How to Identify Lone Wolf Terrorists in Three Decision Steps

Security Brief       

Terrorist threat has many facets and instances. Some methods and actors diminish over time giving place to others. Previously less-known become prominent. Terrorism forms and methods thought insignificant, least dangerous keep evolving to become among most damaging. This is the nature of terrorists—they are in constant search of system vulnerabilities and move fast and are highly flexible and adaptive to the changing environment, in finding new organisational forms, execution methods, and new recruits as well as inspiring other, independent perpetrators.

This is the case with terrorists known as lone wolfs–individuals or a small number of individuals who commit an attack being inspired by a terrorist group and its ideology without being directed or materially supported by it.



– Attacks carried out by lone wolfs (individuals and small number of them) became a dominant vehicle for terrorism in Western countries.

– Identifying and tracking lone wolfs and eventually stopping them is even more difficult than in the case of terrorist organisations.

– Traditional methods of surveillance, data collection and processing appear ineffective against this category of perpetrators. The same is true for decision making methods.

– A flexible decision making process using small set of formalised methods based on sense-making, professional intuition, and simple but powerful decision rules (known as heuristics) offers an opportunity worth considering and testing.

The threat

Just five years ago the following statement was quite typical from terrorism experts: ‘But should the American public panic over this shadowy enemy? Is the lone wolf really so scary after all? Not if its record of lethality is any indication. The four lone wolf attacks since Sept. 11 managed to kill just one civilian… And the perpetrators used weapons no more powerful than a gun.’

Today, situation is very different, especially in Western countries. Lone wolfs are identified as a ‘growing threat’ and rightfully so. As stated in the Global Terrorism report, ‘the majority of terrorist attacks in the West are not carried out by well-organised international groups. Instead, the terrorist threat in the West largely comes from lone wolf terrorism. … These types of attacks account for 70 per cent of all deaths in the West from 2006 to 2014.’ And as evidenced in the global terrorism databases, the trend keeps expanding geographically, diversifying in terms of weapons and perpetrators, and intensifying in terms of lethality of attacks. The massacre carried out by a lone wolf terrorist in Nice using a truck was defined by specialists as ‘weaponization of everyday life’ by terrorists and as such presenting ‘insurmountable challenges for security officials’. Terrorist organisations, in first hand ISIL, are taking advantage of it and are increasingly ‘quick-radicalising’ vulnerable individuals and using lone wolfs for their purposes: only between October 2015 and August 2016  this category of terrorists carried out 20 attacks in Western countries.

The challenge

To prevent a terrorist attack, security agencies shall have enough information received and processed in advance time to allow them stop it effectively. This is not the case, unfortunately—the information is always incomplete, not always verifiable or reliable, and usually there is no much time at disposal. Even more difficult is to prevent attacks carried out by lone wolfs, because they are often-time unknown, untraceable, and as a result highly unpredictable.

Decision-making in intelligence comprises the same elements as in any other decision-making process governed by a mix of search and decision rules. The challenge is that by broadening the search parameters specialists get an enormous amount of data on millions of people who meet the predefined (numerous) criteria, which makes time of processing prolonged, the exercise laborious, expensive and dependant on sophisticated computation. There is no such luxury in security and counter-terrorism (even if funds and other resources would allow)—things move very fast and may change direction at any moment, with totally new actors and methods employed. Therefore a lot depends on the efficiency of methods used for collecting and processing the information, and especially for the final stage—that is, making decisions and acting upon them.

The proposal

Intelligence officers are closely following certain people they believe are representing a real threat as terrorists (i.e. terrorism suspects). Daily screening of information received from various sources also gives early warning signals of suspicious behaviour of many other individuals. The purpose is to find potential ‘new entrants’ who could be flagged for closer surveillance. But first you have to identify them. The problem is that vast majority of these random signals are ungrounded or irrelevant, but still must be assessed—pretty much seeking a needle in a haystack. Not an easy task, even in the case of organisation-affiliated terrorists, let alone a loner.

The approach I propose aims at helping counter-terrorism specialists handle this initial screening/assessment process of enormous datasets relatively quickly, using a formalised but adjustable, open to experimentation process, while arriving at accurate inferences. The approach is based on a notion of ecological rationality—that is, to arrive at more adaptively useful outcomes, decision-making mechanisms shall exploit the structure of the environment and the information it offers.

Process requirements

Requirements I set for effective and efficient decision making to identify lone wolfs are grouped in terms of input, information processing, and output characteristics:


  • Limited information: Ability to perform using limited and relatively accurate data;
  • Time constraint: Fast and computationally easy, to screen and evaluate large number of candidates;
  • Resource constraint: The scope notwithstanding, can be undertaken by an individual or a small team of professionals.


  • Flexibility: Rules allowing use of different clues (factors, features, aspects, criteria) and interchangeably, assign different values, and order them in alternative ways;
  • Focus: Applicable to evaluating both single candidates and a group of candidates;
  • Compatibility: Ability to make judgement of an individual candidate (or candidate group) without comparison to other candidates or reference to baseline (historical) data.


  • Operational usefulness of decision: Deterministic decision at the output (i.e. telling what to do, take-the-best);
  • Certainty of decision: Discharged from the ambiguity of input information; minimal interpretation of decision (i.e. pointing to one selected action);
  • Overall quality of decision: Good enough although not optimal (i.e. accuracy rate is acceptable, enough to act upon it).

Decision making in three steps

Step One: Defining the search cues

The objective of initial step is to define search cues as key characteristics of an object assessed for decision purpose. This is done by identifying distinct features which the candidate for detailed screening must possess in order to be further considered. There are two sequential tasks under this step.

First task: Set key search cues

Key features serve as criteria to help assessing the candidates in decision-making process and shall be grounded in some (generally or locally) accepted definition of the target population. In this case this would the definition of lone wolf terrorists. I will use the general definition offered by National Security Program of the National Security Critical Issue Task Force (NSCITF; 2015): ‘The deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or threat of violence committed by a single actor who pursues political change linked to a formulated ideology, whether his own or that of a larger organization, and who does not receive orders, direction, or material support from outside sources.’

It also offers a clarification very useful for the purpose of defining criteria and categorising the lone wolfs:Absent violence or the threat of violence, the individual may hold extremist or radicalized views, but he or she is not a terrorist. Absent political motivation, an attack would more closely resemble traditional forms of crime, organized violence, or hate crimes. Absent the individual acting alone, the attack would fall under the traditional definition of terrorism that encompasses violence conducted by organized terrorist groups.’

