CMSEs work with the local populace to gain an understanding of their needs and wants.

Out of Africa

CMSEs Engage Vulnerable Popultations in West Africa to Counter Influence of Violent Extremist Organizations

By Major John P. Wishart
Originally published in the October-December 2011 edition of Special Warfare

One of the legs of the Army special-operations-forces triad, Civil Affairs, continues to deploy persistent elements into austere environments throughout the world and to operate in, around and near the operational ecosystem of violent extremist organizations, or VEOs.

The 95th Civil Affairs Brigade sends civil-military support elements, or CMSEs, to identify vulnerabilities that can lead to the propagation of extremist groups in the Sahara. A company of linguistically and regionally trained Francophone specialists of the 91st Civil Affairs Battalion are currently deployed to West Africa. These four-Soldier Civil Affairs teams, or CATs, are culturally and linguistically attuned to the environment in which they operate. They meet with key influential leaders and groups of people who are susceptible to VEOs and their ideology. CMSEs are a critical component of the indirect, through-and-with methodology that helps create networks and encourages the vulnerable populations to trust their own government, rather than the VEOs, to take care of their needs.

The CMSEs engage the traditional seats of power in these key communities and groups. They understand the human terrain and are able to physically map the people's location, understand their migratory routes and get an intimate understanding of their needs and wants. CMSEs also understand what groups operate in the area: nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs; intergovernmental organizations, or IGOs; religious groups; business people; social groups; tribes; military leaders and government employees of the state. Using their understanding of the groups, they also have the ability to pinpoint gaps in the state's ability to deliver services or security in an area. By understanding these shortfalls and by understanding the capabilities of groups like NGOs or IGOs, the CMSEs can coordinate services to bolster the capabilities of the state to counter the VEOs' attempts to lure people away from the state.

Operational environment

As part of Operation Enduring Freedom Trans Sahara, or OEF-TS, the U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, provides military support to the Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, or TSCTP. OEF-TS engagement in TSCTP focuses on overall security and cooperation rather than on counterterrorism alone. The OEF-TS partnership comprises the United States and 10 African countries: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal. A CMSE assesses partner-nation capacities to develop and sustain government and local institutions, including infrastructure development, that address the population's basic humanitarian needs.1 The overall goals of the TSCTP are to enhance the indigenous capacities of governments in the Pan-Sahel (Mauritania, Mali, Chad and Niger, as well as Nigeria and Senegal) to confront the challenge posed by terrorist organizations in the region.2

Initial efforts under what eventually became Concept Plan, or CONPLAN, 7500 were largely lethal activities directed against the al-Qaeda network and its affiliates.3 Joseph Nye describes a nonlethal or indirect approach when he describes the concept of soft power. Soft power is the ability to get desired outcomes because others want what you want. It is the ability to achieve goals through attraction rather than coercion.4 The current version of Department of Defense CONPLAN 7500 mirrors that mindset. It reflects the primacy of indirect approaches, both to deter active and tacit support for VEOs and to erode extremist support for VEO ideology.5 Our efforts are designed to deter, prevent and disrupt violent extremists.6 The Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept, or JOC, states, "Irregular warfare, or IW, is defined as a violent struggle among state and nonstate actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations. IW favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capabilities, in order to erode an adversary's power, influence and will. It is inherently a protracted struggle that will test the resolve of our nation and our strategic partners."7

The questions at hand are: Can Army SOF Civil Affairs elements influence lower-level networks with indirect links to VEOs? Can CMSEs use the indirect approach to deter and disrupt transnational VEO operations? Can CMSEs help coordinate actions of the U.S. government interagency community in countering transnational VEOs?


By working to strengthn the relationship of the population to the partner-nation government and local security forces, CMSEs can disrupt the people's connection to the dark network of violent extremist organizations.

