Documento creado: 1 de octubre de 2009
Air & Space Power Journal - Español  Tercer  Trimestre 2009

State and Nonstate Associated Gangs:

Credible "Midwives" of New Social Orders

Max G. Manwaring

This article introduces a poorly understood aspect of “wars among the people.”1 It deals with the complex, protean character and hegemonic role of gangs, agitators, armed propagandists, popular militias, youth leagues, warrior bands, and other mercenary organizations operating as state and non-state surrogates in the murky shallows of the contemporary asymmetric and irregular global security arena.2 This monograph, however, will not address tattooed teenage brigands. Rather, it will focus on ordinary-looking men and women who are politically and commercially dexterous.

Like insurgencies and other unconventional asymmetric irregular wars, there is no simple or universal model upon which to base a response to the gang phenomenon. Gangs come in different types, with different motives, and with different modes of action. Gangs also come with various possible allies and supporters. Examples of state and non-state associated gangs include, first, Hugo Chavez’s organization of “people’s militias” to help facilitate his neo-populist Bolivarian dream of creating a mega-state in Latin America that would be liberated from U.S. political and economic domination; second, gang permutations (bandas criminales) in Colombia that contribute significantly to the erosion of the Colombian state and achievement of anti-system objectives; and, third, Al Qaeda’s sophisticated, strategic, and hegemonic use of propaganda-agitator (political-criminal) gangs to coerce substantive change in Western European foreign and defense policy, and governance.

In any event and in every phase of the revolutionary process, Leninist-type agitator-gangs (popular militias) play significant roles in helping their political patrons prepare to take control of a targeted political-social entity. As a result, state and non-state supported and associated gangs are important components of a highly complex political-psychological-military act—contemporary irregular asymmetric political war.3

One can take an important step toward understanding the political wars in our midst by examining a few selected cases. Lessons derived from these cases demonstrate how gangs might fit into a holistic state or non-state actor effort to compel radical political-social change, and illustrate how traditional political-military objectives may be achieved indirectly rather than directly. These lessons are significant beyond their own domestic political context. They are harbingers of many of the wars among the people that have emerged from the Cold War and are taking us kicking and screaming into the 21st century.4 These cases are also significant beyond their uniqueness. The common political objective in each case is to coerce radical change in targeted political-economic-social systems.


Since his election as President of Venezuela in 1998, Hugo Chavez has encouraged and continues to encourage his Venezuelan and other Latin American followers to pursue a populist and neo-populist/anti-democratic and anti-system/hegemonic agenda that will liberate Latin America from the economic dependency and political imperialism of the North American “Colossus” (the United States). Chavez argues that his program for 21st century socialism (The New Socialism) is the only process through which the Bolivarian dream of a Latin American liberation movement can be achieved.5 This is not the rhetoric of a deranged dreamer. It is, significantly, the rhetoric of an individual who is performing the traditional and universal Leninist function of providing a strategic vision and plan for gaining political power. And now, Chavez is providing militant reformers, disillusioned revolutionaries, and submerged nomenklaturas all over the world with a relatively orthodox Leninist model for the conduct and implementation of a regional, defensive, and total “war of all the people” (people’s war).6


President Chavez’s populist Bolivarian dream is based on four enablers. The enabler we focus on here involves the reorganization of the security institutions of the country. In addition to the traditional armed forces, Chavez has created and funded the following independent forces:

• A National Police Force (Guardia Nacional);

• A 1.5 million-person military reserve organization;

• A paramilitary (popular militia) called the Bolivarian Liberation Front (Frente Bolivariano de Liberación); and,

• Another paramilitary militia, “Army of the People in Arms” (Ejército del pueblo en Armas).

All these institutions are outside the traditional control of the regular armed forces, and each organization is responsible directly to the leader (President Chavez). This institutional separation is intended to ensure that no one military or paramilitary organization can control another, but the centralization of these institutions guarantees the leader absolute control of security and social harmony in Venezuela.7 These institutions, under the guidance of the leader will enable the implementation of asymmetric “people’s war” that can destroy traditional Venezuelan and Latin American political-economic systems.8 The old democracies and the old systems will be replaced by a new kind of democracy and a new type of political system—Socialism for the 21st century. This takes us to Chavez’s Program for the Liberation of Latin America.9

The Program for the Liberation of Latin America.

The most salient characteristics of President Chavez’s program describe a “War of all the People.” It includes the following five notions:

• The struggle is predominantly political-psychological, not military—although there is an important military or paramilitary role in the process;

• The conflict is lengthy and evolves through three, four, or more stages;

• The war is fought between belligerents with asymmetrical capabilities and asymmetrical responsibilities to their constituencies—giving the leader of a “direct democracy” an organizational advantage over the leadership of representative democracies;

• The struggle will have transnational dimensions and implications; and,

• The war will not be limited in purpose. It will be total in that it gives the winner absolute power to control or replace a targeted government.10

A minimum of six phases elaborate that paradigm and outline the role of the independent paramilitary popular militias. General Gustavo Reyes Rangel Briceño articulated the phases that might well have been written by Lenin when the general accepted the office of Minister of Defense for the National Reserve and National Mobilization on July 18, 2007:

• Organize to propagate Latin American nationalism, train a cadre of professionals (propagandists and agitators) for leadership duties and political-military combat, and create selected environments of chaos;

• Create a Popular (political) Front out of the “debourgeoised” middle classes and other like-minded individuals, who will work together to disestablish opposed societies and defend the new social democracy;

