engine resulting in a mobility kill. And they are capable of attacking moving vehicles. As early as 2013, hobbyists were using drones with GoPro cameras to film individual trucks and drivers in off-road races.6 Simply mounting a small EFP next to the lens of the Go-Pro camera would allow the operator to fire the EFP where the camera is pointed. An operator can selective a specific vehicle even in fast moving traffic.

While EFPs have been used widely in Iraq, the insurgents were limited to placing ground IEDs and hoping the target passed over it. Drones allow the attacker to actively hunt selected targets even if they are behind blast walls. It is also possible to create warheads with multiple penetrators7 and self-forging fins8 to increase stand-off ranges and lethality.

Advanced Manufacturing

Advanced manufacturing will allow the production of tens of thousands of small, smart, but inexpensive drones. It combines additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing), robots, and artificial intelligence to massively increase the speed and quality of manufacturing. In the last decade, as 3D pioneers mastered various materials and techniques, they began to focus on speed of printing. Of particular importance in small drone production is rapid printing of composite material. In April 2016, Carbon introduced a commercial 3D printer that was 100 times faster than previous printers. In addition to speed, the continuing massive investment in 3D printing has improved both quality and complexity of manufactured products while reducing prices. Prices have dropped to point weekend hobbyists are printing their own drones. A popular website even rates the top 10 3D printed drone kits for sale commercially.9


The dramatic increase in 3D printing speeds has major implications for warfare. In 2014, researchers at the University of Virginia successfully 3D printed a drone in one day. By snapping in place an electric motor, two batteries, and an Android cell phone, they made an autonomous drone with a range of approximately 50 kilometers. It took about 31 hours to print and assemble the drone at a total cost (excluding the printer) of about $800.10 While it could be controlled by a ground station, the GPS in the phone allowed the drone to fly a specified route autonomously. Such a system is vulnerable to GPS jamming but a number of new approaches are being developed that will allow drones to navigate in GPS denied environments.11

Other programs allow a cell phone camera to identify people and objects even under low light conditions.12 Combining small warheads, GPS-independent navigation, and cell phone target identification can create autonomous, inexpensive drones that can range for dozens of miles, then hunt and engage specific targets. Think of them as IEDs that hunt you.

Long-range air13 and undersea autonomous drones14 are also being produced today, and manufacturers are competing hard to reduce the price even as they dramatically increase range and payload. The Aerovel Flexrotor has a range of 1,500 miles, the Defiant Lab DX-3 over 900 miles,15 and the Volans-I over 500 miles while carrying a 20 pound payload at sustained speeds of 150 miles per hour.16 While not technically stealthy, the small size of these systems mean they have the radar signature of a small bird.17 And, like most new technologies, these systems can be greatly improved for relatively little money. Thus naval and air forces will also be at risk from inexpensive, smart, long-range weapons. In particular, fixed facilities like air bases will be vulnerable.

Globally, state militaries are developing very high capability drones. However, this paper will not discuss them since they remain beyond the reach of most insurgent and terrorist organizations—unless a state sponsor chooses to make them available.

Task-Specific Artificial Intelligence

There is a great deal of disagreement over when or even if general artificial intelligence will emerge. While an interesting discussion, it is irrelevant for the purposes of this paper. Much more important is the current state of limited or task-specific artificial intelligence. While the literature normally refers to this type of AI as limited, task-specific is more accurate. It is better than any human at the specific task it is designed to do. Thus in its niche area, task-specific AI creates a distinct advantage for the nation that fields it first.

To create the AI necessary for truly autonomous attack drones, designers had to address two issues—navigation and target identification. Task-specific artificial intelligence has clearly mastered both. The Israeli Harop drone, initially fielded in 2005, uses GPS guidance to arrive in a target area and then shifts to visual, infra-red, and electronic search modes to identify and attack a target.18

Striking the target is a separate problem. It requires the autonomous system to identify a specified target and then maneuver through obstacles to strike it. While this is a very challenging issue, commercial firms are already deploying autonomous air taxis and ground vehicles based on a range of ever more effective, precise, and inexpensive sensors which have obvious applications in improving the hunting capability of autonomous drones. In fact, as of January 2019, commercial firms were offering 9 different models of drones that could autonomous follow and film an athlete to include mountain bikers riding trails.19

While western states continue to debate whether autonomous drones will be required to maintain a command and control link so the mission can be cancelled or diverted, insurgents and terrorists will not accept that limitation. Doing so would increase the technical complexity of the systems as well as increase the vulnerability to enemy cyber or microwave defenses. Thus non-state actors are likely to treat a drone as a round of ammunition—fire and forget. By employing autonomous drones without a command link, they eliminate the possibility the drone can be defeated by electronic jamming of the command signal.

