Homeland Security: Low-Intensity Conflict Targets Non-Citizens

About Matthew N. Lyons

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the so-called war on terror has provided the U.S. government with a rationale for dramatically increasing state repression. This repression, linked with an upsurge of nationalism and nativist scapegoating, affects everyone in the United States but most sharply targets Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian immigrants, especially non-citizens.

In the name of fighting terrorism, the federal government rounded up thousands of Middle Eastern and South Asian men, many of whom were held incognito for months and reported being beaten or denied basic necessities. The government established programs to photograph and fingerprint hundreds of thousands of non-citizens and a military intelligence project to track individuals by collecting and analyzing massive quantities of personal information. New laws and executive orders have seriously weakened freedoms of speech and association, freedom from unreasonable searches, the rights to legal representation and a speedy and public trial, and many other basic rights—above all for non-citizens.1

Much of this dynamic is not new. Many of the United States’ previous wars—such as the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the U.S.-backed wars in Central America in the 1980s—have seen upsurges in domestic repression, and many of these crackdowns have focused most heavily on foreigners or immigrants.

The current crackdown, however, blurs the line between war and repression more than ever before. Pointing to the September 11 attacks, which targeted the centers of U.S. financial and military power and killed thousands of U.S. civilians, federal officials have told us that terrorism must be fought both outside and inside U.S. borders. “The war on terrorism,” as one critic has put it, “is a war without boundaries, belligerent nations and time limits.”2 In this war, we are told, the front line can be anywhere and there is no clear line between combatants and civilians. Exploiting popular fears and legal ambiguities, the government has staked out a large gray area between military and police work, where it has moved aggressively to tighten control over large sections of the civilian population.

There is a name for this kind of operation: low-intensity conflict (LIC). While low-intensity conflict is usually associated with U.S.-backed operations overseas—such as in Central America or Southern Africa—LIC principles have long guided border enforcement policies within the United States itself. These policies have focused largely on controlling immigrants.

The post-September 11 crackdown builds on this recent history of militarized border enforcement. The connection is dramatized by the integration of three leading border enforcement agencies—the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the Customs Service, and the Coast Guard—into the new Department of Homeland Security.

What Is Low-Intensity Conflict?

U.S. military planners apparently coined the term “low-intensity conflict” in the early 1980s, although its roots are much older. LIC has encompassed many different types of operations, including counterinsurgency (such as El Salvador in the 1980s), anticommunist insurgencies (the Nicaraguan Contras in the same period), punitive strikes (the 1986 bombing of Libya), and so-called peacekeeping operations (Somalia in 1992-1993 or Bosnia since 1995).3

Low-intensity conflict seeks to minimize U.S. troop deployment and military casualties and focuses on controlling targeted civilian populations rather than territory. It generally involves the coordination or integration of police, military, and paramilitary forces, as police become militarized and the military takes on law-enforcement and other unconventional roles. In addition, LIC often combines open force with propaganda campaigns and seemingly benign projects such as community development and civic reform efforts, as a way to win civilian support. In this sense of a multipronged military, political, economic, and psychological offensive, one military officer described low-intensity conflict as “total war at the grass-roots level.”4

Iraq has been a constant, major target of U.S. low-intensity warfare since 1991. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Republican and Democratic administrations alike used a combination of economic sanctions and periodic air strikes to “contain” the Iraqi government—at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives.5 In this and almost all other cases, the United States’ LIC operations have overwhelmingly targeted people of color.

Militarizing Border Enforcement

Ever since the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, the U.S. government has persecuted immigrants and foreigners repeatedly. For the past quarter century, undocumented immigrants (and those suspected of being undocumented immigrants) have faced an increasingly powerful repressive federal apparatus, especially in the U.S.-Mexico border region. Growing anti-immigrant racism, an aggressive foreign policy focus on Central America, the War on Drugs, and the end of the Cold War all helped define border enforcement as a national security issue. By 1998, the INS had more armed agents than any other federal law enforcement agency. Since 1994, largely as a result of harsh border control policies, 2,000 migrants have died trying to enter the United States from Mexico.6

As sociologist Timothy J. Dunn argues, U.S. border enforcement policy since 1978 represents an application of low-intensity conflict doctrine within the United States.7 Dunn examines a number of developments in border control policy since 1978 that, in combination, embody LIC principles:

INS funding grew steadily, with a disproportionate share of increases awarded to the Enforcement Division (which includes the Border Patrol) at the expense of services.

