Twenty years of costly counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have left many national security experts—and the American public—ready to move on. However, while the United States may be over COIN, COIN is not done with the United States. Over the past seventy-five years, the US military has been involved in COIN efforts around the world, often engaged in multiple fights at once. Given the prominent role insurgency played in the past and the fact that civil wars and nonstate violence remain consistent features of the international system, we should expect COIN will continue to play an important role in US national security.
The challenge for the United States is not just maintaining COIN expertise as national security attention shifts to great power competition, but also understanding how the character of insurgencies will evolve in the future. The persistent requirement to engage in COIN over many decades has led to an extensive body of both research and military doctrine on how to defeat insurgencies. However, the character of insurgency has evolved due to societal shifts in the areas of technology, economics, social networks, and other changes that shape human interaction. New forms of insurgency will likely emerge in the coming decades, and the United States may once again become involved. As the character of insurgency evolves, the strategies and tools necessary to counter it also need to adapt.
The changing character of insurgency may be no less dramatic than changes in other aspects of modern warfare that are being driven by technological advances in areas such as artificial intelligence, long-range precision fires, swarming autonomous devices, and social media. Ominously, though, America’s security experts and professionals are not focused on what these new forms of insurgency will be. Instead, they assume future variants will resemble those of the past. If this backward-looking approach continues, future US involvement in COIN campaigns could be catastrophic.
Three Waves of Insurgency
Despite extensive literature on insurgency and practical experience in countering it, much of the US understanding of how to conceptualize COIN is wrong, treating insurgency as either a type of organization or a variant of warfare. It is more accurate (and analytically useful) to think of insurgency as a strategy—specifically, one used by the weak to attain strategic objectives when they cannot do so through conventional military action or normal politics. Insurgency, then, is a strategy of desperation.
Like war, insurgency has an enduring nature and a changing character. Its enduring nature includes strategic-level asymmetry as insurgents seek to make domains like the political and psychological decisive. Insurgents use violence to produce political and psychological effects rather than in pursuit of conventional military victory. Insurgents exploit existing grievances, conflicts, and schisms and assume an asymmetry of will and patience, believing that over time the power balance will shift. Insurgency’s changing character is exhibited by shifts in factors such as the strategic objectives of insurgents; the organizational formality and size of insurgent movements; the role, sophistication, and centrality of violence; the extent to which an insurgency is linked to a specific region or territory; the use of local or foreign funding sources and fighters; the extent, type, and importance of insurgent alliances and support networks; and the methods of funding.
Insurgency has evolved in a series of waves that, for periods of time, overlapped and intermixed. The first wave ran from the 1930s—when Mao Zedong combined traditional guerrilla warfare and peasant rebellion with anticolonial nationalism, a Marxist ideology, and Leninist political organization—to the end of the Cold War. In this wave, insurgency was politically focused; its paradigmatic examples were Mao’s Chinese movement and the Vietnamese insurgency led by Ho Chi Minh. Most insurgents wanted to replace the state and hence took on state-like organization and methods, hoping to eventually seize national power through conventional military means. First-wave insurgencies originated in remote hinterlands where the government was weak or absent altogether and, if successful, eventually engulfed a nation’s cities.
The second wave ran from the early 1990s to the 2010s and was more economically focused than the first. Its paradigmatic examples were the Iraq insurgency, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. With limited or no assistance from external sponsors, insurgents had to fund themselves and buy arms on the global market. War economies developed with many rank-and-file insurgents motivated by the need for employment rather than ideology or politics, and both insurgents and the state had a vested interest in sustaining the conflict. Second-wave insurgents might have aspired to the proto-state status of the Maoist model, but few could attain it, forcing them to rely on dispersed networks, swarming, and terrorism. Rather than accumulating power aimed at conventional military victory, second-wave insurgents focused on imposing costs on the state or existing power structure. And because they had to be self-funded, many second-wave insurgencies engaged in crime, often becoming organized criminal gangs with a political veneer.
The third wave, which began around ten years ago as an offshoot of the second, is underway today and has not yet peaked. It is more psychologically based than its predecessors as insurgents seek individual empowerment and psychic fulfillment more than political or ideological objectives. Continuing and expanding upon trends that emerged during the second wave, such as al-Qaeda’s attempts to produce franchises, third-wave insurgencies tend to be strategically and operationally dispersed. An example of a third-wave insurgency is ISIS and its various franchises and emulators. Third-wave insurgents rely on the internet and social media, using them to amplify the psychological effects of operations, recruit, raise funds, build alliances, and even plan. They continue to innovate operationally and tactically, making use of the weaponization of everything and increasingly sophisticated cyber operations. In contrast to first-wave insurgencies, which tended to be linked to a particular geographic area, third-wave insurgencies like ISIS can abandon a location where they are under pressure and relocate or swarm to a different area. As ISIS was defeated in Iraq and eastern Syria, for instance, its franchises were on the ascent in Africa’s Lake Chad region.
Envisioning a Fourth Wave
While insurgency’s third wave has not yet peaked, it will soon begin to give way to a fourth wave driven by meta-level changes in the global security system. These changes include escalating global connectivity, the formation of virtual tribes and societies, increased access to and the effective employment of tools such as social media and cyberattacks, and the broad-based decay of authority structures and systems for public order. Taking these into account, what might the fourth wave look like? Though it is impossible to say with certainty, we can sketch a plausible future that reflects both insurgency’s enduring nature and changing character.
