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Demonstrate that the parameters of the territory in which armed conflict is fought, are not governed by a single identified factor.

This dissertation examines the relationship between territory and the conduct of war. Specifically,
this study addresses the contention that notions of the conventional battlefield can no longer be
applied to contemporary armed conflict. In seeking to address these issues, this paper considers
the transnational, technological and political factors that impact upon the conduct of warfare;
thereby providing a holistic account of the relationship between geography and the transforming
shape of armed conflict.
This study demonstrates that the parameters of the territory in which armed conflict is fought, are
not governed by a single identified factor. It is rather, a result of an complex interplay of space,
time, and social interaction. In examining the character of contemporary warfare, this dissertation
highlights the influential role of conflict between state and non-state actors in pushing the
boundaries of the traditional battlefield. Largely asymmetric in its nature, armed conflict of the past
two decades has sought to re-draw the lines of combat, taking advantage of weaknesses that may
be located outside of conventional theatres of war. Reflective of this change, state and non-state
actors have sought to establish themselves as networked forms of organisation, thereby facilitating
activity in a geographically expansive theatre of operations, without compromising structural
integrity. As a result, the traditional parameters of the battlefield have been disregarded, giving rise
to what can be characterised as networked territories of combat.
Abstract ……………………………………………………………………………………………………….2
1 – Introduction …………………………………………………………………………………………….4-7
Dissertation outline …………………………………………………………………………………6
Notes on sources …………………………………………………………………………………..7
2 – The Changing Shape of the Battlefield ……………………………………………………………8-15
The battlefield: qualifying the nature of violence ………………………………………………..8
Conventional warfare and the battlefield: a Clausewitzian view ………………………………9
The demise of conventional warfare: the blurring lines of the battlefield ……………………11
Ambiguity of the combatant in war: ignoring battlefield parameters ……………………….. 14
3 – Territory and the Character of Contemporary Armed Conflict …………………………………16-23
Asymmetry as a characteristic of contemporary armed conflict ……………………………..16
Strength of the non-state actor: pushing the boundaries of armed conflict …………………18
Asymmetric warfare: an existing phenomena that has characterised war for centuries …..19
Technology as a challenge to the battlefield: the rise of the drone ………………………… 20
Contemporary warfare: individualising the battlespace ………………………………………23
4 – Organisation within the Battlespace: Power of the Network ………………………………… 24-31
Rise of the networked form of organisation and the networked adversary …………………24
US adoption of the network: countering Al Qaeda with JSOC ……………………………….27
Networked forms of organisation: giving rise to networked territories of combat ………… 30
5 – Conclusion …………………………………………………………………………………………..32-33
Bibliography …………………………………………………………………………………………….34-36
1 – Introduction
The battle has been central to war for centuries. The study and understanding of the territory in
which armed adversaries have come together in combat, has therefore been of the upmost
importance. This patch of land – the battlefield – shapes not only the tactics of the forces present
within it it, but has a material impact on the laws that govern its space and the organisations that
seek to control it.
The way in which warfare is conducted has, unsurprisingly, changed over time. These changes
have initiated a discussion on whether the territories in which armed conflict is conducted, can
continue to be characterised as the battlefield in its traditional sense. There is a growing body of
academic and military literature which contends that the battlefield has disappeared completely
from contemporary armed conflict, or at the very least has expanded into a global battlespace.
Though the changing shape of the battlefield is not a new phenomenon, contemporary models of
armed conflict have challenged conventional understandings of how the battlefield is constructed.
The rise in armed conflict between state and non-state actors, predominantly following the end of
the Cold War, has shown itself to be the greatest test of the conventional battlefield. These violent
engagements between conventional and non-conventional forces, appear to have ushered in a
new challenge to previously defined geographies of war.
With this is mind, this paper seeks to examine the relationship between territory and the
transforming conventions of warfare. In doing so, this dissertation aims to test notions that the
battlefield no longer exists within the parameters of contemporary armed conflict; and if indeed it is
identified that these parameters have been breached, this paper will seek to offer a
characterisation of this new territory of combat. Further enriching this analysis, consideration is
given throughout to the value of characterising the changing territories of armed conflict in this way,
and the impact this may have on those actors engaged in combat.
This analysis is guided by the understanding that there is no one driver to the changing nature of
armed conflict. There are many complexities to war, that do not stand in isolation, but are rather a
result of interdependent relationships across multiple disciplines and territories. Reflecting these
intricacies, the methodology of this dissertation seeks to avoid a one-dimensional approach when
interrogating the parameters of the battlefield. Rather than simply focus on where armed conflict is
taking place, this study seeks to examine the nature and characteristics of the altercations
occurring within these territories. This approach lends itself to a broader understanding of the
socio-political and legal implications of the geography of war.
In order to test the argument that the battlefield is disappearing, this study begins by baselining the
significance of the battlefield as a convention of military conflict. Establishing what is understood to
be the conventional battlefield is an important aspect of this paper, as it acts as the foundation for
the wider examination of its changing characteristics. Importantly, this initial focus is grounded in
the understandings of conventional warfare, within which notions of the battlefield first made a
concerted appearance. Having established the principle understandings of the conventional
battlefield, these findings are contrasted against contemporary notions of armed conflict,
considerate of how these changes may impact upon the territories in which violent confrontation is
occurring. Borne out through this analysis are the wider implications of the battlefield territory, such
as the political decisions that shape it, and the legal ramifications that result from its changing
parameters. These factors highlight that when examining the notion of the battlefield, analysis
cannot simply be limited to territorial components.
With the traditional parameters of the battlefield identified, and contentions that it no longer exists
addressed, focus turns to the characteristics of contemporary armed conflict itself. The rising
engagement between state and non-state actors identified, this primarily focusses on the
asymmetry in armed conflict, which characterises their combat. Having examined how both state
and non-state parties, engaged in conflict, adapt and benefit from asymmetric warfare, the impact
of these approaches on the territories in which they are active is interrogated. Acknowledging the
influence of technology as a factor of contemporary warfare, the state’s use of technological
advancements as a tool of battle is examined, with particular focus not only on how this might be
expanding the battlefield, but how this too is materially altering the conduct of war and the targeting
of enemy combatants. This latter point critical, as it is traditionally understood that wherever the
enemy is located, you will find the battlefield.
The analysis of the interplay between the nature of armed conflict and the territory of combat,
identifies that the organisations engaged in these confrontations are able to manipulate the
conduct of war. In doing so they ostensibly control decisions on exactly where armed violence
takes place. Accordingly there is a relationship between the the structure of these organisations
and the locations in which they operate. Analysis of the structure of state and non-state actors,
consequently does much to highlight the territorial ambitions and capabilities of those involved. It is
therefore critical, when considering the changing parameters of the battlefield, to understand the
fundamental structures of those who seek to push its boundaries.
When it comes to the relationship between territory and the conduct of war, there are linkages
between technology, politics, and social organisation. As borne out through this paper, these
relationships have a material impact on where and how armed conflict takes place. It is for this
reason, that these factors shape the direction of the study, and guide the resulting conclusions that
set to address the objectives of this paper.
Note on the focus of the study:
Prior to proceeding, it is worthy of note that this study primarily focusses on armed conflict over the
past two decades. Proponents of the contention that the battlefield no longer exists, largely
emphasise the influence of the changing manner in which the United States (US) wages war. This,
in many respects, is driven by the events that followed Al Qaeda’s 2001 attacks against the US. To
this end, ensuring that this study remains consistent throughout, the focus of its analysis is on the
interaction between the state and non-state actor, in particular the ongoing and established
transnational conflict between the US and Al Qaeda.
Dissertation Outline
Seeking to address the objectives as set out above, this dissertation is structured into five
Following the introduction, Chapter 2 introduces the notion of the battlefield as a characteristic of
conventional forms of war. This is borne out through an analysis of the Clausewitizian view of
warfare. The reader is then introduced to contemporary notions of a disappearing battlefield,
characterised by the US’ self-proclaimed “War on Terror”. Contrasting these views, the chapter’s
initial analysis concludes that the parameter’s of the traditional battlefield have been tested by
contemporary armed conflict.
