Countering Illicit Power: Introduction


The Joint Force is not optimized for a protracted struggle against capable and adaptive non-state adversaries, including state sponsored or directed entities. 
Vice Admiral Kevin Scott1

 Strategies that weaken illicit power structures and strengthen legitimate state authority are vital to national and international security. 
 Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster2

In 2005, in response to a challenge that was identified by war fighters in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. Department of Defense Joint Forces Command, together with its interagency partners in the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Departments of State, Justice, and Homeland Security, and international and non-governmental organizations, launched a substantial research and concept development effort to address an often misunderstood and misdiagnosed catalyst of de-stabilization: illicit power. Experience had shown that international interventions are directly undermined by the presence of criminal and political patronage networks, militias, insurgents, transnational criminal organizations, and other illicit groups that enrich themselves through trafficking, exploitation of national resources, and the capture of state institutions. These groups perpetuate underlying drivers of conflict and a culture of impunity. Ultimately, their presence and power precludes achievement of our national security objectives. Unless we recognize and address this complex threat as part of our collective response to conflict and instability, prospects for a sustainable peace are significantly diminished. The 2005 interagency initiative represented an opportunity to define the challenge and formulate comprehensive approaches toward a more effective national security response.  

Over the next several years, the interagency effort grew as war fighters demanded innovative capabilities and solutions, and adapted to leverage emerging insights and lessons from the field. Concept development branches and sequels emerged. Related initiatives focused on developing a taxonomy for illicit power structures,3  a criminal justice sector assessment tool,4 and a comprehensive approach to security sector reform, to include security sector governance.5   The concepts and ideas in each were field tested in more than a dozen countries, including Colombia, Afghanistan, Albania, Kenya, and Liberia, to name only a few. Subsequently, the Center for Complex Operations (CCO) began to codify the findings, together with its own research on the convergence of state failure, criminality, and conflict. CCO also built a consortium of U.S. and international experts who ultimately contributed to the publication of numerous edited volumes of material, including the three books that are the primary texts for the Countering Illicit Power courseware.  

In 2015, CCO received a “Minerva” research grant from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Undersecretary for Policy, to transform this body of work into education materials that could support Joint professional military education (JPME), and serve as a model for transitioning cutting edge social science research into policy, programs, capabilities, and education for national security professionals across the enterprise. The courseware outlined in this “Educator’s Guide,” and accessible via the CCO website, is the result. 


Licit -- conforming to the requirements of the law; not forbidden by law; permissible  

Illicit -- not allowed by law; unlawful or illegal; involving activities that are not considered morally acceptable 

Illicit Power Structures -- entities that seek political and/or economic power through the use of violence or the threat of violence, often supported by criminal economic activity. The leadership may be within or parallel to the state, or may constitute armed opposition to it. Illicit power structures operate outside the framework for establishing and maintaining the rule of law, and erode that framework. 


  1. Joint Staff White Paper, Countering Threat Networks Campaigning (October 18, 2016). 
  2. Forward to Impunity: Confronting Illicit Power in War and Transition, Edited by Michelle A. Hughes and Michael Miklaucic. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office (2016). 
  3. Codified in Handbook for Military Support to Rule of Law and Security Sector Reform, Washington, DC: JFCOM (2011), C-25 - C-26,
  4. Criminal Justice Sector Assessment Rating Tool: A U.S. Government Interagency Framework to Assess the Capacity of International Criminal Justice Systems, Version 2.0, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (2008),
  5. The Security Sector assistance materials were later codified in Presidential Policy Directive 23, Security Sector Assistance (Washington, DC: The White House, 2013),