• Foment regional conflicts. This would involve covert, gradual, and preparatory political-psychological-military activities in developing and nurturing popular support. As the number of recruits grows and the number of activities increases, the fomentation of regional conflicts would also involve the establishment and defense of “liberated zones;”

• Plan overt and direct intimidation activities, including popular actions (such as demonstrations, strikes, civic violence, personal violence, maiming, and murder) against feudal, capitalistic, militaristic opponents and against yanqui imperialism. The intent is to debilitate target states and weaken enemy military command and control facilities;

• Increase covert and overt political-psychological-economic-military actions directed at developing local popular militias to fight in their own zones, provincial or district militias to fight in their particular areas, and a larger military organization to fight in all parts of the targeted country with the cooperation of local and district militias; and,

• Directly, but gradually, confront a demoralized enemy military force and bring about its desired collapse—or, simply, invade a targeted country with the objective of imposing appropriate New Socialist governance.11

Until the last moment in the last and decisive phase of the Latin American liberation process—when the targeted government is about to collapse—every action is preparatory work and not expected to provoke great concern from the enemy or its bourgeois allies.12 Thus, by staying under his opponents’ “threshold of concern,” Chavez expects to “put his enemies to sleep—to later wake up dead.”13 It is at the point of enemy collapse and the radical imposition of new Socialist governance that the people will begin to enjoy the benefits of love, happiness, peace, and well-being.14

At present, however, Chavez is only in the beginning phases of his first preparatory Organizational Stage of the Program for the Liberation of Latin America. The culmination of stage one is still a long time away. Stages two and three must be several years down the revolutionary path. At the strategic level, then, Chavez appears to be consolidating his base position in Venezuela, taking a relatively low revolutionary profile, and waiting for a propitious time to begin the expansion of the revolution on a supra-national Latin American scale. He will likely continue to focus his primary attack on the legitimacy of the U.S. economic and political domination of the Americas and on any other possible rival. And he will likely continue to conduct various rhetorical and political-military attacks on adversaries; continue to cultivate diverse allies in Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia; and to engage his allies and his popular militias in propaganda and agitation “seeding operations” for the creation of a receptive political climate selected parts of the Western Hemisphere. In the meantime, Chavez supporters are organizing and preparing for the future. The opposition waits, watches, and debates.16

Key Points and Lessons.

• Although seemingly overambitious, Chavez’s concept of a regional super insurgency conducted primarily by propaganda and popular militias appears to be in accord with Lenin’s approach to the conduct of irregular asymmetrical political war. This notion is quietly opening a new era in which much of the world is ripe for those who wish to coerce political-social change and change history, avenge grievances, find security in new structures, and/or protect old ways.

• Although seemingly overambitious, Chavez’s concept of a regional super insurgency conducted primarily by propaganda and popular militias appears to be in accord with Lenin’s approach to the conduct of irregular asymmetrical political war. This notion is quietly opening a new era in which much of the world is ripe for those who wish to coerce political-social change and change history, avenge grievances, find security in new structures, and/or protect old ways.

• Asymmetric war may be accomplished by those familiar with the indirect approach to conflict, using the power of dreams and the importance of public opinion, along with a multidimensional flexibility that goes well beyond conventional forms. The consequent interactions among all these factors in asymmetric war make it impossible for the military dimension to act as the traditionally dominant actor.

• The threat, thus, is not a conventional enemy military force or the debilitating instability generated by an asymmetric aggressor. Rather, at base, the threat is the inability or unwillingness of a targeted government to take responsible and legitimate measures to exercise effective sovereignty and to provide security and well-being for all of its citizens. That governmental failure to protect and serve the people is what gives an oppositionist aggressor the opening and justification for its existence and action.

• As a corollary, the ultimate threat is either state failure, or the violent imposition of a radical socio-economic-political restructuring of the state and its governance in accordance with the values (good, bad, or nonexistent) of the victor.

These lessons are all too relevant to the “new” political wars of the 21st century.

General Sir Rupert Smith warns us that, “War as cognitively known to most noncombatants, war as a battle in a field between men and machinery, war as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs; such war no longer exists.”17


Over the past 40 to 50 years, Colombia’s potential, its democracy, and its effective sovereignty have been slowly deteriorating as the consequences of three ongoing, simultaneous, and interrelated wars involving three major violent, internal non-state groups. They are the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the paramilitary/vigilante AUC (The United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia), and the illegal transnational drug industry. This unholy trinity (or nexus) of politically motivated and terroristic TCOs and non-state actors is perpetrating a level of human horror, violence, criminality, corruption, and internal instability that is threatening Colombia’s survival as an organized democratic nation-state. Additionally, neo-populist (anti-system) activities of some of that country’s elites further complicate the conflict picture. These elites have never supported the idea of strong national institutions and the development of a viable nation-state. The issue is, simply, that the power to control terroristic insurgents, paramilitary groups, and criminal drug traffickers is also the power to control the virtually autonomous elites.18

At the same time, a new dynamic is being introduced into the ongoing multidimensional conflict in Colombia. Several types of illegal non-state groups (gangs) are devolving out of President Álvaro Uribe’s AUC demobilization and reintegration program. An even greater potential threat to security and stability coming out the emergence of these new bandas criminales (criminal gangs) is thought to be the possible formal establishment of a federation of splinter AUC groups, existing drug trafficking organizations, currently faltering FARC units, and the much smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) insurgent group. If mobilized, such a federation could become a more-than-significant actor in the Colombian malaise.19

Context: A New Gang Dimension in the Colombian Conflict.

