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Designing Danger: Complex Engineering by Violent Non-State Actors

START’s UWT team publishes extensive case studies

In a special issue of the Journal of Strategic Security, START experts explore the threat of violent non-state actors (VNSAs) exploiting emerging technologies and executing complex engineering operations to facilitate their violent and criminal activities. The issue, “Designing Danger: Complex Engineering by Violent Non-State Actors,” presents the results of a series of case studies of VNSAs and their attempts to increase their capabilities through engaging in sophisticated engineering efforts.

The cases studied include:

“These case studies have provided several insights into the decision, implementation and outcomes of engineering efforts undertaken by violent non-state actors,” said Dr. Gary Ackerman, director of START’s Unconventional Weapons and Technology (UWT) division. “Despite being forced to operate clandestinely and facing the pressures of security forces seeking to hunt them down and neutralize them, at least a subset of VNSAs have shown themselves to be capable of some genuinely impressive feats of engineering.”

In his article, “Comparative Analysis of VNSA Complex Engineering Efforts,” Ackerman discusses broader findings across the entire series of case studies, offering a set of hypotheses and potential indicators that can contribute to operational and strategic intelligence assessments.

“If our hypotheses are confirmed by further investigation, many of them can be directly employed as observable indicators to show when a VNSA has the intent to engage in, or is already engaging in, complex engineering efforts,” Ackerman said.

Among the most useful of the potential observable indicators: complex engineering efforts become most likely in situations where there have been changes to a VNSA’s strategic or tactical environment for which the group is not able to compensate with existing technologies and where the group is prevented from externally acquiring the necessary technology. This was arguably a key driver in the cases of the PIRA, FARC and Los Zetas.

The case studies also showed that the structure and characteristics of a VNSA likely contribute to its pursuit of and success with complex engineering efforts. Further research might confirm that the VNSAs that are most likely to pursue and succeed in complex engineering efforts are those which: (1) have a penchant for taking risks; (2) are willing and able to devote substantial resources to the effort for an extended period of time; (3) can conduct R&D through a specialized organ in a location of relative security; (4) tend to persevere in the face of setbacks; and (5) either already have, or can relatively easily acquire, the necessary expertise.

Designing Danger: Complex Engineering by Violent Non-State Actors,” is freely available online through the Journal of Strategic Security, a double-blind peer-reviewed professional journal published quarterly by Henley-Putnam University with support from the University of South Florida Libraries.