The Border Patrol more than tripled in size and became increasingly militarized in its weaponry and equipment and in its creation of elite “special forces” units. The Border Patrol’s power to conduct searches and make arrests expanded dramatically. The INS became increasingly geared toward long-term, punitive detention of suspects.

The INS engaged in a variety of efforts to coordinate and integrate forces with other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. The INS placed intelligence operatives in Mexico and Guatemala and shared intelligence with the CIA, the State Department, and the Pentagon.

The military became increasingly involved in domestic police work. Although barred from making arrests, searches, and seizures, the military increasingly provided civilian agencies with equipment, training, and intelligence, and took on a leading role monitoring the inflow of illegal drugs into the United States.

The INS planned and carried out large-scale roundups of civilians, such as the 1989-1990 arrest and deportation of thousands of Central American refugees in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. In 1992, the INS rounded up and deported at least 700 undocumented immigrants during the Los Angeles upheaval that followed the acquittal of Rodney King’s police attackers.

To some extent, these changes have been fueled by right-wing hate campaigns against “illegal aliens.” But both liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, have supported the militarization of border enforcement.

Low-Intensity Conflict Goes National

The growth of state repression since September 11, 2001, intensifies low-intensity conflict and extends it throughout the United States. The War on Terrorism blurs the line between external and internal threats and between combat and law enforcement, involving both military and civilian agencies in a comprehensive effort to control Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian noncitizens and immigrants.

President George W. Bush himself drew the connection between fighting terrorism and low-intensity conflict almost immediately. In October 2001, within days of appointing Tom Ridge to head the new Office for Homeland Security, Bush gave Secretary of the Army Thomas White two new jobs: Defense Department interim executive agent for Homeland Security and acting assistant secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict.8

The recent crackdown has incorporated many of the same LIC elements seen in border enforcement—this time on an even larger national scale: mass round-ups and punitive detentions, expanded powers of arrest and surveillance, integration and militarization of civilian law enforcement, and growing involvement of the military in domestic intelligence and police work.

The round-ups began first. In the weeks after September 11, 2001, the FBI and INS detained at least 1,200 non-citizens from Middle Eastern and Muslim countries. The vast majority of them were held for alleged immigration violations, often secretly and under conditions that Amnesty International described as “harshly punitive” and a violation of basic rights. Many of them were deported; almost none were charged with any crimes connected with terrorism. In December 2002, the INS began a new round of mass arrests as part of a program requiring young men from Arab and Muslim countries to register with the government.9

Through executive order and statute, the federal government has sharply expanded its own repressive powers. The USA Patriot Act—which passed the Senate with only one dissenting vote—gives the executive branch unprecedented latitude to conduct searches, wiretapping, and other surveillance, and to share information between criminal and intelligence operations. The law creates a vague new crime of “domestic terrorism,” which encompasses illegal acts “dangerous to human life” if they “appear to be intended…to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” The Patriot Act comes down hardest on non-citizens, who may now be detained virtually indefinitely without due process and deported for almost any association with political groups the government defines as terrorist.10

Acting in the spirit of the Patriot Act, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a new rule, nullifying attorney-client privilege. Now the Justice Department may, without judicial oversight, wiretap conversations between prison inmates and their attorneys when there is “reasonable suspicion to believe” that such conversations “further facilitate acts of violence or terrorism.” The Justice Department also subjected thousands of young Arab men to “voluntary” questioning based solely on their gender, national origin, and time of entry into the United States, sought to use student advisors to investigate international students, and urged Neighborhood Watch groups—in the name of terrorism prevention—to report on people who were “unfamiliar” or who acted in ways that were “suspicious” or “not normal.” FBI officials, meanwhile, openly discussed ways to coerce arrestees into talking, “using drugs or pressure tactics such as those employed by Israeli interrogators”—i.e., torture. Such developments, not surprisingly, have brought a pervasive climate of fear to many Muslim and Arab American communities.11

