Small Wars Journal

Revisiting the Social Movement Approach to Unconventional Warfare

Mon, 12/01/2014 - 2:40am

Revisiting the Social Movement Approach to Unconventional Warfare

Doowan Lee and Glenn Johnson

The movement to understand the nature of Unconventional Warfare through the lens of Special Movement Theory is a continuing effort.  Since the article “A Social Movement Approach to UW” appeared in Special Warfare Magazine, last year, the concept has received a healthy dose of positive and critical feedback.[i] While the uprisings during the Arab Spring demonstrated the enduring utility of civil unrest in bringing about political change, the crisis in Ukraine forced us to sharpen our understanding of how to fuse civil unrest with unconventional warfare. Earlier this year, looking for ways to understand the contemporary threats and challenges, SOCOM FMD asked a series of questions about how to operationalize the social movement approach. In this article, we will attempt to answer those questions and share some insight of this approach which can provide a framework of how to leverage existing opposition movements in support of an unconventional warfare (UW) campaign.

Why Leverage Social Movements?

In order to better understand how to leverage organic social movements we must first determine why they are relevant in the contemporary operational environment.  Conflicts in recent years can be characterized by four overall patterns. The first pattern is wars have become increasingly transnational with more states working with or through non-state actors against other states.[ii] State actors increasingly take advantage of internal conflicts in another country. For instance, 176 cases of sponsored irregular conflicts that lasted at least 2 years are observed between 1946 and 2001.[iii] The second pattern is internal conflicts are becoming more protracted with fewer and fewer of them coming to an end quickly.[iv] While the overall number of civil wars has decreased since the end of the Cold War, the ratio between war protraction and war termination is growing large.[v] Third pattern is insurgent movements are increasingly more likely to win than before. In his 2013 book "Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present" Max Boot, one of America's leading military historians and foreign-policy analysts, explains that the increase success rate of insurgents is directly attributed to the rise of politics, propaganda, and public opinion in warfare.[vi] Simply put, war itself has become more about controlling perceived legitimacy, politics and public support, than just inflicting damage on the opponent. Thus, insurgents can compensate their typical force inferiority with cost-effective propaganda operations to increase their chances of winning. Pattern Four is non-military tactics are becoming more effective and pervasive in conflicts. In their 2012 book “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict” authors Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan point out that since 1945 movements employing civil unrest or civil resistance have been more successful at achieving their objectives.[vii] In addition, civil resistance campaigns are far less likely to experience protracted instability when achieving their objectives whereas predominantly armed conflicts are more frequently associated with violent civil wars. Why insurgent movements are more likely to win and why internal conflicts are becoming more transnational and protracted is subject to great debate. Some cite the rise of information technology such as social media. Others highlight the rise of transnational actors affecting domestic conflicts.

What is not disputable are the emerging trends of conflict. Which raises the question, “what do these trends tell us about unconventional warfare?” In order to increase the likelihood of success in a UW campaign, the sponsor should be cognizant and take advantage of the emerging patterns of warfare. In particular, patterns three and four, described above, should be highly relevant to the sponsor. The sponsor should look for existing, organic opposition movements capable of using both nonviolent and violent tactics to maximize popular support in their struggle against authorities. In other words, strategically a UW campaign should look to capitalize on, co-opt and incorporate existing opposition groups and networks, if available, and if possible, organize them into a larger opposition movement.

What is a Social Movement Approach to UW?

It should be made clear that in this context the word “approach” actually refers to how we view UW not in how we do UW. This distinction is important because social movement theory (SMT) applies to UW if we choose to “approach” it that way or not. Put differently, SMT is a set of tools that allows planners and commanders a way to understand and influence the environment that fosters and develops resistance movements. These tools can be used independently or in conjunction with other frameworks and methods. In essence, the social movement approach to UW can be characterized as leveraging and co-opting existing organic movements in order to influence strategic outcomes, be that coercion, disruption, or regime change.