Current drones still remain vulnerable to GPS jamming. However, commercial drone developers are working to make their autonomous drones GPS independent and hardening them against microwave signals. By shifting from GPS dependent navigation to inertial plus visual navigation, delivery drones will be able to operate in the urban canyons where GPS signals are often blocked. And, if drone deliver systems are to succeed, the drones must also be immune to local high power emissions from airport radars, high power transmission line, and other commercial sources. This will mitigate one of the most promising defenses against autonomous drones—electronic magnetic pulses generated by high-powered microwaves. As commercial drones become hardened to electronic interference, non-state actors will take advantage of that capability.

Cheap Space Capabilities

Given the very long range of new autonomous drones, a third major technical problem is locating the targets precisely. Years ago, Google Maps and Google Earth solved the problem of finding major installations like airfields, ports, and industrial and political facilities for insurgents. If one wants to know where the C-17s and larger commercial aircraft park at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, simply look it up on Google Maps. Shift to satellite mode and you have sufficient resolution to direct a smart drone to within a couple hundred feet of the target. Given Google Maps’ global coverage, it provides a first rate intelligence source for anyone with an internet connection. Admittedly these images are dated, but it is a pretty safe assumption the big airplanes still park in the same place and thus a drone with visual target identification could fly to the parking apron and then select a target.

More recently, current imagery has become available to anyone with an internet connection and a credit card. Over the last two decades, the development of cube satellites and the infrastructure to launch them cheaply in large numbers has made space imagery commercially available.20 Planet, a private company, uses its cube satellite network to take sub-meter resolution imagery of the entire planet daily and it sells these images on line.21 Planet can provide images based on visual or infrared cameras as well as synthetic aperture radar. Apple now provides the SpyMeSat “the only mobile app to offer on-demand access to the latest commercial high resolution satellite imagery, and with the release of v3.1, the only mobile app offering users the ability to task high resolution commercial imaging satellites.”22 The bottom line is that multiple companies now or will soon offer near real time imagery of anywhere on the planet. The days of hiding military movement on the surface are clearly drawing to a close.


Synthetic biology and rapid advances in gene editing have truly frightening potential. Therefore, while the impact of bio-technology in state versus non-state conflicts is a bit farther out, readers need to understand it has by far the greatest destructive potential. Fortunately, it is very unlikely that non-state actors have the necessary skills and resources to use these advanced tools to create biological weapons. As noted earlier, non-state actors have rarely used cutting-edge technology. Thus any biological attack they generate is much more likely to use commercially available products. For decades, we have speculated that a terror cell could conduct a devastating economic attack on the United States by introducing hoof and mouth disease or mad cow disease into our livestock industry. By infecting an unknown number of animals and then reporting their infection to media outlets, a terror group could cause major economic damage by attacking the U.S. cattle industry. In 2017, it generated almost $90 billion in meat and milk products.23 Yet, to date, the biological terror attacks in the United States have been very minor such as the 1984 Rajaneeshee poisoning of salad bars, the 2001 Amerithrax attacks on Capitol Hill, and the ricin letters mailed in 2003 and 2004.

While bio-weapons have the most potential, the difficult in producing them has so far prevented non-state actors from using them. However, states must carefully monitor progress in this area. Because while states will hesitate to use such a weapon due to potential infection of its own population as well as massive retaliation, nihilistic terrorist organizations are probably the most likely people to consider losing a contagious disease on the planet.

This brief examination of how non-state actors can exploit new technologies indicates the depth of the tactical problem. However, to understand the strategic problem we must examine the emerging strategic conditions that will govern state versus non-state conflicts.

Drivers of Insurgency

“Military institutions and the manner in which they employ violence depended on the economic, social and political conditions of their respective states.”24

Even as technology is providing weapons that exploit current western vulnerabilities, the fact remains that economic, social, and political conditions of the various entities in the conflict will determine how the technology is employed. Emerging technologies will challenge every aspect of the current U.S. operational approach to counterinsurgency. An even greater challenge is the fact that changes in the primary political driver of insurgency will make U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine obsolete.