Imagine, for instance, that a decade from now in a hypothetical country—call it Nation A—a dispersed, virtual tribe of unemployed, bored, disgruntled young gamers becomes convinced that the existing political and commercial power structure is irredeemably repressive, corrupt, unjust, and sclerotic. They conclude that a violent revolution is needed to replace existing elites and institutions with youth councils. Since they lack the capability to simply take over the state, they adopt a strategy based on cost imposition, attempting to apply enough pain to get what they want: inclusion in—or perhaps even dominance of—the power structure.
These amateur insurgents initially know little about physical violence but find plenty of ideas online. They gradually get better at bombings, assassinations, and sabotage, often disrupting the artificial intelligence–driven technology that Nation A depends on. Killing is a psychological Rubicon, solidifying the group since its members no longer have the option of abandoning each other. Security forces respond, thwart some attacks, and even capture a few of the insurgents but find it difficult to protect all targets all the time. Since the insurgents seek any form of disruption and cost imposition, their potential target set is expansive. Anything that helps Nation A function is vulnerable to attack.
While the insurgents have modest skill at kinetic violence, they are highly effective social media communicators. Using this, they create an increasingly powerful global narrative stressing the justness and heroism of their cause, portraying themselves as fighting for repressed and disempowered youth everywhere. As a result, other dispersed, virtual youth tribes, inspired by the desire to seem heroic and to advance what they perceive as greater justice, swarm to the cause. One such tribe knows how to launch cyberattacks on infrastructure and government systems, targeting key communications links and vital artificial intelligence control systems. It launches a protracted, pulsing, multivector assault on Nation A while remaining clandestine and not openly affiliated with the insurgency. Security forces—already stressed trying to defend against local attacks—find it difficult to deal with new, fuzzy threats coming from far away.
Another dispersed virtual tribe specializes in cybercrime. It attacks businesses and government agencies in Nation A, splitting the cryptocurrency it obtains with the insurgents. This gives them a war chest that they use to improve their kinetic attacks by buying more sophisticated technology, intelligence, and expertise. Another dispersed virtual tribe is skilled at belief manipulation using social media, deepfakes, and next-generation fabricated news. It undertakes a campaign to delegitimize the government and security forces of Nation A, portraying them as senile and incompetent, or sexually deviant and malevolent.
None of these assault vectors alone is enough to bring down the government of Nation A or compel it to accommodate the demands of the insurgents, but in combination they weaken it. The insurgency is like a disease, degrading the ability of its host to perform necessary functions. Security spending in Nation A increases dramatically, shifting money away from things like education, research, health, infrastructure, and national resiliency. New security measures are unpopular and spark massive protests. Nation A’s international credit and business ratings collapse. Sympathetic activists around the world mobilize to support the insurgents—young celebrities and influencers in many countries trumpet the cause. Nation A’s political and business elites face disdain and demonstrations whenever they travel or interact outside their own borders.
After several years, Nation A feels compelled to negotiate with the insurgents, thus legitimizing the movement and its objectives. Even as the negotiations conclude, attacks from swarming global virtual tribes that the insurgents do not control continue, all motivated by the thrill, the sense of heroism, and the feeling of empowerment that the attacks produce. Bolstered by the success of the insurgents in Nation A, emulators form in dozens of other nations. Now, the fourth wave of insurgency has begun.
Preparing for the Next Wave
Will future insurgencies look precisely like this? Probably not. But some characteristics from the description above are highly plausible given general international security trends. Yet, the nations and security forces of the world are unprepared. Current US and multinational COIN doctrines remain mired in first-wave thinking, treating insurgency as something that occurs in remote hinterlands to be defeated by increasing local security force capability and undertaking economic and political reform. There are no security organizations or concepts specifically designed to defend against hyperdispersed, strategically swarming insurgencies using multivector and multidomain attacks to weaken power and authority structures by broadband and protracted cost imposition.
The United States needs an organizational catalyst to begin futures-based analysis, research, wargaming, experimentation, and concept development. This should include monitoring the real-world evolution and adaptation of insurgency-based organizations. While the US military needs to play an important role, it cannot dominate the effort given that future insurgency will increasingly unfold outside of the military realm. Therefore, the catalytic organization must be housed somewhere other than the Department of Defense—perhaps as a component of the National Security Council that emulates the Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment, focusing on strategic futures and integrative, long-range strategic concepts. The knowledge, forecasts, and concepts created by this organization could then be operationalized and used for capability development by other organizations, including the Department of Defense.
But time is short. If the architects and thought leaders of US security do not move beyond the legacy approach to insurgency—assuming its future will look much like its past and thus can be addressed through the same methods—then as the third wave matures and the fourth wave emerges, the United States could be dangerously unprepared. Hard thinking, analysis, and research done now can lower the risks of having to develop concepts, organizations, and strategies while under fire.
Dr. Steven Metz is professor of national security and strategy and the longest-serving member of the faculty at the US Army War College. He is currently writing a book on the future of insurgency.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Army War College, United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Master Sgt. William Buchanan, US Air National Guard