top of page

Transnational Threats & Challenges

Vol. 4 No. 1 | Summer 2017
ISIS and Repor...

ISIS and Reporting

A Conversation with Graeme Wood

Interviewed by Eli Stiefel

Fletcher Security Review: Thank you very much for talking to me. It’s a pleasure.


Graeme Wood: My pleasure.


FSR: Every year at The Fletcher Security Review, we have a different focus for our print edition. This year’s topic explores the ever-broadening roles that militaries are playing and how the concept of security is understood by different audiences. The work you are doing is shaping public opinion and drastically impacting how audiences understand ISIS and the broader concepts of security. I read your recent book [The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State] and listened to your talk with Admiral Stavridis [James Stavridis, Dean of The Fletcher School] and was hoping to spring off of that discussion and your previous coverage to address some thoughts relating to this topic. Given that our topic is the concept of security and how it is understood by a broader audience, I would love to hear your thoughts about how the writing and reporting that you are doing impacts the understanding of security among the public, and policymakers.


GW: Let’s back up a bit. As a journalist, one of my great freedoms is to be very much under-conceptualized. When I first started out writing on ISIS, the first observation that I made was that people were conceiving of the group in ways that were misleading, and I could therefore apply basic methods and questions, and perhaps have something new to say. That meant simply looking for raw data.


I don’t think of “security” as a concept. My work interacts with larger questions of what security is, in that I might provide information, raw material, useful for people who are thinking in those broader terms. But largely what I try to do is describe what people are thinking


FSR: You are quoted often, especially from your original article in The Atlantic [“What ISIS Really Wants,” published in March 2015] as saying that ISIS is “very Islamic.” A lot of people pushed back pretty aggressively against that. One particular critique that I found interesting was from JM Berger at the Brookings Institute. In an article [“Enough about Islam: Why Religion Is Not the Most Useful Way to Understand ISIS”] he said, “to understand and counter ISIS, frame it properly. Identity-based extremism and millenarian apocalyptic cults provide a far more useful framework for understanding ISIS than Islam does.” As you say, you are describing what people tell you about what they think in order to inform readers. JM Berger seems to have a different way of wanting to frame that information...


As a longer article, this piece will only be offered in PDF format for easier reading. Download the PDF to read more.



Graeme Wood 


Graeme Wood is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He was the 2015 - 2016 Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and is a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He was formerly a contributing editor to The New Republic and books editor of Pacific Standard. He was a reporter at The Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh in 1999, then lived and wrote in the Middle East from 2002 to 2006.  He has received fellowships from the Social Sciences Research Council (2002-2003), the South Asian Journalists Association (2009), the East-West Center (2009-2010), and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide (2013-2014).  He has appeared many times on television and radio (CNN, ABC, BBC, MSNBC, et al.), was the screenwriter of a Sundance Official Selection (2010, short film), and led a Nazi-hunting expedition to Paraguay for a History Channel special in 2009.



Merchants of M...

Merchants of Men:

How Jihadists and ISIS Turned Kidnapping and Refugee Trafficking into a Multi-Billion Dollar Business

by Loretta Napoleoni

Book Review by Karen Jacobsen

This book is a lively journalistic read, filled with stories and details of encounters between jihadists, smugglers, organized crime, drug smuggling across the Sahara, kidnapping of rich tourists, and European ransoms. The author, an Italian journalist, describes herself as a ‘chronicler of the dark side of the economics of globalization’ and has written several books on ISIS, terrorist financing, and money laundering. 