I draw from this definition five key cues/characteristics. Note that the candidate must meet ALL of them in order to be considered/qualify for flagging (follow-up close monitoring). The search cues are:

  1. Single, lone actor
  2. Political aim driven
  3. Intends at/is predisposed to use violent means
  4. Ideology-inspired
  5. Not affiliated with (by chain of command or supply) with terrorist organisation

Second task: Establish indicators

To support the decision making, we have to introduce a set of indicators—the signs which help us make best use of the information available. They may be categorical (yes/no), descriptive or numerical. In any case the decision makers will have to use judgement based on arbitrarily assigned weighs and values. Indicators may be formulated in the form of questions and not necessarily grouped under each of five core features. Below is a set of indicator groups I suggest as an initial shot; it is illustrative, by no means prescriptive.


  • Age group;
  • Permanent residence area;
  • Sex;
  • Social/ethnic/religious/sectarian background;
  • Employment status.

*Note: This group of indicators is optional for identifying lone wolfs—we don’t know much about them. Most are killed at the attack, and other candidates may serve different ideologies, which makes profiling difficult. For example, most attacks carried out in the UK in recent years were North Ireland related, not al-Qaeda/ISIL inspired. There might be other ultra-right motivated candidates which haven’t surfaced yet. Lone wolfs may have different political aims, and each may have more than one supply group, etc. Social background check is applicable only for countries where there is only one category of attackers, like in Israel, where IDF track potential attackers preferentially among one group—young Palestinians living in certain villages. However, this is rather an exception and most countries face terrorism threats coming from much broader background.


  • Previous security record (been spotted before, evaluated as terror suspect but dropped);
  • Medical record (have undergone psychiatrist treatment);
  • Behavioural record (visits to psychologist, e.g. school counsel);
  • Criminal record (recent conviction, release in last 1 year);
  • Family/personal problems (divorce, unhappy marriage, debt).

Warning signs

  • Internet interests (search topics; frequently visiting terrorist sites as of recent);
  • Social media (friends/contacts; posts glorify terror, express suicidal thoughts, or express intense hatred, intent to attack);
  • Social behaviour (e.g. noticed making hate-incited statements in public, in last three months; as of recent was spotted attending gatherings where terrorists, violent attacks are praised and implicitly or even explicitly encouraged);
  • Change of pattern (car rent: hasn’t driven a car in a year, but suddenly rents an unregistered vehicle; and/or apartment/house rent: suddenly moved to live in the area where he/she hasn’t been noticed to have any business or personal interest).

Access to weapons

  • Has connection to gun smugglers (relative, friend, neighbour);
  • Have intensified (or established if hadn’t have before) contacts, have been seen with them in last three months.

The output of this step is a set of cues that will be used in the next two steps, to aid the decision making. The quality of this output is instrumental for obtaining best possible results in the end.

Step Two: Categorisation

Create categories tailored to the search goal

Categorisation intends at a target group of ‘new entrants’ (considering that a person is spotted on a radar screen in the recent period, say, a three-month slot). The candidates might be total novices (unknown/not in the system) or ‘re-entrants’ (those who have been assessed before as suspects but dropped/not flagged for follow-up). The latter group is included because their characteristics may have changed since the last assessment, or simply they have been incorrectly evaluated at previous try or tries by the intelligence analysts (they may or may not be in the system records).

Creating categories is important for two reasons:

First, it structures the decision process and saves time. In our case the task is to create one category that has distinct features (based on five core criteria)—this will help assigning to it those candidates who meet the predefined accession value set by decision makers to this category.  All others are dismissed right away. This greatly decreases the workload for further analysis. I will illustrate this on an example from social choice practice.

Think of elections in two-party system. Candidates belong to either Right or Left. The goal is to choose one candidate as a winner, but there are a number of them running from both camps. Standpoints of Right and Left are distinct from each other. Because the candidates in the same party should share the fundamental views about political issues, when a political standpoint is the most important feature of each candidate plausible preferences would be one of the two: (a) each candidate in Right is preferred to each candidate in Left; or (b) vice versa. Therefore, opting for one party from the outset narrows the search focus and enables a decision maker to concentrate on individual candidates within the subset selected.

Second, it contributes to the accuracy of judgement. Correctly created categories help making right choices among otherwise randomly presented individual candidates/options. This is achieved by decomposing the choice problem into small problems. The example below illustrates my thought.

Suppose that an interview panel screens the applications to recommend a shortlist for further consideration (tests, interviews, etc.). The candidates’ résumé have been distributed among the panel members, but there is no agreement on the selection cues, except for job description which vaguely sets the requirements (with no precise metrics attached) and thus serves for general guidance only.

The panel members send their shortlists of six candidates to an HR representative (also panel member), who has to calculate the outcome and offer the final list. It appears that there are ten top scorers, but given the limit the HR member selects only highest ranking candidates, leaving others aside. If we look at the list of all ten candidates, we will see that they were supported by panel members as follows: A – six; B, O – five each; J, L, G – four each; F, W – three each; and Z, X – two each. Therefore candidates A, B, O, J, L, G were selected.

Now, if we define priority selection criteria more precisely (for example, having two primary criteria – recent experience in the region minimum 5 years and recent work in similar seniority position dealing with same problem for minimum 10 years), then we have two subsets—{a} those who meet these two and score well on others; and {b} those who don’t meet one or both of primary but score well on other criteria. The team’s preference is subset {a} and they have here all candidates but L, O, G and Z. If they choose from this preference category then the initial choice A, B, J will be joined by F, W and X as more suitable candidates in the shortlist, not by L, O, and G.


The decision method we use at this step is elimination. Each candidate is quickly assessed against cues ordered in a certain sequence (usually by descending importance). The candidate who doesn’t pass the cue’s cut-off value is dropped. Heuristics method of Fast-and-Frugal decision tree is most appropriate tool for this exercise. It can be designed in various shapes, to meet the decision maker’s preferences; two flowcharts applicable to our case are represented in Figure 1.


As it is evident from the Figure 1, the Fast-and-Frugal tree allows enough flexibility and room for adjustment and entertaining trial-and-error in order to find an optimal pattern and to arrive at the best available choice, given all limitations imposed by the environment. The decades-long research of this and other heuristics decision methods based on the observation of people working in extreme conditions (military, fire-fighters, nuclear power plant operators, battle planners, etc.) has proven that the method produces robust and accurate results. Moreover, there are examples of applying heuristics and fast-and-frugal methods in security analysis (such as conflict early warning).

The output of this stage is a limited number of candidates included into an initial high risk category for further assessment in Step Three.