A new force inserting itself into the Colombian conflict is a large number of criminal gangs (bandas criminales) that have come into being as a result of the formal demobilization of the AUC, and the disintegration of some FARC units. These gangs are altering the configuration of the insurgency and the illegal drug industry as well as complicating the already crowded conflict arena. That said, and because of the generally autonomous nature of the AUC and its new creations and the lack of certainty regarding the FARC, it is hard to understand and predict what the gangs may or may not be doing—and what they may or may not mean. Despite the general lack of certainty regarding the new gangs, however, there are a few things that are becoming clearer as the bandas criminales become more involved in the general conflict.

First, we know that all the newly devolved gangs are more autonomous, less well understood, and more unpredictable than their parent organizations. We also know that the ad hoc organization of the new gangs makes it difficult to know who they are, their numbers, why they do what they do, and their linkages with other organizations, legal and illegal. Additionally, we know that:

• As of the end of 2008, there are an estimated 100 or more independent bandas criminales operating actively over at least 20 percent of the Colombian national territory. Membership estimates range from 3,000 to over 10,000.

• Like its parent, the new AUC (paramilitary) gangs tend to be organized horizontally with no predetermined structure. The specific structure of a given gang is determined by its leadership, the tasks it must perform, and the requirements of the locale within which it operates.

• AUC Organizational groups are established through a process of franchisement.

• Parent AUC and FARC organizations generally allow subordinate groups considerable latitude in the ways and means chosen to accomplish a given task.

• Particularly “dirty” operations are often conducted by “hired guns” from among aspirants, sympathizers, or unemployed “nobodies,” rather than regular members of an AUC or FARC gang.

• AUC and FARC bandas criminales conduct four basic operations: o direct and sometimes lead specific military operations (e.g., “social cleansing”) against selected “uncooperative” groups, o perform the business-as-usual armed propaganda functions prescribed by V.I. Lenin for propaganda-agitator gangs,20

• direct and sometimes lead relatively sophisticated political and psychological actions, and o collect, hold, and allocate money, weapons, and other resources.21

We also know that several types of gangs are devolving from the AUC demobilization program. The common beliefs regarding motives and ties back to the AUC are that they are all involved in some sort of criminal activity and that they are controlled and led by hard-core paramilitary leaders who have not demobilized. Two groups—The New Generation Organization (ONG) and the Black Eagles—operate in several Colombian departments (provinces) and provide good examples of the new gang phenomenon. A third set of groups, associated with the old AUC Northern Bloc, is also worth consideration.

The ONG is an example of a new group that has continued acting much as the old AUC did. ONG in the southern Department of Nariño is fighting the insurgents. ONG is also working to control (for its own purposes) drug crops, processing facilities, and trafficking routes into Ecuador and the Pacific Ocean. Additionally, ONG has formed an ad hoc alliance with an armed wing of a drug cartel called the Rasrojos. Reportedly, the purpose of that alliance is to provide protection from other gangs, drug cartels, and insurgents operating in the region.22

In the north of Colombia—La Guajira, Norte de Santander, and Santa Marta, for example—newly emerging gangs are involved in lucrative smuggling opportunities for commodities such as drugs, weapons, and oil. They compete with other illegal groups and the Colombian state for access to smuggling routes and oil pipelines that lead to key ports on the Caribbean Sea. Thus, the Black Eagles and their TCO and other gang allies are not operating as the old-style AUC. They are not deliberately targeting the FARC and ELN insurgents. They are operating as ad hoc alliances with various drug, criminal, and insurgent groups. More often than not, they tend to fight any other group that might be in control of valuable commodities, strategic corridors, and seaports. Thus, the Black Eagles appear to have inserted themselves forcefully into an existing transnational criminal network. In that connection, and like some other Latin American gangs, some Black Eagle gangs are engaged in extortion and racketeering and have been known to rent themselves out as mercenary soldiers and sicarios (hired killers).23

Elsewhere along the Caribbean coast of Colombia and in the slums of some of the major cities, new gangs are literally going from house-to-house and neighborhood-to-neighborhood conducting “social cleansing” operations against FARC and ELN insurgents. At the same time, these operations contribute to creation of the political space necessary to allow the gangs to achieve their commercial (self-enrichment) objectives. These new bandas criminales are thought to be connected with the old AUC Northern Bloc (BN) umbrella organization. That organization was composed of a large network of gangs that operated independently until their co-option or subordination to the AUC prior to 2002. The basic structure of the BN is still intact and is reportedly trying to reassert control of areas where they formerly operated.24

Third, it would appear that the new Colombian gangs are more than bandas criminales. They are reshaping the narco-terrorist-insurgent-criminal world in Colombia, and they are exacerbating threats already eroding Colombian democracy and the Colombian state. In these terms, the new AUC and FARC gangs are doing what gangs all over the world do best. As they evolve:

• They generate more and more socio-economic-political instability and violence over wider and wider sections of the political map;

• They coercively neutralize, control, depose, or replace existing governmental service and security institutions;

• They create autonomous enclaves that are sometimes called criminal free-states, sovereignty free-states, para-states, or “ungoverned territories;” and,

• Thus, they change values in a given society to those of their criminal or ideological leaders, and act as Leninist “midwifes” that begin the process of radically changing the society and the state.25