In Merchants of Men, Napoleoni argues that the proliferation of failed states and the breakdown of law and order in regions like the Sahel, accelerated by the burgeoning cocaine business in the region, have enabled a rapid increase in trafficking and kidnapping. The profits of these merchants of men have flourished, aided by the secrecy of European governments surrounding the ransoming of their citizens (notably, the U.S. does not, publicly at least, pay ransoms).  Napoleoni raises these and a number of intriguing issues in the preface. She points to the “false sense of security about the globalized world” that allows both “young, inexperienced members of the First Nations Club” and humanitarian aid workers to explore the world and bring aid to conflict zones — and become the primary target of kidnappers. She gives (unsourced) statistics about the growth of the kidnapping industry and its mirror, private security companies, and asks whether “the economics of kidnapping are immune from the laws of economics,” because as competition has increased between kidnappers and private security firms, prices have gone up instead of down. She argues that when the migrant crisis erupted in Europe in 2015, the business of hostage taking — already set up with “a sophisticated organizational structure in place and plenty of money from trading hostages” — switched to trafficking in migrants and refugees. The profits of these merchants of men have continued to increase since then.


This is an interesting and well-founded argument and worthy of a book.  Napoleoni handles her topic with brio, weaving the stories and experiences of individuals and business ventures into each chapter. In Part One, she guides the reader through the evolution of global trafficking since the implementation of the USA PATRIOT Act a month after 9/11.  She traces the interlacing themes of the Colombian drug cartels, drug smuggling in the Sahel, the rise of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the kidnapping and ransoming of foreigners in Iraq, and how aid agencies and different governments responded (when both Italian and Japanese citizens were kidnapped on different occasions in Iraq in 2004, the responses of Italy and Japan were very different).  One chapter focuses on the 2003 Libya–Italy “dirty deal” with Qadhafi to control African migration from Libya, a deal that “benefitted traffickers, turned migrants into hostages and slave labor, and diverted large sums of Italian taxpayer money into Gaddafi’s pockets.”  It is notable that this year, Italy is again discussing a deal with Libya to control migration from the latter’s shores. Subsequent chapters focus on the economics of Somali piracy, and then the book turns to the Syrian civil war and ways in which “ransoms turned out to be one of the main sources of funding for the Assad regime.”


In Part Two, Napoleoni turns to the mechanics of kidnapping, with each chapter focused on different aspects: the Negotiator (the chapter is simply a monologue by a private kidnapping negotiator), the ransom, what happens if a kidnapping isn’t quickly resolved, what happens to hostages, and so forth.  The writing is lively and fast paced, closely tied to the stories of the people involved.  Part Three brings us into the present with a discussion of ISIS, and refugee stories about making the journey to Europe.  It ends with a speculative epilogue on what Brexit might mean for migrants.


The book pulls off a brisk recent history of the intersection between trafficking, kidnapping, and migration, providing the reader with fascinating insights into kidnapping negotiations of all kinds.  It is not an academic book, and at times the reader might wish for more sources and cross-checking.  Nonetheless it is a terrific read, shining a bright light on the huge global problem of trafficking — a problem whose solution is nowhere in sight.



Karen Jacobsen 


Karen Jacobsen is the Henry J. Leir Professor of Global Migration at The Fletcher School, and directs the Refugees and Forced Migration Program at the Feinstein International Center. Professor Jacobsen’s current research explores urban displacement and global migration systems, with a focus on the livelihoods and financial resilience of migrants and refugees. In 2013-2014 she was on leave from Tufts, leading the Joint IDP Profiling Service (JIPS) in Geneva. From 2000–2005, she directed the Alchemy Project, which explored the use of microfinance as a way to support people in refugee camps and other displacement settings. Professor Jacobsen’s publications include A View from Below: Conducting Research in Conflict Zones (with Mazurana and Gale), and The Economic Life of Refugees (2005), which is widely used in courses on forced migration. She is a citizen of both South Africa and the United States, and lives in Brookline with her son and two dogs.

Re-embracing t...

Re-embracing the Wartime Detention Mission

Ryan J. Vogel
(PH1 Shane T. McCoy/USN/Public Domain)

President Donald Trump has made clear his intent to utilize wartime detention in the fight against al-Qaeda and ISIS.[1] As former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Rule of Law and Detainee Policy, William Lietzau, and I have argued elsewhere,[2] this could be a positive development in the United States’ evolving approach to the war against al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their associates, so long as it is coupled with a commitment to continuing key detention policies and humane treatment standards developed over the past fifteen years. In recent years, the United States has largely avoided adding to the detainee population at Guantanamo (GTMO) – mainly in reaction to some of the more infamous excesses from the first couple of years after the attacks on September 11, 2001. But failing to capture new enemy fighters has come with an operational and humanitarian cost. The United States should take the opportunity that comes with political transition to re-embrace the wartime detention mission.