Step Three: Assessment and final decision

Now, when we have narrowed our search we can take a closer, final look at the candidates left in the potentially high risk category. This is done by evaluating each candidate against the full set of cues (criteria), but this time assigning values to each cue and weighing them to distinguish by significance. Cut-off value of the end-output would allow the agents to conclude the search with effective decision taken with regards to each candidate considered.

There are various methods which can be used for this exercise. My favourite is multi-criteria model, for it allows enough flexibility (assigning and changing cues, indicators, experimenting with various values and weighs, etc.) which is a necessary condition for decision making in complex situations with limited and imprecise information input.


It can be used to compare and choose among multiple candidates, but is applicable to assessing an individual candidate as well. Figure 2 depicts the flowchart of the process suggested for Step Three. It is an iterative process, where decision makers would go back and forth reconsidering and adjusting the model’s search parameters.

For suspected lone wolfs decision is taken on a case-by-case basis. Once a candidate is assessed his/her total weighed score will be checked against a predetermined threshold. There are only two decisions at this point: either Flag (meaning follow-up with closer surveillance) or Drop (cancel further assessment and make note in the system records). Figure 3 shows how the final matrix may look like.


Final output

Those candidates who are ‘flagged’ may represent, as judged by decision makers, a potential threat as lone wolf terrorists. No probabilities are assigned, but this categorisation of the candidates means that they will be closely monitored for some (predetermined) period of time. Further decisions would be made upon the expiry of the trial period, depending on the candidate’s behaviour and additional information. Added value of the approach proposed is that decision making process is simplified and accelerated while maintaining high accuracy of inferences; it does not require big resources or extensive data; instead it relies on well established, formalised and flexible process and heuristic decision methods and above all, on professional intuition and judgement of intelligence/counter-terrorism experts.


About the author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in conflict affected situations. Most recently, he has worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms. Before that, he helped building local governance structures and capacity through community-based initiatives in rural Afghanistan. In the course of eight years he has worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he held various positions in the field (starting as head of field office in Srebrenica) and headquarters; have designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of strategies and local and nation-wide initiatives; and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military groups, political coordination boards at all levels.

The Colombian Peace Accord: Food for Thought

Policy Brief

On 24 August, Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) have reached a comprehensive peace agreement. It is an achievement to celebrate without any doubt, but it is too early to celebrate the end of the long-lasting war. Hopefully, it ends its destructive phase and brings all efforts to start a new, constructive phase of rebuilding the Colombian society and polity.

At this point, we can already reflect on some insights provided by the course of the conflict and the negotiation process and its outcome and, looking forward, try to anticipate what kind of insights and lessons we have yet to learn from the Colombian experience—and eventually get better prepared to face the challenges; and there are many of them.



The war in Colombia has lasted for 52 years thus far and has claimed lives of 220 thousand individuals, with tens of thousands subjected to kidnapping, mistreatment, torture, and sexual abuse; and estimated 6.9 million people (that is 14.4 percent of population) being forced to leave their permanent places of residence within the country (the largest number of Internally Displaced Persons in the world).

Going through numerous ups and downs in intensity, prevalence of sides, and physical and psychological damage caused, and with two failed previous attempts at negotiating peace, the war has divided the country between the rebel-controlled territories (which do not represent a solid piece of land but pockets scattered across predominantly rural areas) and those under the government rule.

FARC is the largest among Colombia’s rebel groups, with estimated 10,000 soldiers and thousands of active supporters, largely drawn from Colombia’s rural areas. There are other groups which did not join the negotiations (that lasted for four years) and remain committed to the cause and critical of FARC. On the other hand, political opposition to President Juan Manuel Santos led by former president Álvaro Uribe is unhappy with the deal’s terms assessing them as too soft and beneficial to rebels. Therefore, the peace accord being a (long-awaited) landmark in the conflict’s history is far from welcome by everyone and thus all-encompassing.

The Colombian peace agreement rests on a number of fundamental pillars:

  • Comprehensive land reform to enable equal access to resources and development opportunities;
  • Guaranteed (non-discriminatory) and government supported reincorporation of FARC into politics;
  • Facilitated integration into society of former combatants and their supporters;
  • Reform of drug policy and coca substitution;
  • Reconciliation though a parallel justice system (concerning guerrillas and other combatants but also security forces).

Quite an agenda, considering that each of these pillars represents a complex system in its own right, with various stakeholders, beneficiaries, and their aspirations and concerns, let alone ‘technical’ (and not so technical) policy instruments and implementation details. Very ambitious plan but perhaps it was not possible to achieve a comprehensive peace deal without addressing all core issues which have been the conflict drivers for over half-a-century.

Before entering into force, the agreement (which has been already delivered to legislators) has to pass a referendum (already scheduled for 2 October). This would be the first test of it outside the negotiation chambers. Some observers have questioned the choice of President Santos, the main proponent of the agreement, who has decided to risk the hard-earned deal’s fate in the plebiscite while there were other, less contentious legal ways to ratify the accord. The answer is in the question itself.

First, from practical point of view, the agreement’s implementation will overwhelmingly depend on the popular support and commitment. Therefore, testing the ground from the outset may save millions of wasted money, unmet expectations, and the image of politicians and the rebels involved in concluding the deal. Whatever euphoria is out there, the country must be prepared to take on this gargantuan task, and if appears that it is not ready, then better go back to renegotiation (if of course, the rebels don’t resort to violence and old ways, in desperation).

Second, being a skillful politician Mr. Santos shares responsibility for the deal with entire country, his political rivals and fellow citizens. He has already risked a lot (in terms of political image; and the polls point that his popularity is at its lowest, mostly for economic performance but also due to handling the FARC negotiation process: his urban approval rating has gradually plummeted through the years, from 75 percent rating at the time of his election in 2010 to 13 percent in the spring this year) and now it is time for everyone to subscribe to the endeavour (the outcome of which is subject to many-many uneasy questions).

And the third, he has opted for referendum to buy the citizens in the peace-building and reconciliation process right away (especially considering that the talks have been held behind the closed doors). The government has even committed to launch a civic education campaign to explain to citizens basic clauses of the deal and their implications, so that they are aware of the agreement and come better informed to the ballot, in terms of what they can expect from it and what they cannot.

[*This is a commendable initiative, especially for such a game changing event as referendum. I had suggested the same to be done in the UK several months before the British EU referendum, but my voice was not heard. Alas.]


At this stage of Colombian peace process (the accords being a landmark but whatever significant, by no means an end to the conflict) it is possible to draw certain conclusions which might offer valuable insights into the conflict theory and more practically, to other conflict situations, especially those with similar features (Afghanistan comes to mind, with full appreciation of its own specific circumstances).

So, what are those insights?