It is essential to understand that the primary cause driving post-World War II insurgencies have evolved. The initial major driver—anti-colonialism—has obviously passed. Colonial powers were driven out. Unfortunately, their withdrawals led directly to the second major driver of insurgencies—conflicts over who would rule the state the colonists established and left behind. The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA)’s long war with the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) over who would rule Angola is a clear example of this motivation. Despite its ethnic and tribal aspects as well as its 20-year duration, the conflict did not change the territorial borders of Angola.

Now a third driver is gaining prominence—the desire to change the old colonial borders. The colonial borders were drawn without any consideration of the historical ethnic, cultural, or religious networks on the ground. Today, we are seeing an increase in conflicts in regions where the colonial borders artificially divided much older cultures. The Balouch of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran are prime examples. Their society was divided for the convenience of the British colonial government. This has left them as ignored and often persecuted minorities in each of the three existing countries. In response, they have conducted a decades long insurgency in an attempt to establish a homeland. They join the Kurds of the Middle East in struggling against the colonial boundaries. The intra-state conflicts across the Sahel between Arab northern societies and southern African ones also illustrate the failure of colonial powers to create national identities. At the same time, sub-national movements are redefining borders in other areas. The peoples of the old Yugoslavia, Sudan, and Somalia are still working through the process.

The third driver means insurgencies are increasingly transnational, trans-dimensional coalitions of the willing and opportunists. And they will be long. Each aspect creates significant problems for the United States.

Third driver efforts to redraw political boundaries to align with social boundaries means most insurgencies will be transnational. This very fact stymies U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine which is based on working with the host nation. Afghanistan illustrates the problem. The insurgency is primarily Pashtun yet more Pashtuns live in Pakistan than Afghanistan. So there are really two host nations. Further complicating the problem is the fact the two host nations’ strategic interests do align. Pakistan feels it must maintain relations with the Taliban as a strategic hedge against India. Yet the Afghan government cannot accept continued Pakistani support for its primary enemy. The United States and its coalition partners have been unable to resolve this fundamental difference of strategic outlooks.

Today insurgencies are also trans-dimensional in that they operate in both the real and cyber world. Driven by necessity, many non-state actors have learned to use the internet both to communicate and recruit. Because boundaries are about identities, it is easier to use social media to involve ethnic diasporas. We have seen the impact of this in recruiting for the conflict in Syria as well as the continuing struggle in Somalia.

In addition, identity-based insurgencies reflect the societies they live in. Given the non-hierarchical nature of many post-colonial societies, they have tended to be coalitions rather than hierarchies. The Afghans, Kurds, Iraqis, Chechens, and Syrians were/are not unified insurgencies but rather coalitions of the willing and the opportunistic. This vastly complicates the counterinsurgent’s task because there is no single political entity to either defeat or negotiate with.

Finally, identity-based insurgencies are likely to be very long. The counterinsurgent is not simply trying to build a functioning state to run an existing nation. He is trying to create a nation from a variety of other identities. In Europe and Asia, it took between 400 and 1,000 years to create nations with a common identity. Unfortunately, it also involved a great deal of warfare and often ethnic cleansing. Thus, we should anticipate identity-based insurgencies will be long—think decades not years.

The different drivers have dramatically changed the character of the insurgencies, their organizations, and their approaches to gaining power. But it has not changed the fact they will use force to achieve their goals.

Insurgent Strategy

While a number of insurgents have provided theories of insurgency (Mao, Che, Giap,, there is no general insurgent strategy. However, there is a practical approach that has often worked to convince outside powers to quit fighting and go home. Successful insurgencies have focused on wearing down the political will of the outside power via a campaign of attrition. In the past, the attrition has been limited primarily to attacking the outsiders that have entered the insurgent’s country. As will be discussed below, today’s technology may open entirely new paths for the insurgents to attack the will of outside powers. Then, as always, the insurgents will have to win the internal civil war against the host nation government. Unfortunately, new technologies will provide new tools for that fight too.

Insurgent Tactical Options Created by 4IR Technologies

With insurgent strategy focused on destroying the will of outside policymakers, insurgents have adopted tactics to maximize outside casualties while “proving” the government is making little or no progress in defeating them. They do not have to seize territory but only visibly continue the fight to prove the government is not succeeding. In the past, equipment limitations meant insurgents were usually limited to direct attacks on counterinsurgent forces and the population in country. And, they often fought at a range and firepower disadvantage.

