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The Strategic Challenge of Failed States

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by Douglas Farah
Published on September 25th, 2006

The number of failed or “fragile” states has jumped in the past three years—from 17 to 26—according to a recent study by the World Bank, showing significant deterioration in the global security situation.[1] The extent of the downward spiral is even more notable when compared to a similar World Bank study conducted in 1996 that found only 11 failed states.[2]

The finding of the Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group presents serious challenges to U.S. security interests, apart for the humanitarian catastrophe and long-term health and ecological crises the numbers represent. According to the report, almost 500 million people live in these states, half of whom are living in extreme poverty. This situation “risks a worsening of their misery, in turn feeding regional and global instability,” said Vinod Thomas, IEG’s Director General.[3]

The level of ungovernability has grown as the number of states in the world has mushroomed from 51 in 1945 to more than 200 today. The vacuum left by declining or transitional states has in turn, led to a rapid expansion of areas beyond state control, creating safe havens from which armed groups can establish secure centers for self-protection, training, planning and launching regional and transnational operations. These areas are distinguished by rugged terrain, inaccessibility, little government presence and a sparse or quiescent population.

U.S. leaders have officially recognized the danger of failed states. Last year in a Washington Post op-ed, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote that “The danger (failed states) pose is now unparalleled.  Absent responsible state authority, threats that would and should be contained within a country’s borders can now melt into the world and wreak untold havoc.”

“Weak and failing states,” Rice wrote, “serve as global pathways that facilitate the spread of pandemics, the movement of criminals and terrorists, and the proliferation of the world’s most dangerous weapons.”

But such recognition by Rice, leaders of the World Bank and the Intelligence Community has not led to significant efforts to stem the trend or begin to seriously study how and why states fail and the consequences such failures have for U.S. strategic interests. The intelligence communities, both in the United States and Europe, remain largely state-centric in their focus. Little of the necessary intelligence architecture needed to develop an understanding of the numerous varieties of failed states and even broader array of non-state groups is in place.

A measure of how long it has taken the policy establishment to respond is that the Department of Defense only stood up a working group on failed and failing states within the past six months, despite the fact that the 9-11 attacks and other al Qaeda strikes against the United States in the past nine years were carried out by non-state actors residing in a failed state.[4] It is clear from al Qaeda’s own writings and internal discussions that territorial control is viewed as a key to success. Their stated goal, the reestablishment of the Islamic caliphate, is at least in part, a territorial concept—the establishment of Allah’s kingdom on earth.[5] Hezbollah, Hamas, the FARC and other non-state groups could not survive, at least with the ability to pose a significant strategic threat to the United States, if they did not control territory.

Afghanistan under the Taliban (allowing al Qaeda to plan and execute transnational attacks against American targets in East Africa, Yemen and the United States) and Somalia after the collapse of the central government are clear examples of non-state actors’ use of failed states from the recent past. The border territories along the Afghan-Pakistan border, Somalia and much of the Democratic Republic of Congo are current examples. However, terrorist groups and other non-state armed groups are not always located in states, but in specific areas that may spread across several states. As the Bank study shows, when one area in a state begins to fail or can no longer function as part of the state, other nearby regions, both in that state and in surrounding states, will almost certainly be affected.

As a recent report by Centre for Strategic Studies in the Hague stated, terrorists “seek out the soft spots, the weak seams of the Westphalian nation-state and the international order that it has created. Sometimes the territory’s boundaries coincide with the entire territory of a state, as with Somalia, but mostly this is not the case. Traditional weak spots, like border areas are more likely. Terrorist organizations operate on the fringes of this Westphalian system, in the grey areas of territoriality.”[6] In order to help refine the discussion on terrorist sanctuaries, the authors propose looking at “Black Holes” that can be transnational in nature, rather than focusing on failed states. The report identifies 41 “black holes” in the non-Western world. Most involve at least two countries, often more.

