Small Wars Journal

The Spaces in Between: Mitigating Threats in Undergoverned Spaces

Thu, 10/17/2013 - 4:01am

The Spaces in Between: Mitigating Threats in Undergoverned Spaces

Michael D. Rettig and Whitney Grespin

Much has been written about terrorist groups who make use of the world’s undergoverned spaces, but very little has examined the dynamics of these areas themselves. These spaces host a wide range of inhabitants and movements, which exhibit myriad behaviors both ordinary and threatening. By focusing on terrorists alone, scholars have overlooked the power brokering strategies and coexistence methods that occur in undergoverned spaces. 

The wider international community has not yet reached a consensus on how to assert state control in these areas and to most effectively impede the ease with which terrorists, insurgents, and other security threats find shelter there. Regrettably, this also means that the civilians who inhabit these spaces are often harmed twice over; first from a lack of access to the benefits of effective governance, and again by the consequences of punitive efforts against malicious actors that cannot exclude interference with civilian activities.

There are few truly ungoverned spaces remaining in the world. Rather, the places that are most susceptible to subversive forces and illicit activities suffer from undergovernance. In undergoverned areas state presence throughout society is weak and the majority of citizens may not recognize the state’s monopoly on the use of force. Legitimate, state-affiliated institutions that fulfill the public’s expectations fail to exist in these environments.

These areas exhibit minimal state presence in terms of both governmental representation and assets such as roads, schools, and other public infrastructure. As a result of these vulnerabilities such areas often succumb to the influence of malicious actors, organized criminals, or other unlawful powerbrokers. It is only these nefarious players that invite international concern. However, these groups rarely (if ever) are able to sustain residence in isolation; rather, they inherently are intertwined with and reliant on the networks of commerce and transportation established and maintained by civilian activities.

One of the prime obstacles for central governments trying to assert authority in undergoverned spaces is a misunderstanding of economic drivers within the territory. State governments resent the illicit economies in undergoverned spaces and those who profit from them through unregulated theft of national natural resources, environmental destruction, and tax-free commerce.[i] However, these economies inherently remain small unless connected to an external market. When these economies become intertwined with international markets their earning potential rises significantly, as does their potential for regional and global influence.[ii]

Access to international trade routes and the allure of high profit from unregulated behavior increase the likelihood that subversive actors will take up residence in an otherwise placid undergoverned area. Sub-state actors such as cultists, anarchists, domestic insurgents, or international terrorist cells use such areas’ economic potential and lack of state supervision to finance themselves through illegal but profitable means such as narcotics and arms trafficking. Examples include the slave-driven resource extraction seen in parts of Africa or the poppy cultivation (destined for heroin production) found in Afghanistan.[iii]

All of these activities and outcomes challenge the legitimacy of the central government in addition to undermining the potential for the state to profit from its natural resources and thus fund an extension of governance. At the same time, these destabilizing activities usually exploit extant transportation networks, meaning that any inhabited enclave of significance is simultaneously reliant on and compromising the commercial and transportation networks of unaffiliated local inhabitants. Specifically, military and financial resources should be focused on key economic and transport hubs that determine whether actors within a space play a global or local role. Reasons to engage in illicit activities will always exist, but it is in the interest of threatened states and the wider international community to ensure that such enticements do not play a global role and that ease of access is restricted.

The United States and partner governments should exploit knowledge of how undergoverned areas function to more smartly combat malicious actors and better enhance national and global security. It should discontinue addressing terrorist refuges around the world primarily through vast, expensive economic growth and development programs designed to encourage stability. Rather, it should give serious consideration to augmenting its current counterterrorism efforts by focusing directly on minimizing the area of undergoverned spaces and physically containing areas where security threats may find refuge.

Government-sponsored programs could be more effectively structured to intentionally undercut illicit economies in undergoverned spaces. Stricter policing of the physical boundaries and sealing porous borders of undergoverned spaces would be a strong complement to current policies, and tightening controls over ingress and egress to these areas would impede the ease with which such threats find shelter in and exploit resources from undergoverned areas. 

A decade of counterinsurgency has taught the U.S. that in order to mitigate the threats posed by undergoverned spaces, any direct action against threatening population segments must be paired with a campaign to win the “hearts and minds” of civilians. There are no strictly military solutions to the drivers that allow the formation and sustainment of malicious enclaves in undergoverned areas. Current efforts have led to measures of success in some areas – eliminating near-term security threats – but are far less effective at addressing undergoverned spaces themselves and the continued, long-term threat they pose.

In some cases, military operations into undergoverned areas have even expanded insecurity by alienating the local population and strengthening anti-Western frameworks of governance – hindering the long-term goal of minimizing extremist refuges. The result is that many of the undergoverned spaces ten years ago remain so today, and each serves as a current or potential refuge for terrorists.

Going forward, expensive, one-size-fits-all campaigns of development and military intervention should be rejected in favor of more thoughtful and cost-effective measures tailored specifically to an undergoverned area. Though military intervention and economic and civil development will certainly remain necessary, the expense of these projects can be reduced and their effectiveness can be magnified. Undergoverned spaces must be addressed as the individual communities and economies they are composed of, and careful consideration of the interests of civilians inhabiting them should be included in any plans to extend governance to these regions and minimize their appeal to malicious actors. 


DeYoung, Karen. (Sep. 15, 2006) “World Bank Lists Failing Nations that can Breed Global Terrorism,” Washington Post,

Lamb, Robert D. (2008) “Ungoverned Areas and Threats from Safe Havens,” Final Report of the Ungoverned Areas Project, Prepared for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

Piombo, Jessica R. (January 2007) “Terrorism and U.S. Counter-Terrorism Programs in Africa: An Overview,” Strategic Insights, Volume VI, Issue 1.

Schear, James A. (2009) “Chapter 5: Fragile States and Ungoverned Spaces,” Global Strategic Assessment 2009: America’s Security Role in a Changing World, NDU Press: Institute for National Strategic Studies.

Younassi, Obaid, Peter Dahl Thruelsen, Jonathan Vaccaro, Jerry M. Sollinger, and Brian Grady. (2009) “The Long March: Building an Afghan National Army,” RAND National Defense Research Institute,

[i] Schear 2009, 98-99

[ii] Lamb 2007, 35-40

[iii] Healy 2011


About the Author(s)

Whitney Grespin has overseen development and security sector capacity building programs on five continents.  Whitney has served as a Contributor to AEI’s Critical Threats Project, was selected to participate in the inaugural class of the Eurasia Foundation’s Young Professionals Network, and currently serves as a Research Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

Michael D. Rettig works for the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution. His experience with national security and foreign policy includes time spent at the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, National Defense University’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, and the Council on Foreign Relations’ corporate program. The views presented here are his own.