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), signed into law in November 2002, embodies the trend toward integrating and militarizing civilian law enforcement. With 170,000 employees and a budget initially estimated at $37 billion, DHS is the third-largest federal department. DHS has subsumed 22 federal agencies, including the INS, the Coast Guard, Customs, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Secret Service, the Transportation Security Administration, the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Inspections division, the Energy Department’s Environmental Measurements Laboratory, and many others. These agencies must now subordinate their diverse missions and priorities to the War on Terrorism.12

Within the INS, the increasingly militarized Enforcement Division has long been favored over the services branch. In its new DHS home, the INS is being split in a way that increases this disparity. Enforcement has been placed in the Bureau of Border and Transportation Security—by far the largest and most heavily funded of the DHS’s major divisions. The services branch of the INS has been isolated as the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, a much smaller division that will probably have little clout within the department.

The Coast Guard has changed in parallel ways. Before September 11, the Coast Guard’s top priorities were stopping the depletion of fisheries and protecting the environment. After September 11, the Coast Guard heavily increased funding for its counter-terrorism operations and assembled several “maritime SWAT teams,” while funding for non-homeland security programs stagnated. The Coast Guard’s move into DHS cements this shift.

Pentagon Operations on the Home Front

Especially characteristic of low-intensity conflict has been the U.S. military’s growing role within U.S. borders and in law enforcement. In April 2002, the Pentagon announced creation of the Northern Command (NORCOM) to consolidate all of the military’s homeland security duties. NORCOM is responsible for military defense of North America and providing aid to civilian authorities in counter-drug operations and in response to natural disasters or terrorist attacks. While noting that the military is legally barred from acting as a domestic police force, NORCOM head General Ralph Eberhart said that he “won’t hesitate to propose changes” to such rules “if we…see something we think will tie our hands.”13

Even without such rule changes, the Pentagon has stepped up its domestic spying efforts. The Defense Department’s Total Information Awareness (TIA) project, headed by retired admiral and former Iran-Contra defendant John Poindexter, seeks to track individuals by compiling and analyzing massive amounts of data from diverse sources, including financial, medical, travel, and communication records, as well as intelligence data. In February 2003, a new law placed a partial moratorium on TIA—but allowed its use against the millions of immigrants who are not U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.14

Further blurring the line between combat and civilian functions, the War on Terrorism also gives the military a judicial role. In November 2001, President Bush authorized the creation of military commissions to try non-U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism. These commissions lack basic constitutional protections: trials will be conducted in secret, defendants will not be able to choose their own attorneys, normal rules of evidence will not apply, and verdicts will be rendered by judges appointed by the secretary of defense, with no appeal available to an independent court.15

Non-citizens are the primary (and most vulnerable) targets of such measures—but not the only ones. At least two U.S. citizens designated as “unlawful enemy combatants”—Yaser Esam Hamdi and Jose Padilla (Abdullah Al Mujahir)—have been held incommunicado in military detention without being charged and without access to their lawyers. Building on these precedents, the Bush Administration has considered setting up military detention camps for U.S. citizens labeled as enemy combatants, and has argued that federal courts have no say in the matter. A district judge has ruled that Padilla can appeal his status as an “enemy combatant” in federal court and has a right to counsel until his status is decided. But in Hamdi’s case, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that courts must defer to the president on these matters during wartime16—an as yet undetermined and indefinite period given the “endless” nature of the war on terror.

Preventive Repression

The post-September 11 crackdown is a means for the U.S. government to establish control over civilian groups it regards as actually or potentially disloyal. A number of critics have argued that many homeland security measures are misdirected and badly designed because they fail to zero in on the “real” terrorists. But U.S. officials have for years defined terrorism broadly, precisely in order to marginalize and criminalize a broad range of dissident political groups and activities. The Reagan Administration’s official task force on terrorism, for example, defined it as “the unlawful use of or threat of violence against persons or property to further political or social objectives.”17 The USA Patriot Act follows directly in this tradition.