New technology is changing that. The arrival of commercial drones means insurgents can launch attacks from outside the range of most government surveillance and weapons systems. Unfortunately, current U.S. approaches to fighting insurgents are extremely vulnerable to this type of attack. U.S. forces travel into a theater via large aircraft and then operate from easily identified fortified bases, and move about in distinctive vehicles. In the last 18 years, both Arab and Afghan insurgents focused their attacks on the bases and communications links between them using IEDs and ambushes. They also constantly refined their suicide attacks against fixed positions and public gatherings. While coalition forces developed more effective tactics, techniques, and procedures to defend against this type of attack, doing so required the dedication of enormous resources and severely restricted coalition operations. Through decades of effort, the United States has developed very effective defenses against ground attack by non-state actors. Physical barriers backed by armed personnel who are alerted by extensive surveillance systems have prevents hundreds of attacks from reaching the vulnerable interiors of U.S. facilities. Despite these efforts, coalition forces have only significantly reduced the number of attacks when the mass of the population shifted allegiance to the government

These attacks became less of a problem with the withdrawal of major combat forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. Since then U.S. involvement has focused on advising and providing fire support. The majority of U.S. forces operate from fortified bases. Those that move off base do so in armored vehicles or by air. The combination has dramatically reduced U.S. casualties. Since 2015, more service people have died in peacetime training than combat.25

However, each node within the U.S. system, whether U.S. forces are actively fighting the insurgents or are in an advisory role, is vulnerable to attack by autonomous drones. Airfields are the most vulnerable. The very large perimeter and vulnerability of key elements of the system from radars to fuel farms to the aircraft themselves will make these a prime target for insurgent or terrorist attacks. Using Google Maps, insurgents can see the entire layout of airfields that U.S. forces use. Shifting to the satellite image, one can locate the parking apron for C-17s and other large aircraft at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Clearly if a C-17 or large commercial aircraft is damaged or destroyed on the ground, the United States will discontinue airlift into the attacked airfield—and perhaps all airfields in the theater until the threat can be addressed.

Unfortunately, neither the United States nor any other nation has created truly effective defenses against drones. And insurgents recognize the value of attacking aircraft on the ground. While the Russians claim to have defeated all 23 drone attacks against their main air base in Syria,26 other reports show images of damaged Russian aircraft.27 Further, it is essential to note most of the Russian success came from using electronic warfare to defeat the drones’ very crude control systems or jam the signal from the pilot. As noted, autonomous drones do not have a link to a pilot and can be hardened against high energy microwaves. Soon they will not be susceptible to GPS jamming either.

Another major component of U.S. counterinsurgency operations are fixed outposts. While much smaller than airfields, they are also very numerous. They range from major support facilities with stores of fuel, lubricants, and ammunition to individual platoon outposts and police checkpoints. How can the government protect the thousands of military, police, and government outposts across a nation from drone attack? Consolidating bases would reduce the problem but also dramatically curtail the contact between the population and the government. And of course the capability to direct air attacks means the use of public meetings or “shuras,” a key element of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, becomes a much more difficult and hazardous problem. This threat can further reduce the critical contact between the government and the people.

Perhaps the most difficult to protect from cheap, fast drones are the ground convoys and patrols that are an essential part of counterinsurgency operations. Insurgents in both Iraq and Afghanistan have severely restricted ground movement of coalition forces through the use of improvised explosive devices. Despite enormous effort by coalition forces hunting IEDs and the networks that produce them, government forces have been unable to neutralize this threat. The addition of fast, small drones will complicate the problem immensely. If a cheap commercial drone can autonomously identify and track a runner in motion, it can identify and fly into a vehicle or a patrol. The IEDs will now be actively hunting both moving and stationary government assets.

As early as January 2017, ISIS was conducting at least one drone mission a day over coalition forces.28 To increase the impact of their attacks, they released numerous videos of their drones attacking coalition forces.29 One even showed a complex attack with a drone dispersing the personnel at a checkpoint to clear the way for a suicide car bomb attack.30 Clearly the sophistication of the attacks will continue to improve. And as 3D printing of drones becomes more widespread, we should expect to see a significant increase in the number of drones employed.

