The Blue-Green-Red Metaphor in the Context of Counterterrorism: Clarifications and Anthropological Emendations

By: Dr. Lawrence A. Kuznar , Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne, and
Dr. Carl W. Hunt, Pioneer Cyberspace Strategies, LLC

Metaphors are universal in human languages and pervasive in the language used by national security experts. For instance, power can be "soft," diplomacy can be a "lever," and war can be a "fog." Metaphors, when well defined and understood, can facilitate communication, but they will create potentially dangerous confusion if they are poorly defined or misunderstood.

An often-used metaphor in national security affairs is that of the Blue actor (typically conceived as "us": the "good guys"), the Red actor (the adversary opposed to Blue), and at times, Green actors (unaligned and/or ambivalent populations that might be swayed either way); hereafter, we refer to this as the BGR metaphor. Green is especially relevant in the context of counterterrorism because those we label terrorists emerge from populations that formerly may not have had a Blue or Red orientation—they were Green. The individuals who swell the ranks of terrorist organizations undergo a process of radicalization that transforms someone who may never have thought about Blue into someone who is Red. Counterterrorism operators are often thrust into situations where the Red actors are obscured within a sea of Green. Being able to discern who in that sea is tending toward Red is vital to the operators' survival and the success of their missions. Understanding the causes of terrorism, and developing strategies and executing operations to combat terrorists, require an understanding of what turns a Green actor Red, and perhaps what can turn a Green actor Blue.

The Blue-Green-Red metaphor used in counterterrorism and other national security arenas, however, is used inconsistently to refer to entities, their properties, or their processes. The ambiguity in applying this metaphor only creates confusion in a domain—counterterrorism—where confusion can be misleading and dangerous. The purpose of this paper is to explore what Green means in the context of counterterrorism, and what its most effective definition and use should be. We also illustrate how the "color" of an entity can be practically measured and has significance for counterterrorism strategy and operations. The problem we address is that, currently, Green is thought of as (1) an entity (Green actors), (2) an orientation (Green is neither an ally nor an opponent of Blue or Red), or (3) processes that create Blue and Red actors.1 We demonstrate that these multiple definitions confuse what Green is, and by extension, make defining Red, and even Blue, difficult. Such confusion can have serious implications for national security research (i.e., what is or is not Green?) and policy (should we be dealing with actors, orientations, or processes?). We conclude by showing that the most useful way to think of Blue, Green, and Red is as an orientation to other actors and that, therefore, the color metaphors should not refer to an actor or a process. We use an analysis of Afghan insurgent messaging to illustrate the implications of the more narrowly defined BGR metaphor for social entities relevant to counterterrorism and to show how BGR as an orientation can be measured. Our example also highlights the importance of recognizing that orientation is a property and makes clear how failure to do so can lead to critical national security failures.

The Historical Use of the BGR Metaphor

Perhaps the clearest exposition of the BGR metaphor is in a series of RAND reports on a computer-based war-gaming simulation called Green Agent, developed in the 1980s. The purpose of Green Agent was to "represent non-superpower (third-country) responses to superpower crises and conflicts." 2 Here, already, the seeds of confusion were sown, because both an entity (the nation-state) and a behavior (its response) were being referred to by the metaphor Green.

Blue and Red in Green Agent represented the diametrically opposed United States and Soviet Union, respectively, but there was ambiguity in what the colors represented there as well. "The Red and Blue Agents model the decision making processes of the Soviet Union and the United States, respectively [italics in original]." 3

Clearly, Blue was the United States and Red the Soviet Union, but in this seemingly clear statement, the colors did not really represent these nation-state entities, but rather their respective decision processes. Within the first few pages of the RAND report, the authors used color to refer to a social entity, an orientation, and a process all at once, and the BGR metaphor continues to be used in these multiple ways. The conceptual use of the BGR metaphor and its practical application for strategy and policy require a clearer definition of what BGR refers to. Failure to do so leaves the "what" and the "how" of counterterrorism equally ill-defined.

BGR as a Property

Treating BGR as a property provides the most scientifically valid, logically coherent, and practically useful way to define what each color means. Furthermore, treating BGR as a property allows for a more realistic and flexible use of color to characterize the competing interests a single group may have and the complex ways different groups relate to Blue interests.