Finally, even though there is evidence that the FARC is militarily weaker now than it has been at any time in the past thirty years, it has organized an active international support network (the Coordinadora Continental Bolivariana—CCB) and a secret political party structure (the Clandestine Colombian Communist Party—PC-3). This is a classic Leninist political response to a military setback, and has serious implications for the ongoing internal war in Colombia. This response portends a move away from the direct confrontation of the armed forces through guerrilla war, toward the subtle continuation of the revolutionary struggle against the state through international and internal political-psychological-military coercion. As a consequence, the gang phenomenon takes on new roles and preeminent importance. It is expected that some FARC units will emerge as variations on the existing bandas criminales, and that rumors of FARC’s demise are greatly exaggerated.26

The gang challenge to Colombian national security, stability, and sovereignty and the attempt to neutralize, control, or depose incumbent governmental institutions takes us to the strategic-level threat. In this context, crime, violence, and instability are only symptoms of the threat. The ultimate threat is either state failure or the violent imposition of a radical socio-economic-political restructuring of the state and its governance in accordance with criminal values. In either case, gangs contribute to the evolutionary state failure process by which the state loses the capacity and/or the will to perform its fundamental governance, service, and security functions. Over time, the weaknesses inherent in its inability to perform the business of the state in various parts of the country are likely to lead to the eventual erosion of state sovereignty (authority) and legitimacy. In the end, the state does not control its national territory or the people in it.27 In that connection, some close observers of the gang phenomenon assert that the coerced change toward criminal values in targeted societies is leading to a “New Dark Age.”28

Key Points and Lessons.

• Colombia faces not one but a potent combination of three different armed threats to its democracy and its being. The unholy “Hobbesian trinity” of illegal drug traffickers, insurgents, and paramilitary gang organizations has created a situation in which life is indeed “nasty, brutish, and short.”

• Each set of violent non-state actors that constitute the loose trinity has its own specific—and different—motivation, but the common denominator is the political objective of effectively controlling and radically changing the Colombian government and state as we know them.

• The narco-insurgent-paramilitary alliance utilizes a mix of aggressive, widespread, and violent political-psychological, economic-commercial, and military-terrorist strategies and tactics primarily to control human and physical terrain in Colombia and other countries where it operates. The generalized result of the intimidating and destabilizing activities of this alliance of violent non-state actors is a steadily increasing level of criminal manpower, wealth, and power that many nation-states of the world can only envy.

• At the same time, that unholy trinity represents a triple threat to the effective sovereignty of the Colombian state and to its hemispheric neighbors.

• It undermines the vital institutional pillars of regime legitimacy and stability, o challenges the central governance of countries affected, o and actually exercises effective political authority (sovereignty) over portions of physical and human national terrain.

• It appears that the major protagonists think of time being on their side and that their existing informal marriage of convenience is evolving satisfactorily into a more formal and lucrative criminal federation. Accordingly, that criminal federation may eventually be able to “buy its way to [power in Colombia].”29

• Alternatively, there is evidence that FARC is moving from a theoretically quick military approach to taking control of the Colombian state to a broader and slower political-psychological-military approach. The above commercial or political possibilities need not be mutually exclusive. In either or both instances, the Colombian state is likely to be severely tested.

The Colombian insurgency and its associated TCO and gang phenomena have been evolving for at least 40 to 50 years. In that time, violence and destruction have varied like a sine curve from acute to tolerable. However, just because a situation is “tolerable” does not mean the problem has gone away or should be ignored. Sun Tzu reminds us: “For there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.” 30


In the past, policy-makers and academics have tended to dismiss non-state actors as nothing more than inconsequential bit-players in the international security arena. But, over the past several years, Al Qaeda has succeeded in doing what no other non-state actor or terrorist organization has previously accomplished. It has succeeded in elevating asymmetric, insurgent warfare onto the global arena.31 Far from being ingenuous, apolitical, and unique, Al Qaeda acts in accordance with a political logic that is a continuation of political war by indirect, irregular, and violent means.32 Al Qaeda and its leadership do not pretend to reform an unjust order or redress perceived grievances. The strategic and operational intent is to destroy perceived Western regional and global enemies and replace them as the world hegemonic power. A key element of that strategy is the organization, training, and use of small agitator-propaganda groups (gangs) as essential elements of statecraft. As early as 1897, V.I. Lenin argued that these kinds of gangs can tear apart the fabric upon which a targeted society rests, and the instability and violence they create will serve as the “midwife of a new social order.”33 In that connection and in recent years, Al Qaeda’s adaptation of Lenin’s revolutionary organizational structure and hegemonic use of political-criminal gangs to compel substantive change have proven decidedly effective. Thus, Al Qaeda’s asymmetric global challenge is not abstract; it is real.34


A popular term being used to describe Al Qaeda’s organizational structure is “Leaderless Jihad.”35 That term accurately characterizes the concept of no formal chain of command and further illustrates the fact that killing or neutralizing Al Qaeda leadership only causes a basic cell to lie dormant for a season—then, it renews itself automatically.36 The term, however, is deceptive. Leaderless Jihad implies that there is no central directing authority, no focus of purpose and effort, no coordination of movement and action, and no real threat. Al Qaeda, in fact, is anything but leaderless or benign. Osama bin Laden organized Al Qaeda very carefully to take advantage of human and physical terrain and used multiple and modifiable methods to compel enemies to serve his purposes, and comply with his will.37 In these terms, Al Qaeda can and does elevate non-state asymmetric insurgent warfare into the global security arena and engages in hegemonic actions—just as if it were a nation-state attempting to force political change in other nation-states.38 Yet, Al Qaeda does not rely on highly structured organization, large numbers of military forces, or costly weaponry.

