[rev_slider alias="blog-post-header"]


Apr 2, 2015 | Commentary

Insider attacks (IA), or ‘Green-on-Blue’ attacks, is the term used for when a member of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) attacks a member of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). IA’s have plagued ISAF since 2008, proving a real and present danger for Coalition personnel within the country. Indeed, 15% of Coalition deaths in Afghanistan in 2012 were as a result of IA.

As Western forces pull-out of the country and hand over combat and security responsibility to the ANSF, a large proportion of the remaining personnel will be fulfilling trainer and mentor roles within establishments such as the National Defence University (NDU) in Kabul, which incorporates a number of smaller establishments such as the UK supported Afghan National Army Officer Academy (ANAOA), and the US supported National Military Academy of Afghanistan (NMAA). These people will be working and living closely alongside a large number of new ANSF recruits without the benefit of protection measures, such as ‘Guardian Angels’ (armed guards and escorts), used in previous years to counter the risk of IA. IA’s will remain a threat, illustrated by the tragic deaths of victims such as Major General Harold Greene at the NDU in August 2014 (Reference 3), and other similar attacks in Farah and Paktia provinces in the past year. Western militaries must take a new approach to better understanding IA events, place more of a focus on cultural training, and ensure they adequately support deployed personnel to counter and combat the IA threat.

IA’s are a combination of various influences, including:

  • Cultural – such as religious motivations caused by world events (such as the Qu’ran burnings in 2012, honour killings as method of revenge, and deep-rooted historical ethnic and tribal divisions within the country;
  • Social – such as patronage and power networks being formed that exclude certain individuals or groups, leading to endemic corruption, nepotism and institutionalised favouritism;
  • Political – such as the competing influence of the insurgency (Taleban) and the government and ANSF, and the resultant political and social instability; and
  • Psychological – such as emotional trauma as an effect of one’s volatile upbringing and exposure to violent environmental stimuli and engrained behaviour. Many new ANSF recruits have grown up during a period of exceptional societal instability, and so suffer from the psychological consequences. Some sources even place emotional trauma at over 60% in the population.

I believe that they can best be described as a ‘perfect storm’ of interlinked, combined and disparate factors. Any combination of these influences has much more of an effect on the IA risk than any acting in isolation. Insider attacks are a cumulative effect of various drivers acting in combination, until a certain trigger acts as the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’. While some militaries are beginning to understand this more, there is still a tendency to over-simplify the issue through a reliance on inherently flawed data and the application of weak statistical analysis.

We should not be seeking to quantify the IA risk, or defining the influences and causes as percentages or numbers. The small amount of data, difficulty in reporting and recording data in the field, and the fact that the vast majority of IA perpetrators are either killed or escape means that the application of statistical analysis does not contribute to our understanding of this issue. Indeed, I believe it is misleading and even dangerous to attempt to do this, as results and conclusions do not accurately reflect the nature of this complex threat, and promote a way of thinking that will not benefit deployed personnel. An example of this is that when IA began to emerge it was thought that the insurgency (Taleban and associated groups) had a central influence. Ambiguities in the data and inherent unknowns meant that this was considered the obvious cause. However, as time progressed it became clear that they had a much smaller influence than first thought, and IA’s were more likely the result of various cultural, social, political and psychological drivers. Much of the past research in the IA area, based on the unreliable data, reflected defence thinking at the time but given our increased knowledge now appears largely irrelevant.

Understanding Insider Attacks in practice is about understanding the nature of the complex threat, rather than identifying its root causes. I believe that this is best done through an analytical framework that does not over-rely on personal experiences or anecdotal past events. These inputs, while undoubtedly useful, only provide a ‘snapshot’ of the issue at a certain time, in a certain location, within a certain group, and is subject to inherent biases, perceptions and ‘cultural worldviews’. A new way of thinking is required; one that relies on a combination of cultural and psychological expertise tied together with a robust research approach. We need to train people to be able to ‘take a step back’ and look at the ‘wider picture’ in terms of IA. What appears to be the obvious ‘trigger’ point is only the ‘tip of the iceberg’, and is typically the result of a number of underlying multi-layered, combined and interlinked drivers.

The trainer and mentor roles that ISAF personnel will now be fulfilling requires a much higher level of cultural immersion, flexibility and adaptability to counter the increased IA risk. Military communities are slowly starting to understand the importance of so-called ‘soft skills’, but this needs to be pushed harder. We need to ensure that enough focus and time is given to cultural training and that this is supported by appropriate research and analysis from the stakeholder communities back home. We need to remember that the Coalition’s role in Afghanistan is now significantly different, constituting a move away from the front line of combat to smaller numbers of trainers and mentors  within educational establishments.

An understanding and appreciation of the power of cultural training has increased as the ISAF mission in Afghanistan progressed. Troops found themselves in an alien environment having to navigate a difficult and sometimes impenetrable cultural landscape. The lessons learned over the past 10-15 years have been immense, and we are now in a much better position to develop effective cultural training in the future. We must learn from our mistakes and achievements in Afghanistan and ensure that when our militaries enter new regions in the future (Syria, Mali, Libya, Ukraine…) that we are able to develop, adapt and deliver effective cultural training at short notice. In terms of IA in Afghanistan it is, in its simplest form, violence and aggression between individuals. Unfortunately, when this violence is combined with weapons and a large cultural divide it can quickly escalate with lethal consequences.

‘Insider Attacks’ is a label and we must be careful to not think of this as an Afghan specific issue. This will occur again in other regions (as it has done in the past), and so there is a need to learn the lessons from Afghanistan and build suitable new approaches and tools for other volatile regions of the world. Let’s put down the guns, and arm our deployed personnel with more powerful cultural skills.


Ryan Meeks is a Human Factors specialist and Insider Attacks expert working for Frazer-Nash Consultancy Ltd in Bristol, UK. He has researched the IA issue extensively for the UK Defence industry. linkedin


Photo: Crown Copyright 2015 UK Ministry of Defence.