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Violent non-state actor (VNSA) refers to any organization that uses illegal violence (i.e. force not officially approved of by the state) to reach its goals, thereby contesting the monopoly on violence of the state. The term has been used in several papers published by the United States military.[1][2][3][4]


Rise of violent non-state actors

Nation-states were characterized in 1919 by Max Weber as having a "monopoly on violence" within a territory. Phil Williams, in an overview article, argues that "in the 21st century, the state monopoly on violence is being reduced to a convenient fiction. Relatively few of the sovereign states of the United Nations can truly claim a monopoly on force within their territorial borders." [5] Williams points out that while Europe benefited from the "state-building impetus of the total wars of the 20th century", other parts of the world did not undergo that cementing experience.

Williams identifies various types of non-state actors. Warlords and militias have a territory over which they exercise some of the control functions of a government. Insurgencies are engaged in a civil war to take over the state or a portion thereof. Criminal organizations and youth gangs are essentially illegal business organizations. ("Crime for them is simply a continuation of business by other means".) [5] Terrorist organizations are sometimes an early stage of an insurgency.

Relation to terrorism

Williams distinguishes between nationalist organizations which use terrorism, and "groups rooted in militant Islam."[5] The former represents an early stage of an insurgency, where the goal is to take over territory. The latter has been discussed extensively elsewhere.

Origin and motives

Some VNSAs (being non-state actors) are in one way or another sponsored by the state, or by local authorities (see also state-sponsored terrorism or para-militaries).[citation needed]

Most VNSAs however emerge in response to deficiencies, inadequacies, or shortcomings; i.e. when the state does not provide safety, security, (economic) stability and the basic public services for its citizens, or certain groups of citizens (minorities). When the state lacks legitimacy and/or capacity, others will fill the gap, take advantage, or directly confront the state. (see also Relative deprivation, Failed state and Fragile state).[citation needed]

Motives of VNSAs can be either mainly materialistic (like the Mafia), or mainly political/ideological (like the ETA or EZLN), or religious (like Al-Qaeda), or a mix of these.[citation needed] In reality these distinctions are often not clear. Hamas or FARC for instance might be viewed by their supporters as freedom fighters, and by their detractors as terrorists or criminal conspiracies.[citation needed]

Diagnostic dimensions

Instead of labelling an organization (for instance as terrorist or freedom fighters), a clearer picture of the nature of a VNSA can be provided by diagnosing an organisation by dimensions; for example by asking the following questions:[citation needed]

  • How do they legitimize themselves? (by political ideology, ethnicity, nationality, religion, functionality)
  • Which societal gaps does a VNSA fill? (safety/security, (economic) stability, social participation, public services)
  • To what extent do they have support from outside? (local, regional, national, international)
  • What is the scope of influence? (local, regional, national, international)
  • Among which population groups or what indicators they recruit on? (age, religious, political, class, ethnicity)
  • Where do they recruit? (local, regional, national, international)
  • How do they recruit? (ideological i.e. empowerment, bribery, intimidation and violence, kidnapping)
  • To what extent are they infiltrated in (local or national) government and business (corruption)?
  • Are they involved in organized crime? (weapons trade, drug trade, trade in humans, money-laundering)
  • How is the organisation structured? (hierarchical or democratic, central or diffused network)
  • How has their focus and strategy changed over time (generations)? (more violent or more diplomatic, more international)

See also


  1. ^ Casebeer, Maj William, (USAF, USAF Academy), and Thomas, Maj Troy Thomas, USAF (1st Fighter Wing IN.) (December 2002). "Deterring Violent Non-State Actors in the New Millenium". Strategic Insights I (10). Archived from the original on March 6, 2008. 
  2. ^ Bartolomei, Jason ; Casebeer, William ; Thomas, Troy (November 2004). "Modeling Violent Non-State Actors: A Summary of Concepts and Methods". IITA Research Publication, Information Series (Colorado: Institute for Information Technology Applications, United States Air Force Academy) (4). 
  3. ^ Thomas, Maj. Troy S., USAF and Casebeer, Maj. William D., USAF (March 2004). "Violent Non-State Actors: Countering Dynamic Systems". Strategic Insights III (3). 
  4. ^ Richard H. Shultz, Douglas Farah, Itamara V. Lochard (September 2004). "Armed Groups: A Tier-One Security Priority". INSS Occasional Paper (USAF Institute for National Security Studies, USAF Academy) (57). 
  5. ^ a b c Williams, Phil (November 28, 2008). Violent Non-State Actors. International Relations and Security Network, Zurich. 


Further reading

  • Troy S. Thomas, Stephen D. Kiser, William D. Casebeer (August 2005). Warlords Rising: Confronting Violent Non-state Actors. Lxington Books. ISBN 978-0739111901. 

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