From November 1989 to September 2001, the developed world lived in relative peace. Although it felt some repercussions from disorder and violence elsewhere, it was not affected by any serious conflict. The West tended to see this tranquillity as an acquired and permanent situation and took little interest in global disorder, but the period was actually an interlude preceding a chaotic phase of world history. When the lull was brought to an abrupt end by the attacks of 11 September 2001, westerners suddenly glimpsed the huge strategic threat posed globally by a new-or perhaps ancient-form of conflict: terrorist and criminal war.
This kind of terrorist and criminal war is completely different from the bloody wars of the twentieth century. In classic international law, the state has a monopoly on legitimate violence, so that in a world dominated by states, the only “real” wars are those between states. Such wars have, however, largely ceased to exist, for at least three reasons: (1) Nuclear weaponry is a deterrent; it makes them too dangerous, especially when superpowers are involved. (2) Democracies are now more numerous than before, and democracies tend not to war among themselves. (3) Economic and technological development makes the acquisition of territory by military means less essential than it was in the past.

Until the end of the Cold War, the utmost limit of warfare between states was indirect strategy: a complex pattern of ruses and maneuvers intended to break up an enemy’s order of battle. At the beginning of the twenty-first century the logic of indirect strategy has become outdated and inapplicable in a world where previously clear distinctions—between attack and defense, the state and civil society, the public and private sectors, civilians and the military, war and peace, police and army, legality and illegality—are being blurred. New forms of confrontation have emerged, in which the determining factor is no longer nation or ideology but race, tribe, greed, or religious fanaticism.

The Advent of Wars of Chaos, Terror, and Criminality

When a new era begins, the greatest difficulty is to identify, sufficiently early, the enemy, the battlefield, and the rules—if any—of engagement. What conclusions can we reach about the real dangers of the present world? First, in today’s chaotic world, wars are no longer fought between one state and another and so are becoming increasingly ferocious. Often, our opponents are fighting for things that represent a visceral attachment and are held sacred, such as a bloodline (themselves and their descendants, kin, and clan) and land (their homes and territory).
Second, this chaotic warfare is characterized by crime, tribalism, and terrorism. The adversary is increasingly a sort of hybrid, part common criminal and part political. A warlord, tribal leader, or fanatical fundamentalist might head a militia or terrorist network funded by extortion rackets and trafficking in human beings, arms, drugs, protected species, and toxic waste. For example, several sub-Saharan African countries have plunged into a downward spiral in which the nation-state fails; armed gangs and guerrillas lacking any ideology proliferate; gang warfare occurs and recurs; organized crime becomes pervasive; tribalism and warlord rule predominate; and a culture of impunity develops.
Oswaldo de Rivero, a high-ranking UN official, commented in Le Monde Diplomatique of April 1999: “Civil war goes hand in hand with the worst level of criminality.” As he put it, the “national nonviability of many developing countries” causes the nation-state to implode into ungovernable chaotic entities” dominated by an “alliance of into general anarchy and various forms of delinquency.”

Characteristics of Wars of Chaos

One characteristic of chaotic war is the abolition of the clearly defined geostrategic space in which major countries once developed their national defense.
A second characteristic is a decrease in the number of nation-states that have continuous, controlled frontiers and comply with current international law. Consequently, a growing number of participants in criminal or terrorist wars are resolutely indifferent to states and to state boundaries. Third, no distinction can be made between civil and military authority or front line and rear; and militia forces wearing any sort of regular uniform are rare.
Fourth, the opponent is dispersed among the population, often mixing with friendly forces.
Fifth, “classic” combat in an open field of battle is replaced by massacres, bloody vendettas (as in Albania, Algeria, Chechnya, and the former Yugoslavia), and terrorist attacks.
These phenomena are part of a web of criminality of all kinds: trafficking in drugs, toxic waste, human beings (either whole as illegal migrants, or piecemeal in the human organ trade), “sensitive” electronic components, precious stones (“war diamonds”), and arms. We also find clashes between religious fanatics, ethnic and tribal conflict, civil war and famine, and piracy at sea and in the air.

