Working definition of "Global Guerrillas"

Robb, J. (2005). Journal: Insurgents or global guerrillas?. Global Guerrillas. November 30, 2005. Available online:

My post criticizing John Robb’s theory of “Global Guerrillas” as “Coherent Gibberish” is one of the most popular things i have ever written. The post’s talk-back thread is currently at an incredible 46 comments. Even better, I have learned a lot from commentators, and their contributiosn to the conversation are certainly more valuable than mine. As a result of feedback I have sharpened my own understanding of John Robb’s theory and its important elements, such as the bazaar of violence, open source warfare, and the systempunkt.

However, the discussion is problematic as Robb has not been clear as to what global guerrillas actually are. Perhaps he is saving his best thoughts for his upcoming book (Brave New War — available on April 27th). But I’m too interested to wait that long. Therefore, taking Aherring’s “working definitions” of 5GW as an inspiration and Robb’s Novemer 2005 post on global guerrillaism as a starting point, I provide the following definition:

global guerrillas (n., pl.) are non-state actors who violently oppose a state. They seek to create and maintain a bazaar of violence and lead the state to extreme weakness or failure. Contrast against insurgents, who are non-state actors who violently oppose a state in order to replace or modify a government.

As I said before, I do not believe that the global guerrilla concept is valid. In a world where states alliances of states are the primary exporters of security, there is little for guerrillas to do. They can kill and they can destroy, but they cannot rule.

PS: Many thanks to Chiasm and Purpleslog, who both linked to the original article And, talking of super-empowered individuals, congratulations for Catholicgauze for being noticed by the USC Center on Public Diplomacy!

7 thoughts on “Working definition of "Global Guerrillas"”

  1. At the risk of allowing the debate to fragment across various postings …

    My feeling is that you are still essentially discounting the possibility that something can be both a kind of order and yet not a nation-state. So you draw up a dichotomy either a) state + order or b) non-state + nihilist.

    From there you make a distinction between “destroy order” which is what you say nihilistic Global Guerrillas want. And “replace states” which is what you say Insurgents want. In this case “replace” really means “take over the state” or “replace it with a different state”

    In fact, you make this difference in *goals* the crucial distinction between GGs and Insurgents.

    But I think there can be non-states that are also order. And someone who believes in non-state order could want to both destroy *and* replace a state *at the same time*.

    You destroy the existing state and replace it with a kind of order which is not a state.

    In that case, the dichotomy you are trying to drive between GGs and insurgents based on their goals will evaporate. GGs are revealed not as a distinctly different kind of thing from an insurgent or a criminal, but really part of the same family of similar phenomena. Much as fascist and Stalinist totalitarianisms share a resemblance and many common features.

    Now, your argument that GGism is “suicidal” and doomed to failure, rests on your claim that there is no “order” possible if the state is destroyed. And because no-one will be willing to live without order, you think that the bazaar will extinguish itself (presumably reverting to a state.)

    Once again, if you accept non-state order, then GGs may very well have a goal which is neither nihilistic nor “mere” insurgency. They may even be able to achieve such a goal of a perpetual, orderful, non-state. If we're really unlucky, that order might support an ongoing low-level bazaar of vendeta and blood-feud.

    In fact, much of human history and pre-history has consisted of such squabbling small tribes at low intensity war with each other. There's no reason to think that such configurations are unstable and will tend to collapse *into* larger, more rigid nation-states.

    Traditionally, when larger scale entities have formed, what has happened is that a tribe which has proved more successful militarily has swollen and conquered its neighbours to become an empire or kingdom.

    Now imagine that the traditional military advantages of being larger have pretty much been negated. The barbarians are not isolated at the fringes of the empire, waiting to be subjugated one by one, but in constant communication with each other, swapping tactics, always knowing when the imperial army is coming their way or going the other.

    The existing empire is at bay, surrounded by a pack of jackels. The next empire never really gets born or grows at all. There *is* only a constant flux of small scale tribes and low level skirmishing between them.

