Al Qaeda As A Non State Actor In Contemporary International Relations

Project and Seminar Material for History

Al Qaeda As A Non State Actor In Contemporary International Relations

Chapter One

Non State Actors In Contemporary International Relations


One of the most prominent features of the global political system in the second half of the twentieth century is the significant surge in numbers and importance of non-state entities. These non-state entities are heroes and villains in different narratives of international politics. They are actors on the international level which are not states. The rise of these transnationally organized non-state actors and their growing involvement in world politics challenge or rebuke the assumptions of “Realism” and traditional approaches of international relations, which argue that interactions between states are the main relationship of interest in studying international system. While some authors recognize that these non-sovereign entities and their activities have led to fundamental changes in world politics, others maintain that the structure of the international system can still be treated on the basis of inter-state relations.

At this point let us look at the different paradigms actors to enable us understand the concept of non-state actors in the contemporary international relations. These are contending theoretical approaches.

Actors in World Politics: Contending Theoretical Approaches

Actors in the classical Realist paradigm. Since the end of World War II, Realism also known as the power-politics school of though has dominated the field of international relations. Although according to Smith, “it faces sustained challenge, Realism continues to provide for a large number of scholars and foreign policy makers the basic assumptions for the analysis of world politics”.1

The ideas of Realism date as far back as Thucydides whose History of the Peloponnesian War is recognized as the first attempt to explain the origins of international conflict in terms of the dynamics of power-politics, says Evans and Newnham.2 As a distinctive paradigm, however, Smith makes us to understand that “Realism” emerged after World War II as a challenge to the Idealist school of thought that dominated the interwar period and whose overriding aim had been the prevention of another World War.3

World War II brought the realist perspective to the centre of Anglo-American thinking on international affairs. The pursuit of hegemony and world conquest by Nazism had put into question the effectiveness of international institutions and stressed the role of power in world politics. According to Kegley and Wittkopt, one of the main causes of the Second War was to be found in the naïve Legalistic and Moralistic premises of ‘Idealism’ as exemplified by such ideas as collective security.4 Although ‘Idealism’ continued to have a certain influence in world politics after World War II, as evidenced by the establishment of the United Nations, the realist approach superseded it, especially after the advent of the Cold War. At that time most states believed that peace could and should be attained, not through appeasement, but through military strength as the state’s inherent drive is the pursuit of national power.

The development of Realism as a distinctive paradigm in international relations has been most clearly identified with the ‘founding’ works of E. H. Carr, The Twentieth Year’s Crisis and Hans Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations. These works developed what Morgenthau called “political Realism” in a clear effort to challenge idealist and liberal writers on international affairs. According to Keohane, this early or ‘Classical Realism’ may be said to be based on three fundamental assumptions, which are:

  1. The state-centric assumption whereby states are the primary and only important actors in world politics.
  2. The rationality assumption whereby states are analyzed as if they were rational and unitary actors.
  3. The power assumption whereby states primarily seek power, most often military power, both as a means and as an end in itself.5

Although these assumptions do not establish a genuine scientific basis, they had a definite appeal in sense that they were promptly applicable to the practical problems of international relations. As Keohane puts it, they provide readily comprehensible set of steps to be followed by those seeking to understand and deal with potential threats to security of their states.6 This in all probability also explains partly why “Realism” has been the most accepted approach to international affairs since the peace settlement of Westphalia in 1648 legitimized the state system.

The key to understanding the assumptions of political realism lies in the concept of power. Morgenthau contends that, “international politics like all politics, is a struggle for power”.7 Moreover, ‘All political policy seeks either to keep power, to increase power, or to demonstrate power.8 According to him, states alone have the necessary resources to exercise power”, they are consequently the most important actors. In Morgenthau’s view the obvious measure of a nation’s power is found in military strength. Such power is the main determinant for the place of state actors in the hierarchically arranged international system, the agenda of which is dominated by security concerns.9

Because the state constitutes the only significant actor in international relations, realists consider that this field is best analyzed in terms of interstate relations. According to Russett and Starr, the state acting through its government, is seen as a unitary and rational actor which pursues, above all, national interests and competes in this matter with other nation-states in an environment characterized by anarchy.10

Realists maintain that governments act rationally because they have ordered preferences. In interaction with one another, governments or states calculate the costs and benefits of all alternative policies so as to choose those practices that maximize their interests.