It is important to recognize the relativity of interests, which also underscores the importance of identifying the social entities whose interests are being characterized. For the national security purposes of a large, pluralistic society such as the United States, it is important to characterize Blue as a current interest, policy position, or value professed by the US government. First, counterterrorism is a state function; therefore, state officials decide what interests they wish to defend on behalf of the state and its people. Second, the state represents, but cannot embody, all of the varied interests, positions, and values of the American people. The United States as a social entity is a swirling mix of its people's orientations—mostly Blue, but also many shades of Green, and even some Red—toward their government. Third, apart from foundational constitutional principles, the interests and values of the US government change to some degree with administrations, the evolving values of its people, and current geopolitical realities. Conceiving BGR as a property can thus make US decision makers aware of these changing national interests and their ramifications.

Red characterizes interests, policies, and values that are, to varying degrees, opposed to Blue interests, policies, and values. A single group may not be entirely Red toward the United States. In modern interstate relations, China and the United States cooperate in some arenas like trade and containment of North Korea, and compete in others like the status of the Senkaku Islands and cyber war. In other words, China is not all Red to the United States' Blue.

Green is essentially an orientation that is neither Blue nor Red. The closer in orientation to US Blue interests, the more Blue-Green it is; the farther from US Blue interests, the more Green-Red it is. Thinking of BGR as a continuum rather than a fixed status allows analysts to make a more realistic determination of just how close or distant another group will be to US Blue interests. In fact, the RAND Green Actor simulator actually modeled these continuous states, despite its ambiguous definitions.

Each non-superpower is modeled parametrically by Green Agent; factors of interest include generalized measures of sociopolitical orientation, alliance relations, military strength (including nuclear capability), and national decision making character and resolve. Each actor's behavior is characterized along these dimensions. 4

In the domain of counterterrorism, some terrorist groups, such as Hamas, are opposed to US allies in their region but do not threaten direct attacks against the United States. Others, such as al Qaeda Central, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS, aka ISIL or the Islamic State) have threatened, attempted, or carried out attacks directly against the US homeland. In our estimation, these latter groups are a deeper Red than Hamas. Similarly, Hezbollah does not currently appear to be planning any direct attacks on Americans and is even fighting in Iraq against ISIS, which is clearly a deep Red enemy of the United States. But Hezbollah is also fighting against the Free Syrian Army, a purported US ally, in Syria. In this way, Hezbollah is Bluish (or at least Green-Blue) with respect to the US interest of defeating ISIS, but Red with respect to the US government's desire to see Bashar al-Assad driven from power in Syria.

Later in this essay, we illustrate one way that color can be measured on a continuum and why it can be critically important to do so, but for now we want to make the point that using the color metaphor for orientation enables strategists, planners, and even tacticians to more realistically portray the orientation of other groups toward a specific Blue interest.

Another challenge that counterterrorism presents is how to characterize the entities whose orientations need to be measured. The types of organizations that pose terrorism threats are remarkably diverse, and in the next section, we offer some useful perspectives on them from the field of anthropology.

A Property of What? Social Science Entities Relevant to National Security

If BGR is a property, then we must first answer the question "a property of what?" because an interest is Blue, Red, or Green only relative to the particular social entity that is evaluating it. The original formulation of BGR defined the "what" as the nation-state, which was entirely appropriate for modeling the Cold War contest between the Soviet Union and the United States, and the orientations of most potential allies and enemies. In the context of counterterrorism, however, it is necessary to have a taxonomy that can cover the wide range of social organizations that we label "terrorist." Currently, such groups may be labeled as terrorists, violent non-state actors (VNSAs), or networks, while the leaders of some organizations are referred to as warlords. 5 Each of these classifications of terrorist entities brings certain insights to the organizations and how they function. Further work is necessary, however, to more adequately characterize the organizations that are the focus of counterterrorism.

Standard categories from the field of anthropology can help to accurately describe terrorist organizations and lend useful insight into how a Red entity might be countered or how a Blue entity might be enabled. The best use of these anthropological categories is not for static classification, but rather to explore, in conjunction with other categories (e.g., networks, warlords, VNSAs), how various terrorist organizations might function and what their various strengths and weaknesses might be. The most relevant anthropological categories for counterterrorism are tribes, chiefdoms, and states.


