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Beyond Anyone’s Control

February 9, 2018

From Maxwell Perspective...

 Making Sense of a Crazy Mixed Up World

Beyond Anyone’s Control

In international "black spots," the usual rules don’t apply.

By Renee Gearhart Levy

Armed Soldier

For decades, the mountainous and sparsely populated Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been a haven for insurgents, criminals, and radical Islamists, who capitalize on the austere environment, insecure borders, and lack of government control to plan and carry out terrorist and illicit economic activities.

These are among 150 such "black spots" identified by researchers working to map global insecurity as part of an interdisciplinary project in Maxwell’s Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs. Black spots are geographic locations outside effective state-based government control and used by transnational criminal, insurgent, and terrorist organizations as places where they can sustain and carry out their illicit activities, largely under the radar of law enforcement and security communities. Together, they provide a network for underworld activity and thus they map the global illicit economy.

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Black spots are not failed states. “These areas are actually well-governed. They’re just not governed by state authorities,” says Stuart Brown, professor of practice in public administration and international affairs, and director of Maxwell’s Black Spots Project. "In many cases, these criminal, terrorist, and insurgent groups are providing the types of goods and services that governments typically provide."

Brown is an economist whose earlier research focused on the transition from central planning to market-oriented economies in Central/Eastern Europe. He worked as an economist for the International Monetary Fund and as chief emerging market economist for two global investment banks. He wrote The Future of U.S. Global Power: Delusions of Decline and edited Transnational Transfers and Global Development (both Palgrave Macmillan).

Brown is currently co-writing Transnational Crime and Black Spots: Rethinking Sovereignty and the Global Economy, examining whether economic geography and multinational corporate supply chains can inform a study of transnational criminal behavior. One intent of the study is to rethink traditional notions of sovereignty, as black spots do not fit our traditional concept of a state. "We’re struggling with what sovereignty means and who gets to define it,” says Brown. “Look at how various groups are divided by borders that they don’t recognize — for example, the Pashtuns between Pakistan and Afghanistan or the Kurds in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.”

The project has done in-depth case studies on 80 black spots, written and updated by Maxwell students. Brown says the project might help track the movement of criminals and their innovations — data with proven value for both basic research and the intelligence and law enforcement communities.

Photo Credit: Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo

This article appeared in the spring 2017 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2017 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail

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