Detention is an important part of armed conflict. The Obama Administration was not nearly as interested in developing and defending its detention policy as it was in keeping a campaign promise to close GTMO, which President Obama called “a blot on our national honor.”[3] Of course, deciding on policy or tactical grounds to close a detention facility is reasonable, but not if it becomes the basis for a State’s entire approach to detention operations. It is true that the United States continued to capture and detain enemy fighters during the Obama Administration, mostly during the surge in Afghanistan. But while the Administration vigorously defended its controversial policies related to lethal actions, particularly those conducted by drones outside the “hot battlefield,” its only emphasis for detainee operations was in ending them.[4]


In Europe, too, courts have undermined the ability for U.S. allies to detain during armed conflict.[5] Indeed, in a recent case in the United Kingdom, the inherent authority of a nation to detain at all in non-international armed conflict has been challenged.[6] The United States and some of its key allies are losing sight of the humanitarian and operational advantages of wartime detention. This in spite of the fact that U.S. detainee law, policy, and practice has continued to progress throughout the past fifteen years, becoming in every respect the international standard for wartime detention operations.


Interestingly, detention has typically been most criticized by the human rights community. Some of this is due to persistent questions over the appropriate legal framework in which to situate the fight against al-Qaeda and now ISIS.[7] The conflation of two very disparate legal regimes (law of war versus criminal law) leads to incoherent policy, inadequate law from which U.S. courts can draw in making decisions on jurisdiction over detainee matters, and confusion for the public on the basis for continued detention outside criminal legal processes. The fact that many terrorist fighters do not fit neatly into the categories specified in the Geneva Conventions has led many to conclude that they should be dealt with under the law enforcement framework, which has well defined standards for incarceration. Calls for al-Qaeda or ISIS members to be “brought to justice,” or claims that they are “imprisoned” at Guantanamo, or assertions that detained fighters are being held “indefinitely without charge” abound. Of course, all of these statements reflect the purposes of criminal law, which is to prosecute those who have committed crimes and imprison convicts for punitive sentences of a definite duration.


The purpose of the law of war is very different: detained persons are not “imprisoned” for punitive purposes or as a result of a conviction, but are held simply to keep them from fighting for the duration of the conflict. Therefore, it does not make sense to speak of “holding an individual without charge” in the context of an armed conflict – all detained persons, including prisoners of war, are held without charge. States have no obligation to prosecute captured fighters in wartime, and have generally not sought to do so while the war is ongoing. Similarly, it does not make sense to speak of “indefinite detention” in the context of an armed conflict. All conflicts are “indefinite” in nature; wars do not begin with a predetermined end-date. When combatants enter a conflict they must do so knowing that, should they be captured, they may be lawfully held without charge for the duration of the hostilities – whether that is a hundred days or a hundred years. The United States should continue to affirm this legal distinction.


The United States should also demonstrate that detention in armed conflict is preferable as a humanitarian matter. Detention is a long-established lawful and humane incident to warfare. Without detention, States would have only one option for removing a threat from the battlefield: lethal action. Morally responsible and legally observant States take prisoners in wartime. In part this is because detention is temporary and non-punitive – and almost always reversible. In fact, of the tens of thousands of individuals detained during America’s post-9/11 wars, almost all have been transferred or released. In addition, the United States has placed a consistent and progressive emphasis on preparing detainees to return to civilian life and preventing their reengagement in hostilities. This focus has led to training, education, and other programs aimed at helping detainees readjust to post-detention civilian life. Of course, none of this is possible if a State pursues only lethal approaches.