A New Form of Terror: Undefined and Unexpected

From 1989 to 2001, the nature and pace of terror changed. Previously, the enemy was known, stable, and familiar. Today the enemy is evasive, strange, and incomprehensible—but just as dangerous, if not more so. During the Cold War, strategic threats (such as the Warsaw Pact) were heavy, stable, slow, identifiable, almost familiar. Even the terrorist threat was stable and explicable. Abu Nidal’s Fatah Revolutionary Council is an example. Its hideout, protectors, and weapons were known to all; and deciphering the acronyms it chose for its actions was child’s play. Now, by contrast, terror offers but a fleeting glimpse of a brutal, irrational face, as with the Aum Shinrikyo sect or the Groupes Islamique Armes (GIA) in Algeria.
What, then, are the real threats we face today? What has terrorism become?

General Observations

Since its first appearance in the nineteenth century, terrorism has been studied within a specific frame of reference, that of terrorism itself. Today, this concept has become too narrow. With the end of the bipolar world order (marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall), terrorism mutated and moved outside the domain within which it used to be analyzed. The broader domain of the threats, criminal and other, that now menace society provides a more suitable framework for conceptualizing and defining terrorism and understanding its extent.

Today, the real menace is posed by hybrid groups that are opportunistic and capable of rapid transformation. The real conflicts (in the Balkans, in Africa, and elsewhere) are essentially civilian and are often ethnic or tribal. They are melting pots of crime; religious fanaticism; massacres; piracy; and trafficking in human beings, drugs, arms, toxic substances, or gems.

Thus for the foreseeable future warfare will have a criminal dimension, a terrorist dimension, or both. Civilians-cities, corporations, the population at large-will be increasingly affected, as they were by the attacks of September 2001 and by the anthrax scares in New York that same autumn. The wars, whether inspired by terrorism or criminality, will originate in two types of lawless zones:

(1) failed states that have become temporarily or permanently anarchic (Afghanistan, Albania, Liberia, Sierra Leone, etc.) and

(2) vast anarchic urban sprawls in the developing world (Karachi, Lagos, Rio de Janeiro, etc.), where entire districts and suburbs are effectively controlled by organized criminal groups, terrorists, and traffickers. Karachi and Rio de Janeiro are striking examples of urban sprawls as terrorist or criminal strongholds. Karachi-referred to in the press as a city like, say, Paris or Rome-is actually a gigantic shantytown approximately as large in area and population as the whole of Belgium. In Karachi, fanatical Islamist supporters of Usama bin Ladin have organized demonstrations by more than 300,000 protestors. Rio has perhaps 800 hillside shantytowns called favelas that take up one-third of the metropolitan area and have a population of 1 million, almost all squatters. In these favelas, according to local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), one youngster in four aged 10 to 19 belongs to a criminal gang, and gunshot wounds are the leading cause of death in this age group. According to the police, 3 to 4 tons of cocaine are moved through the favelas each month, and 80 percent of it is destined for Europe or North America.

From bases such as these,1 dangerous groups can easily strike at symbolic targets in the developed world.

New Hybrid Forms of Terrorism

Today, terrorism is a major component in warfare, which it has slowly but steadily contaminated over the past three decades. Terrorism is now the central security concern for our governments. It may even be said that terrorism has become war. However this all-pervasive terrorism-daily, somewhere in the world, for one reason or another, bombs are exploding-has itself undergone a significant mutation.

The state terrorism of the Cold War, whether political or ideological, has almost disappeared. New terrorists have emerged. The hard core are fanatics such as Islamist terrorists, but there are also nonpolitical criminals such as mafia gangs, doomsday sects, and other irrational and violent groups.

The “New Menace”

An understanding of reality in the actual danger zones since the end of the bipolar world order, with objective assessment of where attacks originate, where conflicts occur, and how the flow of illegal goods and services (human beings, narcotics, arms, stolen vehicles, etc.) is organized, leads to the conclusion that the real menace comes from militias, mutant guerrilla groups, and hybrid groups combining terrorists, fanatics, so-called patriot thugs, and army deserters. These are under the orders of dissident generals and warlords, lunatics, or outright criminals. They are often unknown and obscure groups, capable of swift mutation and shifting alliances. They are contemptuous of international law, particularly humanitarian law.

