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The growing phenomena of ungovernable territories

Borders are becoming evermore porous

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: Updated:

Ungovernable territories are defined as areas where a central government’s reach throughout a country’s area across a broad spectrum are absent in their responsibilities in the neglected areas.

The growth of ungovernable territories around the world is rising because the ability to govern in all three areas noted above is continuing to be a major policy failure of governments that allows terrorists and criminals to flourish.

The phenomena of ungovernable territories will continue to grow as regions around the world breed more restless areas due to political, social, and economic pressures and shifting dichotomies and interests from country capitals to the peripheral areas.

There are three main impacts of ungovernable territories, namely, borders becoming evermore porous, tribes, clans, ethnic groups drifting further away from government control, and challenged governments having diverted resources away from much needed socio-economic projects

Disappearing borders

Borders in the 21st century are disappearing. Little by little, borders are quickly becoming just lines on a map as regions undergo dramatic change. It is important to point out that in the past few years borders that had been in place ever since the end of World War I, specifically in the MENA region with the Sykes-Picot treaty, no longer apply to the harsh political realities in the region.

Additionally, despite the best intentions of governments, international borders are quickly becoming more porous. Part of the reason for these phenomena is that terrorists and criminal groups are finding ways around government programs aimed at monitoring borders.

Despite the best intentions of governments, international borders are quickly becoming more porous

Dr. Theodore Karasik

In Mali, as witnessed by the recent military activity there, Islamists were able to take advantage of the poor border situation by striking out at the In Amenas gas field in Algeria, Mali’s northern neighbor.

The assault on the In Amenas gas field in 2013 included a multi-national force of fighters from Algeria, Tunisia, Canada, Egypt, Mali, Niger and Mauritania. Clearly, the Sahel’s porous borders defines Ungovernable Territories succinctly as witnessed by the In Amenas attack with similar attacks likely given that Islamist terrorists see energy infrastructure as a high value target. In addition, in the Levant, the spreading Syrian conflict to Lebanon and Iraq helps terrorist and criminals move freely with immunity along traditional trading routes that stretch from the Mediterranean to Iran.

Tribal routes

Currently, al-Quds forces are using these tribal routes to move supplies, monies, weapons to their supporters throughout the Levant theatre according to Iraqi interlocutors. The mortar shelling of a Saudi Arabian border post from Iraq is indicative of this flow of weapons.

Tribes, clans, and ethnic groups are stronger than the state. From Central Asia to Africa, tribes and ethnic groups are using their traditional trans-regional trading networks to bypass borders. In many cases, these groups see themselves empowered by globalization, social media, and the unravelling of state control. In Libya, for example, huge expanses of the country remain open to illegal crossings and arms smuggling.

Libyan tribes that are located on the countries periphery, who had very little to do with the old order of Qaddafi’s tribe, are taking advantage of the lawlessness on the country’s periphery for profit and prestige. Now the country is in shambles.

Growth of instability

In Central Asia, tribes and clans with terrorist and criminal intent are being boosted by instability in Afghanistan. As NATO forces withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, the growth of instability in Central Asia will pose a direct threat to those governments, especially to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The trend is a concern to many regional countries because Central Asia is a key transit route for the withdrawal of Allied troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Governments in Central Asia are blaming the latest attacks on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a group whose militants have long fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, and are members of Central Asian clans, notably groups found in zhuz (clans) across the region.

Moreover, rioting and tensions between ethnic Han and Muslim Uyghers in Western China helps to being additional instability across a wider geographical arc into Central Asia and the Gulf region. Overall, Central Asian governments are ill-equipped to deal with porous borders despite the existence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) who reportedly trains for such missions.

Nevertheless, the SCO is more of a debate club than an actual regional military organization with capable forces according to a Moscow-based Russian political analyst.

Weak governments

Governments are weak throughout the world when considering robust border control. Biometrics, E-Government, CCTV, UAVs are all part of keeping border security. At border crossings biometric facial recognition software is now playing an integral role in filtering possible criminal elements. E-government is another form of biometrics that helps to capture the changing social nature of each country through the movement and occupation of migrants and nationals.

CCTV’s are springing up everywhere possible, capturing real time footage of possible border penetrators and halting illegal smuggling. Finally, UAV’s hover over border areas guaranteeing a falcon’s eye view of activity among long stretches of uninhabitable border areas known to be smuggling routes.

Unfortunately, terrorist groups and criminals are able to stay one step ahead of government programs and are afforded time to make necessary logistical adjustments and changes before such command and supervision is implemented by Interior Ministries and Border Guards. For example, in Saudi Arabia, for example, Riyadh is planning to set up a security fence on its borders with Yemen to reduce the number of illegal immigrants and smuggling mostly via Asir and Jizan provinces.

Persistent capability

The Kingdom seeks constant persistent capability with a network of sandbags and pipelines, three meters high, filled with concrete and fitted with electronic detection systems. Over 500 guards have died on the border to date, illustrating the violence associated with porous entry and exit points.

It is clear that ungovernable territories are spreading throughout a critical arc of growing uncertainty and volatility from the Atlantic to China.

The Arab Spring is not the main cause of these phenomena but is certainly a critical factor in helping the collapse of governmental policy when border security is turning out to be a major security concern. State reserves in many states are incapable of helping to mitigate what is becoming a trans-regional threat to governments, infrastructure, and citizens. Terrorism and criminal activity will breed new attempts to disrupt law and order perhaps separately or in nexus.


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Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angeles.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.