There are three key benefits of adding SMT to the concept of UW

  1. Theoretically, SMT provides a comprehensive framework not only on why resistance and revolutionary movements happen but also on how to best leverage existing organic moments regardless of their level of development or maturity. This adds context to the current definition of UW which does not focus on specifically on how resistance movements and insurgencies form and the processes through which they become sustainable in the long run.[viii]
  2. Pragmatically, the SMT method is well established within the academic area as a method to identify and explain what insurgent groups do in order to sustain themselves within the population. This issue becomes critical if we are discussing sustainable long-term UW campaigns. SMT can provide a slew of TTPs that can help us find and manage an indigenous movement that is internally sustainable. For instance, the Solidarity Movement in the 80s proved to be highly effective as it had its own system of collecting and redistributing union dues.[ix] Its close ties with the Catholic Church also enabled the movement to sustain itself despite aggressive resource control measures employed by the Polish communist regime. Due to the movement’s ability to sustain itself organically, the U.S. sponsorship could remain unseen. Conversely, the U.S. had to build an extensive logistical infrastructure to sustain the contras in Nicaragua that relied almost exclusively on the sponsor for material support. Airfields had to be built and operated to support huge logistical operations. Such operations carry a hefty political cost and allow for the sponsor to be easily exposed. The well-known and highly politicized Contra scandal was in part initiated only after the discovery of an airfield used to airdrop supplies to the insurgents.[x] Exposed sponsorship typically robs the sponsored movements political legitimacy as it is easily tainted by the target regime as a puppet of an external power. In short, organic sustainment can greatly reduce the visibility of the sponsor. History suggests armed groups who rely on external material support rarely sustain themselves while garnering popular support.
  3. Ideologically, by leveraging and co-opting an organic movement the campaign will appear more indigenous and legitimate reducing potential propaganda against the external sponsor. In sum, the social movement approach will guide the planner to look for an indigenous movement that is most likely to align its objectives with our strategic interests. To paraphrase noted UW expert retired SF Colonel David Maxwell, when UW campaigns are planned and executed by leveraging organic movements, SOF will be able to implement “slow and deliberate employment – long duration actions and activities, relationship establishment, development, and sustainment.”[xi]

Is the Social Movement Approach Different from Existing Approaches to UW?

Again, we want to emphasize that SMT is not a new approach. In fact, this approach has been used in numerous historical UW campaigns executed by the U.S. In many cases the extent to which the sponsor leverage’s organic movements in a UW campaign, versus artificial, synthetic ones, has a direct and enduring impact on the long-term strategic consequences of the campaign.

So while not different, the social movement approach does underscore a set of particular variables relevant to unconventional warfare.

  1. It focuses on the primacy of local mobilization.
  2. It focuses on the long-term sustainability of a movement as a form of strategic influence.
  3. It focuses on operational flexibility ranging from nonviolent civil resistance to armed methods.
  4. It focuses on four factors promoting sustainable movements: influencing socioeconomic processes, creating political opportunities by exploiting elite fractures, indigenous networks, and insurgent narrative.

Historically, the lack of surrogate networks developed in the steady state has often led to develop surrogate assets quickly without a thorough vetting process or examination of their ability to transition into a viable government. As a result, the solution was to look for cohesive groups with the most kinetic capabilities such as military groups or armed insurgents. While this approach has had limited success through the employment phase, it is in the last phase of UW, transition, where this creates issues as these groups traditionally have little to no experience in governance. Consequently, the United States suffered a great deal of ideological deficits by backing military juntas that often relied on excessive repression for political survival. While operationally successful, these UW campaigns for the most part did not afford sufficient long-term influence over the respective population. An example of this is the UW campaign to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953 called Operation TPAJAX. Beautifully executed by a small group of former OSS members, it entailed sponsored agitation, sabotage, disruption, black and white propaganda, a failed coup, and ultimately a successful coup. At the end of the employment phase a friendly regime was installed by ousting Mossadeq. While successful in the short term, the lack of an organic movement behind the overthrow created, in part, an enduring hostility towards the U.S. in one of the most strategically important countries in the region. Another UW campaign to overthrow democratically elected Guatemala President Jacobo Árbenz called PBSUCCESS ended in similarly negative long-term consequences. It relied on armed groups trained outside Guatemala, propaganda and kinetic violence to force the democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz to resign. The success of the campaign was followed by a 26 year-long civil war where both sides committed atrocities against the population.[xii] While both of these examples are cases of successful UW campaigns, strategically the lack of an organic sponsored movement in the transition led to long-term failures.