Anthropological characterizations of kin-based societies are especially relevant to US policy given recent deployments of the US military in regions where kin-based societies are the norm. Tribes are kin-based societies, usually formed from an alliance of several lineages (extended families) that cooperate for mutual defense. 6 Tribes have recognized leaders, usually labeled "headmen" by anthropologists, and sometimes differentiate between the more administratively and judicially responsible "peace chiefs" and the "war chiefs" who organize raids. While headmen and these chiefs enjoy some innate authority by virtue of their position, they gain functional authority primarily through leading by example. Because of the competing interests of allied lineages, tribes tend to be unstable and can effectively disappear in the absence of greater outside threats. For example, the Haqqani network, with its strong roots in the Zadran tribe within the Pashtun ethnic group, definitely has tribal elements to its organization, which operates jihadist, criminal, and other enterprises along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.7 Because tribal leaders typically lead by example, they are particularly vulnerable to being killed by tribal enemies. 8 The instability of tribes also makes characterizing their orientation to US interests difficult because there is no central authority in a position to dictate the terms of the relationship. In other words, tribes should not be regarded as monolithic entities. Instead of trying to discern a single orientation for a tribe, it would be better to identify competing factions within the tribal structure and attempt to monitor their particular orientations.


Chiefdoms are larger kin-based societies, ultimately derived from tribal conflict where a particular tribe comes to dominate other tribes.9 Chiefdoms have clear rulers who often claim to rule by divine right. Chiefs have coercive power and use it to extract tribute from sub-chiefs (often the headmen of dominated tribes). Chiefs then redistribute their wealth strategically to loyal sub-chiefs and subjects. Many groups whose leaders are labeled warlords may be similar to chiefdoms, especially if they retain kin as the basis for membership and if the warlord-leader fulfills a chief's redistributive function. A chief's ability to redistribute wealth and access to power is vital to the chief's own hold on power, which means that interference with these flows of patronage directly affects not only a chief's ability to function but the very stability of the organization (in this case, the chiefdom). Because chiefs and warlords often hold authoritative power over their subjects, it may be more feasible to measure a chiefdom's orientation by focusing on the chief or warlord's views of Blue interests.


States are large organizations that require governance by a class of administrators—or bureaucrats—to run the affairs of state, and a formal system of taxation for supporting this bureaucracy.10 Most, if not all, terrorist organizations represent social entities that are not states. Organizations characterized as terrorists typically disrupt but fail to govern.11 Consequently, the tools that are effective for understanding terrorist entities are different from those that are used to analyze hostile states. The more state-like a terrorist organization is, however, the more likely it is to have official organs for disseminating its views, and these sources (such as official speeches by leaders, or press releases from spokesmen) provide valuable information for evaluating the organization's orientation to Blue policies and interests.

Our research suggests that these three anthropological categories can be used along with other social science categories, such as networks, warlords, pirates, and traffickers, to provide a richer characterization of terrorist organizations and their factions and aid in evaluating these groups' strategic orientations.

Example: Measuring the Color of an Entity

Identifying the "what"—the type of social group that has an orientation toward a US interest—is a necessary step in deciding what US policy should be toward that organization. However, the critical question remains: How is that group (or individual for that matter) oriented toward a US interest, and how strongly? In this section, we use a case study of Pashtun mujahedeen to illustrate a method by which this can be done and demonstrate that such a study is not only possible but also well within the current capabilities of US government resources and the brain trust of the nation.

Thematic analysis is a method that identifies language that resonates with an audience.12 Rhetorical devices are ways of using language to amplify a positive or negative sentiment that is expressed toward a group or individual. Examples of such rhetorical devices include repetition, hyperbole, and the use of metaphors.13Co-author Kuznar has developed an approach to thematic analysis that yields a metric of positive "in-group" and negative "out-group" sentiment as expressed through language by multiplying the number of times an issue (or group) is mentioned in a text by the number of rhetorical devices used in conjunction with that issue, normalized for document length. We applied this metric to data gathered in a study of Afghan Pashtun mujahedeen writings from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979–1989) and Taliban writings from 2010.14 Soviet-era writings were represented by 27 articles and poems published in the journals Qalam and Qiyami Haq. These journals were published in Pakistan for a Pashto-speaking Afghan audience and were intended to inspire mujahedeen fighters.15 Taliban writings were represented by the online journals Elham, Shahamat, Tanveer, and Srak, published in 2010 for a Pashtun audience and intended to inspire Taliban fighters and encourage popular resistance to the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF). Shahamat is the Taliban's official website and continues to remain active.