Al Qaeda’s Regional and Global Challenge.

Al Qaeda documents and statements envisage what Osama bin Laden calls a “defensive Jihad” that calls for three different general types of war—military, economic, and cultural-moral—divided into four stages and with well-defined strategic, operational, and tactical-level objectives.39 The intent is to, first, organize indirect and direct violence to sow panic and instability in a society; second and third, to destabilize, weaken, and/or depose perceived enemies; and, fourth, to ultimately bring about radical political change. This kind of violence “shades on occasion into guerrilla warfare and even a substitute for war between states.”40

This concept also allows military, political, and other facets of an Al Qaeda insurgency to be conducted in tandem. The different types of war and their associated stages are sometimes overlapping and may be altered. Stages may be added or reduced in scope as various milestones are met or not met. Moreover, objectives and the types of military and non-military ways and means chosen to achieve those aims, may be adjusted as a given situation dictates. Flexibility and deliberate ambiguity in organizational planning and implementation of the program to achieve power is, then, an important consideration when analyzing the Al Qaeda model.41

It must also be understood that, at base, the intent of every type of Islamic war, with its dynamic combinations of multi-dimensional efforts, is to support directly one or more of the five main political objectives in Al Qaeda’s currently stated intermediate end state. They are to:

• Eject the West from the Middle East;

• Open the path to destroy the apostate Arab regimes in the area, and Israel;

• Preserve regional energy resources for Islamic benefit;

• Enhance Muslim unity; and

• Install Sharia rule throughout the region—one geographical place or one part of the human terrain at a time.42

The intermediate end game, however, must always be seen in the light of Al Qaeda’s long-term political objectives. They are to:

• Take down all governments that are considered apostate or corrupt;

• Recover all territories that were, at one time or another after 711 A.D., Islamic (e.g., Spain and Portugal; the south of France and Italy; the islands of the Mediterranean, and some Balkan states);

• Attain regional and global hegemony; and

• Reestablish the Caliphate.43

To be sure, there are those in the global Muslim community who do not hold these extreme views.44 But, Al Qaeda does hold these views, and to date is one of the best organized and most successful revolutionary (insurgent) movements in Islam. Currently, Al Qaeda is also the only Islamic Revolutionary Movement that is globally oriented; that is, not limited in scope or time.

The Roles, Activities, and Some Results of Al Qaeda Gang Agitation and Propaganda.

At first glance, Al Qaeda’s asymmetric global challenge might appear to be ad hoc, piecemeal, and without reason. Thus, a closer look at Al Qaeda operations in Spain and some of the rest of Western Europe is instructive. The basic facts of the brutal terrorist bombing of the Atocha train station in Madrid in March 2004, illustrate that this seemingly random and senseless criminal act had specific intermediate and long-term objectives.

An Example of Gang Agitation: The Madrid Bombing, March 2004. On March 11, 2004, ten rucksacks packed with explosives were detonated in four commuter trains at the Madrid’s Atocha train station. That terrorist act killed 191 innocent and unsuspecting people and seriously injured over 1,800 more. That act was considered to be the most violent in Western Europe since the 1988 bombing of Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people. Despite its length, the 1,470-page official summary of the investigation of the Madrid bombings provided very little information. It indicated that 29 men were involved in that attack. Those 29 individuals included 15 Moroccans, nine Spaniards, one Syrian with Spanish citizenship, one Syrian, one Algerian, one Egyptian, and one Lebanese. That early summary also indicated that the accused individuals were members of a radical political group active in North Africa and that Al Qaeda exercised only an inspirational influence. Moreover, that summary indicated that these terrorists might not have learned their bomb-making skills from Al Qaeda, but from the Internet.45

Subsequent British and other Western European investigations of terrorist attacks in England and Western Europe, and the lengthy trial of the accused militants in Spain, provide considerable additional information regarding the March 2004 bombings in Madrid, and the 29-man organization that was responsible for that act. Those investigations indicate more than a casual relationship with Al Qaeda. Four of the bombers were Al Qaeda “veterans” sent from the base organization to provide leadership and expertise for the operation. Most of the non-veterans involved in the planning and implementation of the attack were involved in criminal gang activities such as drugs-for-weapons exchanges, false documentation (passports, other personal identification, and credit card fraud), and jewel and precious metals theft. The intent of these day-to-day activities was to help support and fund regional and global Al Qaeda Jihadi operations.46 Additionally, the non-veteran members of the gang were involved in disseminating propaganda and recruiting Spanish Muslim fighters to join Iraqi and other Al Qaeda–sponsored insurgencies. In this instance, the criminal and propaganda activities of the 29-man group were interrupted to allow them to take-on the mission of bombing the Madrid train station47. This kind of information leads to conclusions to the effect that:

• The small cellular organization that actually planned and executed the Madrid bombings was acting in support of Al Qaeda’s Second and Third Stages of contemporary Islamic war;

• Prior to the planning and implementation of the bombing, the 25 non-veteran members of the bombing group had been acting much like criminal gangs operating anywhere—up to a point;48

• It was not until the bombing of the Atocha station that this particular gang transitioned from an implicit political agenda (i.e., recruiting personnel and criminally generating financial support for Al Qaeda’s political-military operations in the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere) to an explicit political challenge to the Spanish state and the global community. It was at that point, then, that these “delinquents” became “militants”;

• The purpose of the action was not to achieve any military objective, and it was not a random act. Rather, the bombing was deliberately intended to generate strategic-level political-psychological results; nevertheless,

