Crossing the Rubicon: The Dangers of Martial Law

“…the ubiquitous M16 assault rifle, a humble enough weapon until you see it in the hands of a man outside your local bowling alley or 7-11. It will be noisy, it will be scary and it will not be ignored for a VFW parade” – General Deveraux (the Siege) in reference to declaring martial law in New York City.

The recent imposition of martial law in Thailand, Egypt and parts of Ukraine highlights the dangers and benefits of imposing martial law. The term “martial law” has an ominous ring to it, especially in those countries founded upon notions of individual rights and privileges. Martial law is defined not as law in the ordinary sense, but rather, the exercise of military authority, coupled with the temporary suspension of some or all of the functions of civil government. Normally, martial law is only instated in times of war; but during times of peace, when faced with domestic upheaval or natural disaster martial law is occasionally required to impose order. Often times, military rule is essential to re-impose order and defeat factions challenging state authority. However, martial law also has been utilized to gain political power or to repress legitimate opposition.  Admittedly, much like Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon in 49 BC, even with the best intentions, imposing martial law has severe ramifications.

Consequently, although martial law, is necessary tool for any regime, it should be utilized sparingly, as it can lead to many unforeseen consequences. These unforeseen consequences might include: decay in public opinion concerning the ruling regime and the military, increased possibility of military coups, infringement on individual rights, and continued utilization of the military in politics by various actors. Members of armed forces should also hesitate to become involved in instating martial law, since these consequences may be significant and long reaching, largely because martial law legitimizes the use of force. Therefore, if policy pitfalls are to be avoided, a careful examination of various instances of martial law should be done.

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Figure 1 & 2: Canadian Troops in Quebec, on street searches and guarding infrastructure

The “Good” – October Crisis 1970.

In the fall of 1970, a radical Quebec separatist group, the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) kidnapped the British trade commissioner James Richard Cross from his Montreal residence. The FLQ had been involved in over 200 bombings in Quebec since 1963, with an agenda for achieving Quebec independence by any means. At first the government response was limited, with very public negotiations between the regime and the FLQ. However, the kidnapping and subsequent strangling of Quebec Minister of Labor, Pierre Laporte by a cell of the FLQ dramatically changed the nature of the crisis. Panic rippled through the public, and gave the impression that the regime was losing power. The young Premiere of Quebec, Pierre Trudeau, a lifelong champion of individual rights, turned to the national government for help. The national government responded by invoking the War Measures Act, and instituting martial law in the greater Montreal area. Troops were utilized to guard vulnerable points and important individuals as well as to support the role of civil authorities such as the police in their investigative efforts. The Canadian army and police conducted 3000 searches and detained 497 individuals within the first 24 hours. While Habeas Corpus (the individual’s right that a judge confirms they have been legally detained) was suspended, and some accused were held for 21 days without legal counsel, the cell members responsible for Laporte’s death were arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

While the regime faced criticism for the suspension of civil liberties, there was overwhelming contemporary support for the invocation of martial law, and the use of military forces. Premiere Trudeau, in an interview expressed his choice to impose martial law:

“I think the society must take every means at its disposal to defend itself against the emergence of a parallel power which defies the elected power in this country and I think that goes to any distance. So long as there is a power in here which is challenging the elected representative of the people I think that power must be stopped.”

Assuredly, any suspension of civil liberties and the imposition of military rule on a civil population should be a last resort, but as the Canadian example demonstrates, having strict controls and overall civil authority with the military playing a subordinate role in martial law may lead to less misuse of the military and martial law.

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Figures 3 & 4: Thai troops and Egyptian tanks imposing martial law.

The “Bad” – Thailand & Egypt

In sharp contrast, as recent events in Thailand and Egypt demonstrate, having the military play the role of final arbitrator on political issues, in conjunction with successive use of military force in suppressing political dissent and opposition will lead to more overt military intervention in political affairs. The fact that the Thai military plays a dominant role in the politics of Thailand is well known to the world. The coup of 1932 marked the point when the Thai military crossed into the political sector from which has never quite retreated. Additionally, in Egypt, the military and martial law have become tools for the consolidation and maintenance of political power. Consequently, it has become very difficult for citizens to either distinguish between the military just reasserting order or obtaining control over the reins of political power by establishing martial law.

