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U.S. Aims to Root Out 'Ungoverned Spaces' as Hotbeds of Terrorism

Heeding lessons of Sept. 11, U.S. aims to keep ISIS, Boko Haram and other extremist groups from using strongholds to spread their brutality.

The maps don't show it, but two new "countries" have emerged in the last 15 months.

The first, a porous zone extending 400 miles from the suburbs of Baghdad to the town of Raqqa in central Syria, is the so-called Islamic State caliphate established by ISIS, a place where transgressions of sharia law can lead to crucifixion or being buried alive, and simply being an American could get you beheaded.

The second, thousands of miles to the southwest, is a tract of up to 10,000 square miles in Nigeria controlled by Boko Haram, which torches schools with children inside and kidnaps young girls for forced marriage or ransom.

U.S. intelligence analysts call these territories “ungoverned spaces” – even though both ISIS and Boko Haram act as governments in some senses -- and have seen before how the chaos and savagery within them can spread far and wide. It was not long ago, after all, when al Qaeda and the Taliban filled an ungoverned space in Afghanistan, enabling the former to plot and carry out the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States.

"There is 10-plus-years’ worth of literature on ungoverned and undergoverned spaces and the risks posed," says Mike Leiter, former director of the National Counter Terrorism Center and an NBC News analyst. "It's certainly a problem and an area that the U.S. government is particularly challenged in addressing."

Interactive Map: 'Ungoverned Spaces'

Fearing that newer safe havens also could eventually become "external operations platforms" for attacks against Western and U.S. interests, the CIA has stepped up its monitoring of 12 countries that include significant ungoverned spaces where Islamic extremists are operating, NBC News has learned.

The list is classified, but U.S. officials confirmed 10 of the countries on it in interviews. They are: Afghanistan and Pakistan in South Asia; Syria, Iraq and Yemen in the Middle East; and Libya, Mauretania, Mali, Nigeria and Somalia in Africa.

The top U.S. concerns

Concern is highest over the new "countries" carved out by ISIS and Boko Haram, neither of which existed early last year. They may not last long, but they are now "facts on the ground," military officials say, with black flags of jihad flying over local government buildings and sharia courts.

Some experts say that neither group poses a threat to the West at this point, despite the fact that while both Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS, and Abubakr Shekau, head of Boko Haram, employ anti-U.S. rhetoric, neither has specifically threatened to attack the U.S.

"The big question is are these 'sharia states' inward-looking or launch points for international terrorism?,” said David Phillips, director of peace-building at Columbia University's Center on Human Rights. "I would count them (ISIS and Boko Haram) as inward looking, not capable of launching an attack on New York, not having the financing, more ideologically committed to jihad and development of military skills. That is a different level of threat."

But U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Thursday that ISIS is "beyond anything we have seen," and poses a more significant long-term threat to the U.S. than al Qaeda.

And counterterrorism officials and other experts who spoke to NBC News warned that the longer a space is ungoverned, the more likely radical groups will "create parallel infrastructures" as ISIS and Boko Haram have begun to do.

Both already are "terrorist states with terrorist armies" capable of creating panic in cities of a half million or more, said one official, referring to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan and Maiduguri in Nigeria. And, if unchecked, either could spread their intolerance and brutality to neighboring countries.

Image: Refugees Fleeing ISIS Offensive Pour Into Kurdistan
Desperate Iraqis wait for food and other items being dispensed by the Iraqi Red Crescent society on June 30 at a refugee camp in Khazair, Iraq. Most of the estimated 1,500 people living in the camp fled the city of Mosul after it was overrun by ISIS militants. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The difficulty, said one U.S. official, who like the others spoke on condition of anonymity, is that Washington has limited options to deal with ungoverned spaces in faraway lands.

Ideally, the official said, the U.S. can work with the central government and help shore up its military capabilities, or work through surrogate partners, as the U.S. did with the Sunni Awakening in western Iraq against al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of ISIS.

But neither is possible in many cases. Often a central government's control is limited to the capital city and its suburbs, and its defenses rely on what one senior Pentagon official described as a "marshmallow military" that quickly dissolves in the face of any serious threat.

"You're asking a guy who hasn't been paid in three months and whose officers abuse him to fight to the death," said the official.

That may force the U.S. military to get involved rather than risk letting the jihadis overrun entire countries, as is the case with the current U.S. air campaign against ISIS.

A simple aim

The aim of such operations is simple, the official said: "You want the terrorist fighting for his own survival rather than (having) the space to plot against us. … Isolating them plus applying pressure equals the less chance they have for striking out beyond the border."

While the perils posed by such islands of instability are well known, the U.S. intelligence community still isn’t very good at predicting or preventing such uprisings, said Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University. The rise of Isis and its lightning march across Mesopotamia, in particular, highlights those shortcomings, she said.

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"Do we really have the information and analytic tools … to understand what's happening in a predictive way?” she asked. “We have been blindsided, again, by ISIS’ ferocity, intensity and skills."

While ISIS has garnered most attention recently because of the U.S. military involvement, Boko Haram has been just as successful, said Peter Pham, director of African Center at the Atlantic Council.

Image:A screengrab taken on July 13, 2014 from a video released by the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram and obtained by AFP shows the leader of the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau (C), referring to the Bring Back
A screen grab taken on July 13 from a video released by the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram shows the group's leader, Abubakar Shekau, center, responding to worldwide outrage over the group's kidnapping of nearly 200 schoolgirls in northeastern Nigeria. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / BOKO HARAM" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTSHO/AFP/Getty ImagesAFP - Getty Images

"Since last June, the militants have effectively evicted Nigerian government troops and officials from at least 10 local government areas (the equivalent of counties) along the borders of Niger, Chad, and Cameroon," he said.

Pham estimates that Boko Haram now controls an area the size of Maryland.

While the addition of two new ungoverned spaces concerns U.S. officials, Leiter and other experts say progress has been made on other fronts.

"In Syria, Libya and Iraq, the amount of ungoverned space has increased," said Leiter. "Somalia has gotten a bit better."


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In Somalia, a big part of the success has been the strengthening of central and local governments and joint military operations, coordinated with the African Union, against terrorist safe havens.

Sometimes, even small targeted efforts can produce results.

Ugandan troops were largely paralyzed by al Shabab snipers in Mogadishu during international military operations in Somalia in 2012, when U.S. special operations personnel arrived to provide training, said the senior Defense Department official. The U.S. officers identified 10 Ugandan soldiers as potential snipers and countersnipers, trained and outfitted them at a firing range in Uganda and, after two months, sent them back to Somalia. With the benefit of the training and new superior rifles, scopes and ammunition, the group was able to take out the al Shabab snipers and permit patrols further into Mogadishu and ultimately beyond.

U.S. counterterrorism officials also point to Yemen as a country where the government, working with the U.S. and other Western governments, has improved security, mainly because of an infusion of will by new President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who one described as “very, very interested in beating back al Qaeda.”

One other factor works in the West’s favor and against the jihadist groups, say the U.S. officials and experts: Every al Qaeda affiliate that has captured territory has ultimately failed to successfully administer it. "They alienate local populations every time," said one official.