In addition, very long range drones like the Flexrotor, Volans-I, and DX-3 will become widely available. Well-funded insurgent or terrorists groups will inevitably arm one or more. They can then reach out of theater to threaten U.S. forces in transit. Drawing a 1,500 mile range ring around ISIS or Taliban territory gives an idea of how deeply these systems can strike into America’s logistics pipeline.

A more sophisticated group could blackmail other nations to refuse U.S. transit rights. Recent events at Heathrow and Gatwick demonstrated the difficulty of preventing drones from entering airspace around an airfield. And a small drone can easily carry enough explosives to damage a 777 or an A380 parked at a gate on a major airfield—with accurate placement it could ignite a secondary explosion from the fuel on board. Thus an insurgent or terror group could offer a state like Germany or Kuwait a choice: terminate U.S. support flights passing through your nations or face attacks on your air transportation industry. A single successful attack will result in billions worth of economic damage if the nation refuses the insurgent demands.

In short, the emergence of large numbers of autonomous armed drones will require the United States to rethink its entire concept of counterinsurgency operations.

Terrorist Options

If terrorists adapt drones, they effectively neutralize 95% of all anti-terror physical barriers. The last few decades have taught security forces that layered protection against a ground attack is essential. Governments, businesses, and even private individuals have invested in walls, barriers, vehicle mazes, ditches, barbed wire, and other physical obstacles all backed up by armed guards. For the most part, standoff distance and defense in depth have prevented attacks against fixed facilities.

Fortunately, today’s commercial drones carry relatively small payloads so will not cause great damage by themselves. Unfortunately, precisely delivered small payloads can be used in a couple of creative ways. First, it can serve as a detonator for the explosive power that is present in any modern society—fuel depots, fertilizer storage facilities, key elements of the power grid, and chemical plants. In 1947, the SS Grandcamp caught fire which resulted in the detonation of 2,200 tons (a 2 kiloton equivalent) of ammonium nitrate fertilizer that killed over 500 people and flattened the Port of Texas City.31 The 1984 Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India released tons of methyl isocyanate that resulted in thousands dead and hundreds of thousands injured.32 These two accidents clearly demonstrate the massive level of destructive power embedded in the commercial sector. New technologies will provide terrorists with the ability to precisely deliver the detonator to set off the explosive energy spread across modern society.

For high visibility attacks, terrorist have consistently attacked aircraft. Today’s airport security has made that very difficult. However, a small drone bypasses virtually all current airport defenses and can deliver high explosive or incendiary devices directly to an aircraft parked at a gate. For a terrorist group intent on doing maximum economic damage to the global economy, simultaneous attacks on key international air hubs will fill the bill. By selecting airports in nations that lack global reach for counterattacking, the terrorists can also reduce the risk to themselves. Using 5-10 small drones at each target airfield, terrorists can be relatively certain of hitting at least one target. Of course, they would video the attack and release the video on line immediately. The financial impact of striking multiple key nodes in the global air system will be enormous. Today air cargo accounts for 35% of global trade by value—not including the value of transporting passengers.33 If multiple nodes are struck at once, air operations will have to cease while risk assessment and mitigation are conducted. Given the current state of defense against drones, it is likely the shutdown will endure for weeks if not months as governments try to solve this exceptionally difficult security issue.

A second approach is to use precision to strike just key government officials or uniformed security forces. This has three effects. It shows the people the terrorists are only fighting the government and not the people; it separates the security forces from the people as they build barriers between themselves and the populations; and it shows the government cannot even protect itself much less the population. And of course, precision drones can be used for high profile attacks or assassinations. Drones have already been flown very close to two national leaders—German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Criminal Organizations

While not strictly speaking a form of insurgency, crime has also become a major driver of instability in many nations. Criminal organizations across the globe are challenging governments for control of territory. They emerge in numerous forms from gangs to drug cartels to transnational criminal networks that deal in commodities from guns to drugs to people. With the exception of first-generation street gangs, these criminal organizations have a common motivation—profit.34 While some commentators dismiss this as a law enforcement problem, criminal organizations have demonstrated the ability both to ally with insurgents (Colombia) or effectively seize and rule territory within a state (Mexico). These cases demonstrate how criminals can impact the security of the United States.