Characterising modern conflict, Chapter 3 identifies asymmetric warfare as a key component to
contemporary combat. Analysing its impact, this finds that both state and non-state actors are
actively seeking to test the weaknesses of their opponents, and push the boundaries of a
transnational battleground. Identifying the armed drone as a means by which the US seeks to
extend its battlespace, the chapter concludes that by adopting asymmetric means of combat, both
state and non-state actors are transforming the conduct of war, and by extension disregarding the
notion of the battlefield.
Having established that the interaction between state and non-state actor characterises the
dimensions and parameters of the battlefield, Chapter 4 examines the organisational structure of
those engaged in combat. This section identifies the rising prominence of networked forms of
organisation, both within state and non-state actors. This chapter concludes that these forms of
organisation provide a material contribution to the changing territory of battle. Furthermore, this
section highlights the benefits of characterising an adversary in this manner, when seeking to
combat a transnational threat.
The final chapter, Chapter 5, concludes by providing a summary of the findings from this
Notes on sources
This is a literature-based dissertation, therefore the majority of sources are drawn from academic
writings on the topics analysed. However, where deemed credible and relevant to the discussion,
reference is also made to official documents and online sources.
2 – The Changing Shape of the Battlefield
The aim of this chapter is to explore the notion of the battlefield and to determine whether, on this
initial examination, it has changed to such an extent that it may be considered to have disappeared
entirely. To do this, the chapter briefly touches upon the typical definition of the battlefield and its
importance to armed conflict, before examining the conventional understanding of warfare (and by
extension, the battlefield), as characterised by the view of Carl von Clausewitz. This is
subsequently contrasted against a contemporary viewpoint, which contends that a conventional
approach to the battlefield is outdated and no longer applicable to today’s examples of armed
conflict, particularly those involving state and non-state adversaries.
Having examined these contrasting views, this chapter concludes that changing forms of warfare
have indeed impacted upon notions of the traditional battlefield. This has perhaps been
characterised most prominently by the US’ realisation that war was no longer to be waged between
competing states, but rather between state and non-state actors. Exemplified by the proclaimed
“War on Terror”, armed conflict increasingly ignores a defined territory and plays out within an
ambiguous battlespace.
The battlefield: qualifying the nature of violence
To many, the term ‘battlefield’ or ‘battleground’ is a straightforward one, at least in the traditional
sense. It is defined as “the place where battle is fought; an area of conflict” (Collins Dictionary,
2016). Perhaps aptly characterising such as area, the word used in Old English to describe the
battlefield was “wælstow”, which literally meant “slaughter-place”. Taken at face value, these
definitions imply a location, one with borderlines and parameters, much like those of a football field.
The battlefield is in fact a complex interplay of time, space, and social interaction, that has changed
shape through the ages, in no small part influenced by the way in which war is waged.
The battlefield in a traditional context must be seen for its signifiant military importance. Success –
that is to win ones battle – is not only defined by performance on the battlefield, but the ability to
draw one’s opponent to it (Mégret, 2011). The location of the battlefield is, of course, a contention
that this paper seeks to address. Wherever it might be located, defining the battlefield is not simply
a question of the military deciding where battle will occur, nor is it simply an exercise of academic
In seeking to characterise the traditional battlefield, Frédéric Mégret (2011) describes it as “an
area, limited in space and time, upon which battle occurs”; it may be created by a chance
encounter of enemy soldiers, or it may be a pre-defined area agreed upon by opposition armies.
Similarly, McRandle (1994) characterises the battlefield as “an imaginary arena in which the
bounds are seen to be the edges of the territory occupied by two armies during the course of the
fight”. The premise of the battlefield, in its simplest form, is one of territory, one of boundaries.
Though this territory is not always a clearly defined space, it is a space nonetheless; one which
has a core and a periphery, and whose existence is largely premised on the ability to distinguish
what is happening within it and what is beyond it. Understanding the battlefield in this way and in
the context of armed conflict, is crucial to the distinction between war and other forms of violence.
To this end, the battlefield, in its most basic form, is one of territory. Defining, or at the very least
understanding, where the battlefield is located (and where it is not) therefore has a number of
significances. As a normative space, it shapes the activities that are being conducted within it and
provides the foundations for a certain set of values. It is a space whereby the killing of other human
beings, usually a significant taboo, becomes legal under both domestic and international law. The
battlefield also acts as a significant social marker of war’s limitations: it defines a space of
exceptions, whereby highly unusual activity is undertaken and can be recognised as such by its
participants (Mégret, 2011). The battlefield therefore acts to qualify the nature of the violence
undertaken within it:
“The battlefield [thus] stands for this peculiar ideal that, whilst war may and
will rage, what distinguishes it from random violence is the fact that it
unfolds in discreet spaces insulated from the rest of society, confining
military violence to a confrontation between specialised forces whose
operation should minimally disrupt surrounding life” (Mégret, 2011)
Conventional warfare and the battlefield: a Clausewitzian view
The understanding of the battlefield in its traditional sense, as touched upon, has in large part been
coloured by the waging of conventional warfare. The construct of such warfare can in many ways
be attributed to the rise of the modern state which, as identified by Max Weber (1946), emerged as
the bearer of the monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a given territory. That is to say that
the waging of war is the use of violence for public purposes: a contest of sovereign might (Mégret,
2011; Lele, 2014). This understanding of conventional warfare, to include international legal
frameworks (and by extension the parameters of the battlefield), therefore often reflect wars of the
modern era which have largely been fought between states.
Reflective of this, the workings of Prussian General and military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, have
formed the basis of many of the conventional understandings of the concepts in the conduct of war.
Famously, Clausewitz (1976) described war as “merely the continuation of policy by other means”,
placing the “duel” – whereby violence is employed by opposing forces, as they strive to compel one
another in submission – at the heart of war, and thereby intimating that it is a construct of two
fighters facing off against one another. Per Clausewitz (1976), in undertaking traditional warfare,
the single means by which forces will seek to subdue their enemy, is through fighting. It is therefore
understood that opposing forces encountering one another in battle, remains a primary and
essential activity when engaging in warfare.
The importance of the battle therefore suggests that those engaged in armed conflict are to meet
and engage within a delineated time and space: the battlefield. The conflict taking place within
these confines is characterised by military activity, undertaken by armed forces, and where
individuals (soldiers) are to be seen as legitimate targets when serving as a member of the state’s
army (Clausewitz, 1997). In this respect, combatants remain identified as the enemy, so long as
they embody – as members of the army – the intentions of the state of which they represents (Kahn,
2013). This is of course reflective of Mégret’s (2011) view that the battlefield, in the conventional
sense, is important to identifying what and who make war, versus other forms of violence.
The idea of the battlefield, defined by both temporality and spatiality, has been central to
conventional forms of war. As asserted by Clausewitz (1997), the soldier, active in war, serves
“merely to fight at the right time and place”. Whilst recognising that there could be exceptions,
Clausewitz was of the view that tactics were what happened on the battlefield, and that strategy
was what led to and from it (Chamayou, 2014): the make-up of the battlefield was therefore central
to warfare.
Driven by the workings of Clausewitz, the notion of battle is central to the waging of conventional
warfare. In this context, the battlefield is the territory or space in which two opposing forces meet
and face-off – they “duel” – and attempt to render their opposing number into submission of their
will. Traditionally, these opposing forces have been state armies, their soldiers identified as
legitimate targets whilst they are active within the confines of the battlefield and enacting the will of
the state they represent. These soldiers would wear uniforms and would be subject to the
international laws of war for the duration that they are located within the confines of the battlefield.
During Clausewitz’s era, this would have of course made sense: control was limited to what the
commander could see and hear; soldiers fought concentrated battles with short-ranged weapons;
and the battlefield was a small, well-defined space. Indeed, for generations of warfare beyond
Clausewitz, this was often how the battlefield was understood. The changing way of warfare, and
wider armed conflict, has however impacted upon how the battlefield is identified.
