Unconventional warfare (UW) differs from conventional warfare in how it is conducted, more than where or by whom it is conducted. UW may work to create instability, confusion, and unrest in support of intermediate or long-term objectives. UW can be conducted in a domestic or international context, in first or third world countries and is used by traditional military forces, Special Forces, and violent extremist organizations. In planning a UW campaign or a counter-UW campaign, the terrain, including the human terrain, is mapped out. A human terrain type of assessment includes identifying stakeholders, influencers, and licit and illicit groups and developing a strategic breakdown of the intersection of their interests; a crucial step to understanding the UW “battlefield” and developing courses of action. From political parties to activist groups and criminal organizations, each element is evaluated to determine how their goals, infrastructure and support network, and members will affect a UW campaign.
Criminal Organizations fall within the illicit category. Criminal organizations, by definition, operate outside the law and accepted social norms, but they do not exist within a criminal bubble. Each organization has an identifiable sphere of influence, an infrastructure and capabilities which extend into and affect the societies that the criminal organization operates within. The identification of the interests, sympathies, infrastructure, economic and tactical capabilities and network of illicit groups is an important part of understanding how an informal, illegal group will impact the planned UW campaign, including how it can be used to promote or undermine UW objectives. Criminal organizations, such as organized crime syndicates and “urban gangs”, often have a large number of socially and geographically diverse members that are organized, focused and usually well-armed. The objectives, allegiances, operational capabilities, and limitations of these groups vary.
Given the complex organization and the ability to communicate and mobilize large groups of armed people, criminal organizations are serious powerbrokers on the UW battlefield. Within the UW and CT context, a plan to leverage or counter these organizations, and prevent their recruitment by an opposition force is essential. For instance, the BLOODS and CRIPS have an estimated 15,000 to 35,000-strong membership each, comprised of primarily of US citizens operating within US boundaries. This profile indicates that domestic concerns, allegiances, and sympathies will likely be primary and useful in a CT or UW context. While groups such as MS–13 or the Latin Kings operate within the United States, but their origins are external to the US, their support network and sphere of influence is international and their allegiance is primarily to the group or to entities outside US borders. From a UW perspective, this makes them more susceptible to an external or third-party influence.
A program of non-engagement or assumption that a criminal organization is a foe, rather than a potential ally, is counterproductive and can have disastrous results. However, criminal organizations have been largely overlooked by strategic planners in the UW and counterterrorism (CT) community. This oversight is in large part due viewing criminal organizations through the traditional lens of law enforcement rather than through the lens of unconventional warfare. The opposition to factoring the impact of criminal organizations in UW and CT for good as well as bad, is understandable. Law enforcement, by design, works against those who break the law. However, in a UW or CT context, an opposing force has no such hang-ups and will readily engage those outside the bounds of the law to their advantage.
On the UW battlefield if you don’t account for criminal organizations, seeking to control or influence their operations, then someone else on the battlefield will. To discount large organized groups of people, such as gangs, because they are not legitimate, gives an opposition force to use criminal organizations against your UW force, or in favor of opposition objectives. UW and CT do not play be the same rules. It is not maintaining civil society and law and order, it is preserving society itself that is the objective and that requires a more expansive view of the playing field.