The “Ugly” – New Orleans, 2005 & parts of Ukraine, 2014.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina led to a breakdown of effective governance in New Orleans, Louisiana. While the term martial law does not exist in Louisiana’s constitution, a form of emergency management akin to martial law was used to address the widespread violence and disorder. The primary forces tasked to restore order were the New Orleans police department and the Louisiana National Guard (LANG), with federal troops primarily deploying medical, search-and-rescue as well as other forms of relief. Those forces instating martial law faced significant opposition from citizens who were attempting to protect their private property through personal firearms. However, considering the rising rates of violence in the face of relief efforts, military and law enforcement forces had little choice but to infringe on the rights of individuals. The crisis highlighted the challenge of ensuring public safety and effective governance at the expense of the rights of individual bringing the issue into contemporary American political discourse.

In a similar way, the government of Ukraine faced a similar dilemma when instating martial law. In February 2014, as the pro-western movement gathered momentum, President Yanukovych granted increased powers akin to martial law to the army and police. However, the increased repression only emboldened the pro-western groups eventually leading to the ousting of the President. A few months later the temporary pro-western regime now faces a similar dilemma in combating the rising pro-Russian separatists in the eastern parts of the Ukraine. By declaring martial law, the pro-western regime in Kiev may alienate supporters or even embolden opponents as Yanukovych did. Nevertheless, with rising violence in certain regions, such as Luhansk Oblast, the regime might to impose instated martial law, or face a public backlash against ineffective governance.

The Lessons

In times of peace under martial law, a soldier, for the time being, becomes a glorified policeman, with powers greater than those of an ordinary peace officer, but ideally is still under civilian control. The soldier is tasked to restore order in the aid of the civil authority, which for the moment has been submerged either by natural forces or actors attempting overthrow the existing regime. A government establishing martial law should assure the public that such a step is necessary and temporary and that civil control over the military remains in effect. The military forces carrying out martial law when it is necessary, should behave with restraint and seek to restore full civilian control as quickly as possible.


If you have any questions or comments please contact Werner at




New Ridgway Fellows Announced for Fall 2014 and Spring 2015!

GSPIA’s Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies is pleased to announce that Jeffrey Carasiti and Christine Unger have been selected as recipients of the Ridgway Fellowship for the fall 2014 semester and Darren Hedland and Diana Antonian Israelian for the spring 2015 semester.  These scholarships are awarded by the Ridgway Scholarship Selection Committee and are provided by the University Center for International Studies (UCIS).  Congratulations to these students!

Next spring the Ridgway Center will be announcing the fellowship competition for the fall 2015 and spring 2016 semesters. Please watch for the email announcement.  You will need to submit a cover letter outlining your involvement with the Ridgway Center and a resume. We encourage all full-time SIS graduate students to apply.

[Bracketing] the Black Swan in Intelligence Analysis (Part I)

This article is part of a recurring series by Steve Coulthart, a PhD candidate at the Graduate School for Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.  If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact him at

Intelligence analysts have a ‘black swan problem,’ or, if you want to be more academic you might call it the ‘problem of induction.’ The problem of induction touches on the conundrum of how we can know the future given the experience we have today.  Or, in other words, at what point can we say we know what we know?

An example from Taleb’s well-known book on black swans helps to clarify. Take the turkey’s dilemma: for the first 1,000 days of its life the turkey is fed and treated well, thus each day increasing its expectation that the following day will be the same. Yet, at day 1,001 that assumption is proven false and the turkey ends up for Thanksgiving dinner.

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Substitute the turkey and insert an analyst trying to forecast the next revolution, coup, or terrorist attack and the task comes into focus. To avoid surprise, analysts attempt to foresee different possible outcomes. We can think of these different possible outcomes as hypotheses about things that could happen in the future. For example, in the case of outcomes for the Syrian Civil War, there are several possible hypotheses floating around: the Assad government wins, the stalemate lingers, rebels win, etc.

The first step for analysts working on a forecasting task is to conjure up hypotheses from their own experience, intelligence reports, experts, etc.  Most likely, the analyst will identify a few well-known hypotheses (such as the ones mentioned above). We know this because how well known a hypothesis is, measured in the form of how often it is cited in discussion (e.g. in news articles, amongst experts, etc.), fits a power law distribution. The practical result of this is that there is a set of core hypotheses almost everyone knows and a long tail of lesser known ones (this is due to Zipf’s Law, check out the link for more information).

In his pioneering research in the policy analysis field, William Dunn found that the most cited or discussed hypotheses are on the extreme left of the distribution while the black swans are on the extreme right. In intelligence analysis, these are the hypotheses that are often ignored until it is too late (e.g. the 9/11 attack). In our Syria example this could include something seemingly unlikely like an Iranian invasion of Syria.