In discussing the implications of low-intensity conflict in the border region, Timothy Dunn notes that its effect “can be interpreted as ‘preventive repression,’ enacted…to impede the development of critical ideologies and social movements among subordinate groups in a crucial region that was vulnerable to instability.”18

Dunn’s comments about preventive repression point to a larger strategic shift by security forces in the United States and abroad. A 1998 European Parliament committee report warned about the rise of “pre-emptive policing,” in which law enforcement agencies gather massive quantities of data in order to track “certain social classes and races of people living in redlined areas before crime is committed.” Ken Lawrence has argued that the U.S. government moved toward preventive repression after the upheavals of the 1960s, when older, more reactive models of repression proved inadequate. Where once U.S. rulers regarded insurgency as “an occasional, erratic idiosyncrasy of people who are exploited and oppressed,” Lawrence asserts, elites now view insurgency as a permanent reality that security forces must actively combat at all times. The State’s new strategy of “permanent repression” involves penetrating and disrupting oppositional forces before they reach the stage of open insurgency.19

The United States is waging an open-ended global war against “Islamic extremism” and has led the full-scale invasion of a major Arab state, Iraq. In this context, many Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian immigrants—like undocumented immigrants in the U.S.-Mexico border region—represent subordinate groups with a real potential for “disloyalty” to the U.S. government and political order. This makes them prime targets for preventive repression. Repression against them, furthermore, encourages unity and obedience among other groups by providing a shared scapegoat—and by showing what happens to those whose loyalty is suspect.


The U.S. government’s current crackdown against Middle Eastern and South Asian people is not only rooted in a sudden nativist upsurge, or even in a long history of racist bigotry. It is also rooted in a quasi-military system of control developed steadily over decades. This system is being rapidly expanded and deepened, and there is no reason to assume that the current main targets will be the last. The U.S. government’s low-intensity conflict operations at home both echo and strengthen its military aggression against Iraq and other countries. We need to highlight this connection, not fall into the trap of treating “war” and “civil liberties” as separate issues. The problem is not only specific leaders or policies. It is a political and social order that preaches freedom while using force and fear to protect elite power.