But detention is not only a moral and lawful option in wartime, it is also operationally preferable. Detaining enemy fighters provides valuable intelligence collection opportunities. Detainees may be interrogated, their possessions may be analyzed, their location may be investigated, and all of this information may be gathered to help military and intelligence professionals learn more about the enemy group and its plans. Detainee information has provided United States officials with a great deal of the information on terrorist organizations, their modus operandi, and personnel.


In addition, failing to capture enemy fighters and releasing detainees prematurely needlessly prolongs the conflict, leading to unnecessary death and destruction. A mistake that both the Bush and Obama administrations made was to transfer or release detainees without an overarching strategic reason for doing so. Of course, if the United States finds through new intelligence or through a detainee review process that it has the wrong person in custody, that person should be released without delay. But in cases where the United States knows it is holding a member of the enemy, transferring that person back only provides another opportunity for that person to go back to the fight. Reconstituting the enemy while hostilities are ongoing simply prolongs the war. We saw this happen countless times with the same detainees being repeatedly recaptured in Afghanistan and Iraq, only to be set free again. At GTMO, the reengagement rate consistently hovers in the 30-35% range. If a detainee is clearly part of the enemy, the burden should be on him to demonstrate that he is unlikely to go back. Otherwise, that person should stay in detention until the war is over or until another viable opportunity to mitigate his threat becomes available.


But if the United States decides to detain new enemy fighters in its current wars, it must treat them properly. Doing otherwise not only harms short-term operational interests and puts its people at risk of prosecution, it hands the enemy invaluable propaganda to bring more recruits into the conflict. President Trump has suggested that torture works and that the United States should “fight fire with fire.”[8] But re-engaging in “enhanced interrogation techniques” would be a huge mistake. As mentioned above, detention in wartime is non-punitive – detainees are only being held to prevent them from returning to the fight. Therefore, the law requires that detainees be treated humanely and with respect. States may certainly interrogate captured enemy forces, but that interrogation must not become coercive or cruel. Too often the discussion on torture focuses squarely on the question of effectiveness, with some claiming that it is always effective and others claiming that it never is. Military and civilian interrogators have found that non-coercive methods are simply more likely to yield more reliable information over a greater period and in greater quantity.[9] Or, as Secretary of Defense James Mattis reportedly asserted, “give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I do better with that than I do with torture.”[10]


The United States has already had this debate and rightly concluded that it does not and cannot condone the use of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment for myriad reasons. Torture and ill treatment is illegal and immoral. The United States did significant damage to its national reputation, war effort, and interoperability with allies using harsh interrogation techniques and poor treatment in the early days of its detention operations, the consequences of which it continues to experience. The interrogation techniques in the Army Field Manual[11] and the standards in the Geneva Conventions work, and they keep us in good standing with the law, our allies, and the international community.


Beyond interrogation, though, the United States should continue to treat detainees in accordance with all law, policy, and regulations. All three branches of government and both political parties have agreed that detainees must be afforded the basic protections found in Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, and the U.S. Government has wisely exceeded its legal requirements pertaining to treatment standards for well more than a decade. Humane treatment is not only legally and morally required, but it benefits our troops and avoids needlessly complicating our detainee operations. Having uniform, clear, and principled rules helps to prevent abuse and allows personnel working detention operations to operate free from fear of future repercussion. In addition, detainees will be more compliant, less disruptive, and less violent to the guards and each other.


The good news for the United States is that it has already developed and adopted a pragmatic and progressive detention policy. By defining and restraining its power over individuals in its war with terrorist groups, the United States has created a principled, sustainable, and credible detention regime that serves the United States’. interests while providing a standard consistent with American values. Unfortunately, the United States has largely distanced itself from these successes and pushed detention operations out of its approach to combatting al-Qaeda and ISIS. This has been a grave mistake, and the United States should seize the opportunity with a new Administration to re-embrace law of war detention. If a country is authorized to use lethal force it must also be authorized to detain those same individuals instead.


[1] On the campaign trail and in office, Trump has advocated for a number of detention-related actions, including keeping the detention facility at Guantanamo (GTMO) open and adding to its detainee population, using enhanced interrogation techniques that include and surpass waterboarding, and trying American citizens suspected of terrorism in military commissions.