• The militancy continued to be treated as social and law enforcement issues.49

As a result, the publicity disseminated throughout the world has been credited with generating new sources of funding, new places for training and sanctuary, new recruits to the Al Qaeda ranks, and additional legitimacy.50

Additional Strategic-Level Results of the Madrid Bombing. The results achieved by the small 29-man cadre (gang) were dramatic and significant. The sheer magnitude and shock of the attack changed Spanish public opinion and the outcome of the parliamentary elections that were held just three days later. In those elections, the relatively conservative, pro-United States government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar was surprisingly and decisively defeated. That defeat came at the hands of the anti-U.S./anti Iraqi-War leader of the socialists, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Prior to those elections, the Spanish government had been a strong supporter of U.S. policy regarding the Global War on Terror, and the Iraqi War. Shortly after the elections, Spain’s 1,300 troops were withdrawn from Iraq, and Spain ceased to be a strong U.S. ally within the global political and security arenas.51

These political-psychological consequences advance the intermediate and long-term objectives of political war that bin Laden and Al Qaeda have set forth. The most relevant of those objectives, in this context, are intended to erode popular support for the War on Terrorism among the populations of American allies, and gradually isolate the United States from its allies.52 And, all that was accomplished by a small 29-man agitator-gang with little impunity, and at a cost of only $80,000.53

Key Points and Lessons.

In light of the new world security environment that has been initiated by Al Qaeda, there is ample reason for worldwide concern. The results of that effort stress the following:

• Al Qaeda has succeeded in doing what no other non-state or terrorist organization has previously accomplished. It has demonstrated that a non-state actor can effectively challenge a traditional nation-state, and the symbols of power in the global system—without conventional organization, weaponry, and manpower.

• The premise is that ultimate success in renewing the 8th Century Caliphate can be achieved as a result of the careful application of a complex multi-dimensional paradigm that begins with political-psychological war innovations, combined with the ruthless application of terror.

• Osama bin Laden’s first and continuing concern, however, centers on organization. The activities necessary to achieve his ultimate political vision include the creation of a motivated and enlightened cadre, a loosely organized propaganda-agitator (political-criminal) network, and small multiform support mechanisms for the entire organization. The intent is to gradually widen the global battlefield to the point where Al Qaeda becomes less relevant, and the Islamic Caliphate begins to take control of the long-term struggle (the Long War).

• Al Qaeda’s assault on the state represents a triple threat—o to isolate Islamic communities from the rest of a host-nation’s society, and begin to replace traditional state authority with Sharia law;

to transform Islamic communities into “virtual states” within the host state, without a centralized bureaucracy and no official armed forces for a host nation to confront; and, 

to conduct high effect, low-cost actions calculated to maximize damage that will, over time, lead to the final erosion of an enemy state’s political-economic-social system.

• Al Qaeda’s sophisticated and hegemonic use of political-criminal (agitator-propaganda) gangs to coerce substantive change in defense and foreign policy, and governance, merits serious consideration.

The global struggle for power, influence, and resources continues into the 21st Century with different actors, different names, and different rhetoric. Thus, Lenin’s strategic vision for the achievement of political power and radical political-economic-social change is no longer the property of strict Leninists. Everybody—anti-democratic populists, anti-system populists, anti-globalists, “New” Socialists and the revolutionary left, and radical Islamists, alike—is free to study it, adapt it, and use it for their own purposes. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda is a case in point. As uncomfortable as this conclusion might be, however, Lenin also reminds us that there is a viable solution to the problem. That is, “We [all who want to retain the freedoms we enjoy] should have but one slogan—seriously learn the art of war.”54


The Venezuelan, Colombian, and Al Qaeda in Western Europe cases represent a diverse array of contemporary conflict situations. The differences in these irregular and asymmetric wars are illustrated by a range of objectives, motives, and modes of operations. Thus, whether Hugo Chavez’s, the Colombian bandas criminales, and Al Qaeda’s pursuit of political, commercial, or ideological objectives is specifically criminal, terrorist, ideological, or religious is irrelevant. The putative objective is to neutralize, influence, and control people and communities to begin the long-term process to radically change contemporary political-social-economic systems. This objective implies a serious political agenda that defines war, as well as insurgency.55

The strategic level requirement, thus, involves two different levels of analysis—cognitive and organizational:

• The need for civilian and military leaders at all levels to better understand the nature of contemporary conflict, and implement a realistic and multidimensional ends, ways, and means strategy to deal with it; and

• The need for an organizational structure to ensure high levels of individual, national-institutional, and international unity of effort.

These cognitive and organizational recommendations are nothing new or radical. They are only the logical extensions of basic security strategy and national and international asset management, and work to everyone’s best interest.


1. General Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

2. Kimbra L. Fishel, “Challenging the Hegemon: Al-Qaeda’s Elevation of Asymmetric Insurgent Warfare onto the Global Arena,” in Robert J. Bunker, ed., Networks, Terrorism and Global Insurgency, London: Routledge, 2005, pp. 115-128. Also see: Max G. Manwaring, A New Dynamic in the Western Hemisphere Security Environment: The Mexican Zetas and Other Private Armies, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2009.

3. V.I. Lenin, “The Tasks of the Russian Social Democrats,” pp. 3-12, in Robert C. Tucker (ed.), The Lenin Anthology, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1975.