They are symbiotically linked to the criminal economy: narcotics, the arms trade, and dirty money.

The “Biology” of Dangerous Groups

The end of the bipolar world order has brought about mutations in groups that previously were solely terrorist or criminal-and a sudden, unpredictable slide from the “technomorphous” to the “biomorphous” domain. In the technomorphous domain, trans-national terrorism was carried out by groups involved in special services on behalf of states; such groups were salaried and under orders and acted, in a sense, mechanically, on a stop-start basis. In today’s biomorphous domain, complex dangerous groups proliferate, in a sense, organically-and so far uncontrollably. They are difficult to identify, define, or understand, emerging in flows and territories that are barely charted.

The new dangerous groups have at least seven characteristics in common. In the first place, they are not really organizations at all, as the West generally uses that term. That is, they are not solid, rigid structures. On the contrary, they are fluid, liquid, or even volatile. For example, let us consider what the United States government refers to as al-Qaida and insists on presenting as a formal hierarchical organization (with a “No. 2” and a “No. 3”). The United States has alleged that “two-thirds of the command structure has been eliminated,” implying some sort of stable or permanent membership. Such fictions are spread by various presumed experts, one of whom blithely estimated the “membership of al-Qaeda” as 1,200. But al-Qaida is not an organization in the way that (to confine our example to terrorism) the IRA is an organization. It is easy to show that al-Qaida is not simply an Islamic militant counterpart of the Roman Catholic IRA.

Since August 1998 and its first attacks against the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, al-Qaida has been subjected to fierce repression. According to the database of this author and his colleagues, some 5,000 individuals referred to as its “members,” nationals of 50 or more countries, have been interrogated in

58 countries worldwide; and hundreds of additional arrests have taken place secretly, especially in the Arab world. Moreover, there has been a worldwide freezing of al-Qaida’s funds. According to a report of July 2003 by UN experts responsible for monitoring the application of UN resolutions on the fight against terrorism, since al-Qaida’s first attacks in August 2001 $59.2 million held by al-Qaida, by linked companies or other entities, or by individuals identified as its members has been frozen or confiscated in 129 countries: 70 percent in Europe, Eurasia, or North America; 21 percent in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Emirates, etc.); and 8 percent in southeast Asia. .1l this, it should be noted, took place before the war in Iraq began in spring 2003 and before the subsequent attacks in the following countries:

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (May 2003, 35 killed; November 2003, 17 killed) Casablanca, Morocco (May 2003, 45 killed) Jakarta, Indonesia (August 2003, 12 killed) Istanbul, Turkey (November 2003, 69 killed) Madrid, Spain (March 2004, 202 killed)

A second characteristic that the new dangerous groups have in common is their hybrid nature-part political, part criminal. Considerable exchanges between criminal and terrorist groups are currently being reported: the Neapolitan camorra with the Basque group .TA and the GIA in Algeria; the Dawood Ibrahim gang in Karachi with Islamist groups close to bin Ladin such as Jaish-Muhammad and Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK). Similar contacts link the IR. with the degenerate, protocriminal Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrilla movement in Colombia.

A third shared characteristic of these dangerous groups is their mutability. As noted above, they are capable of very rapid mutations, as a function of the now crucial “dollar factor.”

Fourth, typically, they are nomadic, deterritorialized (or located in inaccessible areas), and transnational.

Fifth, they are cut off from the world and civilized society. Their objectives may be criminal, fanatical, based on notions of doomsday, or entirely spurious-in reality they seem determined to hoodwink the larger world [examples, in Liberia and Sierra Leone, are the murderous bands led by Foday Sankoh under the name of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF)]. In some cases their goals may simply defy understanding (an example is the Aum sect).

Sixth, these dangerous groups generally have no state sponsorship of any kind; this lack makes them still more unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Seventh, they inflict massacres widely, with the intention of killing as many people as possible (examples include bin Ladin, the GIA in Algeria, and the Aum sect).