While the natural default has been to approach UW by supporting armed insurgent groups or there is there an alternative way to think about UW. If we model how the U.S. supported the Solidarity Movement in Poland in the 80s, the whole campaign had a longer strategic outlook. In part its success was due to the operation being nested within the larger strategic conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It was designed to disrupt Soviet influence in the Eastern Bloc.[xiii] In addition, the sponsored movement was deeply embedded and connected within a larger opposition network. [xiv] Arguably, both TPAJAX and PBSUCCESS were ostensibly framed as anti-communist campaigns as well. However, that message never carried much validity with the population of Iran or Guatemala. Whereas in Poland, our strategic objective of anticommunism containment was in essence aligned within the local movement’s narrative of political reform. Also, because Poland was largely an area operationally denied to the U.S., we had to rely on an organic movement. In addition, because we supported a movement that was already socially embedded and exercising self-governance, Solidarity was able to engineer a nonviolent and institutional transition into a democratic Poland. After the transition, the U.S. continued to provide aid. Now, if you think about where Poland stands in terms of our allies in the region, this is not a trivial matter. On the other hand, and more importantly, social movements are better suited to meet the full spectrum of objectives set by the current definition of UW: disruption, coercion, and regime change. Whereas historical approaches to UW tended to focus on only regime change, today’s focus should be on planning and executing UW campaigns that can achieve disruption and coercion. After all, if we break a country, then we are likely to have to own it. Also, coercion and disruption do not carry as hefty a political price as regime change. It is hard to imagine how a sponsor could exercise enduring strategic influence through and by a surrogate general or armed group only. If you think about Hezbollah in the context of UW as an insurgent movement sponsored by the IRGC, then the strategic utility of the social movement approach becomes quite self-evident. In essence, Hezbollah is a sponsored social and radical movement that has exercised the IRGC’s strategic influence in a foreign country for over three decades.[xv]

Are Social Movements Important in Fomenting Regime Change?

While mobilizing mass movements is one “method” of “regime change” that enjoys recent popularity especially thanks to the Arab Spring. It should be noted that it is only one method. Utilizing organic social movements should not be limited as a set of tools to achieve the strategic end state of overthrowing a government. The true utility of understanding how to use social movements lies in their ability to achieve the other two doctrinal goals of UW: to disrupt and especially to coerce. Politically speaking, coercion and disruption will likely be more acceptable use as U.S. policy for decision makers in the future. As we explore these other two areas in more detail we open a much broader vision of the strategic utility of UW and how to capitalize on these existing social movements.

There is vast amount of empirical evidence that supports the use of SMT tools to disrupt and coerce. The extensive literature on civil resistance and social movements indicate that flexible movements that use limited violence surgically and strategically are twice as likely to achieve their objectives as violent campaigns.[xvi] In the majority of regime change campaigns, the extent of popular support the social movement enjoys for sustainability and durability is proportional to how legitimate it is perceived by the population. By using violence defensively and surgically, the social movement can easily appear more righteous than the regime and thus harness more popular support in the long run. In addition, successful regime change campaigns that primarily relied on nonviolent social movements are twice as unlikely to experience post-transition instability as successful violent campaigns. Violent regime change campaigns often result in protracted disarmament, demobilization, and reconciliation processes. Groups that are not entirely satisfied with the political outcome of regime change can easily use armed methods to spoil the transition phase. UW at the strategic level must avoid this type of post-transition instability; unless, protracted instability is the objective.

