Red Teaming Criminal Insurgency


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Scenario Models: BlackFor and Cartel Evolution

Several analytical models exist that we can use in simulations of criminal insurgency. To be clear, the intention of this essay is not to produce a playbook for tabletop games but provide a source from which wargamers and simulation designers can tailor their own meaningful simulations of criminal insurgency.
      Dr. Robert Bunker developed the first framework (BlackFor) in a 1997 monograph titled Five-Dimensional (Cyber) Warfighting.11 At the height of the Revolution in Military Affairs, Dr. Bunker illustrated a number of factors that could prove detrimental to the complacency of a military convinced of its own net-centric superiority. In the paper, Bunker posits an engagement between a conventionally armed BLUE force and a networked criminal-terrorist adversary he dubs “BlackFor.” BlackFor has some features of a state, but is more closely related to a corporation with elements of both criminal and terrorist groups. It is largely emergent in nature and it organizes itself through a series of nodal points.
      Analysts use the term “asymmetric warfare” as a catchall for any military force that doesn’t slug it out with the Army head-on. But the notional BlackFor doesn’t defeat the Army by simply fighting dirty—it changes the nature of the battlefield. While BLUE fights in only four dimensions, BlackFor takes advantage of a fifth dimension (cyberspace) to dimensionally shift its forces in both virtual and human terrain. These cloaked units converge in a swarm-pulse pattern on Blue Force, defeating them through a combination of advanced technologies and cheap weaponry.
      We can find examples of this strategy in the 2002 Millennium Challenge exercise and Hezbollah’s repulsion of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the 2006 Lebanon war. In the 2002 exercise, retired Marine Corps General Paul Van Riper fought BLUE to a standstill by utilizing a mixture of swarm tactics, cruise missiles, and deception/denial operations.12
      Russia and China both have visions of “unrestricted warfare” that extensively rely on non-military tools such as command and control warfare and asymmetric operations to undermine American conventional advantage. One example of this is China’s “cyber-reconnaissance” effort—military hackers and auxiliary corps of civilian volunteers who are either used or encouraged to hack, deface, and disable American information servers.13 However, it is erroneous to assume that a nation-state competitor will be the only one who can use such methods against conventional military and police forces.
      Hezbollah fought Israel to a standstill in 2006 utilizing a defensive layer of fortifications and mobile autonomous anti-tank units to stall the Israeli advance. Hezbollah combined these measures with mobile rocket teams aimed at the Israeli heartland and cyber influence operations against both the Israeli population and the Lebanese.14 This is an example of what Frank G. Hoffman calls “Hybrid Warfare,” the combination of multiple forms of warfare utilized simultaneously by both state and non-state actors.15
      BlackFor is essentially an organized hierarchy with a network layer combining criminal, terrorist, and insurgent organizations. As a criminal insurgent, it could be working with a foreign power to subvert American security. It could also be a criminal group that has developed a political consciousness. Or, like the Mexican cartels, it could simply have determined that the American government stands in the way of certain objectives by blocking its attempt to claim a state-within-a state. BlackFor is going to do its best to terrorize the American public and government into submission.
      BlackFor is likely to have several sets of operating environments. The first is a base outside the continental United States—within a weak state, a country hostile to the United States, or a series of small outposts within corroded urban zones beyond government authority. Within the United States itself, BlackFor most likely will have developed contacts among criminal groups, including cartels and their retail gang enforcers. These contacts will serve as the means of delivery for terrorist attacks as well as a source of funding through criminal transactions. Should significant segments of American cities become “feral” the resulting criminal enclaves would become natural areas of transaction for BlackFor. The global commons—cyberspace and the financial world—is BlackFor’s prime operational space, which knits together all of the other operating environments mentioned. BlackFor masses forces in cyberspace, dimensionally cloaks them, and utilizes them for operations.
      BlackFor’s strategy, as outlined by Bunker, consists of terror attacks against American targets utilizing criminal contacts and a mixture of cheap off-the-shelf military weapons and advanced technologies. One important aspect of its operations is spatial manipulation in both material and ideological space. BlackFor utilizes its technologies to manipulate material space by harnessing the chaotic effects and spatial contraction generated by forms of maneuver warfare in urban environments. Spatial manipulation also consists of bypassing the “front line” entirely to directly target the civilian population. Most important is the concept of “bond-relationship targeting” (BRT). BRT is the process of shattering the bond between military, government, and people through instantaneous propaganda and attacks on civilians.16
      A second framework–more mundane but equally dangerous–is that of the cross-border cell. Mexico’s cartels are among many large transnational criminal organizations that have grown to prominence in the Americas. These powerful, internationally organized criminal organizations rule in the urban spaces effectively vacated by the state. They thrive off “black globalization,” the global system of contraband that erodes whatever law and order remains in weak states.17 While crime and drugs have gone together since the days of the medieval assassins, today’s “third generation” gangs and cartels can challenge the power and reach of the state.
      In Colombia, Pablo Escobar lashed out against the public with a spate of lethal car bombings. He was only stopped after the Colombian state turned loose a counter-gang of vigilantes called Los Pepes to destroy his criminal organization.18
      Mexico’s cartels have assassinated everyone who has stood in their way, from the lowliest police officer to Mexico’s equivalent of the Director of the FBI. Their secret weapon is an enforcer squad, the Zetas, poached from Mexico’s special operations forces. And in Brazil, the First Capital Command (PCC) unleashed a wave of violence in 2006 that paralyzed the city of Sâo Paulo. Transportation systems were destroyed, police officers were gunned down everywhere, and bystanders huddled in their homes awaiting oblivion.19 Even the once defunct terrorist organization Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) has been reanimated by the power of drug money.20
      Criminal insurgent tactical operations can take several forms. The most common is the assassination/attrition model, in which criminal insurgents selectively target police and civil servants with instrumental violence and psychological warfare. Criminal insurgents aided by military defectors are capable of launching particularly complex tactical operations. The aim is the destruction of the government’s security forces and governing power. Selective violence against civilians, such as Escobar’s car bombings in the streets, can also put cities under a form of postmodern siege. Instead of defending against an invading army, police find themselves struggling to defend a city from the inside. Huge “rings of steel” spring up around buildings to protect against car bombs, movement is restricted, and bullet-proof clothing becomes the newest fashion trend for style-conscious elites.
      The second form of criminal insurgent tactical operations is the spasm of rage in which criminal assets launch a massive uprising. These are designed purely to shut down urban centers, and the tactic relies on systems disruption attacks on transportation, service, and resource nodes. Although law enforcement and military assets and personnel are targeted, the main object of such an attack is to impose upon governments and the public the impossibility of challenging criminal insurgents.
      The goal of these criminals is not political in nature. Rather, they are engaged in an economic competition with the state. They seek to hollow out ungoverned zones for themselves within the superstructure of the state, co-opting the arms of the state through corruption and preventing the state from enforcing its will. This reverse inkblot strategy, a cruel parody of the expanding inkblot strategy in counterinsurgency warfare, generates as many sources of disorder within a state as possible.
      This process is combined with a seduction process in which the resulting loss of law and order and mass of contraband funds allows the criminal insurgent to infiltrate and subvert civil and security organs. This subversion does not solely encompass passive participation such as protection of criminals and influence in government; it can extend to direct intervention on the behalf of the criminal and the co-opting of military and law enforcement organs. The process can be analogized to a zombie film in which the monster “infects” the victims.
      The end-state of criminal insurgency is a carnival of the grotesque, with a small central governing body attempting in vain to exercise control over a wilderness of total autonomous zones. With government organs turned into commodities by criminal groups, power becomes neo-feudal in nature. Paradoxically, this increases the level of conflict, as criminal factions are rarely unified (except in opposition to the police) and constantly fight with each other for control of drug markets. As capital is global in nature, their violence reaches far beyond the borders of the hollow-state. A certain cartel’s dispute with another group of drug pushers in the streets of Tijuana can have deadly consequences as far away as New York City.
      It is important to point out that states hollowed by criminal insurgency offer good places for terrorist organizations to hide. Ciudad del Este, a city in the “tri-border” region of South America, is essentially a criminal enclave or “criminal free-state.” It lacks a tangible central authority and is home to criminal gangs and a variety of non-state syndicates, most prominently Hezbollah.21 However, the extent of foreign terrorist organization penetration is far from certain. While debate continues to rage over whether terrorist operations in the “tri-border” region, it is clear that the area presents an excellent potential operational space.22 Should Mexico continue to weaken or fall under the criminal assault, it would make an excellent operations base for any terrorist group seeking to operate in the Americas. [click to continue …]