As commercial drone usage expands, criminals have been quick to see the possibilities. In 2017, Australian police arrested members of a drug gang that were using drones to warn them if police were in the area.35 In May 2018, reports emerged that criminals had used a swarm of drones to disrupt an FBI hostage rescue operation by repeatedly buzzing the FBI surveillance team.36 Numerous drones have been intercepted smuggling drugs, phones, or money over prison walls as well as smuggling drugs across international boundaries. As drone capabilities increase, we can expect to see increased usage by criminals with a focus on smuggling, surveillance, and intelligence operations. And we have to assume criminals will soon be using suicide drones for attacks on opponents.

How Can the United States Respond?

In short, the drivers of insurgency, terror, and criminal activity are not going away. Their widespread distribution means it is inevitable these conflicts will destabilize important allies or impinge on world energy supplies. The United States may also have to respond when a party or parties to a conflict provides sanctuaries for terrorists targeting the United States or its allies.

To do so, we have to develop a strategic approach to each separate problem—insurgency, terror, and crime.

Unfortunately, the very phrases “counterinsurgency or counterterror strategy,” confuse methods or ways of fighting with a complete strategy. Neither is a strategy. They are merely one approach in a range of possible ways in the ends, ways, and means formulation of strategy.

Population-centric counterinsurgency, as documented in FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency, is only one possible approach to such a campaign. A disturbingly large portion of the discussion within the United States government simply accepts FM 3-24’s recommended best practices and believes that, if applied as package, they create a strategy. Yet by nature, best practices in counterinsurgency are essentially tactical or, at the most, operational level efforts.

In fact, there is no general counterinsurgency or counterterror strategy just as there is no anti-submarine or anti-aircraft strategy. One doesn’t develop a strategy against an operational technique. Each conflict requires the development of a case-specific strategy that includes assumptions, coherent ends-ways-means, priorities, sequencing of events, and a theory of victory. And it must be flexible enough to respond to the changes that are an inevitable part of any conflict.

Rather than unquestioningly accepting that “counterinsurgency or counterterror strategy” is the correct solution to a conflict, planners must start by first understanding the specific conflict. Since it will be impossible to know everything necessary to develop a strategy, they must next think through and clearly state their assumptions about that specific conflict. With this level of understanding, they will be ready to start the difficult process of developing coherent ends, ways, and means, prioritizing and sequencing their actions, and developing a theory of victory. Only then will they have a strategy that is appropriate for the actual conflict.

What Has Worked for the United States as an Expeditionary Power?

In considering the various counterinsurgency approaches, the most important question for the United States is what works best for an expeditionary power. When discussing the future of U.S. counterinsurgency, it is absolutely essential to differentiate between those approaches that worked for domestic campaigns and those that work for expeditionary campaigns. Unfortunately, FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency drew most of its best practices from the domestic counterinsurgency efforts of the British in Malaya and North Ireland and the French in Algeria. In all three cases, the counterinsurgent was also the government. Thus, they could make the government legitimate by removing any person or organization that was hurting that legitimacy.

It is much more difficult for an outside power to force the host country to make the necessary political changes. As the United States experienced in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan and the Soviets in Afghanistan, an outside power cannot force the government to be legitimate. Even removing illegitimate leaders and replacing them with those picked by the expeditionary power failed for the United States in Vietnam and for the Soviets in Afghanistan.

That said the United States has been successful at expeditionary counterinsurgency. U.S. efforts to assist the Philippines in 1950s and again since 2001, Thailand from the 1950s to the 1970s, El Salvador in the 1980s, and Colombia against its insurgents in the 1990s and 2000s have all been successful. In each case, the United States used an indirect approach rather than a direct approach. The indirect approach meant that U.S. personnel provided advice and support to host nation forces as those nations fought. While this support at times even included tactical leadership, the focus was always on assisting the host nation and not on U.S. elements engaging the enemy. In addition, these efforts were kept relatively small. This had two major benefits. First, it kept the U.S. presence from distorting the local political and economic reality too badly. Second, it prevented impatient Americans from attempting to do the job themselves because they simply lacked the resources to do so.

Based on our historical record, America should only provide advice and assistance to the host nation or nations in a counterinsurgency campaign. As insurgents employ larger numbers of more effective, longer range precision weapons, the United States will have to modify its approach to even this mission. It will want to minimize the presence of U.S. government personnel in the country and adopt a more austere, expeditionary footprint. In particular, while continuing to pursue technological approaches to defeating drones, it must fall back on ancient methods. Overhead protection—even something as simple as dirt—can defeat the vast majority of drones. All U.S. government facilities will require overhead protection of key nodes or sources of explosive energy like fuel tanks, large vehicles, etc. The second approach is to strive to blend into the population. Rather than moving about in high profile armored vehicles, whether military or armored Chevy Suburbans, U.S. personnel should travel in local vehicles without ostentatious security.