The term "terrorist networks" is a quick way to describe VEOs that do not organize hierarchically. "Netwars" is a concept developed by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, the editors of Networks and Netwar: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy. Under this concept, numerous dispersed small groups using the latest communications technologies could act conjointly across great distances.8 A network as an organizational structure lends itself to flexibility and the ability for the central core to maintain a "buffer zone" by using a cut-out who will not know what other elements of the network are doing. Additionally, the network can compartmentalize the cells, themselves, insulating their functions, such as logistics, finance or communications, so that other cells will know nothing about them. One key aspect needed for success of the network is the social basis for cooperation among network members. When social ties are strong, and mutual trust and identity exists, a network's effectiveness is greatly enhanced. That can be seen most clearly in ethnically based terror, crime and insurgent groups, in which clan ties bind together even the most dispersed organization.9

Kathleen Carley, a noted social scientist and the developer of dynamic network analysis, notes that terrorist networks are distinct from those in typical hierarchical organizations — they are cellular and distributed.10 Sean Everton and Nancy Roberts, researchers associated with the Naval Postgraduate School, observe in their article, "Strategies for Combating Dark Networks," in the Journal of Social Structure, that despite the interest devoted to collecting information on dark networks, so little attention is being paid to exploring strategies for disrupting them.11 The authors describe ways for disrupting networks, listing four methods for nonlethal disruption of dark networks: institution-building, psychological operations, information operations and rehabilitation.12

The majority of discussion seems to center on the operational level of terrorist disruption. This article describes a method of building trust between elements of the CMSE and key communicators and influencers in or near key geographic areas. By influencing key individuals within communities and engaging vulnerable populations, we can induce the people to gravitate toward the influence of the state. The state, however, must make tangible and concrete reforms to address the vulnerable populations' grievances. The ability of the CMSEs to move within the population allows them to use DoD's lines of effort and operations to work by, through and with common-minded groups as directed by CONPLAN 7500 for the use of both a direct and indirect approach to fighting terrorist networks.13

The enduring results come from indirect approaches — those in which we enable partners to combat extremist organizations themselves by contributing to their capabilities through advising, training and — when authorized and funded — equipping. That includes efforts to deter active and tacit support for VEOs in areas where the existing government is either unwilling or unable to remove terrorist sanctuaries.14

The CMSEs' modus operandi is to meet with key leaders and influencers within a specific geographic area, focusing on a group relevant to the interests of the U.S. government. CA operations are inherently people-centric, and CMSEs interact with as many groups as possible. CMSEs cultivate relationships and create their own light networks within each country. The CMSE establishes itself as a hub by developing additional nodes with like-minded groups such as NGOs, partner-nation military forces or civic leaders. Those ad-hoc collaborative networks work along the CMSEs' common lines of effort, supporting JSOTF-TS operational objectives and lines of operation. The networks created by the teams can be either enduring or short-lived, based on the operational requirements.

CMO training of partner-nation forces is another component of network disruption. CMSEs across the Sahel engage with elite, partner-nation special-operations troops. The CMSEs train the leaders of security forces to listen to grievances, treat people humanely and provide tangible benefits for those who cooperate with the partner-nation government.

A method of validating grievances is to analyze the partner-nation's ability to provide key services, such as medical care. One can quickly ascertain where groups predominantly stay. The CMSE may provide that information pictographically in a GeoPDF to the mayor, the local minister of health, an NGO or the U.S. Agency for International Development, to move resources around within the city to provide care to vulnerable populations. The CMSE may also expand into the area by extending the capability of the state through local medical engagements by bringing doctors from more populated areas to augment the existing healthcare in the area.

Teams observe and analyze their operational environment from a variety of different perspectives: relationally, geographically and temporally. Through those relationships, teams will form ad-hoc networks. Those networks may have humanitarian aid or assistance as a shared common factor. Geographic relationships are important, as well. If an individual or node has a relationship with a VEO logistics facilitator in country X but is currently operating in country Y, they still maintain a relationship. Finally, the CMSEs consider the temporal component. If a nomadic group comes through an area only once every few months to sell its animals or every few weeks to draw water at specific oasis in the Sahara, the CMSE will be unable to engage that particular group. Growing seasons and rain have a major impact on the movement of the CMSE and its ability to engage key groups. The relational, geographical and temporal perspectives are important in historical analysis and in developing a predictive or pattern-of-life element.

There is a secondary benefit to creating networks with the partner-nation government: Those networks may occur in the same geographic area that VEO networks use for the sustainment of their operations. These lower-level networks, if one were to imagine them in a terrorist organization, would be the nexus between drug traffickers, weapons traffickers, corrupt officials, illicit-business operators, criminal groups and bandits. Some of those groups or individuals may not even be aware that they could be dealing with a VEO. These groups or individuals are the necessary connection between the dark, illicit terrorist network and the licit environment.