  2. Phil,

    The reason I ask about entailing is that I wonder what sort of non-state actor could establish a monopoly of violence (or otherwise end the bazaar of violence).

    Hezbollah in her areas, for instance, may not be a de jure state but is certainly viewed as a “State within a State” for analysis purposes. So were the Teutonic Knights and so is Taiwan, for that matter.

  3. Hmm. Maybe we're talking at cross-purposes here. I'm not sure I understand the question.

    Are you just going to say that anyone who maintains sufficient control of violence over a particular sphere of influence is, by definition, a state? In which case, let's say a tribe of around 400 people who manage to hold range of about 20 square KM of farmland is a state? Or a private company who employ security guards to successfully defend their factory complex is a state?

  4. Dan,
    It is not necessary for one entity to maintain a monopoly on violence in order for there to be order. There could be competitors who provide these services and do not necessarily need to employ violence against one another to gain market share (or territory, or whatever the relevant metrics would be.) That is why I commented earlier about the “bazaar of violence” have been around for a long time. I might have a different understanding of the “bazaar of violence” (or a nebulous definition of the term in my mind,) but it seems to me that there have always been those who offered their services to protect or destroy. I also do not think that the state is purely defined by its ability to monopolize violence (that is simply a major component of the state and possibly its core competency [couldn't resist the MBA speak there.])


  5. Phil,

    Hmmm… good points. Would you agree that the passage “create and maintain a bazaar of violence and” should be stricken from a working definition of global guerrillas?


    I think the use of the term bazaar is taken from the free software world: [1]

    “The essay contrasts two different free software development models:

    * The Cathedral model, in which source code is available with each software release, but code developed between releases is restricted to an exclusive group of developers. GNU Emacs and GCC are presented as examples.
    * The Bazaar model, in which the code is developed over the Internet in view of the public. Raymond credits Linus Torvalds, leader of the Linux kernel project, as the inventor of this process. He also provides anecdotal accounts of his implementation of this model for the fetchmail project.

    The essay's central thesis is Raymond's proposition that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” (which he terms Linus' law): if the source code is available for public testing, scrutiny, and experimentation, then bugs will be discovered at a rapid rate. In contrast, Raymond claims that an inordinate amount of time and energy must be spent hunting for bugs in the Cathedral model, since the working version of the code is available only to a few developers.”

    Robb seems aware of the work [2,3], so I think the closeness of terminology is not accidental.

    It thus seems that outside enough openness, you don't have this bizarre of violence. That is, I don't think that even a mob-infested city with “those who offered their services to protect or destroy” would count, because besides the major players are using the “Cathedral” methods where weaknesses become rapidly visible.


  6. Dan,

    “Hmmm… good points. Would you agree that the passage “create and maintain a bazaar of violence and” should be stricken from a working definition of global guerrillas?”

    I don't think you're going about this the right way. This isn't analytic philosophy, we're not trying to prove or disprove GGT by meticulous conceptual analysis. GGT is heuristic, “practical” wisdom of the same kind that's used everywhere from computer science to architecture to medicine to geo-politics, business and war-fighting.

    GGs are a *syndrome* for which a bazaar of violence is a symptom.

    Is it an “essential property” of a GG that he has an explicit representation of a bazaar of violence in his mind and a desire to produce one?

    Probably not.

    I'd say that Robb believes it's a good idea for us to assume that the GG is a particular kind of miscreant who is neither simply looking for his party to become the government of his state, nor for the government of a neighbouring state to take over; and yet has a special hatred of *this* current government and / or its backers, which is largely motivated by perceiving the enmity between the government and some other non-state (either religion, tribe, ethnic group, political party, cult etc.) to which he feels particularly loyal.

    Furthermore, we should assume that this individual will often collaborate and co-ordinate with others who have a shared enmity of this government, even though they have little else in common.

    Now, like all practical wisdom, Robb's theory is *not* a universal scientific law. You can't kill it with a single contradictory observation. But it *is* an empirical claim about the world, it stands or falls on whether the observations made over time, and across space generally correspond with, and corroberate the theory or not.

