National security is a game of managing risk – pure and simple. During the Cold War, states were the primary target for intelligence; non-state actors, like terrorists, were secondary. As a result, national intelligence services had not digested the implications of the end of the Cold War when the first wave of terrorist attacks struck. In the United States on Sept. ۱۱, ۲۰۰۱, in Russia on Oct. ۲۳, ۲۰۰۲, in Spain on March ۱۱, ۲۰۰۴, in Britain on July ۷, ۲۰۰۵ and in India on Nov. ۲۶, ۲۰۰۸, – the international community had not absorbed the effect of one major change when they were hit by yet another. One can see that the national security of the state is being reshaped thanks to this deluge of events. Unfortunately, one can see that with all positive moments, changes in a world system also offer terrorist groups more effective means to operate seamlessly across borders and much greater opportunities to sustain their existence and to attack what they oppose. One of the reasons is the reality of the “safe haven” phenomenon, providing physical security for many senior terrorist leaders, allowing them to plan and to inspire violent acts around the world (for example, the hunt for the world’s most wanted man, Osama bin Laden). Such areas of relative security are exploited by terrorists to indoctrinate, recruit, coalesce, train and regroup, as well as to prepare and support their operations. One of the changes at the beginning of the century was the understanding of the notion of the “safe haven.” Before, the archetypical comprehensive safe haven was considered to be Somalia: a truly ungoverned area, with no functioning central government, no single entity in control of the country and widespread localized competitions for control over small areas of territory.
But, since Sept. ۱۱, ۲۰۰۱, many consider the archetype to be Afghanistan under Taliban rule (pre-Sept. ۱۱), a state-sponsored safe haven where al-Qaeda was free to recruit, train, gather resources and plan attacks throughout the country without state opposition and, in fact, with state support. Taking this into account, one can see that most “safe havens” are associated with some degree of conflict, either as a precursor or as an outcome. For a long time, experts in international relations have warned that non-recognized territories could become a source of terrorism and criminal activities. These territories are de facto independent but not bound by any international treaties. They have their own “armies,” “law enforcement” and political institutions, but a lack of financial viability may force them to earn money through weapon sales, drug-trafficking and hosting insurgent/terrorist training camps. Accordingly, the government of Azerbaijan, on numerous occasions, has pointed to the existence of this new model of state-sponsored safe haven in the form of Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent territories (safe haven) that were occupied by Armenia in the early ۱۹۹۰s (sponsoring state). The occupied territories are presently out of national and international jurisdiction. As there is no law without state and that there is no state without law, one can note that the social contract between the state and its citizen (thanks to the consequences of military occupation and ethnic cleansing by Armenia) has been replaced by a criminal bargain: Illicit activity becomes separatist-sponsored, and in return the sponsors are protected and enriched by the regime. As a result the rule of law is replaced by the bullet and the bribe. Taking all of the above mentioned into account, one can summarize that whether profiting from “ungoverned spaces” or hollowing out the state from within, transnational criminal groups – plugged into global networks – can gain control of key resources and/or trafficking routes that give them a profitable market share (for example, the existing “Nagorno-Karabakh – Iran – Azerbaijan,” as well as the “Afghanistan – Iran – Nagorno-Karabakh and occupied territories of Azerbaijan – Armenia – Georgia –Western Europe” narco-traffic routes, according to the U.S. State Department’s ۲۰۰۶ International Narcotics Control Strategy Annual Report).The richer and more powerful the transnational criminal groups become, the greater the threat they pose to national, regional and global security as well as to undermining development and the rule of law.
One can argue that the evolution of international relations has gifted this “safe haven” phenomenon with a new role as a growing threat across the globe, assessing more concretely its impact on the political structures, institutions, actors and processes common to democratic regimes. Such growing challenge has typically been countered by governments at a domestic level, but once the political interests of the “modern empires” or “superpowers” misalign with the vision of the “host state,” prospects for much-needed intergovernmental cooperation against such transnational threats become less and less realistic. One can summarize all of the abovementioned as follows: Letting a “safe haven” fester can manifest itself in a terrorist attack, in international crime or the drug trade, while eliminating safe havens can be a costly policy which can bog countries down in a sticky situation of military operations. Governments throughout the world must thus unite to combat such “safe havens,” where criminals and terrorists have access to enhanced methods of travel and communication through which they can flee from detection and prosecution and conceal the evidence of and profits from their crimes. Pure and simple.
*Reshad Karimov is a military analyst based in Baku, Azerbaijan.