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What can analysts do to ‘reach out’ on to the tail? The common answer is to encourage analysts to think creatively and/or consider the complexity of the situation. To do this, analysts are trained in ‘imaginative’ structured analytic techniques that supposedly open their minds.   The U.S. Intelligence Community’s tradecraft primer lists a few of these techniques and Heuer and Pherson’s standard texthas several hypothesis generation techniques. Unfortunately, these techniques have a crucial weakness: there is no stopping rule.

What is a stopping rule? Well, like the turkey in the example above, the analyst doesn’t know when he or she can stop considering new hypotheses, including a potential black swan waiting in the wings (no pun intended).

Consider a hypothetical group of analysts brainstorming the outcomes of the Syrian Civil War. At what point should the analysts stop generating hypotheses?  Perhaps they have identified our black swan of Iran invading, but what now? Are they done? The common answer is to say when it “feels right,” but as we know, cognitive biases can creep in, and further, what if the black swan is still lurking out on the tail?

One possible answer, yet to be discussed in the intelligence analysis literature, is the use of boundary analysis developed by Dunn. As the name implies, boundary analysis is a method to determine the analytic ‘boundaries’ of a problem, in this case the number of plausible hypotheses. The technique also addresses the stopping rule problem plaguing imaginative structured analytic techniques.

Here’s how it works:

The first step in boundary analysis is the specification of the analytic problem. For example, “what are the likely outcomes of the Syrian Civil War?” Next, analysts sample data sources that hold hypotheses related to the analytic question. A common source of hypotheses can be found in open source documents, such as news reports. Once the data is compiled, it can be mined by coding each unique hypothesis.

At first the list of hypotheses will grow exponentially with each document, however, the analyst will soon see something very puzzling: after the initial rapid increase of new hypotheses, each new successive document will yield less, and less new hypotheses.  This rapid leveling-off is due to Bradford’s Law

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An Example of Bradford’s Law: Citations

In 1934, British mathematician Samuel Bradford was searching physics journals and found that after locating approximately two dozen core journals he had found the bulk of all physics academic citations. After these core journals each subsequent journal provided a diminishing amount of new citations. The leveling-off effect of the Bradford Law also applies to hypotheses and provides a stopping point at which analysts know they have reviewed almost all known hypotheses.

Returning to our power-law distribution of hypotheses, we could imagine that a boundary analysis might get us closer to finding the black swan, but boundary analysis is still no panacea because at this point we really do not know how well the technique does in identifying possible black swans in intelligence analysis tasks.

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Fortunately, the question of how boundary analysis performs on intelligence analysis tasks is an answerable empirical question. In my next blog post I will present results from a research study using boundary analysis on a ‘real world’ intelligence analysis problem.

Russia and the Ukraine: Re-Emergence of the Fifth Column

This article is part of a recurring series by Werner Selle, a Masters of Public and International Affairs candidate at the Graduate School for Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.  If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact him at


The Russian annexation of Crimea and Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine, have some political pundits and scholars claiming that Russian President Vladimir Putin has discovered a novel new form of warfare and diplomacy, aptly named the “Putin Tactic.” In February 2014, utilizing unmarked armed forces with support from local pro-Russian groups and other paramilitaries, Russia annexed Crimea. However, this tactic is neither novel nor unique to the Putin administration. Instead the term Fifth Column, credited to Emilio Mola y Vidal, a Nationalist General during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) is more appropriate. General Mola told journalists in 1936 that a fifth column of supporters inside Madrid would support and undermine the Republican government from within as his other four columns approached the city. A fifth column is therefore traditionally defined as the infiltration of government-backed subversives or sympathizers into the entire fabric of a nation, spreading disinformation and rumors as well as employing force undermining the effective rule of law and the strength of the state under attack. Yet neither this nor Putin’s approach is new. It is important to consider, therefore, what lessons can be derived from both the previous and current use of fifth columns.

The Fifth Column strategy was utilized even in antiquity. In 431 BC, on a rainy spring night, some three hundred Thebans entered the Boetian Town of Platea, an ally of Athens. Through support of local pro-Theban Plateans, the gates of the city were opened and the Thebans were admitted. The Athenian historian Thucydides comments that this was commonplace for the next twenty seven years of the Peloponnesian War, with both oligarchic and democratic fifth columns inviting through subterfuge, either Athenian or Peloponnesian forces into their cities.       In American history, fifth columns were active in both the Revolutionary War and the American Civil War. An informative book by George Fort Milton, describes in detail not only the composition and tactics of the Confederate fifth columnists, but also the difficulties facing President Lincoln in combating fifth column elements.

