Published Book Review

A Review of: "Jeffrey H. Norwitz, ed., Armed Groups: Studies in National Security, Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency. Newport: US Naval War College, 2008. 475 pages. $18.00. ISBN: 978-1-884733-52-9."


Reviewed by Andrew T. H. Tan, PhD

University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia


To cite this article: Reviewed by Andrew T. H. Tan (2009): A Review of: “Jeffrey H. Norwitz, ed., Armed Groups: Studies in National Security, Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency.”, Terrorism and Political Violence, 21:2, 354-356


        This ground-breaking volume develops the concept of ‘‘armed groups’’ to describe the complex security challenges by armed groups that we face in the globalised yet fractured post-Cold War era. Armed groups, according to Jeffrey Norwitz, who edits this volume, include classic insurgents, terrorists, guerrillas, militias, police agencies, criminal organizations, war-lords, privatized military organizations, mercenaries, pirates, drug cartels, apocalyptic religious extremists, orchestrated rioters and mobs, and tribal factions. These armed groups, empowered by globalization, operate not just in many weak and failed states but have also found sustenance in the strongest ones. They epitomize the complex security challenges that governments and the international community faces in building global governance and security.

        The massive volume, with some 32 chapters, appears unwieldy but there are genuine gems. Divided into five parts, it begins with an examination of the history of armed groups. Chapters in this section include those that examine the Red Brigades, FRETILIN and the IRA, diverse armed groups some of which eventually took or shared power. Here, Timothy Hoyt’s chapter is particularly illuminating as it examines how the IRA behaved differently at different times, adopting a number of armed group tactics including terrorism in order to meet its objectives—a useful reminder in light of the Anbar Awakening in Iraq.

        The second part examines the present context and environment, with the aim of clarifying the

‘‘driving factors that animate the challenges of armed groups today’’ (p. xvii). Here, Querine Hanlon’s chapter is a clear and concise exposition of how globalization has transformed armed groups into global actors with the ability to threaten the sovereignty of the state. A timely reminder indeed, in view of the chapter by Edward Valla and Gregory Comcowich on domestic U.S.-based armed groups which long predated Osama bin Laden. Indeed, the deadly Oklahoma bombing in 1995 was one incident (aside from the Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin nerve gas attack in Tokyo subway in that same year), which led Bruce Hoffman to postulate the emergence of an apocalyptic, religiously-motivated ‘‘new’’ terrorism. In this second part, there is also Peter Curry’s brilliant chapter, which explores important lessons from Afghanistan with the self-explanatory title ‘‘Small Wars are Local: Debunking Current Assumptions about Countering Small Armed Groups.’’ From his experience with Afghan tribal politics, Curry concludes that armed groups are living organisms, not mechanistic organizational structures. Thus, ‘‘when considering long-term strategic goals to counter armed groups, it is wise to remember that when implementing strategy, small wars are local’’ (pp. 158–9)—an important reminder of the mental and bureaucratic straitjacket that modern strategy imposes on countering such complex phenomena. What is the nature of these local small wars and how do you deal with them? Curry makes reference in his endnotes to the seminal work of David Kilcullen, Counterinsurgency Redux, noting that he shares many of Kilcullen’s views (p. 159). What is missing from this volume however is a contribution from the influential Kilcullen himself.

        The third part examines religion as inspiration. This is an important section, where Pauletta Otis’s chapter stands out. Indeed, Norwitz singles out this chapter as ‘‘a benchmark chapter by which readers can grasp the complexity of armed groups that are driven by spiritual ideology.’’ In this chapter, Otis argues that sacred religious identity provides justification for and contributes to the lethality of armed groups. Otis then examines the sources of religious power and concludes that it is both possible and important to understand the impact of religious factors in an insurgency, which in turn enables one to counter and even use it.

     The fourth section is an analytical section that Norwitz has titled ‘‘Thinking Differently About Armed Groups.’’ The two chapters that immediately attract attention here are written by anthropologists Montgomery McFate and David Kriebel, who support the use of anthropology in studying armed groups and conflict—a use which has aroused tremendous controversy and debate within anthropology over the ethics of possibly harming the very groups that are the subject of study. Montgomery McFate, for instance, is no stranger to such controversy but there is no denying the excellence of her chapter contribution, which delves into her experience in Iraq. Her work (and others such as Kilcullen) has enabled the U.S. military to better understand tribal society in Iraq, and contributed to a much more sophisticated strategy that emphasizes cultural understanding and the winning of hearts and minds—the centerpiece of a much more humane and comprehensive approach in the recently revised U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Manual.

        Finally, the last section examines the shape of things to come. This section examines the diverse landscape of an evolving future, such as the use of children, the nexus between organized crime and terrorism, and the dangers of virtual sanctuaries. P. H. Liotta’s chapter is especially significant, as it identifies a fundamental weakness in the U.S. approach to countering armed groups. U.S. national security decision-making is essentially a rational process but can the U.S. adapt to the irrational chaos of an adversary which aims to achieve victory by avoiding defeat? How do you deal with this chaotic ‘‘new’’ asymmetry?

        This book does look unwieldy at first sight but it cannot be judged on the basis of a cogent, overarching argument or theme. Instead, it is an important collection of ideas regarding the concept of ‘‘armed groups’’—their nature, how they function, and how we should deal with them. It is an important contribution to thinking about the complex and evolving nature of the security challenges that we are facing in the globalised post-Cold War, post 9/11 world—a chaotic, complex world where states have never been so powerful and so weak at the same time, and where small armed groups, enabled by globalization, are emerging to pose such serious challenges to governance and security. In doing so, the book has invited us to think beyond terrorism and insurgency to examine more holistically the manner in which globalization, religion, and other factors are fundamentally transforming armed groups and the nature of conflict.


Andrew T. H. Tan, PhD

University of New South Wales Sydney, Australia 

Terrorism and Political Violence, 21:2, 354-356

Terrorism and Political Violence, 21:2, 354-356