Introduction to the Special Issue

By: Dr. Scott Sigmund Gartner, Pennsylvania State University

The rapid rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) seemed to stun American leaders. US President Barack Obama stated, "There is no doubt that their advance, their movement over the last several months has been more rapid than the intelligence estimates and, I think, the expectations of policymakers both in and outside of Iraq," 1 an observation echoed by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.2 There is a widespread view that US intelligence agencies were surprised by the meteoric rise of ISIS and its effectiveness at acquiring territory: "Intelligence agencies were caught off guard by the speed of the extremists' subsequent advance across northern Iraq." 3 Many see this as an intelligence failure: "We got caught flat-footed. Period."4 These views raise fundamental concerns about US intelligence agencies' ability to accurately assess the capabilities, interests, and actions of violent non-state actors (VNSAs).

Net assessment "looks at the strategic matchbetween the two sides' strengths and weakness."5 Integrating highly disparate factors into a single calculation represents a considerable challenge.6 But without assessments, it is impossible to adopt and adapt effective security policy.7 The question then is, How should we conduct net assessments of violent non-state actors in a way that addresses these inherent challenges? As we see with ISIS, a comparatively distant, nonexistential threat can monopolize the focus of a government's security, intelligence, and political apparatuses. It has never been more vital to be able to anticipate the rise and decline of these violent groups.

Having the ability to develop a complete and accurate picture of violent non-state actors is not just a US concern, but represents a critical capability for all nations. The current era, characterized by asymmetric warfare and the scourge of transnational terrorism, has seen a rise in intrastate conflict coincident with a dramatic decline in the occurrence of interstate wars. In each case, groups, not nations, represent the threat. Or, as John Arquilla warns in the foreword to this special issue, "There is yet another conflict emerging, one in which coalitions of nations and networks will increasingly face off against each other." It is vital for the security of the world's nations to be able to determine which of those groups are more capable and threatening, which areas are likely to see the greatest emergence of violent non-state actors, and how environmental factors influence the insurgent-counterinsurgent dynamic. Net Assessment 2.0 thus represents an essential global concern.

Net assessments by the US government have traditionally focused on state-vs.-state competitions, such as a long-term focus on the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.8 The most important of these net assessments was conducted by the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment (ONA), led by Andrew Marshall.9 The job of the ONA was to "analyze the relative power of the United States and the Soviet Union—that is, to assess how the two nations' strengths and weaknesses netted out." 10 Marshall developed a complex and comprehensive methodology for acquiring information and transforming divergent factors into comparable metrics.11

The ONA's challenge, however, pales in comparison to that which analysts face when assessing VNSAs. States have comparatively static boundaries, slowly changing populations, fixed resource endowments, predictable interests, and sluggishly adaptive institutions. By contrast, non-state actors such as terrorist and insurgent groups rapidly emerge, change, and die, and have widely varying capabilities, interests, and behaviors.12 These groups even "change their policies and shift back and forth between violent and nonviolent strategies, occasionally adopting both at the same time." 13 The physical resources of a transnational terror group like Boko Haram are miniscule compared to those of even a small state.14 VNSAs lack clearly observable features like roads, mines, missile silos, factories, and ports that can be counted, weighed, and assessed. These factors make comprehensive net assessments of VNSAs extremely challenging and possibly even unachievable.15

Producing net assessments of VNSAs requires that we both borrow from and expand beyond the traditional approach to threat analysis. "By definition, a comprehensive terrorism assessment must include more than just a threat evaluation." 16 Given the relative lack of physical resources commanded by VNSAs, the key to countering them is to understand how these groups manipulate information and perceptions across networks to gain recruits, manipulate policy, and instill fear.17 This new method must not only range beyond the traditional parameters of the ONA protocol,18 but must also include fresh and innovative approaches.

In 2013, a small cadre from the National Counterterrorism Center's Directorate for Strategic Operational Planning created a Net Assessment Branch. This new team began a multiyear project to produce a new way to conduct net assessments that could apply to non-state actors. The goal of this special issue of the Combating Terrorism Exchange is to introduce new ways of thinking that challenge the epistemology of how net assessments have been conducted for the past 50 years. These articles make a strong case against "business as usual" when it comes to producing net assessments of non-state actors. The essays reveal innovative concepts and insights, some of which clearly must be incorporated into how the United States and its allies assess new threats, and all of which demonstrate the value of thinking creatively about security in the twenty-first century.

