The problem of state failure has risen to the top of any international agenda, especially the ones dealing with security and development. ‘Weak’ and ‘fragile’ states pose possibly the most significant threat to the maintenance of global peace, security and stability. In today’s globalised world, there is very limited chances of open breaking out between two countries, a fact that was even stated even by India’s Prime Minister, Mr.Narendra Modi on the eve of his interaction with the military brass of the country on October 17th 2015.

Ironically, all the major security and stability related issues such as terrorism, genocide, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation and infectious diseases owe their origin in mainly ‘weak’ or ‘failed’ states. To just give a couple of examples to support my point, the ‘international jihad’ and rise of Al-Qaeda or the recent Islamic State(IS)  can be linked to the ‘weak’ or ‘failed’ states of Afghanistan for the former and Syria and Iraq for the latter. Also the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, originating in Guinea, can once again be directly related to the lack of proper state structures, another sign of a ‘weak state’.

Why is there such a global concern on ‘weak’ and ‘failed’ states?   

This question can be answered by highlighting two separate points: Firstly, we are moving away from the traditional concepts of interstate security and must encompass the role of non-state actors in terrorism, transnational criminal activities etc, and secondly, these type of threats mainly arise from weak and poorly governed regions and countries, another hallmark of ‘weak’ and ‘failed’ states.

In this article, I will try to concentrate mainly on the relation of ‘weak’ and ‘failed’ state with terrorism and the issue of international security.


Now before we can proceed, we must be aware of the basic definitions and differences of ‘weak’, ‘failed’, ‘fragile’ and ‘collapsed’ states.

Weak states: Weak states are poor states suffering from significant “gaps” in security, performance and legitimacy (Brookings Institution). They lack control over certain areas of their territory, and therefore, the capacity to combat internal threats of terrorism, or insurgency. But given that so-called ‘weak states,’ may still be capable of repression, or may exhibit authoritarian tendencies, some see this term as inherently contradictory and misleading. Furthermore, even in high capacity, well-functioning states, there can be peripheral regions where the state is weak and challenged by local actors, such as the Naxal affected regions of India.

Failing states: This term is often used to describe states that are substantially failing their citizens and/or are failing to achieve economic growth. But it is contentious because it is confusingly applied both to states that are failing and those at risk of failing, and it is criticised for masking the more nuanced reality that states can be failing in some respects but not others.

Failed states: A failed state is marked by the collapse of central government authority to impose order, resulting in loss of physical control of territory, and/or the monopoly over the legitimate use of force. Crucially, it can no longer reproduce the conditions for its own existence (Crisis States, 2007).

Collapsed states: Collapsed and failed states are often used interchangeably to convey a situation where the state has entirely ceased to function (Crisis States, 2007).


Transnational Terrorism and Weak States

Terrorism today has emerged as one of the most daunting challenges to the human civilization. But the phenomenon of terrorism is not new, what is new is the scale, ferocity and complexity of the attacks. Terror groups today not only harbour local or regional goals, but also international ambitions. Transnational terrorists today are new breed of terrorist with unique and distinct profile.

They generally plan and execute attacks on a international and global level. They although might use local insurgency mechanisms, but their targets and intentions are global. These transnational terrorist believe in the transformation of the world political order and international power through their attacks. To achieve these goals they are guided by an extremely strong belief, religion in this case and their memberships stretches across borders, cultures and ethnicities.

Immediately after the 9/11 bombings, it was believed that ‘failed’ states are the breeding ground for terrorism. Experts were of the opinion that these states provide transnational terrorist organizations with the natural habitat they deserve and thrive on. Experts sighted the case study of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan to prove this point.

“From Africa to Central Asia to the Pacific Rim, nearly sixty countries stand on the brink of conflict or collapse. These failed states are the perfect incubators for extremism and terror” – Barack Obama, August 2007.

Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, was ruled by the Taliban led government (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan). Under the protection of the Taliban, the al-Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden and  Ayman al-Zawahiri thrived and was able to recruit and train thousands of Isliamic jihadi fighters, who not only fought the Northern Alliance, but was also responsible for the 9/11 attacks. These fighters have seen action not only in Afghanistan, but also throughout the entire Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, South East Asia and Europe as well.  Al-Qaeda was successful in creating the so called “global jihadist network,” all from its safe heaven of Afghanistan.

Therefore, many argue that the synonymous nature and natural marriage of transnational terrorism and ‘failed state’ is proven fact.

However on close analysis of the situation, this view may not hold true. Transnational terrorists, although desire and dream of a ‘failed state’, but in reality actually utilises ‘weak’ states.

Why ‘weak states’?

To answer this question we must understand the requirements of a terrorist organization. Transnational terror groups require some basic level of political order. Completely ungoverned territories pose some extremely difficult challenges for terror groups to operate since they lack the minimal level of security and baseline sovereignty.

Transnational terror groups always prefer the presence the basic state mechanisms like some sort of security apparatus. If there’s a complete collapse in law and  order and security structures, then the terror groups has to employ their own security mechanisms, thus leading to a constraint on their resources, both manpower as well as material wise. If there is some sort of state security apparatus, then these type of basic law and order situations can be tackled by the state. This can be seen in the case of Nigeria and Boko Haram.

Unlike ‘failed’ states, ‘weak’ states posses the basic means of communication. Communication, both in terms of mobility and virtual communication is extremely important. Today, the backbone of terror groups worldwide is communication.  Without the proper logistics and communication, no terror network will be able to mount even the most rudimentary of attacks. Communication, especially the availability of a properly functioning airport is of the utmost necessity of terror groups.

The question of sovereignty is another extremely important requirement of any transnational terror network. Sovereignty is one of the four requirements of a state (population, territory and government being the other three). Without sovereignty, a territory cannot be declared or categorised as a state. Sovereignty is one of the principle reasons why transnational terror outfits prefer ‘weak’ states to ‘failed’ states. No country, no matter how powerful, cannot on a continuous basis, interfere in the affairs of a sovereign state. Terror groups use this to their advantage.

To better understand this point, let us consider the example of Al-Qaeda in Yemen. The United States cannot mount any special operations in Yemen to capture Al-Qaeda leaders as it is a sovereign nation. They have to rely on drones, with the permission and cooperation of Yemen authorities. It is this situation the terror groups utilize.


Transnational terror groups, who are the greatest threat to world peace, today prefers ‘weak’ states to ‘failed’ states. The basic levels of security, communication and infrastructure, along with political structural support are the most essential requirements of terror networks and their functioning; things that are absent in a ‘failed’ states. Therefore, states like Pakistan and its North Western Frontier Province along the Afghanistan-Pak border (Haqqani network and al-Qaeda), Nigeria’s northern and north-eastern states like Borno (Boko Haram) or countries like Yemen, provide the ideal territories for transnational terrorists to thrive and operate. Ungoverned regions in the midst of sovereign states are therefore the most favoured destinations for transnational terrorists.

In order to deal with such threats, the international community and the respective states themselves must employ resources and also display the will power and courage to act against these terror outfits. The deployment of proper security apparatus, along with the basic structures of governance to fulfill the basic demands and needs of the citizenry will go a long way in dealing with such threats. The example of handling the insurgency in Kashmir by the Indian state or the elimination of the The Tamil Tigers (LTTE) from Srilanka, can be cited as examples of successful elimination of transnational terror networks by the home countries.