The demise of conventional warfare: the blurring lines of the battlefield
It is a contention held by many that the notion of the battlefield, as driven by conventional
understandings of war, has an increasingly limited application to contemporary armed conflict. This
is in large part because contemporary warfare breaks with the fundamental structure of the
Clausewitzian type of war: one that is a duel between two fighters (Chamayou, 2014; Mégret,
2011). Many conflicts of the modern era, particularly after the First Gulf War in 1991, are
asymmetrical in their nature; do not pay respect to the borderlines of the traditional battlefield; and
rarely pit opposition forces up against one another within a single delineated territory.
This is not to suggest that notions of conventional warfare have been rendered moot; nor should it
be surprising that the work of Clausewitz is not applicable in its entirety almost two centuries after it
was written. Predicting and understanding the construct of the future battlefield, or the wider space
in which battle may take place, is not straightforward. This is exemplified by the US military
leadership who, following the First Gulf War in 1991, were broadly of the consensus that
technology was decisive in war; and that armed conflict was to be waged as war between states
(Corum, 2009): the Clausewitzian way. Such a view of course suited the US leadership at the time,
their military was structured to wage conventional war and was a leader in technological
development. It quickly became apparent however, following troubled interventions in Somalia and
Haiti in the early-to-mid 1990s, that the waging of conventional warfare was set to wane, and that
the US would face adversaries that were increasingly likely to be non-state actors.
The changes to the nature of armed conflict and those engaged in such activity, has led to analysts
suggesting that the so-called “deconstruction” or “disappearance” of the battlefield, as understood
in the conventional sense, is well under way. As Frédéric Mégret (2011) notes, it has become
increasingly difficult to determine where exactly the battlefield is in space in time. The change in
understanding of what makes the battlefield, or indeed whether it continues to exist, has in large
part been as a result of the transformation in the American way of waging war (Gregory, 2011); a
change which challenges the geographical dimensions of conventional warfare.
Though not the single driver of this change, many have highlighted the US’ “War on Terror” as a
key protagonist (Mégret 2011; Chamayou, 2014; Lubell & Derejko, 2013); a point after which the
demarkation of the battlefield has become increasingly blurred. The so-called “War on Terror” was
declared by the Bush Administration following Al Qaeda’s successful terrorist attacks against the
US, on 11 September 2001 (9/11). Addressing the attacks in his statement to Congress and the
American people, President Bush (The Guardian, 2001) declared that:
“The war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not
end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and
In delivering this declaration, President Bush made the entire globe the US’ battlefield. As noted by
one commentator following the 9/11 attacks and President Bush’s subsequent response: the
concept of the battlefield, so central to the way in which Clausewitz understood war, had dissolved
(Williams, 2008).
Though not uniquely because of it, the American way of war changed after 9/11. The US sought to
increase its projection of power to new levels. According to research by Nick Turse (2011), as of
2011, the US military operated some 1,100 military bases across the globe. Reflecting the US
strategy of increasing its military presence around the world, this reached levels that had not been
seen previously. They created bases of ranging size and location, constructing “lily pads” spanning
an expanded geography; the US enabled a network in support of its newly defined “global
For the RETORT collective (2005), the US invasion of Afghanistan (and indeed that of Iraq) marked
“the elevation – into a permanent state of war – of a long and consistent pattern of military
expansionism”. That akin to an “unending war” (Duffield, 2007) in which the sense of permanence
endures. To effect this enduring warfare, the US itself becomes a war state with Washington D.C.
as its war capital; it becoming the norm to be in armed conflict somewhere at any one moment
(Engelhardt, 2009). In doing so, the US pushed the bounds of the battlefield – or rather removed its
limitations – by garrisoning much of the planet through a network of military bases and strategic
relationships. This state of affairs, labelled the “Washington rules” by Andrew Bacevich (2010),
reflects the obligations of the US leadership to maintain a global military presence, configuring its
armed forces for power projection and the ability to impose change overseas (Gregory, 2011b).
In pushing these bounds and extending its projection of power, the US sought to compress the
traditional spatial-temporal limitations of the conventional battlefield, thereby seeking to expand or
remove its territorial limitations. Perhaps the most pertinent example of how this manifested itself,
is through the rise of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in counter-terrorist operations. The UAV,
more commonly referred to as a drone, has become almost synonymous with the US military’s and
Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) pursuit of terrorist organisations across the globe. It has been
used to strike and disable US enemies in remote areas, many of whom have been located outside
of the traditional battlefield. This has most obviously played out in the context of the US military’s
Operation Enduring Freedom: the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Amongst other activity, in the
years following the invasion, the US has undertaken drone strikes in Pakistan, an area outside of
the Afghan battlefield, and ultimately a country with whom the US is not engaged in armed conflict
(Shaw & Akhter, 2014); and it has designated Yemen a “combat zone” in support of efforts in
Afghanistan (The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 2012), despite it being located over 2,000
kilometres from the battlefield. Viewed in this way, the drone exemplifies not only a shift from a
means of conventional warfare, but an ability to facilitate the re-drawing of the battle lines. The
relevance of the drone as an indicator that the traditional battlefield is expanding, or indeed
disappearing, will be explored in greater detail in Chapter 3.
Whilst the actions of the West, notably the US, with its powerful militaries and advanced
technologies are a core component to the contention that the battlefield has shifted in its
parameters, it is too simplistic to suggest that they are the sole actors effecting any such potential
change. As noted by Frédéric Mégret (2011), terrorism itself is perhaps the ultimate refusal of the
battlefield. A species of asymmetrical violence, terrorism breaks the battlefield down into a series of
skirmishes, specifically targeting civilians as well as soldiers. In many respects, to the terrorist
organisation, territorial ambitions are secondary and in some cases terrorism loses any territorial
connection at all (Mégret, 2011).
Terrorism typically transports violence across borders. We have seen it many times, sometimes
crossing great distances, evidenced by the attacks against the West, such as those in New York,
London and more recently Brussels and Paris; and we have seen it cross shorter distances and
more localised borders, such as the Laskhar-e-Taiba (LeT) attack in Mumbai in 2008. In this
respect, the battlefield could be Manhattan, it could be Baghdad. If it can be the case that terrorists
can fundamentally transform the nature of the battlefield (their battlefield), and that states choose
to follow them to these terrains, then effectively “war” is unfolding on a “global battlefield” (Mégret,
2011). Viewed within the context of conventional warfare, if the battlefield is to be “everywhere”,
then it is nowhere in particular. The territorial limits of battle have for all intents and purposes been
disregarded, and the ability to limit violence to a particular space, outlining where combat may or
may not occur, has disappeared.
Whilst the the impact of terrorism, particularly the events following the 9/11 attacks, have magnified
the characteristics of a changing battlefield, and will indeed be the focus of their paper, it is
important to note that notions of a changing battlefield are not restricted to this time period. For
example, few developments in the history of warfare, Frédéric Mégret (2011) argues, have
impacted upon the notion of the battlefield more so than the rise of ‘total war’. Total war is
understood to be an armed conflict that mobilises the totality of its participants, to include the
entirety of a state’s population and resources (Mégret, 2011). Within a war of this kind, the
battlefield is not the exclusive locus of war, and the infrastructure and population of an enemy
become legitimate targets. Perhaps the greatest example of such a war, was the Second World
War, where enemies would bomb critical infrastructure and cities well outside the confines of the
traditional battlefield. As one White House broadcast noted following the bombing of Pearl Harbour
in 1941, the world in its entirety was considered “[…] by the Axis strategists as one gigantic
battlefield” (Yale Law School, 2016). In many ways, modern conflict between state and non-state
actors reflects a similar construct: extending the battlefield into areas that are not deemed to be
theatres of war.
What marks the Second World War as different – and indeed why war of its type is not the focus of
this paper – is that it was waged in broadly conventional terms. Whilst ‘Total War’ was indeed an
indicator that the geography of war had changed significantly, it represents a form of war that has
limited application to modern discourse. If we are to take an example of contemporary armed
conflict, such as the invasion of Iraq in 2003, life for most American people remained unchanged
despite large parts of Iraq becoming war zones (Lubell & Derejko, 2013); such a conflict would
therefore not be considered ‘Total War’. The same can be said of the invasion of Afghanistan and
the ongoing engagements in Syria, and hence why this will not be considered a factor of
contemporary armed conflict.
