The increasing power of nonstate armed actors — militants, militias, and criminal groups — at the expense of the state is a highly consequential and complex dynamic in today’s international system. The trend occurs amidst broader shifts worldwide in power distribution and modes of governance, and means that more people depend on illicit economies for basic livelihoods and on nonstate structures for basic security and governance. As criminal and militant actors are empowered and governments are weakened, many states struggle to confront the problem; some even accommodate or coopt such actors. While these dynamics precede the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the pandemic has profoundly exacerbated them.
Led by Senior Fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown, the Brookings Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors analyzes these global dynamics and recommends approaches to policymakers. Emphasizing field work, as well as multidisciplinary and comparative approaches, the initiative’s work harnesses Brookings’s wide-ranging regional and functional expertise. The initiative’s scope includes the study of U.S. nonstate armed actors, such as right-wing militias, gangs, and organized crime groups, enhancing opportunities for comparative assessments.
The initiative’s work focuses on the following core themes:
- COVID-19’s impacts. The pandemic has weakened the governing capacity of governments in varied ways, augmenting pre-existing economic, political, and security weaknesses and deficiencies. The effects are particularly acute in Latin America and Africa, but also dramatically felt in various parts of Asia, North America, and Europe where right-wing militia groups are exploiting the pandemic. Its effects are also empowering and sometimes reshaping nonstate armed actors.
- Illicit economies and governance by nonstate armed actors. Many people worldwide depend on illicit economies — such as drug trafficking, migrant smuggling, illegal logging, and wildlife trafficking — for basic livelihoods and socio-economic opportunities, and thus fall into the hands of the criminal or militant groups that sponsor such economies. These groups often provide basic governance to marginalized populations, from dispute resolution services to socio-economic goods and employment, and develop potent political capital.
- Right-wing militias, white supremacy, and homeland security. Right-wing extremist groups have gained increased traction in the United States and around the world for a range of reasons. Like with other nonstate armed actors, they threaten the rule of law and democratic governance today.
- Natural resource extraction. Whether legal or illegal, the counterproductive extraction of natural resources — including logging, mining, and wildlife trade and trafficking — interacts in a range of ways with trends related to nonstate actors. These economies also magnify the risk and threat of another debilitating zoonotic epidemic or pandemic.
- Interplay with geopolitics and internal politics. Countries such as Russia, China, and Iran have at times sought to exploit the instability that comes with increasing power of nonstate armed actors, often contrary to the interests of the United States. Around the world, many governments strike deals with some nonstate armed actors, sponsor militia groups, and negotiate with criminal groups even as they seek to combat other criminal and militant groups.
- Policy responses. Law enforcement tools and counterinsurgency strategies are crucial but insufficient policy tools. Mounting tailored and well-designed socio-economic anti-crime and anti-militancy policies is also key, as is understanding the right and wrong approaches to negotiating with nonstate armed actors; disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration efforts; and deradicalization programs. Out-of-the-box approaches can provide effective solutions.
The initiative’s research is centered around developing a nuanced understanding of the “ground truth” and of effective policy responses. The initiative recognizes the crucial role of field work for informing policy design and implementation. In the study of nonstate armed actors and illicit economies, many traditional sources of information are not available. A primary focus of the initiative is to assess a wide set of existing policy approaches and provide policy recommendations.
Its findings and policy recommendations are circulated to decisionmakers and the public via policy briefs, reports, and books; the initiative’s experts also regularly publish op-eds and comment in prominent news outlets. The initiative also holds a range of high-level convenings with policy actors in the United States, in governments of other countries, and at multilateral institutions such as NATO and the United Nations.