– Each conflict has its own internal dynamics (which are shaped and fed by local political institutions—established values and behaviours rooted in culture, historic memory and tradition—and present political, social, ideological and economic contexts creating a distinct mix of societal relationships). Any conflict therefore may take as long as its internal logic dictates—may be for decades and may shape into various forms at different stages, and most probably will be iterative, with many failed attempts to establish peace (each being a learning exercise of its own).

– Whatever externalities (regional and global trends and influences) they will have an effect on the conflict as long as its contextual fabric absorbs and localises them. This makes any given conflict unique, and therefore no imported solutions will work without being first adapted to and ‘digested’ by local contexts. The same goes for ‘lessons learned’—they may provide more conceptual, philosophical insight rather than offer an effective toolkit for fixing problems elsewhere.

– Interventions of external actors (whatever well-intended, well-informed and executed and whether in support of government or to back the rebels, and whether by military or any other means) have a potential to only complicate the situation and make the conflict’s natural maturation process confused. Its internal political mix will anyways dominate and drive the conflict through maturity to decay, with many temporary and an eventual resolution. Active interventions (except for humanitarian aid and facilitation of peace talks) complicate the conflict for many reasons; they shall be avoided by all individual parties and instead allowed only to specialised, specifically mandated international and/or intergovernmental bodies.

– Military interventions must be avoided at all cost. With all the criticism raised about the UN’s blue helmets handling ceasefire and peacekeeping processes, they and/or (only upon the host government’s request or the UN Security Council resolution) NATO, EU or African Union or similar led stabilisation forces can enter the country and with only one mandated task—that is, to ensure the cessation of hostilities, not to take sides and participate in combat (whatever rightful thing it might seem, or be presented to public as such, at the given moment).

– Also, no conflict in this small interconnected world attracts only sympathies and support of everyone—there are always different perceptions but also interests and competing actors or groups of actors (which, for broadly varying reasons at times might be very distant from the conflict itself) who would be eager to take advantage of it to launch proxy wars with their rivals. As practice has shown, these interventions also create a fertile ground for international criminal organisations dealing with drugs, human trafficking, arms and other lootable goods trade to profit enormously from the mess created.

– And the last but not the least with regards to bilateral military intervention: governments intervening into internal conflicts of other nations spend money, and quite considerable amounts, taken from the public purse. It would do be better preserving those funds for peace-building and rehabilitation when they will be most needed, instead of wasting them on costly military campaigns. This would also help reduce (if not avoid) controversies at home where taxpayers rightfully question the purpose of those spendings and develop somewhat negative perception of recipient countries and their people. [*Well, at least one reason of this disparity between military and diplomatic/civilian assistance is obvious: it is much easier for decision-makers to explain the funding of overseas operations as aimed at reducing national security risks, while spending for reconstruction and development does not necessarily evoke similar emotions and in any case does not get such a unanimous support from citizens. Politicisation of security is a given fact.]

– Another conclusion is that for a comprehensive peace deal conditions must be ripe, first of all the goodwill of both sides (and their supporters in society) along with their readiness to make (as practice has shown, significant) concessions. Not an easy task considering that there is never full agreement in either camp, given that opposition to the peace deal will always be there (for fundamental/ideological or merely narrow political interests and rent reasons). Ensuring coherence and full cooperation within the group is always a challenge and all sides (including international mediators) shall demonstrate understanding and patience.

– And finally, it also takes a leader (ideally the head of state) who is brave enough and ready to put his/her political career at risk of concluding the deal—which is always subject to imperfection, scrutiny, disbelief, and controversy, and won’t be met by all people positively, neither appreciated by everyone on both sides directly involved. Charisma—yes; legitimacy and credibility—yes; but at the top of it is resolve, one that drives them whatever the outcome threatens to undermine them personally as political figure. People with such mindset are rarity, including among politicians. This point shall be understood as not an isolated fact but as a product of the environment—leaders are not born out of vacuum, after all and as famously observed by Tolstoy, ‘we need only penetrate to the essence of any historic event – which lies in the activity of the general mass of men who take part in it – to be convinced that the will of the historic hero does not control the actions of the mass but is itself continually controlled.’


There are questions, obviously. Many questions and many concerns. Not many answers. Quite understandably—only practice will provide them (and even then, these would not be timeless truth). What we can elaborate at this point follows below.

Does the peace agreement mean an end to hostilities between the Colombian security and all rebels?

Not yet. Other, smaller rebel groups are not part of the peace deal and some will seek strengthen their ranks at the account of FARC members who disagree with disarmament or who would become quickly disillusioned when their integration into society won’t go as they expected. There are however, parallel attempts undertaken by the government. For example, talks are planned with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the second-largest guerrilla group.

Then does the agreement end the war between FARC and the government?

Yes, it does. About 600 top FARC commanders are planning to gather one final time in mid-September to ratify the deal. In the meantime, the peace accord is already working. Following the conclusion of the agreement, FARC’s Commander Rodrigo Londono (also known as Timochenko) announced on Sunday that his fighters will permanently cease hostilities with the government. The government in turn made similar announcement. Bilateral permanent ceasefire became effective as of Monday, 29 August.

As soon as ratified, the sustainable peace would be conditioned upon the agreement’s effective implementation:

– how all the agreed reforms and reintegration points are delivered to former guerrillas and their supporters, by the government;

– how effective transitional justice works, to all sides, and whatever painful it might be;

– how society accepts the ex-combatants and their supporters;

– how population of formerly FARC controlled areas accepts the government’s legitimacy (especially considering that FARC has been de facto performing the role of the state, including delivery of primary services); and above all

– whether FARC members are ready to go through reintegration into society, which is not going to be an easy process.

What are challenges faced by the Colombian government?

Those most immediate are:

– political opposition undermining the process;

– population not happy with special treatment offered to ex-combatants;

– population not happy with softness of measures against crimes committed or the scale of justice measures;

– financial problems with regards to investing into reintegration of people, providing public services and rebuilding infrastructure, revitalising underdeveloped rural areas;

– issues related to legitimacy and credibility in the former FARC areas.

What kind of dilemmas will FARC face?

They have to be understood along the functions of use of force in the conflict that have been driving FARC’s motivation and activities:

– politically: accept that they have to become part of a system they have rejected and fought against for ideological reasons; and that they do not command people and territories anymore;

– economically: make transition to licit income generation, given that drugs and other sources of illegal income not available anymore; learn new skills (especially if the only thing you know is fighting);

– psychologically: overcome the feeling of being lost or frustrated of not being welcome; self-aggrandisement issues after years of being in high respect in controlled areas, even greeted as heroes; and limited excitement of ordinary life;

– socially: many guerrillas having deep rooted connections in rural areas where they were located—how their families, children will be adapting to new places if relocated; what a role they would accept in their communities now, when having no formal power.