According to ‘Realists’, actors in world politics are defined on the basis of three main criteria:

  1. Sovereignty
  2. Recognition of state hood
  3. And the control of territory and population.

Other entities on the international scene cannot be seen as distinct and autonomous entities because they do not combine these three essentials for actornness. International organizations, such as the United Nations, are characterized as instruments or extensions of states with little influence on nation-states interactions.

Actors in Liberal-Pluralist Paradigm

The assumptions of classical Realism have been challenged throughout the evolution of the field of international relations. As Smith puts it, “the history of the subject until the 1970s is really one of self-conscious rejection of realism, with scholar seeing themselves as engaged in an enterprise that was altogether different from traditionalism of Morgenthau”.11 Banks tells us that it was not until the mid-1970s, however, that a real challenge to ‘Realism’ emerged from various scholarly developments.12 The growth of non-state actors, particularly Multinational Corporations (MNCs), International Organizations such as the United Nations, and Transnationally organized groups, in the post-world war II period, led many scholars to question state-centrism because it assumes that states are the only important actors in the world politics.

Generally, scholars like Keohane and Nye argued that “Realism” no longer offer a comprehensive theory because of fundamental changes in the structure of the international system. With the technological revolution in communication and transportation, global politics was now characterized by growing interdependence, the spread of transnationalism and the appearance of new global issues within the economic, cultural and technical realm.13 These liberal pluralists asked for an alternative pluralistic paradigm to assess the complexities and transformations of contemporary world politics, arguing that “Realism” only provided ‘a narrow and incomplete description and explanation of world affairs. Keohane and Nye were among the first scholars to call for a revision of the state-centric paradigm, because it failed to recognize the importance of non-state actors. In their 1971 essay collection “Transnational Realism and World politics”, they identify the phenomena of ‘international interaction’ which they defined as:

“The movement of tangible or intangible items across state boundaries when at least one actor is not an agent of a government”

They concluded that neither the state is necessarily the only important actor in world politics nor the ‘gate-keeper between intra-societal and extra-societal flows of actions’.

The Mixed Actor Paradigm

The concept of mixed actor only really gained currency during the late 1980s, although it was introduced much earlier by Oran Young in his seminal article “The Actors in world politics” (1972) in the beginning of the 70s. Identifying a movement away from ‘Realism’, Young proposed a conceptual framework challenging the single actor model of the state-centric view of politics. According to Young, the basic notion of a system of mixed actors requires a movement away from the assumption of homogeneity with respect to types of actors and, therefore, a retreat from the postulate of the state as the fundamental unit in world politics. Instead the mixed-actor world view envisions a situation in which several quantitatively different types of actor interact in the absence of any settled pattern of dominance submission or hierarchical relationship.15

Rosenau contends that the greater interdependence of the international system and the increased interaction capacity that goes along with it has led to the bifurcation of global politics into world politics: An autonomous multi-centric world composed of sovereignty-free actors now coexists, competes and interacts with the old state-centric world characterized by states and their interactions.16 According to Rosenau, this multi-centric world can be said to exist because the importance of actors is determined by their capability to initiate and sustain actions rather than their legal status or sovereignty. Although they are located within the jurisdiction of states, the sovereignty-free actors of the multi-centric world are able to evade the constraints of states and pursue their own goals.17 Their adherence to state-centric rules is mostly formalistic.18

Rosenau tries to distinguish between two separate sets of complex actors that overlap and interact even as they also maintain a high degree of independence. Rosenau’s two-world concept presents an international system in which state and non-state actors co-exist. In this sense his model offers an interesting attempt to formulate a general theory of international relations because it takes a first step in merging Realist and Pluralist elements into a single theoretical framework.

However, a clear conception of non-state actors is needed more than ever, especially as a prerequisite for enhancing the understanding of contemporary international relations. Let us begin by proposing a definition of an Actor in world politics.

According to Oran Young, he defines an actor in world politics as:

“any organized entity that is composed, at least indirectly, of human beings, is not wolly subordinate to any other actor in the world system in effective terms, and participates in power relationships with other actors”.19

This definition suggests that to be considered an actor in world politics the entity under consideration needs to possess a degree of autonomy and influence rather than the legal and state-related status of sovereignty.


