At a time when state control is diminishing or nonexistent across growing swaths of the world, non-state armed groups pose a little-understood but important challenge to the United States and other nations. This was true before the tragic events of 9/11 and it remains true three years later. In order to meet this premier security challenge of the modern age, we must gain a much deeper understanding of the ways in which criminal states and non-state armed groups interact.

Non-state actors can be roughly divided into four types:

  • Insurgents who are engaged in a protracted political and military struggle aimed at weakening or destroying the power and legitimacy of a ruling government;
  • Terrorists who spread fear through the threat or use of proscribed violence for political purposes;
  • Militias made up of irregular yet recognizable armed forces operating within an ungoverned area or a weak or failing state;
  • International criminal organizations engaged in one or more type of criminal enterprise that operates across regions and national borders.

These non-state actors become particularly dangerous when they are hosted by or operate in conjunction with illegitimate states – states that are states only in name. In such cases, the state itself becomes a functioning criminal enterprise while continuing to enjoy – and use for illegal purposes – many of the international benefits of statehood (e.g., the ability to issue recognized diplomatic passports; maintain shipping and airplane registries; control border entry and exit points; and collect taxes).

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