What are the issues for citizens to overcome?

We must accept that in real life there is no such thing as population (meaning one homogeneous mass of people) or ‘average citizen’ of this or that country—these are statistical constructs for the sake of computation. Each of us as an individual, each group of us, small and big, have different views on thousands of big and small issues. Moreover, those views are not set in stone; they are continuously and dynamically changing in response to life experiences and environment. Therefore we cannot expect that the reaction of people will be the same, neither initially nor when the peace implementation will begin unfolding. This is well understood. The war has been the central issue in the country for far too long—generations have grown with it as part of their life. And too divisive and painful, for people—to everyone, in fact (it is assumed that there is no single family in Colombia who has not been affected by the war).

I will apply the question posed in sub-heading to each group of societal stakeholders to peace and reconciliation, without much specifying their aspirations and concerns. They will have to cope with numerous dilemmas:

– people from the areas formerly controlled by FARC (this is not only change of allegiance but also the lifestyle);

– people in localities where some ex-combatants will be (re)settling (accepting them as equal community members, whatever past experiences and grievances); moreover, there is already an issue of potential tension—as the government decided to pay allowance to former FARC members to smooth their reinsertion (which is usually an initial phase of reintegration, aimed at addressing the most urgent needs);

– returnee populations (repossession of property and land, reintegration, overcoming mistrust);

– domiciles of places where the returnees will be coming (suspicion and mistrust, but also envy as the returnees will receive support from the government—this is quite a contentious issue, as practice in other places has shown);

– victims of FARC atrocities and their families (the same as the entire country, but they specifically will have to face the tough question of ‘how and when and if to reconcile’ and to decide whether ‘forgive and forget’, ‘forgive and not forget’, or ‘forgive not and forget not’ (coined as ‘torturer problem’ by Samuel Huntington) and how to live with it further, in a changed society;

– as noted above, families and relatives of former guerrillas (independently, but differently, whether they stay where they are or change the place of residence);

– former guerrillas, especially those in middle ranks who will be facing prosecution (even if the measures envisaged are mostly community works, not imprisonment);

– people in other parts of the country, especially in remote and underdeveloped rural localities who would not receive any additional funding or investment in infrastructure or job creation but witness this happening to former rebel areas.

What are some tough tests before the international community?

There will be at least two challenges, neither of them new to international affairs:

First is political and diplomatic. So far taking part of the Colombian government seemed to be the right thing to do and the job was quite straightforward. Not so from now on, when a very fragile balance shall be maintained for prolonged period, for cohabitation become normal part of life before giving way to true integration (no doubt, a generational change process) and lasting stability.

Moreover, FARC (and hopefully soon other rebel groups too) will gradually become part of political system. At this initial stage they have been guaranteed limited places (civilian non-voting representatives in the Senate and the House). In addition to this and to help maintain the legitimacy of FARC in formerly controlled communities of supporters, sixteen lower house seats will be created for grassroots activists in rural areas while other political parties won’t be allowed to run their candidates there. Both arrangements are transitional–they will end in 2026, when FARC (under its new name as a registered political movement) would have to participate in congressional elections on equal basis with other political parties.

This is a process which no one can predict, but I would dare to suggest that over time it may change the government priorities (including those foreign policy related), domestic social and economic policies, and strategic approaches (but not necessarily changes to political system itself)—through democratic contestation this time. Marxist-socialists in the Congress and in the government—this is something that may not make some Western politicians and interest groups particularly happy. However, this is where the respect for democratic values and the people’s choice should prevail. Any move to the contrary risks triggering at best resistance and even the return to violent conflict.

[*In some other countries these developments have taken quite interesting turns. For example, after a decade of non-violent confrontation, the Polish underground movement Solidarity concluded the talks in historic ‘round-table negotiations’ with Communist party leadership, became part of political system, and already in next elections their leader Lech Walesa became the elected president. However, he lost in next elections to the Communist party candidate.]

Another issue is coordination between donors, implementing organisations and various projects. Unlike ‘technical assistance’ dealing with capacity building where frequent overlap (and duplication at times) do not bring much harm except for confusion and waste of funds, the work to be assisted in Colombia is political. All three components of the process ahead—disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration—are political. Reconciliation is inherently political process. It should be well understood by development agencies that contradicting strategic approaches, diverging and incompatible methodologies, and ill thought out interventions may do harm. This must be avoided at all costs, perhaps by giving a special mandate to UN Mission and the role to effectively coordinate the assistance coming from various sources.

What are challenges to international development experts deployed to Colombia to support the process?

Those working in the field (and this is where the real work is done) will be under pressure of all sorts—life conditions in remote rural areas, security, and above all unpredictability of developments (which will take at times very quick turns and escalate beyond control). Decisions often-time shall be taken spontaneously, urgently and with limited prior knowledge. Exhibiting highest levels of political and cultural sensitivity to navigate through at times turbulent local waters while keeping the delivery of assistance at expected professional standard is not an easy job.

Most important is to remain impartial, positively and constructively charged at all times and in any circumstances—in the environment filled with mistrust and suspicion bordering with animosity and the burden of decades-long grievances (in spite of being rather low-intensity conflict in terms of annual casualties, there have been numerous crimes committed on daily basis which have left deep scars in people’s hearts). To perform at their best, the international development specialists shall be allowed by project owners more independence in decision making, thoughtful experimentation, and flexible forms of planning, delivery and monitoring—adapted to local circumstances. There is long way to go for Colombia in terms of peace-building, and for all those who want to make violent conflict there and elsewhere on the face of the Earth part of history, not future.


About the author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. Most recently, he has worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms. Before that, he helped building local governance structures and capacity through community-based initiatives in rural Afghanistan. In the course of eight years he has worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he held various positions in the field (starting as head of field office in Srebrenica) and headquarters; have designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of strategies and demand-driven local and nation-wide initiatives; and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military groups, political coordination boards at all levels.

(IIa/III) Diplomacy, Development, Defence in Action: 3D Stabilisation Strategy for Iraq

In part II of this series I will be presenting the principles and innovative features of the Iraqi 3D Emergency Assistance Strategy’s decision-making model. Given the scope, this part is divided into three posts. First post discusses the Strategy’s decision-making model and process and related monitoring system that feeds into it. In the next post I will present a set of initially recommended decision-making methods and decision rules applicable to both well-ordered, regular situations and those where decisions must be taken urgently and under constraints. In the final post I will discuss the Strategy’s (decentralised) management modalities, related operational environment typology, and some implementation design features, such as modularity.