How Do We Better Prepare SOF for Future UW Campaigns?

The social movement approach is composed of four lines of effort:

  1. Deepen broad socioeconomic grievances,
  2. Open political opportunities by exploiting elite fractures or supporting indigenous dissident leaders,
  3. Enhance indigenous organizational effectiveness,
  4. Focus on expanding insurgent narratives.

In order for the social movement framework to work, planners must assess and analyze these as part of UW campaign development. In practice, this process should begin with mapping the human domain in strategically important regions and countries. Such mapping will enable the campaign designers to understand how to identify and exploit elite fractures, understand strategic network dynamics in order to identify and co-opt a self-sustaining movement and understand how to align our objectives with indigenous narratives. This mapping should begin in the steady state with continuous updates.  In order to accomplish this monumental task any and all opportunities should be taken advantage of in order to gain a higher level of map detail. The U.S. has personnel interacting with indigenous elements throughout the world on a continual basis.  These U.S. military, intelligence, diplomatic, and development entities have unremitting insight and updated knowledge of the local organic networks and personnel.  As part of their daily tasks, these elements should be required to map out and update the relationships and connections of the individuals and networks that they interact with and have knowledge of.  This information is more than enhancing it is necessary to planning and executing a social movement driven UW campaign.  These human domain maps will aid in identifying the strategic networks within the opposition movements capable of maximizing popular support in their struggle against authorities. 

What are Important Capabilities that We Should Develop to Mobilize Resistance Movements?

First, it should be noted that full mobilization is not always necessary especially in the steady state environment. Premature mobilization can unnecessarily trigger the exposure of the sponsor. Leading up to the employment phase, perhaps it is best that the sponsor align its objectives with compatible movements in a discrete fashion in order to minimize detection by the target regime. Second, whoever is responsible for the UW campaign development (DOD, CIA, DOS, etc.) should look at what they are trying to accomplish separate from what any existing organic movements are trying to accomplish and understand how to best merge the two in order to produce a desired end state. The goal should not be to simply “mobilize” a movement. Rather to mobilize it to the U.S. goal which may or may not align with the movements.

In terms of developing an infrastructure that can help facilitate a UW campaign USSOCOMs move to create a “Global SOF network” is a step in the right direction. Such a network should initially focus on building the connections and capturing the relationships in order to build the maps of the Human Domain especially in “hot” spots where possible contingencies are expected.  This mapping effort should focus on the relational connections between people, groups, and organizations.  Once this relational data has been gathered then analysts can use social network analysis (SNA) metrics that can enrich the understanding of how organic movements organizing themselves and can offer potential strategies including SMT to influence the environment that fosters and supports possible future UW campaigns.

Theater Special Operations Commands should assign ownership of Human Terrain Mapping to a specific section to be managed and tracked. These sections or cells should be synchronized with all deployed element within the country or region in order to continuously update the information building the maps. Just like we would never go to war without detailed physical maps, we should not assume we can conduct UW campaigns without detailed maps of the human terrain.  USSOCOM should develop a knowledge management system for detailed maps of elite fractures, social groups, opposition networks, organic movements, and locally resonating narratives. Particular attention should be paid to crisis moments such as contested elections or civil wars in order to identify existing opposition movements and leaders. Typically, dissidents or activists become more visible to outsiders when political control is relaxed due to a political or social crisis. For instance, we were able to see the internal composition of the Green Movement in 2009 when mass demonstrations broke out to protest the fraudulent results of the Iranian presidential elections. 