A further major benefit of keeping any supporting effort small is that it extends the timeline. By remaining small, the effort remains below the interest level of the vast majority of Americans and thus can be sustained for the very long timelines of a nation building effort. Just as important, if despite our assistance, the government fails to reform and achieve popular support, the United States needs to admit it cannot fix another country and withdraw. By keeping the effort small, it allows us to do so without a major loss of international credibility.

Does the United States Need a Counterinsurgency Capability?

The high cost and lack of success in Iraq and Afghanistan means hostility to counterinsurgency as a concept is rising. Yet, the capability has enduring relevance. Nor is it only relevant in the event of some distant future conflict. It is an essential element of national security today. One of the critical issues facing today’s Pentagon is designing and building the appropriate force structure in the resource constrained, post-Afghanistan period. The United States must balance the risk of not being prepared in some mission areas against the ongoing cost of maintaining readiness across the spectrum of conflict. If the counterinsurgency skeptics prevail, then the United States may choose to severely reduce or eliminate the capabilities necessary for fighting an insurgency. In short, the Pentagon could choose the same route that left the nation intellectually unprepared for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It failed to anticipate the insurgencies that were almost inevitable and when it did accept the insurgencies were happening, responded very slowly.

Rather than arguing about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of a non-existent strategy, we need to be discussing if the United States needs to maintain counterinsurgency capabilities in its national security tool kit? If so, what should such capabilities focus on? Is there an approach or approaches that have been successful for expeditionary forces in insurgencies? How do we modify them to the new capabilities that insurgents are already using? Answers to these questions are an essential part of answering the larger question concerning future U.S. force structure.

Counterterrorism Strategy

As U.S. strategic documents from the National Security Strategy to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence assessments have noted, terrorist groups remain a threat to the United States. However, the sheer magnitude of the problem prohibits the United States from “fixing” the dozens of countries that are both the source and target of terror groups. There is an emerging understanding that, like many wicked problems, terror cannot be fixed but only managed. Thus the United States continues to conduct operations globally to reduce terrorists’ capabilities to strike. Sometimes referred to as “mowing the grass” this ongoing campaign recognizes it is only an attempt to manage a problem beyond our capability to solve.

Unfortunately, the capabilities emerging from the fourth industrial revolution make it inevitable that terrorists will be able to conduct more effective attacks on U.S. facilities and personnel overseas and even in the United States. Thus resilience will become a much greater part of U.S. counterterror approach. The American people must understand that some attacks will get through and that the United States will NOT launch a multi-decade, multi-trillion dollar effort to fix the country that was the source of the attacks. Rather the United States will continue to work to preempt attacks and improve its resilience but will have to accept that terrorists will occasionally succeed.

Dealing with Crime

Profit seeking criminals will be happy to exploit new technology but will use it mostly to avoid contact with the police. Contact, potential conflict, and confinement greatly increase the cost of doing business. Dealing with these groups should be based on police methods—adapted as necessary to deal with increasing criminal capability. Unfortunately, this is likely to result in further movement of policing to a paramilitary basis which historically has not boded well for the people of the nation.

In contrast, those criminals who choose to carve territory out of a state to prevent state interference in their business have really moved into the realm of insurgency. They are seizing political control of a region. Dealing with these groups will require more of a counterinsurgency concept like that described above.


The converging technologies of the fourth industrial revolution are shifting the military balance between states and non-state actors in favor of the non-state actors. Insurgents, terrorists, and criminals now have access to capabilities formerly reserved for major powers. The United States will have to adapt accordingly. But the most important point to remember is that our failures since World War II have not been the result of an inability to solve tactical problems but rather the consistent failure to match U.S. strategy to the particular situation. Therefore the critical piece is to truly understand the problem and adopt a strategy that solves the problem confronting the United States. Then we can adapt at the tactical and technical levels to deal with the new problems presented by emerging technology.


T.X. Hammes is a distinguished research fellow in the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. He served for 30 years in the United States Marine Corps.


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