VIDEO: Top Iraqi Cleric’s Followers Continue Protest inside Green Zone

VIDEO: Top Iraqi Cleric’s Followers Continue Protest inside Green Zone

Part II(a): Decision-making Model and Process

Implementation principle

The problem of Iraq is inherently political and it cannot be resolved by any of diplomatic, advisory, military, financial or capacity building assistance alone. All these are necessary delivery channels but at the heart of it is political activity—guided by proper and ongoing political and political economy (including conflict political economy) analyses, delivered right on the site by senior and middle level team leaders, politically knowledgeable and skilful managers, who have practical experience of dealing with such situations on the ground. They will lead the teams of subject-matter experts brought together (on temporary and permanent basis) to deliver technical (military, civil) assistance relevant to specific locality or level of interaction within the Iraqi context. The Strategy therefore attempts at putting emphasis right—political change (as per Strategy’s Theory of Change) supported by all the means listed above (made available through bringing ‘three Ds’ coherently under one umbrella). This would make the implementation relevant and demand-driven, limit the waste of time and resources, avoid further confusion, and open opportunities for lasting solutions.

Knowledge-intensive work environment

Usually, the international assistance strategies and programmes are developed to fit into the existing data—that is, initially data is collected and processed, analyses conducted, country support strategies devised (whether by international, multilateral or bilateral, national agencies) and very detailed designs produced, including the (set-in-a-stone) monitoring and evaluation indicators, etc. With fast-changing volatile world, this approach does not hold anymore (even in peaceful and well-ordered environments, as we can witness with the failure of many policy programmes in liberal democracies, let alone in conflict and post-conflict situations), as the programmes so frequently fail to address the realities on the ground due to the outdated information and the rigid structures which do not allow revisiting strategies and programme documents. Instead, this Strategy’s approach is to generate data through own activities, compare and match it with secondary source reliable (to extent possible) information, to analyse it and use for anticipating, predicting the developments and adjusting to them in a timely manner.

Therefore, experimentation and continuous learning and sharing the knowledge—will be central feature of the Strategy’s work culture, at all levels. This includes sharing and, even more importantly, discussing information and new knowledge and making use of them within the Strategy’s implementation framework (vertically, horizontally) but also with the Strategy’s international and domestic partners. This will be achieved through flexible decision-making methods incentivising and encouraging this approach and through distribution of tasks across various levels and localities.

Recursive model of decision-making

Model process

To be successful, strategies and programmes in complex environments shall repeatedly test and adapt their assumptions in immediate response to new information and learning, thus managing by discovery and continuous refinement in pursuit of most effective path towards sustainable results. This requires that the Strategy adopts a flexible model of decision-making process—one that employs various decision-making methods (both computation- and intuition-based), iterative discussions and consensus-driven solutions.

Fig 2_Recursive_Process_DM

The Strategy’s decision making process model is presented in Figure 2. It is based on a premise that the Strategy and its components/programs shall change over time in response to developments and new knowledge about what is working and what is not. It is directed to problem-solving in real time and employs a recursive method comprising four elements: situation awareness, decision, action, and the feedback loop.  Whenever possible, testing the decision taken prior to implementation is also recommended. This may include simple (or simplified but still effectively useful versions of sophisticated) methods some of which I will briefly discuss in the next post. Theory of change (TOC), pillar and component objectives, operational plans, targets and delivery methods—all are subject to constant review and adjustment during the Strategy’s lifetime.

Review procedure at each round

Typically, the Strategy review process is organised on a regular (e.g. quarterly) basis. However, the implementation teams may decide to review TOC or any other planning document at any time and as frequently as deem necessary. Another feature of the review process is that it is decentralised and much authority is given to task forces and field teams, while the role of the Strategy’s senior management is to guide (rather ‘nudge’) and coordinate the process and eventually approve the justified and agreed upon changes suggested by teams, and ensure that it is done in consistent manner across the implementation localities, levels of interaction, and fields of intervention (broadly and conditionally as military/ political-military/ diplomatic/ political/ technical and more narrowly by policy domains/ societal sectors/ platforms etc).


Each Strategy review round consists of four steps, as presented in Figure 3. After each round of review the task/field teams submit the completed documentation to the designated unit or member of senior management in charge. This includes the revised planning documents and justification for the change/adjustment proposed. Submissions are assessed and feedback provided, with eventual decision taken upon mutual agreement. Reviews of the Strategy’s overarching TOC and planning documents (PD) are conducted on a regular basis with involvement of all field/task leaders.

Monitoring and assessment

Monitoring system

It is acknowledged by practitioners that traditional monitoring approaches and tools alone are not enough to track changes in volatile, politically sensitive environments. Moreover, in highly sensitive and locality-specific political situation of Iraq (which is characteristic to many conflict and post-conflict countries) it is difficult to predict the outcome from the outset and therefore to establish quantifiable indicators. Rigidly set monitoring and assessment methods tend to produce predefined uncompromising indicators which may turn misleading and counterproductive in terms of informing the decision-making, as the developments keep unfolding (frequent-times, in unpredictable way).

Also, it is very important to set the target of monitoring correctly—for strategies and programmes with political change at the centre of TOC, the right monitoring target is local agents of change and, more generally, political and social actors. Working with them directly or through various avenues offered or supported by the Strategy (such as platforms, coalitions, alliances etc.) the implementers will keep their finger on the country’s and its each locality’s political pulse, and gauge the change respectively. This is the kind of monitoring that feeds directly into decision making and enables timely adjustments. There are various methods available to do so, which are ‘soft’ but more useful for that purpose (one of my favourites is Outcome Mapping technique).

The monitoring approach suggested for the Iraqi Strategy is suited to complex and politically-charged context and also instrumental to recursive, adaptive decision-making process it employs. It aims at monitoring and gauging changes in external social and political environment—both influenced by the Strategy interventions and those developing independently (the combination of and correct disaggregation between the two is imperative for analysis and action). This requires a combination of traditional (mostly inward-oriented) monitoring of deliverables (number of meetings, events, people trained) and their immediate outputs (initiatives introduced/direct results obtained) with outward monitoring of the Strategy’s multiple structured contexts and actors (resulting from quantitative and qualitative/discursive methods of data collection, and comprising a combination of figures, indicators, indexes and, above all, narratives).

