Dr. David Fouse and Dr. Alfred Oehlers attended the 2014 Sovereign Challenge Conference held at National Defense University, Washington D.C., April 22-24, 2014. Hosted by the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), this was the twelfth in the series of Sovereign Challenge conferences. This year’s conference focused on the connections between illicit networks, violent extremism, and the power of non-state actors. At a time where there is increasing recognition of the dense networks that have evolved tying together organized crime and terrorist groups, this focus was both timely and appropriate.
The conference featured a stimulating program of speakers and discussions. Admiral William H. McRaven, Commander USSOCOM, set the tone with a keynote address challenging the audience with a global threat assessment and emphasizing the need for whole of government approaches, together with international partners, to successfully counter the threat posed by non-state actors. Trust remains a critical ingredient in nurturing such interagency and international relationships, and the Admiral made a compelling case for persistent engagement to counter the illicit networks of criminals and terrorists.
Other prominent speakers included Mr. John Miller, currently Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism at the New York City Police Department, but perhaps better remembered as the ABC reporter and anchorman that conducted the interview with Osama bin Laden in 1998. Mr. Misha Glenny, an investigative journalist, provided a riveting account of the global intersections between organized crime and terrorist networks, drawing on his books, McMafia, and Dark Market. Finally, Mr. Robert Mazur – author of The Infiltrator – provided a fascinating account of his five years as an undercover U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent, getting inside the criminal hierarchy of Colombia’s drug cartels, and eventually bringing down a massive network of trafficking and money laundering.
Through illuminating presentations by these and other speakers, it became very clear how non-state actors and their emerging power posed serious threats to the sovereignty of independent nations. Corrosive practices such as corruption undermined effective and accountable governance, while some networks were so powerful as to constitute alternative, parallel systems of authority, challenging democratically constituted governments. The danger to nations is heightened considerably when illicit networks merge with the extremist, giving rise to a potent combination easily capable of overwhelming national capacities. A consistent message heard was that whole of government approaches were essential to countering these threats. So too was international cooperation among nations. As one presenter put it, these illicit actors thrive in a globalized context precisely because national authorities do not trust each other and do not talk to each other. If they did, these actors would have nowhere to hide.
Sovereign Challenge was a rewarding conference offering valuable insights into the nature and extent of the global illicit network. It successfully reinforced the message that it takes a network to defeat a network. And towards that end, the conference was also a wonderful opportunity to network with participants from 54 nations around the world. It was great to meet an APCSS alumni among those attending – Brigadier General Navuth Koeut – Defense Attaché of Cambodia to the United States. But many new relationships were established, both with international partners and within the U.S. interagency community that will prove productive in future. APCSS looks forward to the next opportunity to participate and help build on the good work already underway!