In this paper, we focus on only those documents in which a Pashtun author mentioned US groups in order to illustrate how Pashtun fighters have oriented toward the United States and its interests. There were 16 documents in the corpus (15 Taliban, one mujahedeen) that mentioned at least one of three US groups (US military forces, the US government, or the American people). The United States was viewed negatively in all cases, but to differing degrees. In these writings, American forces were often referred to as "enemies" (dushman/dukhman), "invaders" (yarghalgar), and "attackers" (ishgalgar), all of which carry strong connotations of invaders who are both unclean and unjust to Pashtun readers. The writers also used rhetorical devices (such as repetition, in particular of pejorative terms like dushman) to reinforce their audience's negative sentiment toward US forces.16

Figure 1: Sentiment Score

The median, minimum, and maximum sentiment scores expressed toward the three US groups are depicted on the BGR heat map in Figure 1.

It is important to realize that, in 2010, the Taliban were not as monolithically Red as they were typically characterized by US media and government officials but expressed a range of sentiments from mildly Red to extremely Red. This nuance demonstrates how operationalizing BGR can provide a more accurate representation of views toward Blue interests. Operationalizing BGR can also expose critical failures in a decision maker's perception of others' orientations. In 1989, according to US policy, the Afghan mujahedeen would have been considered Blue. At least one Pashtun tribesman in our corpus, however, expressed extremely Red sentiment toward the United States at a time when Washington was actively supporting his cause.17 Figure 1 and the data manipulations behind it demonstrate that measuring BGR is possible.

Understanding the "what" of these organizations enhances our appreciation of the significance of their orientations toward US interests. The mujahedeen were in the process of driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan in 1989, and while most were still tribally based, the mass influx of arms during the war actually eroded many traditional tribal institutions as warlords and their entourages amassed power through the control and use of arms, at the expense of chiefs and tribal leaders.18 Arguably, the Taliban has existed as a network of tribal warlords since their regime was toppled in 2001 by allied forces. The Taliban's capacity for violence is clear to us today. Perhaps the danger that the mujahedeen posed for US forces could have been appreciated back in 1989, had Pashtun orientations toward the United States been empirically measured on a BGR scale.


In this essay, we suggest a narrow definition of BGR that clarifies what the metaphor means, and a way to empirically measure political orientation using BGR that can facilitate sound decision making for national security. In counterterrorism, it is imperative that analysts understand the diverse forms of social organization that VNSAs may take, from loose networks of like-minded individuals to tribal entities, warlords, and proto-states. These forms imply differences in the ways that groups and organizations develop their orientations toward Blue. Once the types of organizations are identified, a close analysis of the language members use in public and private messages enables the analyst to identify group concerns and measure how strongly members feel about those concerns. The position a group takes and the strength of its members' sentiment define how closely it is aligned with US (Blue) interests.

The current situation on the Arabian Peninsula is an example of why such a nuanced, but empirically measurable, BGR metaphor is necessary. The variety of non-state actors in the region ranges from tribal groups (Sunni sheikhs and their constituents in Anbar) and criminal networks that buy ISIS oil, to religious groups (the Houthis of Yemen), jihadist networks (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Nusra Front), and state-like organizations such as ISIS and Hezbollah, to name only a few of the hundreds of groups that are destabilizing the region. Many of these groups have interests that are very localized, and their loyalties shift easily depending on how closely their interests align with those of others. A consistent application of the BGR metaphor to interests rather than entities would make it easier for analysts to realistically characterize the orientation of these many groups to US interests and support cogent decision making.

About the Author(s):
Lawrence A. Kuznar is a professor of anthropology at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne and serves on a NCTC panel for net assessment.
Dr. Carl W. Hunt is the research director for the Net Assessment Branch of the National Counterterrorism Center.