The Institute for National Security Studies of the U.S. Air Force Academy published a broader look at the threat posed by non-state armed actors, arguing that, even without the possession of weapons of mass destruction, such groups pose a Tier-One security threat for the United States.[7] The paper defines four categories of armed groups that take advantage or create the world’s stateless regions—guerrillas, terrorists, transnational criminal groups and insurgencies. It also identifies six operational characteristics of such groups that need to be understood in order to create a profile that can help determine the importance of each group, the threat it poses and a methodology for attacking it. It is fundamental to recognize the many variations among the different groups and the different challenges and threats they pose. These characteristics are: leadership; rank and file membership; organizational structure and functions; ideology/political code of beliefs and objectives; strategy and tactics; and linkages with other non-state actors.

One important difference that studies do not make is the distinction between states where the state has little or no power in certain areas that may overlap into other states, and states where the state in fact has a virtual monopoly on power and the use of force, but turns the state into a functioning criminal enterprise for the benefit of a small elite. A third variation is when a functioning state essentially turns over part of its territory to non-state groups to carry out their own agenda with the blessing and protection of the central government or a regional power.

Many parts of Colombia, along with Somalia and the Tri-Border Area in South America fit the first category and could be considered “black holes.” Afghanistan under the Taliban and Liberia under Charles Taylor are examples of the second category. Sudan, with is support of the janjaweed and radical Islamist groups, and Hezbollah with the support of Iran and Syria are an examples of the third. All can provide hospitable conditions for non-state armed groups to flourish.

In Liberia, the state, while failing to meet the basic needs of its people and fulfilling virtual none of the traditional roles of states (defending national borders, providing basic education and health services, sanitation, garbage collection, mail delivery), had a virtual monopoly on power. Under Taylor’s direction, the extraction of timber, diamonds and gold were carried out with relative efficiency, but the benefits went to Taylor and his inner circle. While able to control points of entry and exit, the control was used to grant protection to terrorists and internationally-wanted criminals, who in turn were able to bring economic benefit to the Liberian elite. The groups whose operations Taylor sanctioned included al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Russian organized crime, Israeli organized crime, South African organized crime and Chinese (PRC) timber companies violating international timber laws.

By far the largest number of failed states (16) are in Africa. Several of these states offer both of the above models in different parts of their national territory: the state that exists is a functioning criminal enterprise, while leaving vast territories uncontrolled and open for use non-state actors. Perhaps the most obvious example is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where guerrilla armies operate in the north and eastern sectors, Lebanese businessmen with ties to Hezbollah control the diamond trade around the country and strategic minerals such as gold, bauxite and uranium are exploited by unregistered and uncontrolled state (North Korea, Zimbabwe, China) and non-state (private merchants) agents. In the areas the government does control, mainly around the capital of Kinshasa, the corrupt regime of Joseph Kabila holds a virtual monopoly on the income from foreign investments and other government revenue streams while providing virtually no government services.

In 2003 there were 13 states in Africa that met the LICU criteria of the Bank, up from 11 in 1996. While three African countries that were in the 2002 study—Chad, Djibouti and Sierra Leone—were removed from the list, several countries with vital natural resources and economies that serve as regional economic engines, have deteriorated to the point of being included for the first time. The primary ones are Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire. The inclusion of Nigeria is recognition of the deteriorating situation in the Niger Delta, as well as the growing influence of radical Islamist groups including Sunni Wahhabis and Iranian-linked Shi’ias in the north.

The U.S. strategic interests in Nigeria are easy to define. Nigeria produces some 2.45 million barrels of petroleum a day, making it the sixth-largest supplier of U.S. oil.[8] Beyond that, the instability and deterioration in Nigeria does not occur in isolation.

Across the Gulf of Guinea, from Angola (1.6 million barrels of oil a day)[9] to Chad and Cameroon (300,000 barrels a day, pumped out through Cameroon)[10] to Equatorial Guinea (420,000 barrels a day)[11] the spillover effect from the ongoing conflicts over resource distribution and among ethnic groups threatens the stability of the entire region.

The collapse of Cote d’Ivoire, long the most stable nation in West Africa, poses another series of challenges. With a large, increasingly disaffected Muslim population and a collapsing central government, the country’s slide toward chaos is likely to pull down neighboring Burkina Faso, Liberia and Ghana, and possibly countries beyond. The large, impoverished Muslim population will form a potential recruiting theater for both Salafist and Shi’ite groups who can set up charities and aid programs that have served as a model for past recruitment in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere.