Engagement in the operational environment

The CMSE, through continuous contact with the civil population and persistent presence in key areas, gains an understanding of the security environment in the local area. It will learn if the state's taxation is not transparent, which companies are legitimate and which corrupt, which tribes are in the area, when the growing and rainy seasons are, and whether there is friction between herders and irrigation farmers. They will also determine through contact with the local population and the local security services which groups are alienated from the local and national government.

The 95th CA Brigade's CA teams conduct a diverse set of activities, promoting development and goodwill through the building of infrastructure, training in job skills and the provision of medical, dental and veterinary care in areas where existing government structures are unable or unwilling to provide those services. As with security-force assistance, the focus of special-operations CA teams is on long-term capacity-building within local and national structures.15

Dark networks

According to the State Department's 2008 Country Reports on Terrorism, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, maintained training camps and support networks in the isolated and remote areas of Algeria and the Sahel.16 In western Africa, the VEO that exists is AQIM, which began in Algeria as the GSPC, or Group for Salafist Preaching and Combat, but allied with al-Qaeda in 2006. Ayman al-Zawahiri announced a "blessed union" between the groups, declaring France an enemy and indicating that they would fight against French and American interests. In January 2007, the group announced that it had changed its name to reflect its alliance with al-Qaeda, from which it receives material and financial support.17

In "Dark Networks as Organizational Problems," H. Brinton Milward and Jorg Raab offer a short description of a cocaine network. Even though decentralized, the traffickers began to be the target of much greater control efforts by the U.S. That encouraged them to substitute technology for structure and buy more sophisticated communications equipment, which allowed the separate parts of the network to coordinate their activities much better without being in close proximity to one another. That allowed various groups to come together quickly, make a shipment happen and then disperse.18

The Internet, worldwide fund transfers, data transmissions, cheap encrypted cell phones and television can all be used to create a terrorist community without propinquity or proximity. In addition to physical space and technology, finances are clearly a resource that dark networks must have to continue to operate. Linkages between the nodes in a network are facilitated by trust between the actors, based on reciprocity and the ability to reward cooperation by transferring resources to the complying party.19

In the attempt to pull vulnerable populations away from the central government, AQIM will provide medicines, food and money to key populations they are trying to influence. A local Malian website,, notes that AQIM regularly courts the local population by providing goodwill items. Local people no longer see AQIM as evil because it has provided services that the state does not. Imagine a village where there is no infirmary and AQIM brings drugs: People would see AQIM militants as generous, peaceful and religious.20 Hezbollah also established a civilian framework that supports Lebanese Shi'ites in the fields of education, healthcare and religion and provides various social services. Hezbollah, like other terrorist organizations, is fully aware of the importance of the battle for hearts and minds; its objective is to influence the insights and perceptions of various target audiences in Lebanon and abroad.21

VEOs in West Africa also use smuggling networks and groups to provide necessary sustainment: weapons, foodstuffs, vehicle parts, fuel and other logistics support. In northern Mali, the Tuareg nation is made up of a variety of tribes and subtribes, not all of which are involved with VEOs; however, there are opportunists within that group of people who take advantage of the ungoverned space in northern Mali, southern Algeria, Niger, Chad and southern Libya. Those people may be opportunistic, as the amount of money that has been funneled into VEO networks runs into the tens of millions of dollars. The AQIM terrorist group has sustained itself since 2003 primarily through revenues derived from the business of taking Westerners hostage. It also engages in drug trafficking and receives some donations. The Maghreb group's kidnap-for-ransom business, especially in North Africa, generates many millions of dollars.22

USG interagency coordination?

CMSEs play an important role in interagency coordination in west Africa. The CMSE, in particular, operates in conjunction with key members of the country team, including the office for security cooperation, the defense attache, the deputy chief of mission, the regional security officer, USAID country directors, and the ambassador or chief of mission. Depending on the footprint of U.S. government agencies within the country team, the team could have members from the Drug Enforcement Agency, Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice. The CMSEs create informal, ad-hoc relationships that appear and dissolve, based on the needs of the environment.

The CMSE's core competency, however, is working outside of the embassy, coordinating with IOs, NGOs and the partner-nation governments. It can be inordinately difficult to coordinate the operational objectives of so many disparate partners with a variety of different goals that are sometimes diametrically opposed.