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

  1. "NCTC [National Counterterrorism Center] net assessments will assess the competitive balance between actors aligned with core US interests and goals (Blue) and violent non-state actors (Red)—taking into account the past and present and seeking insights into the future—by studying the associated balances and interactions within a complex, dynamic environment (Green). The interaction of Blue, Green, and Red is conceptualized as a co-evolutionary ecosystem of competing interests and ideas where threats and opportunities abound." See "What Is Net Assessment," NCTC Working Paper, 2014 (available on request from the National Counterterrorism Center Net Assessment Branch).go back up
  2. Yoav Ben-Horin, Mark A. Lorell, William Schwabe, and David A. Shlapak, "The RAND Strategy Assessment System's Green Agent Model of Third-Country Behavior in Superpower Crises and Conflict," RAND Note N-2363-1-NA (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 1986), v.go back up
  3. Ibid., 2.go back up
  4. Ibid., vi.go back up
  5. Cindy C. Combs, in Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 2003), sticks with terrorist; Troy S. Thomas, Stephen D. Kiser, and William D. Casebeer, in Warlords Rising: Confronting Violent Non-State Actors (Lanham, Mass.: Lexington Books, 2005), opt for VNSA and warlord; while John Arquilla, David Ronfeldt, and Michele Zanini prefer the concept of networks in "Networks, Netwar, and Information-Age Terrorism" in Countering the New Terrorism, eds., Ian O. Lesser, Bruce Hoffman, John Arquilla, David Ronfeldt, Michele Zanini, and Brian Michael Jenkins (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 1999), 39–84. go back up
  6. Elman R. Service, Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective (New York: Random House, 1962). go back up
  7. Jeffrey Dressler, "The Haqqani Network: A Strategic Threat," Afghanistan Report 9 (Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of War, 2012): . Editor's note: CTX published an article describing the Haqqani network's operations in the November 2013 issue. See Lars W. Lilleby, "The Haqqani Network: Pursuing Feuds under the Guise of Jihad?," CTX 3, no. 4 (November 2013): go back up
  8. Napoleon A. Chagnon, "Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population," Science 239, no. 4843 (February 1988): 985–92.go back up
  9. Robert L. Carneiro, "A Theory of the Origin of the State," Science 169, no. 3947 (August 1970): 733–38; Robert L. Carneiro, "What Happened at the Flashpoint? Conjectures on Chiefdom Formation at the Very Moment of Conception," in Chiefdoms and Chieftaincy in the Americas, ed. Elsa M. Redmond (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998), 18–42; Service, Primitive Social Organization.go back up
  10. Allen W. Johnson and Timothy Earle, The Evolution of Human Societies: From Foraging Group to Agrarian State, 2nd ed. (Redwood City, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000).go back up
  11. Headquarters, Department of the Army, Counterinsurgency, FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 (Washington, D.C.: HQ, Dept. of the Army, December 2006): back up
  12. Virginia Braun and Victoria Clarke, "Using Thematic Analysis in Psychology," Qualitative Research in Psychology 3, no. 2 (2006): 77–101.go back up
  13. Teun A. van Dijk, "Politics, Ideology and Discourse," in Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics: Politics and Language, 2nd ed., ed. Ruth Wodak (New York: Elsevier, 2006), 728–40.go back up
  14. Lawrence A. Kuznar and Mariah Yager, "Analysis of Pashtun Narratives: Report on Results What Cues Do Pashto Speakers Use in Understanding How to Draw In- and Out-Group Distinctions?" (unpublished manuscript, report prepared for Air Force Research Laboratory SAMOA Project [FA8650-10-C-6106], Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, 2012). go back up
  15. Shaista Wahab at the University of Nebraska Omaha Library's Arthur Paul Afghanistan Collection provided access to their Pashto collections and valuable insight into the documents and Pashtun culture. Dr. Thomas Gouttierre of the University of Nebraska Omaha's Center for Afghanistan Studies facilitated access to the Arthur Paul collections and provided background.go back up
  16. Kuznar and Yager, "Analysis of Pashtun Narratives," 141.go back up
  17. This particular Pashtun author was writing against the US bombing of Libya in 1986 and the former US involvement in Vietnam. Without generalizing from this one example, it is fair to say that the US government either misread Pashtun tribesmen entirely, or at least failed to recognize that they harbored a range of opinions—at least one extremely negative—regarding the United States.go back up
  18. Homayun Sidky, "War, Changing Patterns of Warfare, State Collapse, and Transnational Violence in Afghanistan: 1978–2001," Modern Asian Studies 41, no. 4 (July 2007): 849–88. go back up
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