Early warning tool

To support the regular revisions and adjustments within decision-making process the Strategy will employ a simplified early warning system. The Early Warning and Response System (EWRS) set by the Strategy management is a tool whose primary objective is to timely inform decision-making on political developments, trends, and potential threats. It uses the systematic collection, processing and analysis of information (quantitative or qualitative) about political developments (not limited to conflict situations) and offers recommendations on available response options and related resources. The organisational and conceptual principle underlining the Strategy (the one bringing together diplomacy, development, defence) offers an unrivalled opportunity to compare, integrate, synthesise and make use of various sources of intelligence. The EWRS will work on continuous basis, issuing regular reports and warnings (when appropriate), with one cycle feeding into the next, and so forth. Figure 3 illustrates the stages within a single cycle. It will be managed from the Strategy’s headquarters, by political unit or situation centre.


Real-time information collection and dissemination

Another important feature of the Strategy’s monitoring system and early warning tool is that it makes information readily available in real time to all the implementation teams, from central unit to localities, so that managers could be aware of (often-time unexpected and especially at early stages of the implementation, violent risk related) events and developments across Iraq and take appropriate immediate decisions and measures. This information could be from local (field) teams, central political unit, or reliable secondary sources and may take various forms and delivery channels (emails, text messages, Intranet).

Initially published on LinkedIn. To be continued. Next post II(b): Decision-making Methods.

The first part of Diplomacy, Development, Defence in Action: 3D Emergency Strategy for Iraq posted on PolicyLabs: The Strategy’s Foundations

About the author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. Most recently, he has worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms. Before that, he helped building local governance structures and capacity through community-based natural resource management and local economic development initiatives in rural Afghanistan. In the course of eight years he has worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he held various positions in the field (starting as head of field office in Srebrenica) and headquarters; have designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of reform strategies and demand-driven local and nation-wide initiatives; and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military situation awareness groups, political coordination boards at all levels.


The Future Winners and Losers in the Middle East Geopolitical Theatre are Made Today

Political manoeuvring and regrouping in the Middle East is at its highest this year. All the open and no-so-obvious from the first glance diplomatic moves indicate that it is not borders of the region’s countries but the role and influence of regional and international players that is going to be different.

Presidential Palace handout photo shows Turkish President Erdogan shaking hands with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Ankara

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (R) shakes hands with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey April 16, 2016, in this handout photo provided by the Presidential Palace. REUTERS/Yasin Bulbul/Presidential Palace/Handout via Reuters















There is an active research within think tanks and much talk and speculation in the media about diplomatic manoeuvres of influential international players in the Middle East occurring recently. This reflects the importance of events and their potential outcomes. Unfortunately, many publications take narrowly framed, one sided and customarily biased approach (especially vis-a-vis certain actors) thus missing the forest behind the trees.

What we are witnessing right now is the reshaping of the Middle East geopolitics. Political crises in Syria and Iraq exacerbated by the war with ISIL, and immediate and potential long-term effects of this to their neighbours and Europe, have forced many regional and global powers to rethink their strategies. It is time of regrouping, making new, even short-term, temporary, one-issue- or one-dimension-focused alliances (like the US-Russia military-diplomatic coordination in Syria). This does not mean or imply in any way that decades-long rivalry, mistrust and (well-found or imaginary) suspicions are taken away or diminished. Neither has it brought immediate change of stands or concessions on issues where deep disagreements persist. But it is definitely a sign of rethinking and finding new, effective ways of adapting to the rapidly changing geopolitical set-up in the Middle East.

In turn, militant Islamist groups don’t spare time experimenting and flexibly adjusting. The recent strategic rebranding of al-Qaeda’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra into Jabhat Fateh al-Sham was not merely name-change—it allowed militant Islamist organisation make alliances with rebel/opposition groups in Syria, and being better prepared to reshuffling and stronger in organizational terms, establish themselves as leaders (as they effectively did in breaking the siege of Aleppo) and in essence hijack the political opposition movement. By the way, the name change is also indicative—from ‘The Support Front for the people of the Levant’ to the ‘Front for the Conquest of the Levant’ thus portraying themselves not as an outsider (merely ‘supporter’) but as indispensable part of power game and becoming solely Syrian, local actor and dissociating from all ‘wrongdoings’ of al-Qaeda and other international militant Islamist organisations there and anywhere else. The result is that they are now becoming a recognized political actor and, whether we like it or not—may end up at the negotiation table one day (something that neither other jihadists nor Jabhat al-Nusra had a tiniest chance doing before).

It seems that some players (especially US, Iran, Turkey, and Russia) are becoming more flexible and decided to put immediate solutions before old (and still existing and relevant) odds. They are potential winners from the adjustment. Take, for example, Turkey. Renewing the relations with Israel, Russia and Iran speaks of old ambition but also well-thought out strategy to take advantage of its geographic and geopolitical positioning and thus significantly enhance its role in the region. If played craftily this strategy may well pay off and establish Turkey as key intermediary between the region’s rivals as well as global powers and blocs. It may also give it a higher hand when the independent Kurdistan issue (a lasting concert of Turkey’s) may be on the table (whether in Iraq or Syria) once the war with ISIL finished. In turn, those indecisively shying away from active engagement (like the EU) and/or exhibiting stiffness in approach and decision-making to policy change (like Saudi Arabia) well may lose their influence in the region, when the current crises will eventually settle down (and even before that, considering that crises in the Middle East tend to be long lived).

(I/III) Diplomacy, Development, Defence in Action: 3D Stabilisation Strategy for Iraq

In this series of posts I present a conceptual outline of a Strategy for emergency peacebuilding assistance to Iraq. I will only briefly describe the approach suggested for the proposed Strategy’s design and management modalities and illustrate these through charts and examples.

The aim is at introducing a model and generating an interest among development professionals and a discussion on the concept and design approaches, and on how to bring this initiative forward so that it informs and contributes to the implementation of international interventions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region’s other conflict-torn countries. Ideally, a think tank or an international development consultancy would take lead in championing the idea and setting a network of practitioners who would then work together to share knowledge (through a dedicated website or even through social media platforms; LinkedIn is one option).

The Strategy outline will be presented in three posts. The first post sets forth the Strategy’s foundations (problem statement, initial theory of change, and anticipated challenges). In the next post I will briefly describe the Strategy’s key features, such as implementation design principles and modalities, analysis and decision making methods (focusing on innovative elements that make difference, are in line with the Strategy’s general approach and well suited to the task in hand). In the last part I will present the Strategy’s initial design—its pillars and components, with brief description of initial objectives under each element and suggested activities.


Part I: The Strategy’s Foundations

Problem statement

The Iraqi state is facing two existential threats. One is posed by militant Islamists (in first hand ISIL, but not limited to it)—this is the front where conventional war for territorial integrity, to regain the occupied territories, is currently fought. This threat is intense (qualifying as strategic surprise) and has devastating physical effects but is rather short-lived (meaning that eventually it will be eliminated militarily in a visible perspective).