Element 1: Criminal and Terrorist Money-Ending the Confusion

What would be a realistic assessment of attempts so far by states to contain money laundering by terrorists or criminals? There is no doubt that such efforts have been ineffectual: states, their laws, their police forces, and their judiciary seem to move in one dimension while terrorists, mafias, and networks of arms, narcotics, explosives, and currency trafficking move in another. The two dimensions intersect only rarely, in the form of seizures, arrests, and confiscations that are no more than a nuisance to the malefactors. Islamist terrorists are fatalistic about such losses of material or imprisonment of personnel. They believe they are in the hands of God; they will continue their holy work in prison or wherever Allah sees fit to lead them. Organized crime can afford to take setbacks even more philosophically. The amounts confiscated are far lower than regular corporation taxes. Also, police crackdowns serve as a stimulus to criminal elites. In a Darwinian struggle, the hunters impose a steep learning curve on their prey. Without ever exterminating the prey-the fittest will always survive. And state campaigns against crime are announced in a blaze of publicity, well before the troops move-ever so slowly-into the field. For its part, the world of crime acts swiftly, counterattacking perhaps on the very same day, closing down offshore operations at risk and transferring funds to other, safer front companies.

Thus terrorist or criminal money must be tracked down in both space and time. One battlefield of world chaos is “uncontrolled spaces”-lawless zones or “gray areas,” intermediate spaces between the territories effectively policed by true nation-states, and neglected zones between ministries, or between the “territories” of particular services (narcotics, human trafficking, terrorism, smuggling, etc.).

There is also a battle against time. Aggressive, dangerous groups equipped with the latest technology have gained a huge advantage in time over states that are top-heavy, slow, paralyzed by administrative and legal inertia. How and why is this so?

Today, terrorist or criminal groups mostly operate from bases in uncontrolled, no-go areas (such as mountain ranges and urban sprawls). There they accumulate cash, which has to be recycled in a legitimate economy in order for it to be circulated electronically. Terrorist and mafia organizations recruit experts in high finance for this purpose. Working with lawyers and financial consultants, these banking professionals constantly seek international legal loopholes, studying legislative developments with a single aim in mind: to disguise the true origin of the funds they manage. For every major transaction, a new offshore corporate identity may be created and then instantly erased. Business is conducted smoothly and in record time. The launderers have a powerful incentive not to make mistakes, since the penalty for misuse of mafia or network funds is death (this is doubtless a better motivator than an annual bonus or a medal for productivity).

A money launderer also knows that states and international organizations have short memories, and that they soon tire of issues. Politicians are so close to the virtual reality of the media that they end up believing that by merely raising a problem they have actually solved it. We need only think of the periodic showpiece global conferences on ecological or social issues: “greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced by 50 percent in five years”; “extreme poverty to be cut by half worldwide in five years.” And in five years, what changes? Nothing.

In the real world, far from the sound bites and headlines, what can be done to combat the shifting, mutating crime of money laundering? Before any treatment is attempted, a realistic prognosis of the disease must be obtained. The enormous difficulties involved in the operation must be faced. Failure to recognize these difficulties is a main conceptual obstacle to the tracking of terrorist money.

In the United States at present, tracking terrorist money is based first and foremost on attempts to freeze the circulation of money, or else on the seizure of accounts and funds belonging to individuals and entities on the terrorist watch lists. The approach of the U.S. government is thus premised on the notion that the individuals and entities being tracked are stable and have a fixed, permanent identity like their counterparts in the West. This may well have been true, or most often true, during the Cold War; but today-at any rate outside Europe-nothing could be further from the truth.

As far as the Middle East is concerned, the notion is patently absurd. An Arabian resident might, for instance, have ten local identification cards and permits, one permanent visa, etc.-none of which is an accurate transcription of his real registered identity. Let us suppose that the man’s name is John Stephen Mackay. Then (with no exaggeration) one local permit may be in the name of Mr. Jon McQuay and another in the name of Mr. Stefan Mikey; a third may be made out to Mr. Mackie Stephens; and so on. There is no way that a computer trace, in any office, embassy, or airport, will pick up Mr. Mackay, who can easily open a local checking account, take out a credit card, etc., in the name of, say, Mr. Mikey. The same applies to his accomplices. So much for the watch list and the authorities’ hopes of tracking their money! And these are Europeans, with fixed surnames. Imagine the situation if we repeat the exercise for a certain Ali bin Mohammad al-Baghdadi (“Ali, son of Mohammed, born in Baghdad”).

