Pro-Russian gunmen react whie listening to a speaker as they declare independence for the Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine, on May 12, 2014.

Pro-Russian gunmen react whie listening to a speaker as they declare independence for the Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine, on May 12, 2014. Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

The Rise of Militarized NGOs

Governments disguising soldiers as civilians and recruiting civilian insurgents are old practices. But in the 21st century, they've acquired unprecedented potential as tools of war. By Moisés Naím

Who invaded Crimea? Civil society. Who has occupied government offices and police headquarters in eastern Ukraine, bringing massive instability to that region? Civil society. Who is fighting the governments of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Nouri al-Malaki in Iraq? Civil society. And who are thecolectivos confronting Venezuelan students who protest against the government? Civil-society activists, of course.  

These are the official responses, at any rate, by those who have something to gain from distorting reality. The responses range from blatant lies to subtle untruths, but they are all dishonest. By now, it has been well-documented that Crimea was invaded by a military force that included a large contingent of Russian troops whose uniforms bore no insignias or identifying markings. And Angela Merkel’s warning to Vladimir Putin that these practices constituted a clear violation of the international rules of warfare made little difference. The Kremlin continues to organize, coordinate, and finance the pro-Russian “militants” in eastern Ukraine who remain intent on defying Kiev’s authority.

We’ve seen the same thing in Tehran, Havana, and Caracas, where people who take to the streets to protest their leaders are often confronted by violent groups of civilians posing as common citizens who support the regime. In Iran, they’re called the Basij, or the Organization for the Mobilization of the Oppressed. In Cuba, they’re known as the Rapid Response Brigades, and they routinely dole out severe beatings to critics who dare to publicly express their opposition to the Castros’ dictatorship. This “political technology” has been successfully exported to Venezuela, where the well-trained and armed “civilians” battling opposition groups are called colectivos. Orwell himself couldn’t have imagined names that better obscure the true nature of these associations.

The reality is that these groups, “movements,” and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are appendices of their governments and draw their “activists” from the armed forces, security services, and government militias. They carry out their repressive deeds disguised as “civil society,” in an attempt to mask the behavior of governments that want to avoid being recognized by the international community for what they really are: autocracies that violate global norms, trample human rights, and brutalize their critics. They have even earned their own acronym—GONGOs—for “Government-Organized Non-Governmental Organizations.” Their rise is forcing us to rethink our benign definitions of NGOs and civil society to accommodate armed groups of civilians and even, most provocatively, terrorists.

In some ways, there is nothing new about this phenomenon: the deployment of  “militias,” “paramilitaries,” and  “mercenaries” is as old as warfare itself, and their use in proxy conflicts between nation-states is also a longtime practice. What’s different now is that globalization and the spread of democracy have empowered civil society around the world as never before, which in turn has contributed to the proliferation of NGOs. These groups can join and be supported by global networks of like-minded organizations, financiers, and volunteers. Yes, disguising soldiers as civilians and recruiting civilian insurgents are old practices. But in the twenty-first century, they've acquired unprecedented potential as tools of war.

A complex manifestation of this phenomenon can be seen in the violent backlash against the Assad dictatorship in Syria and the pro-Shiite government in Iraq. In both countries, what began as spontaneous protests against political exclusion and repression quickly escalated into bloody conflicts. Now we watch as each country’s military fights civil society—a well-armed civil society. But armed by whom? The answer is as opaque as the organizational structure of these insurgencies. Still, it is obvious that the rebels would not have acquired the vast amounts of ammunition, money, and combatants that they have without the active support or tacit complicity of other governments.

The twisted reality is that Shiite-led Iran on one side, and Sunni-led countries in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere on the other, are facing off militarily in Syria and Iraq. Not directly, with their own uniformed armed forces, but rather through … civil society—armed groups that, for lack of better words, the media customarily calls insurgents, activists, rebels, extremists, and terrorists. They are, of course, some or all of these things. But they are also armed forces who, though wearing the uniform of no country, constitute the frontline of a conflict that has taken more lives than any other this century thus far: the battle between Sunnis and Shiites.

The surprises don’t end there. The Sunni group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken over some of Iraq’s main cities and is drawing ever closer to Baghdad, where it could dislodge Maliki’s pro-Shiite government, with implications not just for Syria and Iraq but also the broader Middle East. The situation is uncertain and fraught with risk. But what’s clear is that ISIS’s advances confirm which kind of NGO has emerged as the world’s most influential over the past three decades: al-Qaeda. ISIS and al-Qaeda may have parted ways over tactics and rivalries among their leaders, but the incontestable fact is that this offshoot and its original inspiration are powerful examples of the most extreme expression of armed civil society. And as we have seen since the second half of the last century, the vast majority of armed conflicts no longer pit the armies of nation-states against one another. Today’s wars are fought by soldiers impersonating civilians.