Another threat is posed by internal political processes, where the polity is divided along ethno-sectarian lines, on the one hand, and between rent-seeking elites and ordinary citizens, on the other (which fuels mistrust and makes political agreements difficult and feeds into violence, not the least because of creating power vacuum exploited by extremists). As a result, the government struggles to reform and remains ineffective, falls short of addressing the mounting needs of citizens thus increasingly lacking legitimacy and credibility needed to unify the country’s diverse populations. This is a long-lasting problem deeply rooted in political tradition and also recent history.

The two threats are closely related, although have different but overlapping contexts and influencing factors and stakeholders. Central to both—and that is what makes them intertwined—is power struggle. [For detailed analysis see Political Crisis in Iraq: The Things Must Change Part I: Political institutions, Politics, Governance; Part II: Economic institutions, Financial stability; Part III: State security, Human security; Part IV: Choices, Alternatives, Scenarios.]

Theory of Change

At the heart of the Strategy’s Theory of Change is political power. Power shapes the institutions (rules of the game) and the political agents’ behaviours, but is itself continuously influenced and framed by their strategic and tactical actions and on-going settlements.

The initial working hypothesis (development scenario) is that the change in power balance in Iraq in favour of setting peace, stability and conditions for sustainable growth will occur through a number of structures of power (patterned social arrangements) rather than as a result of direct power struggle  (zero-sum political game) between individual agents or groups of agents (political players). Those include political, social, economic, geographical, and ideological structures. Institutional changes shall happen both at central (national) level but even more so at the local level—they must be localised, tailored to circumstances of each area/locality.

Iraq_3D_Strategy_Fig 1_Theory_of_Change

It is a highly unpredictable, complex process whereby change may occur as a result of concerted efforts in one or many structures, simultaneously or subsequently (may be reversed at some point or may occur in some structures but not in others)—which will largely depend on where the efforts are directed and how the process of change unfolds. And the dynamics of change may be different depending on the locality. One of success factors will be inclusive character, discourse and consensus based change agreed upon and implemented between and by Iraq’s diverse collective agents (as contrasted to coercive power change).

At the heart of the Strategy’s Theory of Change is political power. Power shapes the institutions and the political agents’ behaviours, but is itself continuously influenced and framed by their strategic and tactical actions and on-going settlements.


The present and future situations pose a number of challenges (risks) to the Strategy implementers (local individual and collective agents, partnerships, platforms, coalitions as well as international donors/agencies). They derive from complex nature of political crisis in Iraq. The multifaceted problem to be addressed by the Strategy belongs to the class of ‘wicked’ problems—those which are ill-formulated, poorly informed, have many stakeholders and decision makers with divergent and conflicting values and interests, and where the outcomes are thoroughly confusing.

One challenge to the Strategy is uncertainty—it concerns both the outcome sought and the path to be taken and methods to be employed for its attainment. In spite of across-the-globe experiences in peace and state-building in post-conflict environments over decades, we still don’t have enough advance knowledge on how to achieve the desired outcomes in any given context. One explanation is that every locality is somewhat distinct, has its own contexts and circumstances: in the framework of the Strategy this means also provincial level politics in Iraq. Existing ‘best/good practices’ can only inform of the lessons learned but hardly can guide the actual Strategy implementation.

Another challenge is that there is no agreement among the Iraqi political elites—on the nature of problems faced or about future vision and the strategy to achieve it. This comes from multiplicity of individual and collective agents (both local and foreign—actors, supporters and influencers) involved in power struggle at all levels and in every locality and reinforced by old and new grievances, mistrust and conspiracy. On the other hand, there is an alien but already localised group of players under the militant Islam banner (including al-Qaeda and other extremist groups and most prominently ISIL—which are influential in ideological structures and possess military capacity to conduct terrorist attacks on massive scale and intensity but also engage in conventional warfare, occupying and controlling territories) which has become already a part of political game.

And finally, there is a lack of institutional (legislation, rules, practices, formal and informal norms), organisational (processes and procedures in government bodies, political parties, NGOs, formal and informal groups, movements) and individual (skills, abilities, experience) capacity to undertake the task in hand effectively and efficiently. This particularly concerns the community level political actors (both individual and collective, such as provincial authorities) and civil society (both organisationally and in terms of member capabilities). Capacities necessary for the changes sought to happen are also unequally distributed—between the centres (Baghdad and Erbil) and peripheries (provincial centres, towns, communities), on the one hand, and between the peripheries, on the other hand. The Iraqi political agents do not have enough experience in democratic processes—something that is not possible to build quickly or through formal training alone, but requires painstakingly practising and learning by doing (albeit with external technical assistance, political brokerage and advice, information resources and knowledge transfer).

Responses to contextual challenges

Key innovative features of the Strategy devised to address the complexity of the problem addressed in Iraq can be summed as follows. The Strategy:

  • Focuses on political power and related political settlements and institutional changes. In so doing, it relies on and nurtures local change agents (reform champions, drivers of change) by empowering, helping create enabling environment for them to pursue reforms and generate local solutions, resources and broad-based public support, and building their capacity.
  • Is sensitive to local context (understood not only country-wise, national, but also as grassroots level, regional, provincial, community) and political dynamics. This implies partnership and on-going consultations with local actors at all levels, rather than supply-driven assistance.
  • Comprises three dimensions of intervention, to attain its goal—diplomatic, developmental, and military (thus utilising 3D—Diplomacy, Development, Defence approach). This makes sense from a number of positions, such as: to reflect and adequately respond to multifaceted nature of the problem dealt with; to ensure maximum effectiveness by bringing various dimensions of security under one umbrella; and to engage with stakeholders in concerted manner.
  • Has a flexible structure (built to extent possible on modularity of components and subject to continuous review and readjustments at all levels) and delivery methods (through the iterative process of experimentation and learning)—to enable timely adaptation and thus relevance to the rapidly evolving local contexts.
  • Employs a decentralised decision-making style (more authority and responsibility to task teams and middle level management) and flexible mix of methods (combining traditional quantitative and qualitative analysis with formalised heuristic, intuitive methods) to better respond to unpredictable and fast changing situations under constraints of time and knowledge.

More in detail these features will be discussed in Part II (forthcoming).

About the author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. Most recently, he has worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms. Before that, he helped building local governance structures and capacity through community-based natural resource management and local economic development initiatives in rural Afghanistan. In the course of eight years he has worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he held various positions in the field (starting as head of field office in Srebrenica) and headquarters of international organisation; have designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of reform strategies and demand-driven local and nation-wide initiatives; and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military situation awareness groups, political coordination boards at all levels.