During World War Two Fifth Columns were not only feared but became de facto scapegoats for military defeats. One headline even proclaimed that “German tourists with machine guns seized Luxembourg before German regular forces arrived.” Admittedly, these fifth columns did play significant roles in certain German successes.

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The German seizure of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in 1938 is similar to the Russian seizure of parts of Ukraine in 2014. Both Czechoslovakia and Ukraine had/have minority populations bordering an avaricious major power neighbor purporting to be a minority’s protector or national homeland. Both Hitler and Putin claimed they were merely protecting their ethnic countrymen. Furthermore, both the Third Reich, and Putin’s Russia not only expressed public support for local movements, but gave overt and covert support for these movements. Nevertheless, the tactical benefits of a fifth column are myriad. They undermine the efforts of an opponent prior to any hostilities or before actions commence. In the case of the Sudetenland, German Freikorps, armed self-defense forces would have undermined any efforts by the Czech government to resist. Similarly, in Crimea, well-armed pro-Russian groups significantly reduced the possibility of pro-Ukrainian forces from resisting the Russian takeover.

The infiltration of sponsored infiltrators or sympathizers into the entire fabric of a nation, spreading disinformation, rumors as well as employing force undermines the effective rule of law and the strength of the state under attack. From a military perspective fifth columns are able to subvert the enemy’s defensive strategies, harass or cripple supply and communication lines. Yet, most significantly utilizing a fifth column, forces the enemy to confront or combat its own populace which can be not only detrimental to morale, but also might spur others to join the fifth column or alienate the military force. Furthermore, the utilization of a fifth column reduces the international exposure of utilizing one’s own forces, while leaving the opponent with possibly embarrassing incidents of use of force against civilians.

Unfortunately, a Fifth Column strategy may have limited success depending on the strength of the fifth column and the extent of outside support. In the case of World War Two, the fascists groups in Britain, such as the British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Mosley, may have been significant contributors to German success during the Battle of Britain, but without German support and limited in size, it was quickly disbanded and its leaders interned. In sharp contrast, in Norway, Vidkun Quisling was able to seize power in a coup d’état with German support, and remain a German collaborator until the end of the war.

In conclusion, the “Putin Tactic” is neither novel nor unprecedented. This is not surprising; let us not forget that history often repeats itself, and that successful strategies no matter what guise they are in, are often reintroduced.

If you have any questions or comments please contact Werner at

Islamic Terrorism and Online Video Games: Virtual Worlds, Real Threats

This article is part of a recurring series by Alex Halman, a PhD student at the Graduate School for Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.  If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact him at

When Americans think terrorism, their minds shift to caves, bearded men, and high-tech ignorance.  Our conceptions of Jihadi organizations are that they abhor technological innovation; however, there is evidence that these groups are embracing new options. The idea that terrorists use Call of Duty to train and plot attacks is equally both laughable and frightening.  Online gaming is at an all-time high.  With such a massive and untapped resource at their disposal, terrorists may use these virtual environments for communication, funding, and other illicit activities.   Security analysts and academics have barely scratched the surface of this capability.  Recently, Edward Snowden released a bevy of classified documents; one was an NSA report from 2007 that addressed concerns about violent non-state actors utilizing Games and Virtual Environments (GVE).  Two years later, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) revealed Project Reynard, a venture aimed at supporting research on and in Virtual Worlds.  When the project was funded, there was little academic literature on the subject and limited evidence demonstrating terrorists were using this technology.  If the extent of future video game use by violent non-state actors is uncertain, it is also potentially, quite significant.  It is important, therefore, to consider the options available to these groups.  Bounding the problem in the ways described here could be useful for both intelligence agencies and the DOD.


There is evidence that points to a continued real world focus for violent non-state actors.  First, terrorist organizations, and more broadly criminal syndicates, often rely on real world funding, communication, and recruitment mechanisms.  In other words, they don’t need to fix what is not broken.  Despite technological advances, drug trafficking, jewelry trades, and traditional money laundering schemes have worked for thousands of years.  Using GVEs, even though they might be more efficient, leaves footprints for our agencies to follow.  Thus, it is possible that GVE utilization would be detrimental for Jihadist terrorist organizations – and will be avoided rather than embraced by them.