The seven essays begin with "Characteristics of Terrorism Hotspots" by James A. Piazza, which shows that places with high levels of human rights abuse are especially likely to see the emergence of terrorism. In their essay "The Blue-Green-Red Metaphor in the Context of Counterterrorism: Clarifications and Anthropological Emendations," Lawrence A. Kuznar and Carl W. Hunt take on traditional "blue–red–green" approaches to net assessment and suggest instead a new interdisciplinary perspective that examines disruptive and constructive functional capabilities. In a collaboration formed expressly for this issue, Matthew M. Mars, Judith L. Bronstein, and Patricia L. Sullivan—experts on ecosystems, biology, and political violence, respectively—use their article, "The Ecosystem of Dark Networks: A Biological Perspective," to describe an ecological approach to militant violence that highlights the critical role of "keystone" actors within an ecosystem. Many researchers view identity formation as one of the most critical factors driving VNSA emergence. Michael Vlahos explores how national and group identities are constructed, and the particular circumstances of the American identity, in the article "America: Imagined Community, Imagined Kinship."

In "One Arm Tied Behind Our Backs? Assessing the Power of the United States to Combat Global Threats," Leo Blanken and Jason Lepore look at the constraining role that politics and norms play in national security and make a strong case for including these political norms in net assessments. Melvin J. Konner explores the powerful role that metaphors and conceptual models play in influencing the way we conduct net assessments and cautions about an overreliance on predictive modeling in his essay, "The Weather of Violence: Metaphors and Models, Predictions and Surprises." Finally, in "Trapped by the Paradigm: Why Net Assessment May Not Contribute to Countering Terrorism," two-time US ambassador Dennis Jett questions the value of the entire net assessment enterprise, suggesting we look instead at how to encourage the development of democratic institutions and norms in unstable countries.

Terrorism generates both fear and confusion, which can easily lead to overreaction by its targets, and in the end, this overreaction represents the true existential threat. During his US Civil War campaigns, Confederate General Stonewall Jackson drove to "always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy if possible." Developing improved ways to conduct net assessments of violent non-state actors represents a major step in demystifying this type of threat and taking greater control of our global security. As CAPT Todd G. Veazie notes in the preface to this issue, the stakes are high. "A good diagnosis will provide the necessary ‘sense-making' to guide appropriate action in full cognizance of the long-term consequences of both action and inaction, in terms of potential threats and opportunities across a range of policy choices. A bad diagnosis can lead to policy choices that are inefficient, ineffective, and potentially tragic."

About the Author(s):
Dr. Scott Gartner is director of the School of International Affairs at Pennsylvania State University.

This is a work of the US federal government and not subject to copyright protection in the United States. Foreign copyrights may apply.

  1. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, "Statement by the President on Iraq," news release, 9 August 2014:  
  2. Sam Frizell, "Obama Admits United States Intelligence Didn't See ISIS Coming," Time, 28 September 2014: 
  3. Peter Baker and Eric Schmitt, "Many Missteps in Assessment of ISIS Threat," New York Times, 29 September 2014: 
  4. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, as quoted in Shane Harris, "Jihadist Gains in Iraq Blindside American Spies," Foreign Policy, 12 June 2014 (subscription required): 
  5. Scott Sigmund Gartner, "A Net Assessment Approach to ISIS: Bash the Cash," Huffington Post, 8 December 2014: 
  6. John M. Collins and Elizabeth Ann Severns, Essentials of Net Assessment: An Objective Means of Comparing Military Capabilities, Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report 80-168 (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, July 1980): 1; Paul Bracken, "Net Assessment: A Practical Guide," Parameters 36, no. 1 (2006): 90.  
  7. Scott Sigmund Gartner, Strategic Assessment in War (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999); Leo J. Blanken and Jason J. Lepore, "Performance Measurement in Military Operations: Information versus Incentives," Defence and Peace Economics (August 2014): 1–20.  
  8. Eliot A. Cohen, Net Assessment: An American Approach, Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies (JCSS) Memorandum No. 29 (Tel Aviv: JCSS, April 1997): 
  9. Andrew F. Krepinevich and Barry D. Watts, The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy (New York: Basic Books, 2015). 
  10. Douglas J. Feith, "The Hidden Hand behind American Foreign Policy," Wall Street Journal, 23 January 2015: 
  11. A.W. Marshall, "A Program to Improve Analytic Methods Related to Strategic Forces," Policy Sciences 15, no. 1 (1982), 47–50. 
  12. Peter L. Bergen, The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda (New York: Free Press, 2011). 
  13. Victor Asal and Jonathan Wilkenfeld, "Ethnic Conflict: An Organizational Perspective," Penn State Journal of Law and International Affairs 2, no. 1 (2013): 93. 
  14. Farouk Chothia, "Who Are Nigeria's Boko Haram Islamists?" BBC, 4 May 2015: 
  15. Paul Pillar, "ISIS and the Politics of Surprise," National Interest, 3 October 2014:  
  16. Peter Chalk, Angel Rabasa, William Rosenau, and Leanne Piggott, The Evolving Terrorist Threat to Southeast Asia: A Net Assessment (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 2009): 4: 
  17. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, eds., Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 2001): ; Christopher Griffin and Oriana Scherr, Terrorist Threats in the Horn of Africa: A Net Assessment (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 30 July 2007): 
  18. James W. Wright, Military Effectiveness in the Long War (Fort Leavenworth, Kan.: School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, 24 May 2007): 
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