[2] Ryan Vogel and William Lietzau, “Trump’s Opportunity to Get GTMO Right,” Lawfare, January 27, 2017 available at

[3] “President Obama Defends Counterterrorism Plan Before Handover to Trump,” Chicago Tribune, December 6, 2016, available at

[4] See e.g., Barack Obama, Remarks by the President at the National Defense University, May 23, 2013, available at

[5] See Al-Skeini and others v. United Kingdom, App. No. 55721/07, 7 July 2011; see also Al-Jedda v. United Kingdom, App. No. 27021/08, 7 July 2011.

[6] Joined cases of Serdar Mohammed v. Ministry of Defence and Qasim et al. v. Secretary of State for Defence [2014] EWHC 1369 (QB).

[7] Traditionally, the United States has approached terrorism primarily as a law enforcement matter, occasionally relying on the military to reach dangerous individuals when law enforcement approaches were inadequate for accomplishing the objective. For example, the Clinton Administration primarily relied on law enforcement tools to combat terrorism throughout the 1990s, including its response to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing by terrorists. However, the Clinton Administration used Tomahawk cruise missiles to strike terrorist camps in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998 after the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

[8] Dan Merica, “Trump on Waterboarding: ‘We Have to Fight Fire with Fire,’”, January 26, 2017, available at

[9] See e.g., Ali Soufan, “My Tortured Decision,” New York Times, April 22, 2009, available at

[10] Sheri Fink and Helene Cooper, “Inside Trump Defense Secretary Pick’s Efforts to Halt Torture,” New York Times, Jan. 2, 2017, available at

[11] Army Field Manual 2-22.3.


Ryan J. Vogel 


Professor Ryan Vogel is the founding director of the Center for National Security Studies and assistant professor of law and national security at Utah Valley University. Previously, Professor Vogel served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where he was the primary drafter of key Department of Defense detention policies during the Obama Administration. He was awarded the Medal for Exceptional Civilian Service by the Secretary of Defense in 2014.

Waging Insurg...

Waging Insurgent Warfare:

Lessons from the Vietcong to the Islamic State

by Seth G. Jones

Book Review by Polina Beliakova

Insurgencies are often thought of as domestic conflicts between state and non-state actors seeking to challenge governmental legitimacy, overthrow the government, or take territorial control from the state. However, thinking about insurgency merely in terms of domestic affairs substantially limits our perspective, and might be misleading both in terms of theory and policy. In addition, the tendency of policymakers and scholars to focus their attention on counterinsurgency bears the risk of considering the solution before understanding all nuances of the problem.


Seth G. Jones’ Waging Insurgent Warfare is truly a book about insurgency. Using both qualitative and quantitative methods, Jones analyzes how insurgencies start, strategies and tactics used by insurgent groups, their organizational structures, and their informational campaigns. The author devotes particular attention to the role of outside support for insurgencies from various types of actors including great power states. Finally, he addresses the issue of how insurgencies end. Only in the concluding chapter does Jones discuss the implications of the key findings of the book for counterinsurgency.


Jones summarizes commonly known and intuitive facts about insurgencies (e.g., local grievances and weak government provide motivation, insurgents rely on guerrilla warfare), and then builds a basis for answering a critical question: which attributes affect the insurgents' chances to begin and win their struggle?

Waging Insurgent Warfare answers this question by combining qualitative and quantitative methodology. The qualitative data are driven from the firsthand accounts of the rebel commanders and operatives themselves. The author skillfully illustrates his arguments with examples taken from the primary source documents. The book is rich with anecdotes, which give the reader a feeling of a strong connection between the discussed issues and real-life events. When it comes to quantitative data, the author relies on the database of 181 insurgencies that took place in a period of 1946-2015. The data accounts for the outcome of the war (victory, tie, defeat), insurgent strategies (conventional, guerrilla, punishment), group size, organizational structure, goals, and types of the outside support.