Element 2: Understanding the Incubators and Battlefields of Terrorism

The entities described above are damaging enough in general, but in urban contexts-especially in the urban sprawls of the Southern Hemisphere-they pose a mortal threat.

A “mega urban sprawl” is an immense, chaotic agglomeration of apartment blocks and projects, escalators, markets, malls, highways, airports, severe pollution, shantytowns, rampant crime-and terrorism.

Outbreaks of war and violence in the mega urban sprawls of the Southern Hemisphere are reported almost daily on television; in particular, these take place in Gaza (the Gaza Strip is in effect a gigantic shantytown), in Baghdad and Bassora in Iraq, in Karachi, in Rio de Janeiro, and elsewhere. In Gaza and Baghdad, crack troops are in the field, equipped with the latest technology and equipment; furthermore, the current governments of both armies have suspended de facto the Geneva Conventions (regarding treatment of prisoners and suspects, long-term internment without trial, destruction of civilian targets, etc.). Yet both Gaza and Baghdad have proved a fatal trap -physically and morally- for the occupying forces; and both armies are facing the need for withdrawal in the future, with no decisive or permanent gains.

Before war is waged in a mega urban sprawl or a shantytown, there are more than just the specifics of the terrain to consider:

1. The local population may be organized in tribes or clans, and its reflexive reactions to attack or invasion will be driven by concepts of honor and vengeance.

2. Explosive population growth is an important factor. Gaza long had the world’s highest rate of growth, with a birthrate of 6.8 children per woman of childbearing age. The second Intifada has caused 4,000 deaths-roughly three-quarters on the Palestinian side and the rest Israelis. But can the tolls of 3,000 and 1,000 be compared in terms of the ability of the respective populations to sustain (we might almost say “absorb”) them? Certainly not.

3. A populace may be ripe for the temptations of religious fanaticism (Islamist in the case of Gaza and Baghdad) because the vast majority has been reduced to abject poverty. A promise of paradise in the afterlife is at least as realistic as the prospects for improving their current existence.

4. A society could be living as a “parallel economy,” partly criminal (trafficking in human beings, drugs, vehicles, arms, etc.).


It is clear that the violence and conflicts ravaging the mega urban sprawls and shantytowns concern not only these places but the entire world, first and foremost the developed world. Everything we have learned about dangerous territories and entities since the fall of the Berlin Wall shows that criminal chaos, wherever it appears, is virulent and contagious. For instance, Iraq has already become a center of criminal trafficking in the Middle East. The independent Palestinian administration and police force, hounded by the Israeli army, have disappeared, allowing criminal disorder to prosper on a scale extending beyond the Independent Territories to involve the Palestinian diaspora, in the whole of the Middle East and even beyond. Furthermore, the same disorder is today beginning to gain ground in the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. A recent report by the Israeli government’s National Audit Office2 exposed corruption and a rising “opacity index” in the settlements-the first, classic symptoms of a slide into criminality.

This is the reality that the developed nations must soon face up to. Criminal chaos may be less spectacular and less newsworthy than the media-conscious terrorism of bin Ladin and his kind. But it is precisely criminal chaos that is the real menace, both to the developed world and to the world which, in order to develop, has an immense, paramount need for the opposite of chaos-for peace and stability.


1. On Karachi, see Anne-Line Didier and Jean-Luc Marret, Etats échoués, mégapoles anarchiques, PUF, coll. Defense et Défis Nouveaux, 2001. For Brazil’s “criminal strongholds,” see the Web site of the Department for the Study of the Contemporary Criminal Menace,, “Note d’Alerte” No. 2, headed Cocaine sur l’Europe: L’inondation approche (Cocaine in Europe: The Flood Is Coming).

2. “Israel: Existerait-iI deux états juifs?” (“Israel: Are There in Fact Two Jewish States?”) Ha’aretz-Courrier International (13 May 2004).

Share This

Share this post with your friends!