The current trends show no signs of reversing. The U.S military is growing increasingly concerned about the inroads made by the Salafist groups across the Sahel region of Africa, particularly the Algerian-based Group for Call and Combat (GSPC). "We're not talking about large numbers of terrorists, like Iraq or Afghanistan, or fixed training bases," one U.S. counterterrorism official. "We're talking about relatively small numbers of moving targets who are difficult to fix and destroy but who represent an increasing threat ... It's not the biggest threat in the world, but it's a significant emerging one."[12]

There is some evidence that, with a large influx of Saudi money, the Islamist Salafist theology of intolerance and hatred for the West is taking root across parts of Africa where Islam has traditionally been of a more tolerant nature. Sleeper cells are being formed by Islamist groups in the desert regions of Senegal, Mali and Mauritania, where the state has virtually no presence, according to an Islamist imam with personal ties to Osama bin Laden.

"After training they are dormant. They become sworn members who know they are going to die," said Mamour Fall, a Senegalese imam expelled from Italy in 2003 after being branded a national security threat. "One day you receive your ticket telling you it is your turn to go, and you go.”[13]

Fouad Hussein, a radical Jordanian close to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, last year outlined the jihadist 20-year, six-phase plan for conquest of the West. The document, while perhaps unrealistic, makes it clear that the expansion of black holes or stateless areas if of utmost importance in the jihadist struggle.[14] They will rely on the disruption of states and the conquest of territory to set their plans in motion. In these areas, as the Taliban and al Qaeda learned before, strategic, short-term alliances with a host of other non-Islamic non-state actors can yield significant benefits.

The Taliban relied on the sanctions-busting capabilities of Viktor Bout, a Russian weapons dealer, to supply them not only with weapons and ammunition, but with 10 aircraft. With the aircraft the Taliban leadership, and perhaps al Qaeda, were able to run an independent supply network without international interference.[15]

The 9-11 Commission concluded that “to find sanctuary, terrorist organizations have fled to some of the least governed, most lawless places in the world…The intelligence community has prepared a world map that highlights possible terrorist havens, using no secret intelligence, just indicating areas that combine rugged terrain, weak governance, room to hide or receive supplies, and low population densities with a town or city near enough to allow necessary interaction with the outside world. Large areas scattered around the world meet these criteria.”[16]

These areas are growing, not shrinking. While talking about the threat posed by failed states or “black holes” is now accepted, the next step must be to build an understanding of what attracts different groups to different regions, mapping the overlapping networks among non-state actors and developing both a strategy that denies these sanctuaries to enemies who are working hard to exploit and expand them, and a specific indications and warning protocol to alert policymakers at the earliest point of vulnerability.

[1] “Engaging with Fragile States: An IEG Review of World Bank Support to Low-Income Countries Under Stress,” The World Bank, September 2006, Washington, D.C., accessed at

[2] D. Kauffmann, A. Kraay and M. Mastruzzi, Governance Matters III: Governance Indicators from 1996-2002 (2003), accessible at The criteria and methodology used to define failed states has changed somewhat over time, but is generally consistent. The primary difference is the Bank’s decision to change language, from “failed states” to Low-Income Countries Under Stress.

[3] IEG Press Release, Sept. 13, 2006, accessible at;

[4]Author conversations with DOD personnel studying failed states.

[5] Lawrence Wright, “The Master Plan: For the Theorists of Jihad, Al Qaeda is Just the Beginning,” The New Yorker, Sept. 11, 2006.

[6] Rem Korteweg and David Ehrhardt, “Terrorist Black Holes: A Study into Terrorist Sanctuaries and Governmental Weakness,” Clingendael Centre for Strategic Studies, The Hague, November 2005, p. 22.

[7] Richard H. Shultz, Douglas Farah and Itamara V. Lochard, “Armed Groups: A Tier-One Security Priority,” Institute for National Security Studies, Occasional Paper 57, September 2004. Accessible at:





[12] Nick Tattersall, “Sahara Seen as Potential Terrorist Breeding Ground,” Reuters, Sept. 14, 2006.

[13] Tattersall, op cit.

[14] Lawrence Wright, op cit.

[15] Los Angeles Times Staff, “On the Trail of the Man Behind Taliban’s Air Fleet,” Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2002, p. A1.

[16] Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Norton Co., New York, 2004, pp. 366-367.

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