    If, for example, we *never* see one faction co-operate or co-ordinate with, or learn from another, then we probably are not seeing GGs. If we see that such groups are easily stamped out as the state reasserts itself, we can assume that GGs are not as strong as Robb hypothesizes. If we discover that potential GGs are all secretly hoping to become the prime-minister of Iraq and to then make peace with George Bush, then Robb's theory is clearly nonsense.

    But right now, no one here seems to be producing much evidence of *this* kind, against Robb.

  7. Phil (and Shloky),

    If John Robb's global guerrillas theory is just a collection of heuristics — a bundle of rules of thumb that may or may not be true — then it's as useful for warfighting as any other collection of sophistry (the Book of Proverbs, etc) — though as GG contains a lot more jargon. So maybe the Book of the Dead is a better analog.

    Certianly a falsifiability criterion of

    “If, for example, we *never* see one faction co-operate or co-ordinate with, or learn from another, then we probably are not seeing GGs. If we see that such groups are easily stamped out as the state reasserts itself, we can assume that GGs are not as strong as Robb hypothesizes. If we discover that potential GGs are all secretly hoping to become the prime-minister of Iraq and to then make peace with George Bush, then Robb's theory is clearly nonsense.”

    is absurd as anything required to disprove those ancient scrolls.

    Perhaps that's how John intends his work, but I don't see that. It's easy enough to open any book of cliches and find two that seemingly contradict each other. I don't see those contradictions in Robb's writings. Even in my harshet writing on him [1] I grant him his logical coherency.

    Hopefully John will join this discussion and answer the question of whether or not his thoughts are merely fuzzy more-or-less truths. I give him more credit than that.


  8. You're right, it isn't a collection of heuristics, and that is not what I was supporting in Phil's post (he may have focused too much on the heuristic argumetn) – here's a restatement –

    Robb's work is based on bottom-up analysis, he sees data points and draws trend lines – which means his analysis is inherently well grounded (or internally consistant), not just within his body of work but in the global system.

    Robb has the unique ability to tie those lines together, look forward and synthesize with experience to create a/the right worldview based on his view of next generation warfare.

    – This is mostly why I can't buy into any arguments stating that we aren't seeing these mechanisms at play in the real world.

  9. Shloky,

    I haven't seen many trendlines on John's blog. He seems to focus either on anecdotes or theory. These are both important, but it's also important not to misrepresent the sort of evidence that Robb has made available (I realize the term was used as an analogy, but I think the analogy is a false one).


    “The Art of War” is internally invalid?


    Thank you for the wonderful, wonderful feedback. I've posted a revised definition of global guerrillas that would not have been possible without the things commentators and emailers have taught me. Thanks! 🙂

  10. Nope. The Art of War is an ancient text full of heuristics and proverbs. Very few of it's claims can even be *framed* as scientific hypotheses, let alone subjected to the experimental method.

    That's not to its discredit. I'm just pointing out that the canon of great warfighting literature is nothing but heuristic. (That goes for what I've read of Boyd too, and I'm willing to bet for Clausewitz although I haven't read him.)

  11. Phil – Ah, gotcha. I had misread your comment.

    How would you respond to Shloky's position that GGT isn't a collection of heuristics but rather a bottom-up analysis?

  12. I think Shloky's is a different contrast. I'm using “heuristic” to mean “rule of thumb” or practical knowledge. A generalization based on observation and anecdote, but which couldn't be held up to scientific scrutiny. I'm contrasting “heuristic” with scientific and philosophical knowledge which have very formalized requirements.

    I think Shloky is using “heuristic” to mean, something where we see that the association between two things seems to hold, but are not appealing to any deeper underlying model to explain and justify that. “Red sky at night means it's gonna be sunny tomorrow. Why? Dunno, just, is, generally.”

    In that sense, I do believe that GGT is appealing to a deeper model to explain and so isn't heuristic in his sense.

    And sure, that means that if we found that some of the underlying models that Robb is appealing to were flawed, then we might question GGT on those grounds.

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