Terrorist safe havens are more diverse than you think

The news today that France has captured two of ETA’s top leaders is an important reminder about the varied nature of terrorist safe havens.  A conventional wisdom exists among U.S. policymakers that terrorists find sanctuary in “ungoverned or poorly governed territories, where the absence of state control permits terrorists to travel, train, and engage in plotting.”  The long history of ETA proves the fallacy of this argument.  For decades, ETA found safe haven in France, which viewed the Basque terrorists as a useful proxy against Franco’s dictatorship and continued to sympathize with their struggle for years after Franco’s death in 1975.  Yet France’s border with Spain is not an ungoverned or poorly governed space.  In fact, many would argue that France suffers from too much governance, rather than too little!  Therefore, we need a better way to understand terrorist safe havens, both in terms of how they form and how they can be eradicated.

My current boss, Dr. Elizabeth Arsenault, has a solution.  Several months ago she and a colleague of hers, Dr. Tricia Bacon at American University, wrote a fascinating article on how to better classify terrorist safe havens in the journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. In the article, Arsenault and Bacon provide a typology for disaggregating terrorist sanctuaries based on the intersection of host government will and capability.  As a result, rather than perpetuating the idea that all safe havens are alike, the intersection of these two values reveals that there’s actually three types of safe havens.  Moreover, in practice, each category of safe haven is further differentiated by the type of terrorist group that resides within it.  For example, urban based groups pose far different challenges than rural ones, and while some groups may elicit unequivocal condemnation from the host government, others may receive support from certain government agencies at the same time that other parts of the government actively seek to oust them.  In other words, host government will and capability are dynamic – rather than binary – variables, thereby creating a wide variety of safe haven scenarios.

The article obviously covers all of this in much greater detail and offers additional insights as well.  For those of you who cannot get past the journal’s paywall or simply don’t have the time to read the full article, we put together a summarized essay of the piece for the Lawfare blog back in April.  While lacking some of the specific case by case detail that makes the original so compelling, the essay hits all the main points and is significantly shorter.  Overall though, the reason I am writing about this project now is because the ETA story provides a powerful reminder that not all terrorist sanctuaries are equal.  This conclusion has significant consequences for policy.  As Arsenault and Bacon write in the Lawfare piece:

Given the continued relevance of physical safe havens, it is important the government properly understands them and crafts its counterterror policies accordingly. The will and capability typology is a useful tool in this effort. It shows how sanctuaries are diverse rather than uniform entities that require specifically tailored strategies to account for where each one falls along the willingness and capability axes. As such, policies that may be suitable for combating one haven, such as sanctions or targeted strikes, may not be appropriate for another.

The United States must embrace this lesson moving forward given that it faces and will continue to face a variety of terrorist threats.  Otherwise, it risks applying a one-size-fits-all approach to scenarios that require much greater nuance.  According to the conventional wisdom, ETA, the FARC, ISIL, and the Taliban all operate out of similar sanctuaries.  Yet even a cursory glance at the facts reveals this to be untrue.  We need a more sophisticated understanding of terrorist safe havens if we are going to be able to defeat them.  Arsenault and Bacon’s typology is a great place to start.

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