Foreign Policy Blogs

A New Era for Organized Violence

By chance, I recently participated in the “Evolved Irregular Threat Project”, a series of wargames led by David Kilcullen and sponsored by the Rapid Reaction Technology Office within the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The process was interesting, bringing together experience from a multitude of areas: Department of Defense (DoD) scientists, military officers, physicists, and political scientists. As a strong note to my thoughts below, I find it exasperating that there is a lack of similar projects to drive more important policies; it is unfortunate, for example, that the Department of State is unable to assemble experts with diverse experiences and divergent opinions (god forbid someone invited Noam Chomsky) so that they can brainstorm creative tracks to addressing America’s many foreign policy dilemmas. Then again, maybe I just never received the invite.

To explain my thinking in the below predictions for the evolution of organized violence, I took a different track than most in the wargame. First, I kept in mind that organized violence is simply that – organized with some point in mind – and that the overwhelming majority of groups undertaking violence, in spite of many differences, look to safeguard their most valuable resource: their people. In the range of organized violence, I include insurgent, terrorist, and revolutionary; in all cases, I do see dual use (e.g., use by an intelligence service). I do not make any value judgement of the actors, a reason I also generally avoid the relative and value-laden term ‘terrorism’ whenever possible. Additionally, since I have surely neglected some important factors that will shape the new era for organized violence, please feel free to send me your comments/critique, as always. For brevity, I have only expounded upon five topics that I see as the most influential factors in the new era for organized violence: social media, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the use of ‘cover’, pattern analysis, and low-tech solutions.

1. Social Media. Everyone is well attuned to the momentous role that social media has played to date in allowing for virtual organization, dissent, and revolution. What is little understood, though, is the use of social media for deception, subversion, recruitment, targeting, and mobilization. I expect organized violence to capitalize on social media for all of these, serving as an enormous force multiplier. Just as the US military is doing presently, organized violence can do it better. An actor could create false online personas, for instance, and direct a movement that s/he is not in support of to foment unrest or ethnic tensions. Conversely, it could control perception of the context to gain further support, material or otherwise, bolstering its position. Expect it to be used for everything in the spectrum.

2. IEDs. Due to the shocking ineptitude and audacity that drove the US into a needless war in Iraq, IED technology has developed immensely. I expect to see it adapt further due to new circumstances, mainly requiring miniaturization and better targeting that can subvert jamming. The former will be dependent upon advances made in explosives, mainly, and the latter I expect to lag to some extent. Some revolutionary adaptations I foresee for targeting is integration of recognition software (e.g., license plates, faces, or vehicle profile) or other scanning methods that eliminate the need for triggering; however, this technology is more likely to remain in the hands of more advanced actors and militaries for some time.

3. Cover. Organized violent groups will further utilize “cover” efforts – commercial, academic, and governmental – to facilitate proliferation, utilize financial systems, and allow for clandestine access, similar to state intelligence services. This will be advantageous for them because it will allow natural access that can facilitate attacks, sometimes within the said organizations. Due to planning and logistics complications, it is likely that more capable, state-sponsored violent groups will adapt this model for strategic influence and strike capability.

4. Pattern Analysis. Groups, especially with state, military, or intelligence support, will incorporate surveillance technology that analyzes patterns into their targeting cycles, allowing them to exploit defenses and identify hidden targets. Data collection methods will vary, but include video collected via clandestine vehicle mapping, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and penetration of existing video surveillance networks (e.g., as in London), as well as penetration of cellular networks to allow tracking and targeting via GPS.

5. Low-tech. While attention is focused solely on how organized violence will exploit new technology to confront targets, groups will astutely recognize the advantages of using low-tech solutions; for instance, organized violent groups will ensure that planning utilizes redundancy in signaling through graffiti, burning tires, etc., thus allowing it to target information and technology networks that will reduce their opponents’ capabilities.

The above predictions are just a few amongst many that organized violence will likely adapt in the next two decades, and the ramifications for civilians and opponents are serious, varying from manipulation to death. As always, we should expect violence to be delivered and organized using existing technology and methodology, but in creative ways that extend violent groups’ reach and safeguard their cadres. Another implication to consider is what actions – good and bad – states will likely take to address the changing face of violence.



Ali A. Riazi

Ali is an independent advisor on conflict and foreign affairs and an advocate for civilian protection. He has advised the Office of the Secretary of Defense, US military, NGOs, and intelligence oversight staff on topics, such as Afghanistan, civilian protection, irregular warfare, and civil-military affairs. His 13+ years of career experience have spanned humanitarian and national security circles and involved extensive experience throughout the Near East and Central Asia.

Ali earned a BA in Government & Politics (summa cum laude) and a Minor in International Development & Conflict Management from the University of Maryland, College Park. Additionally, he served as an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant in International Political Economy. He is currently pursuing an MLitt in Terrorism Studies through the University of St. Andrews.

Ali's other blog interests can be followed at, and he can be found on Twitter at!/ali_riazi.