The main findings of Waging Insurgent Warfare are supported by the quantitative regression analysis. They demonstrate that the discussion of insurgency transcends the state and even regional boundaries and must take place in the context of international security. Jones shows that direct combat support from a great power to the insurgent group significantly increases the likelihood of the rebels' victory. Moreover, even when opposing great powers provide assistance to the government, insurgents still have a higher chance to win. Jones acknowledges the issue of endogeneity  (i.e., superpowers only choosing to support insurgent groups they consider likely to win), but through historical examples he demonstrates the primary driver of a great power’s decision is geopolitical, not the insurgents’ likelihood of success.

Interestingly, great power support to the counterinsurgent (both direct combatant support and, for instance, resources and training) is expected to decrease the likelihood of the rebel's victory if they do not obtain assistance from another great power. Denying superpower support for rebels may therefore be a crucial component to counterinsurgency campaigns. This finding again underscores the international dimension of insurgency conflicts, and how they must be understood as multi-level games played both on domestic and international levels.


These findings have serious implications for understanding the significance of Russian and U.S. involvement in ongoing conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. For instance, the Russian strategy focuses on direct combat support of Bashar al-Assad’s government as a legitimizing cause for involvement in Syrian counterinsurgency, while simultaneously providing assistance to insurgent forces in the Eastern Ukraine. In contrast, the U.S. strategy is one of limited support to some Syrian opposition rebel forces and providing training and aid to the Ukrainian military. Jones’ findings suggest that Russian combat support increases the likelihood Assad's forces will succeed unless the United States or another great power puts troops directly into Syria to support the opposition. These findings are also bad news for Ukraine: without a great power’s direct combat support, the fate of the Donbass insurgency depends on the Russian Federation’s support for the separatist forces.


Jones’ findings also make evident that the classic hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency approach is still relevant and must be accounted for by governments striving to undermine insurgent support. In particular, the reliance on punitive strategies that involve targeting noncombatants in order to overcome their resistance or to compel government proved not to play in insurgents’ favor. Therefore, protecting general populations in conflicts where the battlefield and civilian-populated areas overlap becomes not only an ethical consideration for the counterinsurgent but also a strategically beneficial objective.

Waging Insurgent Warfare is a comprehensive overview of the subject, rich with real-life examples from primary sources and supported by the empirical findings of the quantitative analysis. While summarizing the existing bulk of knowledge about insurgency, it also reaffirms well-established principles of counterinsurgency discussed by Galula,[1] O’Neill,[2] and Kilcullen,[3] such as prioritization of the safety of the general population. The main contribution of this book, however, lies in bringing to the reader’s attention the critical influence that the great power support for the rebels has on the outcome of a conflict. Great power support for the insurgent can obviate the strategic asymmetry in tangible assets between the rebels and the government, which is one of the foundational assumptions of counterinsurgency theory discussed by Galula.[4] Furthermore, it has a potential of decreasing the significance of the popular support for insurgents, since the general population is no longer considered as a provider of necessary resources for the rebels. Adding to the strategic equation of insurgency an actor with such a strong political gravity as a great power requires to adjust counterinsurgency theory accordingly. What Kilcullen calls an "armed social work"[5] when referring to the counterinsurgent’s necessity to provide civil governance to the population while fighting the insurgent forces, now has to be complemented with a strategy of international negotiations in order to manage the great power engagement in the conflict. In this way, Jones’ findings open an avenue for further research on counterinsurgency as a multilevel domestic and international strategy.


To summarize, Waging Insurgent Warfare will be relevant both to students of intrastate conflict and international relations. While it does not provide new theoretical insights on this type of warfare, its empirical findings can serve as an inspiration for further research. The book can be a great opening read for those interested in internal conflicts, as it offers a clear and comprehensive summary of existing knowledge on the subject.



[1] David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006).

[2] Bard E. O’Neill, Insurgency & Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse, (New Delhi: Manas Publications, 2006).

[3]  David Kilcullen, Counterinsurgency, (London: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[4] Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, 3-4.

[5] Kilcullen, Counterinsurgency, 43.



Polina Beliakova  


Polina Beliakova is a PhD student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

bottom of page