Learning from Strategic Competitors

Warfare is becoming increasingly more transnational, protracted, and fused with civilians and nonmilitary methods. UW must take advantage of these patterns. Unfortunately, it appears that our strategic competitors are ahead of us in terms of integrating their strategic doctrine with the same patterns. Take Russia for example. General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces published a thought-provoking article titled “The New Generation Warfare” in one of the premier Russian military journals in February 2013.[xvii]

Gerasimov highlights the importance of understanding the landscape of warfare and four characteristics that Russia should incorporate in grand strategy. First, the trend of the 21st century blurs the line between war and peace. Second, the role and effectiveness of civil and non-military methods of achieving political and strategic goals in some cases has far exceeded those of the force of arms. Third, the method of strategic confrontation has shifted from purely military means toward widespread use of political, economic, information, humanitarian, and non-military measures taking advantage of protest potential of the population. Fourth, leveraging civil unrest is complemented by covert military measure including information warfare and activities conducted by special operations forces. It seems that these assessments are the mirror image of the four emerging trends of conflict we observed earlier.

Following these assessments, Gerasimov proposes a model of what we would ostensibly call UW. The model begins with formation of opposition movements and civil unrest supported by military measures to prevent outright repression on the sponsored unarmed opposition. Ironically, the Russian UW model underscores the strategic utility of civil resistance elements in order to establish political justification. Of importance is the overall political and social nature of the initial phase. Then it prescribes initiation of “conflict actions” followed by utilization of economic, political, and diplomatic measures to deepen the crisis. Figure 1 depicts Gerasimov’s model. The crisis moment then justifies external intervention including combat actions.  Interestingly, nonlethal aid is used to establish the perception of defensive military intervention. In other words, when economic or humanitarian aid is denied by the enemy state to the sponsored movement, then Russia can exploit the situation to deepen its military intervention to support the relief efforts. Also note the pervasive and extensive use of information warfare to control the perception of Russian sponsorship. These dynamics were clearly visible in Eastern Ukraine.[xviii] It is clear that what has happened in Crimean and Eastern Ukraine consistently followed the model. In other words, it seems that the new doctrine is in full effect.

What can we learn from the Ukraine crisis?  The main lesson is how civil resistance, how social movements are integrated within Russian UW doctrine. Their campaign began with the formation of viable pro-Russian strategic networks, highlighting the importance of mapping and identifying opposition movements and political factures points within strategically important countries and areas. It should be noted that the doctrine itself emphasizes the importance of large opposition strategic networks supported by smaller covert operational networks developed by special operations forces. Simply put, setting the conditions for acceptance of sponsorship to a resistance or insurgent movement must begin with understanding the existing organic strategic networks followed by the development of operational networks to access and influence them in the steady state. While some question if mapping of resistance or insurgent networks is operationally realistic, the CORE lab within the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School has been pioneering visualization and social network analysis methods to identify and assess both insurgent and opposition movement networks for the last several years. Analysts in the lab have been operationally tied with several Department of Defense and law enforcement entities to provide a better awareness of the operational environment centered on the Human Domain. The capabilities exist, within the SOF community, to take advantage of the emerging importance of social movements and human/social networks in support of future operations. The recent trends in the threats and challenges to the U.S. underscores why the U.S. must increase its capacity to leverage existing social and political movements and expand the lens of UW to incorporate SMT and SNA approaches. Although they may use different terms, other major powers are already aggressively utilizing these same social movement tools to influence and control the Human Domain and achieve their national policy objectives. As we find ourselves challenged by multiply threats in multiple conflicts across this new paradigm we cannot afford to lag behind.