Ambiguity of the combatant in war: ignoring the battlefield parameters
It is important to understand the shape of the battlefield, whether that is for legal, humanitarian, or
tactical reasons. In its purest form, the presence of a defined battlefield acts to differentiate
between the violence that is war, and that which is not.
Historically, identifying the territory that represented the battlefield was a straightforward task, as
those engaged in armed conflict would meet one another within a contained location upon which
battle was fought. Over time, this has of course changed, no less so because the nature of armed
conflict, and indeed the goals they seek to achieve, has shifted.
As Derek Gregory (2011) points out, the declared zone of combat has become “infinitely
extendable”, particularly when considering the US’ “War on Terror”. From a legal perspective, this
presents a significant complication. If the state is to render armed conflict a mobile place, it
therefore justifies the state’s engagement of an individual they deem hostile, no matter where they
are in the world. Critics of such a view, therefore defend the traditional notion of a zone of armed
conflict, emphasising the context of space; that as a legal category it should be a geographically
defined object (Mégret, 2011). Ultimately, war and peace have a legal geography, and as far as
international law is concerned, this currently requires some form of territorial identify. The
complexities of the legal debate surrounding the existence of the battlefield are not explored in
great detail in this paper; the fact that such debate exists should however be noted, as it
exemplifies the current ambiguity surrounding what is considered to be the territory of combat.
It is clear, that when contrasting conventional warfare with modern undertakings of armed conflict,
that the battlefield is no longer as it once was. Previously, those that were targeted as enemy
combatants were located within a single defined territory: the battlefield. New enemies, particularly
non-state actors, do not adhere to these parameters however. This has given rise to armed conflict
between state and non-state actors, that does not respect the borderlines of a battlefield. This is
exemplified by transnational terrorism and the US’ proclaimed “War on Terror”.
Set aside from this, there is of course an argument that attempting to contrast conventional
understandings of war, such as the battlefield, to contemporary armed conflict is a lost cause. After
all, no state has officially declared “war” since the Second World War. Indeed, subsequent
interventions have been labelled as “peacekeeping operations”, “humanitarian interventions”, or
“counter-insurgency operations”. This a valid point, perhaps more so when considering the state
and non-state engagement between entities such as the US military and Al Qaeda. After all, if there
is no war then there is no battle, and if there is no battle then there can be no battlefield. Though a
noteworthy contention, the purpose of the paper is not to define war however. For the scope of this
study, the ground engagements in Afghanistan, as well as the transnational violent engagement
between the two parties, are sufficient to warrant comparison to conventional forms of warfare.
As evidenced, this initial analysis highlights the ambiguity surrounding notions of the battlefield. It is
clear that the boundaries of contemporary armed conflict have been pushed beyond conventional
understandings of war, and have therefore given rise to alternative characterisations of the territory
of combat. At the very least, the boundaries of the battlefield have been blurred, perhaps even
transformed into a multidimensional “battlespace”, reflective of the US’ state of “permanent” war,
which has no front or back (Graham, 2009). Whether the battlefield has disappeared entirely
requires further examination however.
3 – Territory and the Character of Contemporary Armed Conflict
The character of armed conflict has changed over time. These changes, as already evidenced,
have done much to shape the territories in which combat is fought, and challenge notions of the
Contemporary armed engagement has been characterised by conflict between state and non-state
actors, giving rise to altercations that are ‘asymmetric’ in nature. It stands to reason that examining
the way in which warfare is conducted, will do much to illuminate the changing relationship
between armed conflict and territory. To this end, the aim of this chapter is to explore notions of
asymmetry in warfare, in particular looking at how these characterise what is understood to be the
territories of armed conflict. It evaluates the strength of the non-state actor, in particular Al Qaeda,
in utilising asymmetric means of warfare and stretching the bounds of the battlefield. This is
contrasted against the role of the state actor in this context, with a focus on the US’ use of the
armed drone and how this has compressed the spatial-temporal parameters of the battlespace.
This chapter concludes that whilst the asymmetric nature of current conflict is a key characteristic
of the changing parameters of the battlefield, it should not be considered a sole driver of this
change. The battle has long been coloured by notions of asymmetry and in many ways one can
not exist without the other. Analysing the manner in which state and non-state actors apply
asymmetric means of armed conflict does however highlight the way in which the traditional
battlefield has been bypassed. This is exemplified by the manner in which both Al Qaeda and the
US engage their adversary in armed conflict. The US’ use of the armed drone is a particular
example of this and has arguably extended the battlefield to whichever area the individual target is
located; in this respect, the US has created a manmade geography of war.
Asymmetry as a characteristic of contemporary armed conflict
Asymmetry in warfare is by no means a new phenomenon (Lele, 2014). As a concept of modern
warfare however, it made its first official appearance in writing in the 1990s (Thornton, 2007),
having first been referenced by Andrew Mack in an article on the account of the US experience in
Vietnam (Cassidy, 2003; Lele, 2014).
Within these official accounts – the Joint Warfare of the Armed Forces (1995) and the US Military
Strategy (1997) – engagements between “dissimilar forces” were noted, and asymmetric
challenges were characterised as “unconventional or inexpensive approaches that circumvent our
strengths, exploit our vulnerabilities, or confront us in ways we cannot match in kind” (Joint Chiefs
of Staff, 1995; 1997). The term drew much discussion from within military and academic realms
throughout the decade and into the next; increasingly so as non-state actors became the leading
adversaries of powerful state actors during the conduct of war.
In seeking to characterise the term, Rod Thornton (2007) suggests that weaker opponents will
choose methods which are outside of the ‘norm’ of conventional warfare; methods that are radically
different. That asymmetric warfare is:
“Violent action undertaken by the ‘have-nots’ against the ‘haves’ whereby
the have-nots, be they state or sub-state actors, seek to generate profound
effects – at all levels of warfare, from the tactical to the strategic – by
employing their own specific relative advantages against the vulnerabilities
of much stronger opponents”
In characterising examples of warfare as asymmetric, this does not mean that those engaged in
conflict are unequal (Thornton, 2007). The term ‘symmetrical’ suggests a mirror image; the image
may be a different size, but there is a likeness nonetheless. ‘Asymmetrical’, on the other hand,
suggests that the relationship between the two or more entities cannot be considered alike. Put
simply: if one side in a conflict had a large number of attack helicopters, whereas their opponent
had fewer, this would be symmetrical warfare. There may be differences in numbers and quality,
but conventional military forces are designed to fight near-mirror images of themselves (Bellamy,
Perhaps the last example of truly symmetrical warfare, is that of the First Gulf War, in 1991. During
this armed conflict, two state powers – Iraq and the US – fought against one another, for the most
part utilising conventional methods of warfare, and answerable to an international system (Lele,
2014). In this respect, both parties had parity in their warfaring philosophy, attitude, values and
beliefs. Since this time however, there has arguably been no conventional state-on-state armed
conflict, nor are we likely to see it happen again.
In broad terms, asymmetric warfare can be defined as involving the attack of an adversary’s
weaknesses using unexpected or innovative means, whilst avoiding their strengths. In the modern
context, asymmetric warfare emphasises what is commonly seen to be unconventional or nontraditional
methodologies (Lele, 2014). This is to say that the methods employed do not reflect
traditional warfare: that of big armies pitted against one another on the battlefield, using strategy,
tactics, and weapons that are much the same. Asymmetric strategies attack weaknesses –
vulnerabilities – that their target has not appreciated, often using new or different weapons.
Asymmetric warfare, encompassing strategy, tactics, weapons and personnel, seeks to alter the
battlefield in a way that negates an adversary’s advantage (Lele, 2014). As armed conflict has
increasingly moved away from conventional forms of warfare, it is this, the way in which
asymmetric warfare can alter the very nature and parameters of the battlefield, that has
progressively characterised the rise of the global battlespace. This has perhaps been most acutely
evidenced in the rise of the non-state actor and its conflict with the state.
Strength of the non-state actor: pushing the boundaries of armed conflict
During the latter part of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, the
effectiveness of the smaller and weaker aggressor, what Rod Thornton (2007) refers to as the
‘asymmetric adversary’, has been most evident in the actions of sub-states actors, such as terrorist
groups. Perhaps the group most representative of such an adversary in modern discourse, is the
terrorist organisation Al Qaeda.