In this case, budgeting and policy direction would remain unchanged in regards to U.S. DOD data-mining capabilities.  There are several advantages to this option.  First, this is the most risk averse of the policy options.  If you are unconvinced that online game usage by enemies of the state is a serious threat, no further action is required.  Project Reynard ended in 2009 with little evidence of such activities.  The political risks are also quite low with this option.  When Snowden released the documents in 2013, there was significant public uproar.  The program was trivialized and an embarrassment for the NSA and DOD.  Furthermore, some researchers from the National Research Council argue that data-mining is futile.  Ultimately, this is the option with few potential benefits as the risks are rather low.


The second option represents an incremental change from the first.  In this situation, CYBERCOM and/or the NSA would launch a development similar to Project Reynard.  Project Reynard was a crowdsourcing project.  This, on the other hand, will be an in-house job.

There is some support for such an initiative.  Jihadi organizations are designing video games, and this demonstrates their willingness to adapt and incorporate new technologies into strategy.  Games like “Under Ash” and the sequel “Under Siege” can be potent recruitment and communication tools for these groups.  In these games, a Palestinian protagonist seeks revenge on Zionists and their supporters for occupying his homeland.  In a sense, this is the jihadi version of “America’s Army”, a game developed by the U.S. Army.  There are several more games that have been developed to draw in and radicalize Arab youth.  Because these games are so overt, it is unlikely developing Jihadi games will be a primary strategy.  Nevertheless, these games are evidence that terrorist organizations are shifting to virtual worlds.

Another example of Islamic fundamentalists expressing a willingness to adopt advanced technology, and possibly GVEs, is the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA).  The SEA, although supporting the Syrian government, is one of the first public and virtual armies in the Arab world to strike cyber targets.  This online activism by the youth in the Arab world possibly demonstrates a paradigm shift in recruiting and communication for Jihadi organizations.  Globalization and power diffusion have empowered small and previously insignificant actors, enabling them to pose a serious threat to states.  Game technologies could do the same.

Further evidence supporting Jihadi terrorists’ potential use of GVEs is the funding opportunities through online game markets.  Games like World of Warcraft have autonomous markets that are targeted and penetrated by illicit actors. Although illegal, the market is massive and extremely lucrative; estimated at several billion dollars. Jihadist groups may use virtual markets as they are resilient and similar to other illicit markets.  Keegan et al (2010), using social network analysis, finds that gold markets (GVE currency markets) are structurally similar to drug trafficking networks.  Moreover, the state markets have similar characteristics like secrecy, resilience, and efficiency that are displayed in real world black markets.  This suggests that terrorism funding through GVEs might be a serious issue in the future.  A covert policy and budgetary shift toward data-mining has “low” political and “medium” financial risks and moderate benefits.  Pilot program development would prevent public resentment and allow the DOD to assess the extent of this problem.


This is the high-risk/ high-reward option.  It would represent a significant and public shift for DOD agencies to enhance data-mining techniques.  The political and financial risks would be extensive, but the benefits would be substantial.

There are several indications this is the right course of action.  First, data output will be 50 times greater in 2020 than it was in 2010; a nearly exponential increase. The DOD needs to keep up with trends in data use.  Second, with the proliferation of technology, third party game developers are becoming commonplace.  Games are easier and cheaper to produce and there will be more and larger haystacks to search for the needles.  Finally, the effectiveness of current programs are unknown.  For example, in an experiment by British researchers, their data-mining software caught 60% of the malicious/terrorist-like activity. With significant public investment, we could dramatically increase our detection capabilities in the virtual realm.

In sum, there is sufficient evidence to conclude that GVEs are a potential asset for violent non-state actors, especially Islamic terrorist groups.  In fact, Islamic extremists have demonstrated a willingness to adopt new technologies and gaming into their arsenal.  However, the most likely outcome is that usage of virtual worlds for funding, communication, and recruitment will be rather limited.  The perks of GVEs are a significant draw for these organizations, but one blunder or oversight can be devastating for the network; once discovered, the advantages quickly dissolve.  As the IC community ramps up SOCMINT and other digitally-related INT’s with innovative data-mining methodologies, illicit networks may retreat into the shadows of real world activities.

Consequently, the pilot program development and evaluation is the most politically and financially feasible option when the costs and benefits are considered.  It is imperative we assess the extent to which terrorists are using GVEs.  Maintaining the status quo would be beneficial in the short-term, but recent trends illustrate that data-mining will be significant for law enforcement and national security in the near future.  A massive investment in these capabilities, on the other hand, is premature and will result in public blowback in the current economic climate. Nevertheless it is time we consider seriously new Islamic terrorism and the uses of virtual worlds.  After all, the worlds might be virtual, but the threats are certainly real.