Non-State Actors

How Non-State Actors are Making a Difference on the Battlefield of Tomorrow (Part 1)

November 15, 2017

Ahmed Hassan


In the novel environment of non-war, non-linear and asymmetry dubbed the Gray Zone by the DOD, we believe there is a place for non-state actors, particularly in the intelligence domain. We chose the name: Grey Dynamics because we strive to understand this environment, through practical experience or research or a combination of the two, in an effort to inhabit and overcome this space. Grey also represents the “grey matter” that is to say the human brain, which we see, as the key to understanding this Gray Zone environment. Dynamics was chosen because it embodies “the forces or properties which stimulate growth, development, or change within a system or process”. These forces or properties can be political, social, economic or non-state actors. Our aim is to stimulate growth, development and change in the Gray Zone.

In this article, I have analysed the role of non-state actors in recent conflicts and particularly in Somalia To improve readability this article has been divided into 3 parts. The first part briefly examines the background on the recent use of non-state actors as proxies. The second part explores the use of proxies in other parts of the world. In the last part, I give my take on the future role of non-state actors.





In the conflicts of today, and certainly those of tomorrow, there has been a rise of non-state actors on the battlefield. This trend has also been prevalent in the intelligence and information domain—illustrated in Syria, Ukraine and in Somalia. Since, the ascendance of the world’s most powerful countries on the nuclear power stage, there has been a decline of inter-state conflicts. Instead, the world witnessed the asymmetry of the War on Terror. Wherein groups such as Al Shabab have demonstrated the decreased relevance of technological capability, thereby allowing it to punch far above its weight. The result has forced western and in particular, United States Military, to change tactics, technologies and doctrine to defeat these asymmetric foes. This lead to the introduction of concepts such as the Find-Fix-Finish-Exploit-Analyse-Disseminate (F3EAD) or Task Force ODIN, which merged operations with intelligence. Furthermore, it saw the warfighters and intelligence personal moved further and further away from this new environment, particularly with the wide use of Remote Piloted Aircraft (RPA).


The use of non-state actors as proxies has similarly seen a dramatic rise, some with negative consequences like the Blackwater incidents in Iraq. However, there are also success stories such the partnerships with Aegis during the same campaign. In the Afghan war, elements of the intelligence community and military successfully pushed back the Taliban with the help of warlords from Northern Alliance (NA). Yet, it can be said that the NA proved a subsequent political problem, as it had been involved in alleged atrocities committed against prisoners of war. 


The use of warlords in Somalia was disastrous because it lacked the popular support of the Somali people who had been subjected to years of brutal rule and instability. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU) on the other hand was seen as a breath of fresh air. The situation was further exacerbated by the Ethiopian invasion in 2006 (seen as the arch nemesis by many Somalis). Transforming Al Shabab from a fringe group, part of ICU, to a capable and battle-hardened force with popular support. Though, after years of fighting Al Shabab, lessons had been learned about the successful use non-state actors on the battlefield. Analysing the human terrain extensively can prove beneficial as seen in places like Ukraine, Syria and Somalia today. 


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