Whether Al Qaeda, or other state or non-state actors, there is arguably no single force on the
planet that could take on the might of the US military on the ground, and win (Krikorian, 2004;
Thornton, 2007). Therefore any such adversary would need to adopt radically different tactics and
strategies to that employed by the superpower; they would need to employ asymmetric means to
disrupt their enemy. Perhaps the starkest example of such an approach, was that of the Al Qaeda
attacks against the US in September 2001. The terrorist group exploited a weakness of its more
powerful adversary – in this case, the ease at which they put operatives with weapons on USbound
commercial flights – and inflicted mass casualties on US soil.
Al Qaeda’s attacks in 2001 challenged state authority and sovereignty on a scale that had not been
seen before in the modern era. This unexpected assault on the US, Ajey Lele (2014) argues,
marked the beginning of the end of Clausewitz’s theory of state-on-state warfare and the concept
of the conventional adversary’s “centre of gravity”. The attacks also represented a clear example of
a terrorist organisation – an asymmetric adversary – stretching their own battlespace from the
Afghanistan-Pakistan region, all the way to the heart of the US. With comparatively limited
resources, this non-state actor had brought a superpower to its knees.
Al Qaeda’s options are of course not just limited to high profile attacks. Mark Krikorian (2004)
highlights the US immigration system as one such “non-conventional” option available to terrorists
seeking to conduct attacks, claiming that studies have shown some 48 (reported) Al Qaeda
operatives committed crimes within the US between 1993 and 2001. Though Krikorian’s claims
that “nearly every element of the US immigration system has been penetrated by the enemy” are
perhaps overly dramatic, the identification of immigration as a potential tool of war available to
organisations such as Al Qaeda is a valid one. In this instance, one could argue that such an
approach lends terrorist organisations the opportunity to extend their battlespace, but rather than
send a drone thousands of miles, they could send a covert attack operative. The recent attacks
conducted by the Islamic State (IS) in France and Belgium, in which the operatives travelled from
Syria into Europe via refugee channels, exemplifies this point.
In many ways, the non-state actor has become an expert in asymmetric warfare. This is in part as
a result of the inherent risk aversion amongst western powers when faced with the decision of
deploying military personnel on the ground, in a zone of conflict. This has increasingly become the
case in contemporary warfare as evidenced by the Obama Administration’s reduction of US troops
in Afghanistan and other theatres, comparative to his predecessor President Bush. Though this is
not lost on the US, whose National Strategy for Homeland Security in 2002 noted: “our great power
leaves these enemies with few conventional options for doing us harm”, it nonetheless plays into
the hands of the non-state actor, who do not need to attempt to match themselves on the ground
against a militarily superior adversary, and have therefore focussed on other ways of targeting their
conventionally stronger enemy.
Just as the US has perhaps chosen to expand the battlefield into a battlespace, non-state actors
like Al Qaeda have utilised asymmetric means to effect something similar. There is limited benefit
to groups such as Al Qaeda focussing their efforts on a contained territory, unless they have total
superiority. Their efforts to harness an advantage over the US, has done much to test the
boundaries of the battlefield, and given a rise to something that is continually changing and cannot
be tracked. Utilising asymmetric means, the non-state actor relies on a fluidity to its attack, which is
reflected by the multitude of locations in which they choose to take up arms.
Asymmetric warfare: an existing phenomena that has characterised war for centuries
Whilst the rise of the non-state actor in modern conflict has magnified the notion of asymmetric
warfare, it should not necessarily be considered a new phenomenon, and characterised as notion
of modernity (Thornton, 2007; Lele, 2014).
Some of the oldest written works on warfare, such as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, discuss how the
weak can defeat the strong, utilising unorthodox tactics. There are many examples of warfare
which highlight the asymmetric nature of conflict; Ajey Lele (2014) cites the example of the Roman
Empire’s battles with Carthage, in which Carthaginian General Hannibal utilised unconventional
tactics such as raids and threats to contest, to defeat a much larger and better equipped Roman
force. Similarly, one can also look to the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, during which the English took
on a superior French force dominated by knights on horseback, surprising their opponents with an
innovative new weapon: the longbow. This latter example, the use of a new weapon to exploit the
weaknesses of an opponent, is perhaps reflected by the modern-day deployment of a state
military’s drone, or the use of a suicide bomber by a terrorist organisation.
The point does not need to be laboured with multiple detailed examples. What is clear, is that
asymmetry in warfare has coloured battle for generations, perhaps since the dawn of warfare itself.
Identifying the strategy utilised in asymmetric warfare is however important when considering the
changing shape of the battlefield. Asymmetric means of conflict are a way of targeting the
weaknesses of an opponent, an opponent that will often have distinct advantages, whether that is
technology, tactics, or otherwise. It is in doing this, seeking advantage in conflict, that the battlefield
can be stretched. In the conduct of modern warfare, an obvious example of this is the development
of the long range missile, providing an ability to target enemy locations from great distances. Such
a development however, is perhaps no different to innovations such as the longbow or gunpowder.
Whilst these older weapons did not stretch the battlefield by thousands of miles, they unarguably
stretched it beyond a conflict where armies had to front up toe-to-toe.
Asymmetry in warfare is clearly not a modern phenomenon. There is an argument that for as long
as this type of warfare has been fought, the battlefield has never remained consistent and
delineated. This is perhaps true, but there will always be asymmetry in war as long as opposing
sides seek to profit from their adversaries weakness – which will forever remain the case until there
is a world at peace. It therefore renders moot any suggestion that asymmetry is the sole driving
force behind the notion that the traditional battlefield has been usurped by a new form of armed
conflict. It is however a core influence and has unquestioned influence on the character of the
battlefield, and should therefore be analysed accordingly.
Technology as a challenge to the battlefield: the rise of the drone
Whether it is labelled “The War on Terror” or otherwise, the US remains engaged in armed conflict
with a number of non-state actors. In the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, opposition has taken the
form of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and its militant affiliates. The armed conflict in which they are
engaged can be categorised as one of asymmetric warfare: as already evidenced, Al Qaeda has
utilised unconventional means to attack its stronger opponent, while the US (in its initial response)
sought to use more conventional forms of war on the ground.
Central to US attempts to combat Al Qaeda and its militant associates, was the invasion of
Afghanistan in 2001. Within this territory, that of mountainous Afghanistan and its border regions,
we can perhaps describe the US – if a little uncomfortably – as being the weaker adversary. Of
course this does not mean weaker in terms of resource or conventional military power, but rather in
the way it could combat its non-conventional adversary. For example, the US machine is: hindered
by public and political pressure, particularly when faced with the loss of US lives in zones of armed
combat; it has self-imposed limits on the acceptable level of civilian casualties, thereby
constraining operational activity; and it has an inability to operate effectively in the Afghan terrain,
in a way that would permanently quell its more experienced adversary. In straightforward terms, Al
Qaeda and its militant associates, did not face these same restrictions. To this end, like Al Qaeda,
the US military needed to exploit the weaknesses of its stronger adversary, through other means.
The US military (and its intelligence counterparts) in many ways achieved this through its
development of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), otherwise known as a drone. Addressing
some of the US military’s shortcomings against its opponent in Afghanistan, the armed drone
reduced the need to deploy troops on the ground, thereby reducing the risk to US troops; it
provided an accurate weapon, thereby reducing the risk of collateral damage; and it enabled an
ability to operate in areas where troops could not deploy, and thus target operatives in terrain that
was otherwise inaccessible.
A key weapon in the US armoury, the drone has done much to compress the spatial-temporal
limitations of the battlespace. Much like Al Qaeda re-drew the bounds of their battlefield when they
conducted attacks on American soil, the US’s development of the drone has afforded an ability to
do something similar by targeting individuals thousands of miles away, from bases located within
the US (Gregory, 2011b). Although the armed drones are launched close to their intended target
and come under the command of the Afghanistan-based military, their operators can be located in
trailers stationed in US airbases, such as those in Nevada.
What marks the drone apart as a tool of war however, is not simply its usage within identified
zones of combat, but its deployments against targets located outside of traditional theatres of war.