4. Ian Beckett, “The Future of Insurgency,” Small Wars & Insurgencies, March 2005, pp. 22-36.

5. President Chavez used this language in a charge to the National Armed Forces (FAN) to develop a doctrine for 4th Generation Warfare. It was made before an audience gathered in the Military Academy auditorium for the “1st Military Forum on Fourth Generation War and Asymmetric War,” in Caracas, Venezuela, and was reported in El Universal, April 8, 2005. Also, in January 2005, General Melvin Lopez Hidalgo, Secretary of the Venezuelan Defense Council, stated publicly that Venezuela was changing its security doctrine in order to better confront “la amenaza permanente de los Estados Unidos,” (the permanent threat of the United States) and that a document entitled Pueblo en Armas (The People in Arms) had been published that confirmed the primary military principles of the President. Reported in Panorama, April 27, 2005.

6. “War of all the people,” is a direct English translation of Chavez’s words—“guerra de todo el pueblo.” A more common translation from post-World War II national liberation movements is “People’s War.” Thus, we use interchangeably—as does Chavez—4th Generation War, Asymmetric War, Super Insurgency, People’s War, and War of All the People.

7. Notes #5 and 6, above; and Norberto Ceresole, Caudillo, Ejército, Pueblo, Caracas: Analítica Editora, 1999.

8. This is a definition of neo-populism. It is defined as anti-system, and populism is defined as anti-democracy. See: Vladimir Torres, The Impact of ‘Populism’ on Social, Political, and Economic Development in the Hemisphere, Ottawa, Canada: Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL), July 2006, pp. 1-18. Available at

9. Notes #5 and 6, above.

10.Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, USMC (Ret.), The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century, New York: Zenith Press, 2006, pp. 207-215; General N. V. Giap, People’s War Peoples Army, 1962, pp. 34-37; and statements made by President Hugo Chavez and General Melvin Lopez Hidalgo, cited in Notes #5 and 6, above.

11. Public address of General Briceno, July 18, 2007.

12. Ibid.; and Notes 5 and 6, above.

13.  Ibid; and for similar rhetoric, see Radio Nacional de Venezuela, September 27-28 2005; El Universal, April 8, 2005; “Special Report on Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela,” The Economist, May 14-20, 2005, p. 25; Carlos Gueron, “Introduction” in Venezuela in the Wake of Radical Reform, ed., Joseph S. Tulchin, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1993, pp. 1-3; Steven Ellner, “Revolutionary and Non-Revolutionary Paths of Radical Populism: Directions of the Chavez Movement in Venezuela,” Science and Society, April 2005, pp. 160-190; and Ian James, “Chavez insta al mundo a rebelarse contra EEUU, Nuevo Herald (Miami), January 30, 2006.

14. Breceno, 2007.

15. Notes #6 and 13, above. Also, evidence of Venezuelan agitator activities may be seen in Oscar Castella and Nelly Luna, “Acusan de Terrorismo a 24 vinculados con chavismo,” March 14, 2008, available at; Jose de Cordoba and Jay Solomon, “Chavez Aided Colombia Rebels, Captured Computer Files Show,” Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2008, at; and Simon Romero, “Files Tying Venezuela to Rebels Not Altered, Report Says,” The New York Times, May 16, 2008, at

16. These and subsequent assertions are consensus statements based on a series of author interviews with more than 400 senior U.S. and Latin American civilian and military officials. These interviews were conducted from October 1989 through July 1994; September 1996; December 1998; November 2000; February 2001; and March 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, and April through July 2007. These interviews are cited hereafter as Author Interviews.

17. Smith, 2007, p. 3.

18. Author Interviews.

19. Colombia’s New Armed Groups, Bogota/Brussels: International Crisis Group Latin America Report No. 20, May 10, 2007, available at Also see Diana Cariboni, “New Breed of Paramilitaries Infiltrate Urban ‘Refuges,’” Inter-Press Service, June 27, 2006, available at; Mayer Nudell, “Ex-paramilitaries form crime gangs in Colombia,” The Washington Post, July 31, 2006,; Caleb Harris, “Paramilitaries Re-emerge in Pockets of Colombia,” The Christian Science Monitor, March 14, 2007,; Joshua Goodman, “Report: New Criminal Gangs in Colombia,”; and Sibylla Brodzinsky, “Is Colombia’s FARC On the Ropes?, May 21, 2008 at;1_ylt=Ahy4qaymdkk...

20.Author Interviews. Also see: Lenin, “The Tasks of the Russian Social-Democrats,” 1975.

21. Ibid. ,and Note #19, above. Also see the discussion of the Rhizematic Command System in Smith, 2007, pp. 332-334.

22. This is a pattern that is well known in northern Mexico. There, the drug cartels and hired gangs are collaborating to control specified routes for drugs and other illegal commerce moving into the United States. Also see Max G. Manwaring, A Contemporary Challenge to State Sovereignty, and Manwaring, Zetas, 2009.

23.Cariboni, Forero, Harris, Goodman, McDermott, Nudell, and “Colombia’s New Armed Groups.”

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Notes #5, 6, 15, 16, and 19, above.

27. Daniel C. Esty, Jack Goldstone, Ted Robert Gurr, Barbara Harff, and Pamela T. Surko, “The State Failure Project: Early Warning Research for U.S. Foreign Policy Planning,” in John L. Davies and Ted Robert Gurr, eds., Preventive Measures: Building Risk Assessment and Crisis Early Warning Systems, New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.

28. Phil Williams, From the New Middle Ages to a New Dark Age: The Decline of the State and U.S. Strateg, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, June 2008; and John Rapley, “The New Middle Ages,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2006, pp. 93-103.