The CMSE must conduct rapid stakeholder analysis of the key personnel in its operational environment. For example, in one west African country, the country team was supportive of an initiative to spend more time in rural areas and establish a de facto soft-power American presence that would be "just like the Peace Corps." While socializing the concept, an operations officer in our deployed higher headquarters casually quipped, "As long as the CMSE is not just like the Peace Corps."

The various viewpoints of key personnel toward a CMSE goal can still have common elements, and the CMSE must be able to analyze the main points of each party's position and market the concept in which they are willing to invest. Finding the right balance between self-interests and domain interests is a delicate maneuver, however, as each organization seeks mechanisms that enable it to coordinate with others and yet not be coordinated by others.23

CMSE coordination with IOs and NGOs can be quite fruitful, as well. NGOs and IOs will provide aid to peoples whose governments cannot provide that support. CMSEs map the capabilities and geographic locations of NGOs, understand their goals, and encourage appropriate organizations to go to areas that are of concern to the Department of Defense. In Dr. Nancy Roberts' article in the March-April 2010 Public Administration Review, she states that increasing linkages between and among organizations have their advantages in enhancing collaboration toward a commonly defined problem.24

Capacity building

The CMSE conducts operations using a variety of mechanisms to legitimize the partner-nation government, build the capacity of military forces and determine civil vulnerabilities that can be exploited by VEOs. CMSEs engage different levels of the partner-nation government, from national-level ministries to a mayor's staff in a town of 200 people. The CMSE will also conduct capacity-building operations of partner-nation special forces. Those forces are the tools by which the government will extend its reach into contested areas. However, the quality of the training those forces receive will determine how professionally they will treat their fellow countrymen. If they treat them poorly, they will drive them into the waiting arms of the VEO. If they treat them with respect and genuinely care for their protection, however, that vulnerable population will trust them for their security.

CMSEs in west Africa have executed numerous classes on civil-military operations and have conducted medical and veterinary civic-action programs, building up the reputation of the government. These partner-nation forces also conduct key-leader engagements with the same people with whom CMSEs meet, including civic leaders, NGOs and business people, to determine any areas that are being threatened by VEOs.

In one of the author's engagements with a local hospital administrator in eastern Mauritania, a VEO safe haven and an ungoverned area, the administrator described the process the Mauritanian government undertakes to fix medical equipment. The hospital has to send the equipment back to the capital, Nouakchott, and do without that capability until the item is fixed or a replacement is delivered. The resulting gaps in capability can be exploited by VEOs in their attempt to lure key populations away from supporting the partner-nation government.

In the same vein, the CMSE in Mali was able to help the Ministry of Health by delivering vaccines to an area of interest to the JSOTF-TS that was beyond the reach of the partner-nation's vaccine logistics distribution system. The delivery provided access for the CMSE to positively engage with key members of the population, provide humanitarian assistance, and enhance the relationship between the government of Mali and the U.S. Embassy. These types of operations enable trust to be built between these population and the government.

CMSEs throughout the OEF-TS countries have been mapping the countries' capabilities in order to identify shortfalls and provide support to the partner-nation government. That not only improves the health of the population but also strengthens ties between the people and their government. If the government cannot or will not care for its people, another group could step in to provide the support to a key population.


The author has provided a short review of networks and demonstrated how CMSEs create networks for a specific purpose, time and area. The CMSE's flexibility allows it to increase its reach and effectiveness exponentially. CMSEs do not engage directly with VEO facilitators or with VEOs themselves, but they do interact with indigenous groups who operate in the VEO's operational ecosystem. The soft-power, positive engagements that occur between the CMSEs and the local population may negatively affect the VEO network's capability by pulling individuals away from supporting them. While deployed, the CMSEs, as a hub in a greater network of purpose, can create networks within U.S. government agencies. They can coordinate the activities of the country team and other U.S. interagency partners by giving each element a "felt need to collaborate" and sharing a common goal and purpose.25 The CMSE regularly conducts stakeholder analysis and will survey key decision-makers and groups to bring them together in a whole-of-government approach to combating violent extremism.

