Understanding Conventional and Irregular Threats – Forward Observer Shop

Understanding Conventional and Irregular Threats

One of the lessons learned from Niall Ferguson’s book The Square and the Tower is how hierarchies and networks exercise their power. Hierarchies are top down power structures where higher echelons have more power, and networks decentralize their power into nodes. When it comes to threat intelligence, identifying an organization’s form and how its power is employed is crucial to understanding how to counter that power.

Let’s take the conflict in Afghanistan for instance. The U.S. military is a hierarchical power that employs centralized planning and provides the commander’s intent for subordinate units. Those units are expected to conform to the commander’s intent, and any deviation means that its efforts are no longer synchronized with the broader effort. This is akin to playing a game of chess with a board full of rogue pieces. Regardless of how good your strategy is, if pieces begin moving on their own and outside the bounds of your intent, then the strategy is less likely to be effective.

The Taliban, on the other hand, also employs hierarchical power, although Taliban leaders have been moderately successful at decentralizing their power and decision-making. Unlike the military’s top-down command structure, the Taliban often employ a flatter, holacratic command structure. Sometimes a local or district Taliban commander would answer to a regional commander, but sometimes he would answer to a peer district commander. This cellular command structure is much more difficult to map. Unlike the vertical relationship between a General and his Colonels, a Lieutenant Colonel and his Captains, and a Captain and his Lieutenants, Taliban cells sometimes operated in unison, sometimes separately, and sometimes they competed against each other. As an intelligence analyst identifying the command relationships, links, and associations between leaders and cells, having successfully identified the command structure one day didn’t necessarily mean that the command structure would remain the same for tomorrow.

There are pro’s and con’s for every hierarchy and network, and that’s what I want to get into today. There are four types of threats we’re concerned with in our community security mission. (For more information, see Section 4 of Intelligence Essentials for Community Security.)

Conventional Threats typically exercise de jure (either legal or “legal”) authority, they’re often uniformed, and they often employ hierarchical command structures. The police state and the invading (or occupying) army are examples of conventional threats.

Irregular Threats typically exercise de facto authority (“I’m here with a gun, so I’m in charge), typically don’t wear uniforms, and often employ networked or decentralized command structures. Gangs, mobs, looters, criminals, and insurgents are examples of irregular threats.

We use the terms “conventional” and “irregular” to categorize threats, but we need a deeper understanding of who these individuals are, how they’re organized, how they operate, what their capabilities are, and several other characteristics. Think of a gang in your area; Bloods, Crips, Gangster Disciples, MS-13, Hell’s Angels, etc. (A quick Google search for your town/county and “gang” might yield some interesting results.)

How many members do they have? How are they organized? What’s the command structure? Do they have training? How do they sustain themselves? What types of vehicles do they have? How do they communicate? Are they conducting pre-operational surveillance against their targets? So on and so forth…

If your area doesn’t have established gangs, then there are two considerations: 1) what’s the likelihood that you will experience out-of-area or migrating gangs? and 2) what’s the likelihood that ad hoc gangs will form in your neighborhood? I use the term “ad hoc gang” to describe gangs of convenience; a group of people who band together to survive, and then use their collective power just like a traditional gang.

In an emergency situation where we expect the potential for lawlessness, or in an environment with a reduced or no rule of law, these are some questions I’d like to have already answered. The more we know about these gangs, especially identifying characteristics, might help us identify their presence sooner. Knowing gang tags, colors, vehicles, and other characteristics would allow our community to be on the look out, and provide early warning for their presence.

Similarly, we’d need to answer some similar questions about conventional threats, if the need were to arise. Who are these people? How many troops are there? What kind of tactics do they employ? Where are they stationed? What are their pre-operational staging locations? What intelligence assets do they employ? So on and so forth…

Remember that if we’re building or running an ACE, we have to primary tasks: produce Early Warning Intelligence and Threat Analysis. Identifying active or potential threats, whether they’re conventional or irregular, and describing their characteristics is part of that Threat Analysis mission. This intelligence doesn’t produce itself, so if either of these types of threats concern you, then now’s the time to begin the work.

If you want to get head and shoulders above your competition, then do an Area Study. We’ve built out an e-course that makes this process easy and efficient. Put in the work, and you’ll get the results that will help you navigate emergencies, whether they’re national or local.

If you enjoyed this article and want more of my thoughts on intelligence, security, and defense for an uncertain future, be sure to subscribe to my email updates.

Always Out Front,

Samuel Culper


PS. If you’re concerned about where we’re headed as a country, whether on the near-end of the spectrum or the far end of the spectrum (social, political and economic instability; domestic conflict; or collapse of empire), and want to stay informed on what the headlines don’t cover, then I invite you to try us out. Our special operations and intelligence veterans track the day-to-day risk of global and domestic conflict. If you’re not happy within the first two weeks, I’ll refund your monthly or annual subscription cost – no questions asked. You can get access to our intelligence reporting and training area here.



Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Name *