The first such occurrence of a drone strike of this kind, was against an AQ operative in Yemen, in
late 2003 (William Banks, in Bergen & Rothenberg, 2015), following Yemen’s designation as a
“combat zone” in support of US operations in Afghanistan (The Bureau of Investigative Journalism,
2016). This was followed by the US’ first strike in Pakistan, in 2004, against militant Nek
Muhammad Wazir (Lubell & Derejko, 2013). The beginning of a drone campaign that continues
today, the use of military hardware in this way, was a stark example of how in practical terms, the
physical borders of the battlefield were no longer limited to the core theatre of conflict.
One of the central arguments for, and benefits of, using the armed drone in this way, is the physical
distance it puts between the US serviceman operating the vehicle, and the ground on which the
operation is being launched. Whilst this may be true, that indeed the operator is extricated from the
battlefield physically, it does not remove the distress and emotion of the killing (Porter, 2015). The
operator will likely have conducted pre-strike surveillance of the target and will conduct post-strike
battle damage assessment. In many ways, the use of the drone brings the operator far closer to
the battlefield and the target, than ever before. Oxymoronic in its nature, the drone both
compresses and stretches the geographical parameters of the armed conflict in which it is
As well as its influence on the battlefield in the physical sense, the use of the armed drone has
done much to characterise the way in which the US conducts its targeting in contemporary warfare.
Traditionally, an enemy combatant was identified as a member of the opposing army: they wore a
uniform, carried a weapon, and could be attributed as the adversary. The increasing prominence of
the non-state combatant, particularly the terrorist, has changed the nature of what this ‘enemy’ now
looks like however. This has given rise to the individuation of personal responsibility, which has
become central to the use of military force (Issacharoff & Pildes, 2013). This is evidenced by the
creation of the “Disposition Matrix”, a sophisticated grid, mounted on a database and containing
the biographies of individuals assessed to pose a threat to US national security (Cobain, 2013).
These profiles provide an overview of the threat posed by the individual, their likely location, and
the range of options (capture, detention, strike) for neutralising the threat. It is perhaps not
remarkable that such a database exists, but what its existence does emphasise is that in the
waging of contemporary armed conflict, the profile of the individual is as important, if not more so,
than the group they represent.
In their evaluation of the state of contemporary warfare, notably that driven by the use of the drone,
Ian Shaw and Majed Akhter (2014), comment:
“It is not simply that the planet is becoming a single, homogenous “space of
exception” but rather that the target is shifting in scale from the territory to
the human body, thereby bypassing the sanctity of sovereignty”
One of the defining features of the drone is therefore that it is used to target the individual, rather
than the nation-state and their militaries. It does so both within the confines of traditional theatres
of armed conflict, but also in remote locations, within the borders of ostensibly ‘friendly’ states. As a
result, a new political geography has emerged, and the discrete battlefield has become what could
be described as a boundless battlespace. The drone is not a self-governing machine and so
cannot not be identified as the driver of this change, but its ongoing usage does serve to magnify
the complexities and spatial expansion of armed engagement.
Contemporary warfare: individualising the battlespace
The current era of modern conflict is characterised by two different types of of philosophies: one
that is in part driven by technological advancements and is state-centric in nature; and another
which is based on the usage of unconventional tools and tactics, and more synonymous with nonstate
entities. The rise in engagements between state and non-state actors in this way has
magnified the changed territorial space is which armed conflict is taking place, and led many
analysts to conclude that there are no longer any definable battlefronts.
Asymmetric warfare is a core characteristic of the ongoing conflict between state and non-state
actors. This has been evidenced no more so than in the US’ pursuit of the terrorist organisation Al
Qaeda. In this case, both sides have sought to attack their adversary’s weaknesses, more often
than not pushing the bounds of conventional warfare and its traditional territorial limitations. Whilst
it is indeed a characteristic of an expanding battlespace and the disappearing lines of the
battlefield, asymmetric warfare should however not be seen as the key driver to this change. In
many cases, you would not have one without the other.
Though not the driver, technological advancements typical of this form of warfare, have
accelerated the spatial-temporal compression of the battlespace. This, as evidenced, has been
reflected in the US’ use of the armed drone to target members of Al Qaeda. The use of the drone in
this way challenges notions of conventional warfare characterised by the duel: the armed drone
does not allow for retaliation, after all. Furthermore, the use of the drone enables the US to target
specific individuals, thereby rendering the battlespace to the location in which that individual is
located at a given time. Exemplified by its use of airpower in non-traditional theatres of war, such
as Yemen and Pakistan, the US has in effect created a manmade geography of war.
4 – Organisation within the Battlespace: Power of the Network
The parameters of the traditional battlefield have been tested by contemporary conventions of war.
It has been established that the interplay between state and non-state actors, characterised by
asymmetric notions of armed conflict, has played a significant role in shaping the territory in which
combat takes place. There is therefore merit in examining the structural make-up of these actors,
to further understand their influence on the geography of conflict.
To achieve this, this section seeks to analyse the structure of the non-state actor, which is
increasingly presenting itself as a networked form of organisation; and compare this to the state’s
response to this networked adversary. The chapter does this by examining Al Qaeda and its
network of affiliates and discrete nodes; evaluating the benefits of its networked approach and how
this has redrawn the battle lines of what the organisation seeks to achieve. This is compared
against the response of the US and its attempts to contain and disrupt Al Qaeda as its core
adversary; drawing on the evolution of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), as the
primary means of containing this threat.
Upon evaluating the networked approaches utilised by Al Qaeda and the US military, this chapter
concludes by highlighting the merits of characterising the geography of armed conflict in this way.
That the analysis of an opponent’s organisational structure is key to identifying how it may be
defeated. Framed in the context of the battlefield, it is also suggested that these networks, on both
sides of armed conflict, reflect not the total disappearance of the battlefield, but rather the
emergence of networked territories of combat.
Rise of a networked form of organisation and the networked adversary
The nature of armed conflict has changed across the spectrum: state-on-state conflict is largely a
thing of the past; the “enemies” of western states in armed conflict have increasingly taken the
form of non-state actors; and the battlefield no longer takes place on a delineated area, upon which
opponents meet.
These changes are characterised by a number of developments (Arquilla and Ronfeldt, 2001):
firstly that the changes are favouring and strengthening network forms of organisation, migrating
power to non-state actors who are able to organise into sprawling multi-organisational networks,
more readily than state actors; and secondly, that the conduct and outcome of modern conflicts
depend increasingly on information and communication, revolving around “knowledge” and the use
of “soft power”. These changes have a material impact on the way in which armed conflict is
shaped and therefore increasingly reflect the way in which the battlespace is both occupied and
The increasing importance of the network, particularly to non-state actors, can be attributed to a
number of factors. One such reason being that during the Cold War, the balance of power was
often maintained by superpower support and material sponsorship of insurgent and terrorist group
– perhaps the most famous such relationship, was the covert US support of the Afghan
mujahideen, in their fight against Soviet occupation. As the Cold War waned however, this support
began to dry up, and warring parties had to adapt to the changes. Reflective of the increasing
asymmetric nature of armed conflict, terrorist organisations began to exploit the adaptive power of
the network (Duffield, 2002).
As a result, in the decade following the Cold War, notions of the network became increasingly
popular among political and academic discourse. Not only a reflection of the post-Cold War
changes, this was in no small part as a result of the incredible development of information sharing
and the broader shifts in the organisational structure of global capitalism (Castells, 1996;
Bousquet, 2009). Highlighting Metcalfe’s Law, Mark Duffield (2002) describes the power of the
network as being “equal to the square of the number of nodes that it contains” – this power is one
that can be utilised and harnessed by both the state and its non-state adversaries.