29. Ibid. Also see: Simon Romero, “Colombian Guerrilla Leader Reported Dead,” The New York Times, May 25, 2008, available at Also see Sibylla Brodzinsky, “Is Colombia’s FARC on the Ropes?”

30. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Samuel B. Griffith, trans., London: Oxford University Press, [ca. 500 BC] [1782, 1910] 1971, p. 73.

31. Fishel, 2005.

32. See, as examples, J. Boyer Bell, Dragonwars, New Brunswick, NJ: Transition Publishers, 1999; Thomas A. Marks, Maoist Insurgency since Vietnam, London: Frank Cass, 1996; and David E. Spencer, “Reexamining the Relevance of Maoist Principles to Post-Modern Insurgency and Terrorism,” unpublished manuscript, n.d. Also see: General Vo Nguyen Giap, People’s War People’ Army: The Viet Cong Insurrection Manual for Underdeveloped Countries, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1962, pp. 34-37; Abraham Guillen, “Philosophy of the Urban Guerrilla,” in Donald C. Hodges, trans. and ed., The Revolutionary Writings of Abraham Guillen, New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1973; Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare, Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, 1999; and Jorge Verstrynge Rojas, La Guerra Periferica y el Islam Revolucionario: Origines, Reglas, y Etica de la Guerra Asimetrica, Special Edition for the Army of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, IDREAN Enlace Circular Military, Madrid: El Viejo Popo, May 2005.

33. Lenin, “Tasks of Russian Social-Democrats,” and “The State and Revolution,” p. 324, 1975.

34. For primary source material on statements made by Al Qaeda, see: Also see: Raymond Ibrahim, The Al Qaeda Reader, New York: Broadway Books, 2007; and Gustavo de Aristegui, La Yihad en Espana: La obsession por reconquistar Al-Andalus, Madrid: La Esfera de los Libros, S.L., 5th Edition, 2006. Also note: Author Interviews in Madrid, Spain, July 5-8, 2006 and September 14-21, 2008, hereafter cited as Author Interviews.

35. Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the 21st Century, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

36. Ibid. Also see: Smith, 2007, pp. 332-334; and Author Interviews.

37. Ibid. Also, “compelling one to accede to one’s will” is a classic definition of war. See Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, [1832] 1976, p. 75.

38. Fishel, 2005, and Author Interviews.

39. See Note #46, above; and Michael Scheuer, “Taking Stock of the Zionist-Crusader War,” Jamestown Foundation, April 25, 2006.

40. Walter Laquerer, “Post Modern Terrorism,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 1996, pp. 24-25.

41. Ibid., and Michael Scheuer, “Al Qaeda Insurgency Doctrine: Aiming for a Long War,” Jamestown Foundation, Februrary 28, 2006.

42. Ibid., and Michael Scheuer, “al-Zawahiri’s September 11 Video Hits Main Themes of Al-Qaeda Doctrine,” Jameston Foundations, September 19, 200y. Note: Ayman al-Zawahiri is the Deputy Chief of Al Qaeda.

43. See Note #34, above.

44. Javier Jordan and Nicola Horsburg, “Mapping Jihadist Terrorism in Spain,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 28, 2005, pp. 174-179.

45. A copy of the proceedings and charged against the 29 accused can be found at: See also:

46. Ibid., and Note #44, above. Also see: Victoria Burnett, “Spain Arrests 16 North Africans Accused of Recruiting Militants,” The New York Times, May 29, 2007, at

47. Author Interviews. Also see: “The Madrid Train Bombings,” in Lorenzo Vidino, Al Qaeda in Europe, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006, pp. 291-335.

48. For details regarding first-second- and third-generation gangs in the America, see: Manwaring, Street Gangs, 2005.

49. See Notes #45, 46, and 47, above.

50. Michael Scheuer, “Al Qaeda Doctrine for International Political Warfare,” Jamestown Foundation, November 1, 2006; Michael Scheuer, “Al Qadea Insurgency Doctrine: Aiming for a Long War,” 2006; and “German Intelligence Describes a ‘New Quality’ in Jihadi Threats,” Jamestown Foundation, February 20, 2008.

51 Author Interviews.

52. Ibid; also see: Scheuer, “Al Qaeda Doctrine for International Political Warfare,” 2006.

53. Craig Whitlock, “Al Qaeda Masters Terrorism on the Cheap,” Washington Post, September 2, 2008, at

54. Lenin, “Report on War and Peace,” p. 549.


Dr. Max G. Manwaring Dr. Max G. Manwaring holds the General Douglas MacArthur Chair of Research, is Professor of Military Strategy at the U.S. Army War College, and is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Dickinson College.  He is a retired U.S. Army colonel and has served in various military and civilian positions, including the U.S. Army War College, the United States Southern Command,  the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the University of Memphis.  Dr. Manwaring holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Illinois and is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College.  He is the author and co-author of several articles, chapters, and reports dealing with political-military affairs, and global and regional security concerns.   He is the editor or coeditor of, inter alia, El Salvador at War, 1988; Gray Area Phenomena:  Confronting the New World Disorder,1993; Managing Contemporary Conflict:  Pillars of Success, 1996; Beyond Declaring Victory and Coming Home:  The Challenges of Peace and Stability Operations, 2000; and The Search for Security:  A U.S. Grand Strategy for the Twenty-First Century, 2003; and co-author, with John T. Fishel, of Uncomfortable Wars Revisited, University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force

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