End Notes

[i] Doowan Lee, “A Social Movement Approach to Unconventional Warfare,” Special Warfare Magazine, 26 (3)

[ii] For a detailed discussion of the increasing frequency of transnational conflicts, see Zeec Maoz and Belgiin San-Akca, “Rivalry and State Support of Non-State Armed Groups (NAGs), 1947-2001, International Studies Quarterly, 56 (4)

[iii] Zeec Maoz and Belgiin San-Akca, “Rivalry and State Support of Non-State Armed Groups (NAGs), 1947-2001, International Studies Quarterly, 56 (4)

[iv] Stathis Kalyvas and Laia Balcells, “International System and Technologies of Rebellion: How the End of the Cold War Shaped Internal Conflict,” American Political Science Review, 104 (3)

[v] Stathis Kalyvas and Laia Balcells, “International System and Technologies of Rebellion: How the End of the Cold War Shaped Internal Conflict,” American Political Science Review, 104 (3)

[vi] Max Boot, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, Liveright Publishing, 2013

[vii] Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” International Security, 33 (1)

[viii] UW is defined as activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow an occupying power or government by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area. Joint Publication P 1-02 Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Nov. 2010.

[ix] For a detailed account of how Solidarity’s leadership emerged within the broad Polish opposition coalition, see Maryjane Osa, Solidarity and Contention: Networks of Polish Opposition, University of Minnesota Press, 2003

[x] Stephan Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, Times Books

[xi] David Maxwell, “Thoughts on the Future of Special Operations, Small Wars Journal, 9 (10)

[xii] For a detailed discussion on the consequences of PBSUCCESS, see Stephan Schlesinger et al, Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies

[xiii] Robert Gates, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War, Simon & Schuster, 2007

[xiv] Maryjane Osa, Solidarity and Contention: Networks of Polish Opposition, University of Minnesota Press, 2003

[xv] For a detailed account of the founding of Hezbollah by the IRGC, see Robert Baer, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower, Broadway Books

[xvi] Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” International Security, 33 (1)


About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel Glenn W. Johnson was born in Springerville, Arizona and received his BS in Criminal Justice from Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. Commissioned into the Infantry through ROTC as a Distinguished Military Graduate in 1994, his military education includes Infantry Officer Basic Course, Infantry Officer Advanced Course, Combined Arms and Services Staff School, a Graduate degree in Defense Analysis specializing in Terrorism from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and the Command and General Staff College.

He has served as a platoon leader in 2/9 Infantry, Camp Casey, Korea and 2/7 Infantry, Ft. Stewart, Ga as well as an Infantry Company Executive Officer. After graduation from the Special Forces Detachment Officer Qualification Course in 1999, he was assigned to A Company, 1/5 Special Forces Group (Airborne) where he commanded Special Forces Operational Detachment A – 513 and B Troop as part of the Combatant Commanders In-extremis Force (CIF). While serving in A-1/5 SFG(A), LTC Johnson participated in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and deployed as the Crisis Resolution Element on the Horn of Africa as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, and then deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Following Detachment Command, he was assigned to the National Assessment Group in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 2007, LTC Johnson was assigned as a Global War on Terrorism planner with 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) where he was again deployed to Afghanistan. Upon his return from overseas, he took command of C Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne). This was followed with the command of Operations Detachment, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne). In 2010, LTC Johnson became the Professor of Military Science for Northern Arizona University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. In 2011, after coming out on the Command Select List, LTC Johnson took command of a Security Forces Assistance Team and returned to Afghanistan. LTC Johnson is currently assigned as the Director of the Defense Analysis Common Operational Research Environment (CORE) Lab and Chief of the Unconventional Warfare Fusion Cell at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Doowan Lee is a Lecturer, Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Post Graduate School and the Analytic Lead of the UW Fusion Cell at NPS.


Repression doesn't always lead to demobilization. Bob Helvey shows that successful social movements often coopt or convert security forces to rob the state of its ability to crush protesters. Think about the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević in 2000 or the Philippines in 1986. In both cases, the regime tried to use its security forces to destroy the movements, but failed. in This does not mean that SMT would always work. The SM approach is about leveraging resistance elements if they already exist.

But are we talking about SMT theory in the environment of oppressive Govts. that fall over dead when confronted by a mass demonstrations (when the State bureaucracies - Security Police, military wait for the State to decide to repress or procrastinate) and join the people like the Soviet-era Governments falling?

Robert Petersen's book "Resistance and Rebellion..