The network is now commonly argued as being the prominent form of organisation in a world that
has become increasingly interconnected, through time and space-defying technologies of
telecommunications and transport (Bousquet, 2009). Terrorist networks are no different and have
become increasingly interconnected, creating the possibility of organised violence – as a nonterritorial
network enterprise – with astonishing powers of adaptation and endurance (Duffield,
Reflective of this, one of the most significant strategic changes that Al Qaeda underwent, following
the US’ declaration of the “Global War on Terror”, was to begin decentralising and dispersing itself
(Porter, 2015). It had always been Usama Bin Laden’s (and latterly Ayman al-Zawahiri) plan to
grow the organisation, spreading across the globe via a network of like-minded groups, and taking
advantage of the opportunities this would provide (FCO, 2013). Indeed this desire to decentralise
decision-making, through a network of affiliates, was evidenced by the late 2013 appointment of
Nasir al-Wuhayshi, as Al Qaeda’s General Manager and deputy to al-Zawahiri (Roggio & Jocelyn,
2013). Based in Yemen, some 3,000 miles from al-Zawhiri’s location, Wuhaysi was granted
autonomy to govern locally as part of a loosely constructed horizontal leadership structure. In
adopting such an approach, the organisation was harnessing the benefits of the network, namely
seeking to become more resilient and adaptable.
The increasing reliance that Al Qaeda’s leadership invests into its network of affiliates dotted
around the world, of course has an impact on the nature and the parameters of its battlespace.
Fidal Harun, an Al Qaeda operative, expressed this in statements in 2009 where he spoke of the
network’s aim of stripping recruits of regional and ethnic agendas, and turning them into “jihadis
without borders” (Lahoud, 2012). On this basis, Al Qaeda seeks to operate as a networked
enterprise with nodes dispersed around the globe; does not see its “soldiers” operating within
borders; and therefore does not see itself engaged in conflict within a discernible battlefield with
delineated geographical parameters. As Frédéric Mégret would argue, this is evidence of terrorism
refusing to acknowledge the concept of the battlefield.
It is perhaps worth noting that Al Qaeda’s use of a networked form of organisation, is of course not
solely a relationship of benefits. As much as it has helped the organisation survive, its dispersal
has too cost the group much of its efficiency, and the group has become fragmented without a
resolute capability to conduct mass-casualty attacks as it would wish (Porter, 2015). This
fragmentation, which has also had an impact on how senior leaders can communicate with its
members and issue public statements, is likely a reason as to why Al Qaeda has been unable to
counter the rise of the Islamic State (IS), or at least draw from the benefits of the new movement.
For the most part however, the increasingly networked approach implemented by Al Qaeda has
done much to sustain its existence. Whilst this loosely affiliated network continues to operate
largely outside of traditional theatres of war, it is important to reflect upon its ongoing operations
within Afghanistan. Like the US, Al Qaeda considers the plains of Afghanistan as a traditional
theatre of conflict. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s allegiance to successive Taliban leaders, who he claims are
“Emir of the Believers” (Joscelyn, 2016), exemplifies the importance of the territory as a primary
zone of combat for the organisation.
As of mid-2016, the US military had conducted at least three raids on Al Qaeda camps associated
with regional affiliate Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), over the previous twelve months
(Roggio, 2016). One of these camps, raided in October 2015, has been described as “probably the
largest” Al Qaeda training camp ever destroyed during the 14 year engagement in Afghanistan
(Lamothe, 2015). These ongoing operations reflect the more conventional engagement that
remains in play in Afghanistan. Using this large Al Qaeda camp as an example: those located at
the camp were likely operatives with an intention to attack Afghan or coalition forces in-country, not
western interests overseas; though not wearing a proscribed uniform, these individuals represent
Al Qaeda’s “soldiers” and would have been trained to engage against conventional armed forces;
and the raid itself was undertaken by the US and Afghan military forces on the ground. Though
perhaps not a battle in the traditional sense, this form of engagement reflects many aspects of
conventional warfare, and has taken place within a territory that both sides consider a traditional
theatre of war.
Al Qaeda is clearly a networked organisation, with nodes operating across the world, in both
traditional and non-traditional theatres of armed conflict. The group has emerged as an entity
benefiting from networked form of organisation, though this is less evident following its suppression
in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions, and the rise of the Islamic State. The network it
operates does however reflect the changing shape of the territories within which it operates. The
fluidity of the network is reflected in the fluidity of its battlespace: it is indiscriminate. Despite this
however, Al Qaeda is perhaps currently strongest within Afghanistan, which represents a more
conventional territory of armed conflict, and this should not be ignored. Much as the network has
removed the boundaries of the battlefield, it too has retained a node within the conventional
US adoption of the network: countering Al Qaeda with JSOC
As a terrorist network, Al Qaeda is a borderless movement with a global reach. To counter the
threat of this network, a far-reaching war is required (Porter, 2015). Reflecting this, the expansion
of traditional armed conflict, beyond conventional theatres of war such as Afghanistan and Iraq,
has characterised the evolving form of American warfare. As part of this expansion, the political
space of US military operations has been reconfigured to enable targeted kill-or-capture operations
across a diverse geography (Niva, 2013). The capabilities associated with this expansion amount
to what Colonel John Nagl (2012) described as “an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing
machine”. The US military’s desire and ability to operate “anywhere”, moving across borders into
“grey area” such as the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) in Pakistan, have become a
signature of contemporary US military engagement.
As evidenced in Chapter 3, the drone has proved itself a key enabler to the US’ ability to push the
boundaries of the battlefield, into areas it could not previously operate. Many contend that the
employment of new information age technologies and platforms, such as the drone, are playing an
even greater role in expanding the operational space, into and beyond the the “grey areas” and
“shadow wars” of Pakistan or Yemen (Miller, 2011; Bumiller, 2012). Whilst this may be so, it is
perhaps too simplistic a view to suggest that this is the sole or even key driver. Steve Niva (2013)
for one, challenges this position, advancing the view that the core transformation enabling this new
form of warfare has less to do about technologies and more to with new forms of social
organisation. Indeed, John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt (2001) support this view, suggesting that
whilst technology does play its role, other areas such as social and organisational practice have a
greater influence on the potential power of a given group. Reflective of this change has been the
post-2001 emergence of networked forms of organisation across the US military.
The US’ adoption of many of the technological aspects of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)
doctrine of network-centric warfare – namely the increasing use of the drone – was significant,
however it was not enough to enable the full realisation of a networked form of warfare. In order to
achieve this, warfare would depend on a shift from hierarchical forms of organisation, to more
networked structures; a change that was not immediately forthcoming, even in the aftermath of the
events of 2001 (Niva, 2013; Arquilla and Ronfeldt, 2001; Bousquet, 2008). Since this time however,
there has been an increased adoption of networked forms organisation, which have indeed been
made possible by the integration of new technologies into more networked forms of warfare (Niva,
2013). It is this integration – that of a blend of hierarchies and networks, that operate utilising
common information and self-synchronisation – that enables strike operations across a
transnational battlespace.
The sort of operations that the US are now able to conduct, whether that is a targeted strike in
Yemen, a detention operation in the remote areas of Afghanistan, or the raid against Usama Bin
Laden’s compound in Pakistan, would not have been possible prior to 9/11 (Niva, 2013). Such
operations rely on real-time surveillance and strike capabilities that did not exist before this time.
As noted by Defence Secretary Robert Gates in 2011, these types of operations are now made
possible by unprecedented horizontal cooperation and network linkages between the agencies
(CIA, NSA, Special Forces). The US has ultimately developed new network forms of organisation
to guide its fight against an increasingly networked form of opposition: a network fighting a network
(Schmitt & Shanker, 2011).
Shaping their network outside of the conventional battlefield in this way, elements of the US military
have increasingly adopted more decentralised networked forms of organisation and doctrine (Niva,
2013). This has given rise to to forms of warfare that John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt (2001)
would characterise as “counternetwar”, with elements of what Antoine Bousquet (2009) terms
“chaoplexic warfare”; in which blends of hierarchies and decentralised networks operate through
common information and self-synchronisation, to target an increasingly networked adversary. What
this means for the geography of armed conflict, is that unlike operations of more hierarchical
actors, the spatial character of of these networked operations tend to “cut across standard spatial
boundaries […] to operate in the cracks and grey areas of society” (Arquilla & Ronfeldt, 2001). The
US military has developed and adopted a networked structure, reflective of a disappearing
battlefield and an increasingly networked battlespace.