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  1. Robert Bunker, Five-Dimensional (Cyber) Warfighting: Can The Army After Next Be Defeated Through Complex Concepts and Technologies, Carlisle Barracks: Strategic Studies Institute, 1998. []
  2. Sean D. Naylor, “War Games Rigged?” Army Times, August 12, 2002. []
  3. Timothy L. Thomas, “China’s Long-Range Electronic Reconnaissance,” Military Review, November-December 2008. []
  4. See Stephen D. Biddle, Jeffrey A. Friedman, The 2006 Lebanon Campaign and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy, Carlisle Barracks: Strategic Studies Institute, 2008 and Timothy L. Thomas, “Hezballah, Israel, and Cyber PSYOP,” Foreign Military Studies Office (originally published in IOsphere). See []
  5. F.G. Hoffman, Hybrid War, Washington, D.C.: Potomac Institute, 2007. []
  6. See Robert Bunker (ed), Non-State Threats and Future Wars, London: Cass, 1999. []
  7. John Robb, “The Pull of Black Globalization in Afghanistan,” Global Guerrillas, December 20, 2005, []
  8. See Mark Bowden, Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw, Washington: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001 and Mike Davis, Buda’s Wagon, New York: Verso, 2006. []
  9. John Robb, “The Coming Urban Terror,” City Journal, Summer 2007, Vol. 14, No. 3. []
  10. W. Alejandro Sanchez, “Shining Path’s Resurgence in Peru,” Power and Interest News Report, November 19, 2007. []
  11. See John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker. “Drug Cartels, Street Gangs, and Warlords,” in Robert J. Bunker (Ed.), Non-State Threats and Future Wars. London: Frank Cass, 2003. pp. 40-53 for a detailed discussion of cartels and criminal enclaves. []
  12. See Lt. Col. Philip K. Abbot, “Terrorist Threat in the Tri-Border Area: Myth or Reality?” Military Review, September-October, 2004. []


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