1 Associated Press, 2002. “Overview of Changes to Legal Rights,” September 5, 2002. http://www.efn.org/~lcbordc/overviewenglish.pdf
2 Ramasastry, Anita. 2002. “Concentration Camps on the Way in the US,” Guardian, September 25, 2002. http://www.cpa.org.au/garchve5/1110camps.html
3 On the general outlines of LIC doctrine, see Dunn, Timothy J. 1996. The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1978-1992: Low-Intensity Conflict Doctrine Comes Home. Austin, TX: Center for Mexican American Studies, University of Texas at Austin, especially pp. 19-30.
4 Ibid., p. 24.
5 Gordon, Joy. 2002. “Cool War: Economic Sanctions as a Weapon of Mass Destruction,” Harper’s Magazine, November 2002; Nagy, Thomas J. 2001. “The Secret Behind the Sanctions: How the U.S. Intentionally Destroyed Iraq’s Water Supply,” Progressive, September 2001, pp. 22-25.
6 INS Raids Task Force, 1998. “Notes from Conference Call #8,” February 12, 1998, p. 1; Garcia, Arnoldo. 2002. “No Nation of Immigrants Would Treat Immigrants This Way,” Network News Oakland: National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Spring 2002. http://www.nnirr.org/news/archived_netnews/no_nation.htm
7 Dunn, op. cit. For additional information about border enforcement, see the website of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, Syracuse University. http://trac.syr.edu
8 Levin, Carl. 2001. “Opening Statement of Senator Carl Levin, Chairman, Committee on Armed Services, Hearing on the Role of the Department of Defense in Homeland Security,” October 25, 2001. http://levin.senate.gov/floor/102501cs1.htm
9 Amnesty International, 2002. “USA: Post 11 September detainees deprived of their basic rights,” March 14, 2002. http://web.amnesty.org/ai.nsf/print/ AMR51042002?OpenDocument; Anderson, Curt. 2002. “US Details Post 9/11 Arrests,” Boston Globe, December 12, 2002, p. A35; Fainaru, Steve. 2002. “Detainees Offer Glimpse of Life in N.Y. Facility,” Washington Post, April 17, 2002, p. A1; Sarjeant, Jill. 2002. “Hundreds of Muslim Immigrants Rounded Up in Calif.” Reuters, December 18, 2002. http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=top-News&storyID=1931961
10 Chang, Nancy. 2002. “The USA PATRIOT Act: What’s So Patriotic About Trampling on the Bill of Rights?,” New York: Center for Constitutional Rights. April 18, 2002. http://www.ccr-ny.org/whatsnew/usa_patriot_act.asp
11 Ratner, Michael. “Moving Toward a Police State or Have We Arrived? Secret Military Tribunals, Mass Arrests and Disappearances, Wiretapping & Torture,” n.d. http://www.humanrightsnow.org/policestate.htm; American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 2002. “ADC Fact Sheet: The Condition of Arab Americans Post-9/11,” March 27, 2002; American Civil Liberties Union, 2002. “On Eve of Sixth-Month Anniversary of September 11th, ACLU Says Terrorist Attacks Have Changed American Law, Society,” March 8, 2002. http://www.aclu.org/safeandfree/index.html; Lam, Andrew. 2002. “Homeland Security Changes America,” Pacific News Service, December 20, 2002. http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=14831; on the U.S. government’s use of torture, see also Press, Eyal. 2003. “In Torture We Trust?,” Nation, March 31, 2003, pp. 11-16.
12 The discussion of the DHS in this and the following two paragraphs is based largely on Hukill, Traci Rae. 2002. “Insecurity Complex,” Coast Weekly, December 3, 2002. http://www.alternet.org.story.html?StoryID=14682. See also the DHS web site at http://www.dhs.gov.
13 O’Driscoll, Patrick. 2002. “‘One-stop’ agency coordinates defense,” USA Today, September 30, 2002. http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2002-09-30-northerncommand-usat_x.htm. See also Center for Defense Information, 2002. “The Impact of Sept. 11, 2001 on the Unified Command Plan,” May 22, 2002. http://www.cdi.org/terrorism/ucp.cfm
14 Electronic Privacy Information Center, “Total Information Awareness (TIA),” n.d. http://www.epic.org/privacy/profiling/tia/; “H.J. Res 2 (Public Law 108-7) (pages 1118-1123),” Electronic Privacy Information Center. http://www.epic.org/privacy/profiling/tia/pub_law_108-7.hml
15 Ratner, op. cit.
16 Ramasastry, op. cit.; 2002. “Prosecutors: Suspect Did ‘Dirty Bomb’ Research in Pakistan,” CNN.com Law Center. http://www.cnn.com/2002/LAW/08/28/dirty.bomb.suspect/; Hurwitz, Ken. 2002. “Hamdi vs. Rumsfeld: Court Issues a ‘We’ll Look the Other Way’ Decision,” Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. http://www.lchr.org/us_law/us_law_02.htm; American Civil Liberties Union, 2002. “ACLU Calls Victory for Right to Counsel in Enemy Combatant Case Positive Step,” December 4, 2002. http://www.aclu.org/NationalSecurity/NationalSecurity.cfmID=11414&c=111;ACLU-Massachusetts. 2003. “Civil Liberties Update—January, 2003.” http://www.aclu-mass.org/general/civlibupdateJanuary.html
17 Dunn, op. cit., p. 26.
18 Ibid., p. 162.
19 Ballantyne, Robin. 1998. “The Technology of Political Control,” CovertAction Quarterly 64 (Spring 1998), p. 20; Lawrence, Ken. 1985. The New State Repression. Chicago: International Network Against New State Repression, pp. 2-3.

Matthew N. Lyons is an independent scholar and freelance writer who studies reactionary and supremacist movements. He co-authored Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort with Chip Berlet.