An example of this in practise is the evolution of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC),
who according to Steve Niva (2013) went from an elite special force to an “organisational hub and
revolutionary motor” of networked forms of organisation, across the US military. This component of
the US military is charged with responsibility for special operations requirements, and has come to
the fore following the US’ declaration of “War on Terror” in 2001; notably so following the
appointment of General Stanley McChrystal, as its chief, in 2003. Seeking to remove barriers to
cooperation, it was General McChrystal who began to build JSOC as a networked command (Niva,
2013), ensuring that as a “joint” command, the organisation would have representation form all of
the military’s elite units.
General McChrystal spent much of his discretionary fund, not on new high-tech hardware, but
rather on bandwidth, which would enable all the nodes to communicate with one another. He
ensured that JSOC built relationships with its non-military counterparts such as the CIA, NSA, and
FBI, affording these organisations real-life live information from the operations they would be
conducting. In instigating these changes, General McChrystal developed many of the elements of
a networked form of organisation, composed of interconnected sets of decentralised and largely
autonomous components, that combine and work together based on shared information and
strategy (Niva, 2013).
In this form, JSOC emerged as self-synchronising body able to conduct networked hunt-and-kill
operations. In Iraq, this amounted to JSOC’s networked integration within the broader US military
and intelligence community; this largely enabled access and use of technology in ways that had
never been done before. This created an increased operational tempo characterised by large scale
intelligence gathering operations. What John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt (2001) would describe as
“sustainable pulsing” – swarm networks that are able to position themselves stealthily on a target,
then regroup and go again – would become a signature of JSOC operations. The expansion of
JSOC’s networked model also characterised the armed conflict in Afghanistan, where the US
began to target Al Qaeda leaders in the border regions of Pakistan (Warrick, 2011). Though
officially directed by the CIA, the extension of networked warfare to Pakistan, be it in the shadows,
marked what would be the realisation of the networked intelligence and targeting model originally
developed by JSOC. Used in this form, US operations could be delinked from the conventional
battlefield and extended across new geographies (Niva, 2013)
To counter an increasingly networked adversary, one of non-conventional means, the US has had
to adapt its counter-terrorism and counter-insurgent mechanisms. It has done so my implementing
increasingly horizontal networked forms of organisation, that are sufficiently flexible and capable of
operating in non-conventional environments, reflective of their already networked adversary.
Though not the sole example of this, JSOC reflects this change, with its strengths lying in the
speed in which it can share information, regroup, and readjust its target set. This form of
organisation has enabled the US to target individuals of interest located within traditional territories
of armed conflict, as well as those located in remote areas, beyond the borderlines of the
Networked forms of organisation: giving rise to networked territories of combat
The changing nature of armed conflict is reflected in the way that state and non-state actors
organise themselves militarily.
For terrorist organisations, such as Al Qaeda, this manifests itself in a network of affiliates and
discreet nodes operating semiautonomously across the globe. In decentralising themselves and
harnessing the force-multiplying effects of a networked form of organisation, Al Qaeda has
sustained organisational integrity and an ability to conduct transnational operations. Setting
themselves up in such a way, Al Qaeda has created a structure that lends itself to achieve the
organisation’s goal of conducting attacks against the west, whilst maintaining a significant footprint
in what it considers a primary theatre of operations: Afghanistan. To this end, Al Qaeda disregards
the geographical limitations of conventional warfare, whilst maintaining presence and operations
within what could be regarded as a traditional battlefield.
In seeking to confront or cope with a networked adversary such as Al Qaeda, it is important to
assess an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses on a number of levels; the defining level of which
is the networked actor’s organisational design (Arquilla and Ronfeldt, 2001). Characterisation of
the territory in which armed conflict takes place is therefore critical, as it lends itself to to
understanding the organisational make-up of the combatants located within it.
The state response to threats from non-state actors reflects this approach, and structures itself in a
similarly networked form of organisation. Fuelled by a desire to operate “anywhere” and counter a
threat that ignores the restrictions of battlefield borders, the US military has adopted networks that
enable operations that reflect the increasingly global battlespace. This has been exemplified by the
evolution of JSOC, whose strengths lie in an ability share information quickly and manoeuvre
continually into new states of operation. This was largely put into effect by General McCrystal, who
worked to remove barriers to cooperation, and created an interconnected organisation capable of
conducting kill-or-capture operations across an expanding battlespace.
The flexible nature of both the state and the non-state actor is reflective of an increasingly fluid
territory in which armed conflict is taking place. If the state, represented in this example by JSOC,
is set up to conduct operations anywhere, this mirrors its core adversary: the terrorist group. Both
types of organisation however maintain a central footprint in a traditional theatre of war –
Afghanistan – whilst simultaneously conducting operations in non-conventional arenas such as
Pakistan and Yemen. That these theatres of conflict are interlinked by the state and non-state
networks that operate within them is noteworthy, and suggests a similarly networked battlefield. To
this end, it is not simply a case of the battlefield disappearing, but the rise of a global battlespace,
and what could be termed networked territories of combat.
5. Conclusion
With the aim of examining the relationship between territory and the conduct of warfare, in
particular notions of the disappearing battlefield, this study has looked at structural, technological,
and strategic dimensions of armed conflict. In analysing the various elements that impact upon the
conduct of combat, this dissertation has presented a sustained account of the relationship between
those that wage armed conflict and the locations in which this takes place.
This analysis has demonstrated that territory is an omnipresent consideration when active in
combat. When engaged in armed conflict, the physical location of opposing adversaries is of
significant importance, not only on a tactical level, but a legal and political one too. The changing
and varied dimensions of armed conflict have however challenged the conventional understanding
of where combatants should be located, and has ultimately transformed the way in which the
enemy is targeted.
Having established an understanding of the parameters of the traditional battlefield and contrasted
these with contemporary challenges to its existence, this study identified the rise of state and nonstate
engagement as a key protagonist to the changing shape of the territories of combat. This has
been exemplified, and in many ways driven, by the changing nature of American warfare, in
particular as a result of the US’ self-proclaimed “War on Terror”. A leading characteristic of the
interplay between these adversaries, the asymmetric nature of their conflict does much to transport
combat across traditional borders, and into locations viewed as conventionally distant from the
Whilst technological advancements, such as the armed drone, have sought to further the US’
ambitions to operate “anywhere”, their usage has more importantly changed the scope of how the
enemy is targeted. The rise in the individuation of personal responsibility, which has become
central to the US military’s use of force, has ultimately transported the battlefield to wherever an
individual target is located, whether that is within a traditional zone of combat or otherwise. On this
basis alone, it can be said that the conventional battlefield no longer exists; rather that the US has
created a manmade geography of war.
The expansion of armed conflict to new territories is of course not limited to state ambition. If
anything, it has been the non-state actor’s disregard for territorial demarkation, that has tested the
parameters of the battlefield like no other. Terrorist organisations, such as Al Qaeda, seeking to
take advantage of the weaknesses of their better resourced adversary, have become experts in
manipulating the parameters of war and the territory that seeks to contain them. This is no more so
evidenced, than through the catalogue of terrorist attacks Al Qaeda has conducted globally over
the past two decades.
It is clear that the notion of the traditional battlefield, one that identifies a marked territory in which
opposing factions meet and do battle, is no longer applicable to contemporary warfare. As
identified throughout this dissertation, the battlefield as a standalone entity no longer exists. This is
not to say that characteristics of the traditional battlefield have disappeared entirely however.
Whilst state-on-state conflict within defined territories, utilising conventional methods, may no
longer present itself, there are indications that both state and non-state actors remain drawn to
traditional zones of combat.
This study has demonstrated that there is a fluidity to contemporary armed conflict. This manifests
itself in violent engagements in an ever expanding geography. Rarely are these zones of combat
isolated from other territories of conflict however. For example, the 9/11 attacks which took place
within the US, were co-ordinated and planned by individuals based in Afghanistan. Similarly, the
US military has targeted and killed numerous Al Qaeda operatives based in Pakistan, using drones
operated from thousands of miles away. This interconnectivity between territory is reflective of the
networked forms of organisation increasingly employed by state and non-state actors engaged in
armed conflict. To this end, this paper contends that whilst the traditional battlefield is no longer
applicable to contemporary armed conflict, some of its characteristics remain present in networked
territories of combat, which now characterise the modern battlespace.
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