The Unstated Premise


It seems like a no-brainer that the military should be able to target combatants fighting for a declared enemy of the United States. President Obama certainly thinks so, as evidenced by his wide-ranging drone campaign throughout the Middle East. Although the subject has been relegated to the background given the focus on Syria, the budget and other conversations, for the most part, the drone debate largely centered on questions of appropriate scope and accountability for the President’s pet Predators. But that’s not what I am concerned with here.

In September 2011, a U.S. drone strike killed four al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, including the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his son. As a military operation, this is ordinary by all accounts. But this particular strike stood out because of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) alleging that the strike was illegal because its victims had been deprived of their constitutional right to due process. Anwar al-Awlaki, radical cleric and al-Qaeda operative, was born in New Mexico. At the time of the strike, he was a U.S. citizen.

If this seems strange, that’s because it is: under normal circumstances, fighting for a foreign army, much less that of a sworn enemy of the United States, is grounds for one’s citizenship to be revoked. Had al-Awlaki been fighting for the Republican Guard in Iraq, his death would have gone unnoticed by the media and certainly by the ACLU. But al-Awlaki wasn’t part of a foreign army. Al Qaeda is not a foreign country. And so he remained a citizen until his death.

The al-Awlaki dilemma is one episode in the United States’ ongoing involvement with non-state actors, whose presence and influence have multiplied around the world since the waning decades of the Cold War.  This is a blog about those actors, particularly in the Middle East, but also anywhere they force their way into the international equation.

Non-state actors, and their unnamed, uncategorized, or even unknown operatives, have proved to be one of the most dangerous threats to international security in the 21st century. (instablogs)
Non-state actors, and their unnamed, uncategorized, or even unknown operatives, have proved to be one of the most dangerous threats to international security in the 21st century. (instablogs)

Non-state actors seem unconventional by nature. It’s right there in the name: we identify them by contrasting them with forces we’re more familiar with. “Non-state actor” seems something of a placeholder, a temporary designation for a new type of international player that we haven’t yet figured out. It carries no affirmative definition, no set of characteristics. We define non-state actors in terms of what they are not.

Maybe the reason we’re stuck with a somewhat clumsy term for these entities is that we are too busy grappling with them to try and categorize them academically. From an American perspective, the post-Cold War international landscape has been less Risk and more whack-a-mole, with the constant ascent of new and often hostile non-state organizations. The Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood are all non-state actors. Each wields enough influence to destabilize entire countries, and each has – in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Egypt, respectively.

With a working definition of a non-state actor as “something that acts but isn’t a state,” it is worth specifying exactly what types of organizations I’ll be focusing on in this blog. The first condition is that a non-state actor exists and operates outside the sphere of a traditional national government. They aren’t political parties, although a non-state actor might have a political wing. And although considered non-state actors, revolutionary groups won’t be the focus of this blog either unless they assume an international role or espouse an international agenda, as with the Free Syrian Army. The groups I’ll be discussing are those strong enough to demand recognition as independent players in international affairs.

The Middle East has proven susceptible to the influence of groups like these, given the region’s chaotic politics and the potential of Islam as a unifying force. Much of what is written here will focus on non-state actors in that region because of the central role they play there. But writing about non-state actors in the Middle East isn’t my goal. Personally, I only have a faint understanding of the role these groups play in catalyzing events around the globe, and by writing about them, I hope to understand them better. Dilemmas like the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, in which traditional American approaches to foreign policy are inadequate, exist because we aren’t used to grappling with unconventional non-state forces. Hopefully, in examining them more closely, we can come to a more solid understanding of their place on the international stage.

David Whipple ‘16 is in Pierson College. His blog focuses on non-state actors in the Middle East. Contact him at