Professor John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School provides a scathing rebuke of current U.S. military operations in a Foreign Policy article, "New Rules of War." He states that what is missing from America's military arsenal is a deep understanding of networking, the loose but lively interconnection between people that creates and brings to bear a new kind of collective intelligence, power and purpose. Quite small units, he says, can wield great power when connected to others, especially friendly indigenous forces.26

The CMSE's operational effect is enhanced by creating networks of purpose that counteract the influence of VEOs. By working through and with partners, CMSEs can deter or disrupt VEO operations for a miniscule amount of money. The cost of CA company deployment, including training and operational funds, is far less than the cost of an M1A2 Abrams tank.27

Major John Wishart is commander of Company E, 91st Civil Affairs Battalion. He has served as operations officer and commander for the 91st Civil Affairs Battalion's company deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom – Trans Sahara from 2009-2010 and 2011. He has a bachelor's in political science from the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and a master's (special operations and low-intensity conflict) from the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif. He has participated in various operations and deployments in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Central America.


1. "Operation Enduring Freedom Trans Sahel and the Civil Military Support Element," AFRICOM, accessed 28 May 2010.

2. "Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Program," AFRICOM, accessed 28 May 2010.

3. Lt. Gen. Francis H. Kearney III, USSOCOM deputy commander, "Countering Violent Extremism," 1, Senate Armed Services Committee Emerging Threats and Capabilities Hearing, 10 Mar 2010, accessed 28 May 2010.

4. Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S Nye Jr., "Power and interdependence in the information age," Foreign Affairs, Sep/Oct 1998; 77; Alumni Research Library accessed 29 June 11

5. Kearney, 2.

6. Kearney, 5.

7. U.S. Department of Defense, 11 September 2007, "Irregular Warfare, Version 1," Joint Operating Concept,

8. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, eds.,"Networks and Netwar: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy," 2001, 2, accessed 30 June 2011.

9. Arquilla and Ronfeldt.

10. Kathleen M. Carley, "Dynamic Network Analysis," in Ron Breiger and Kathleen M. Carley, eds., Summary of the NRC Workshop on Social Network Modeling and Analysis (National Research Council, forthcoming) 2. Accessed 30 June 2011 at

11. Nancy Roberts and Sean Everton, "Strategies for Combating Dark Networks," Journal of Social Structure, 12, accessed 1 July 2011.

12. Roberts and Everton.

13. Adm. Eric Olson, 2010 Posture Statement (Tampa, Fla.: U.S. Special Operations Command), 4,

14. Adm. Eric Olson, "A Balanced Approach to Irregular Warfare 2009," The Journal of International Security Affairs, Spring 2009, 16, accessed 29 June 2011.

15. Kearney.

16. U.S. Department of State, Country Report on Terrorism (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Coordinator for Terrorism, April 2009), accessed 24 June 2011.


18. H. Brinton Milward and Jorg Raab, "Dark Networks as Organizational Problems: Elements of a Theory," International Public Management Journal, 2006, 9, 3, 333-60.

19. Milward and Raab.

20. "Région de Tombouctou: AQMI en terrain conquis," Maliweb, 26 May 11, Accessed 30 June 2011

21. Reuven Erlich and Yoram Kahati, "Hezbollah As A Case Study Of The Battle For Hearts And Minds In The Confrontation Between Israel And The Terrorist Organizations," May 2007, accessed 11 June 2011.

22. Rachel Ehrenfeld, "Drug trafficking, kidnapping fund al Qaeda," CNN, 3 May 2011, accessed 30 June 2011.

23. Nancy Roberts, "Spanning 'Bleeding' Boundaries: Humanitarianism, NGOs and the Civilian-Military Nexus in the Post–Cold War Era," Public Administration Review, 218, March - April 2010, 212-22. Accessed 31 May 2010,

24. Nancy Roberts.

25. Susan Page Hocevar, Gail Fann Thomas and Erik Jansen, "Building Collaborative Capacity: An Innovative Strategy for Homeland Security Preparedness," in Michael M. Beyerlein, Susan T. Beyerlein and Frances A. Kennedy, eds., Innovation through Collaboration (Advances in Interdisciplinary Studies of Work Teams, Volume 12) (Emerald Group Publishing Ltd., 2006) 255-74, accessed 5 July 2011 at

26. John Arquilla, "New Rules of War," Foreign Affairs, March-April 2010, accessed 5 July 2010,


THIS issue

October-December 2011
Volume 24 | Issue 4

Special Warfare cover, October-December 2011

Special Warfare

Special Warfare is an authorized, official quarterly publication of the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Fort Bragg, N.C. Its mission is to promote the professional development of special-operations forces by providing a forum for the examination of established doctrine and new ideas.

Views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect official Army position. This publication does not supersede any information presented in other official Army publications.