The international relations and global politics must always, in its interpretation take the significance of non state actors operating transnationally into account in this contemporary period. The proliferation of non-state actors in the post-cold war era has been one of the factors leading to the theorizing of the cobweb paradigm in international politics. Under this paradigm, the international Westphalia nation-state is experiencing an erosion of power and sovereignty due to their failures or vacuums created by them, which non-state actors now play complementary roles to cover up these lacunae created by states. Facilitated by globalization, non-state actors have challenged nation-state borders and claim to sovereignty.

Non-state actors are challenging the nation-state’s sovereignty over internal matters through advocacy for societal issues, for example, human rights and the environment.20 There also exist many armed non-state actors, for example opposition groups, that operate without state control and are involved in trans-border conflicts. The prevalence of these groups in armed conflicts has added layers of complexity to traditional conflict management and resolution. These conflicts are often fought not only between non-state actors and states, but also between non-states actors. Any attempts at intervention in such conflicts has been particularly challenging given the fact that international law and norms governing the use of force for intervention or peacekeeping purposes has been primarily written in the context of the nation-state.21 So, the demands of non-state actors at the local and international level have further complicated international relations.

There are various definitions of the term non state actors. But the definition of Daphne Josselin and William Wallace would be considered. They have both defined non state actors to include organizations:

Largely or entirely autonomous from central government funding and control emanating from civil society, or from the market economy, or from political impulses beyond state control and direction.

Operating as or participating in networks which extend across the boundaries of two or more states. Thus engaging in transnational relations, linking political systems, economics and societies.

Acting in ways which affect political outcomes, either within one or more states or within international institutions, either purposefully or semi-purposefully, either as their primary objective or as one aspect of their activities.22

Purpose Of Non State Actors

The purpose of non state actors can be seen from various perspectives considering the configuration of these non state actors. Some of them are political, economic, humanitarian, social, cultural, religious non state actors. So they exist to the fulfillment of their desired goals or objectives. Here are a few listed purposes of non state actors:

  1. To achieve economic and commercial balance between the north and the south.
  2. To prevent the outbreak of war through discussion and dialogue.
  3. To help promote international social cooperation.
  4. To help bring the problems of a particular religious group to the front burner of international discussion.
  5. To help elevate and improve the standard of human life.
  6. To help a state or group of states make economic profits.
  7. To create indirect inequality of opportunity which includes economic, political, military, social, cultural etc. among states in the international system.
  8. To help promotes and conduct the affairs of states in their relations with one another.
  9. To check the excess of individuals and states in the international system.23

The purposes of non-state actors are very numerous to mention. But the purpose of this research would operate within the frame-work of the above listed purposes of non state actors.

Types Of Non State Actors

Following the traditional classification, non state actors are divided into two categories. They are:

  1. International Governmental Organizations (IGOs)
  2. International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs)

Both IGOs and INGOs are alike in having participants from more than one state. According to Jacobson, IGO is defined as an:

“Institutional structure created by agreement among two or more sovereign states for the conduct of regular political interaction”.24

According to Evans and Newnham, IGOs constituents members are states and its representative are governmental agents.25 This type of organization has meetings of the state representatives at relatively frequent intervals, detailed procedures for decision making, and a permanent secretariat. States establish these IGOs to pursue many objectives for which they want to cooperate through sort of formal structure and to which states are unable to realize by themselves. There are hundreds of IGOs in today’s world which are mainly significant in their respective fields. They are created by treaties and negotiations which mainly reflect preferences of stronger states. Especially stronger states create IGOs because they need them to protect their interest. By and large, decisions made by IGOs are the product of negotiations among the governmental representatives assigned to them. In general, it is not idealism, but the need of states which tend them to cooperate with other states in the context of IGOs. Therefore, they are part of the Westphalian state system in which IGOs are instruments of nation-states.26

IGOs may be classified by scope as:

  1. Global
  2. Regional

By function as:

  1. Economical
  2. Social
  3. Environmental

Global IGOs includes the United Nations (UN), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, International Labour Organization etc. IGOs monitor principles, norms and rules of international institutions and international regimes in nation-states. IGOs play effective role in economic issue areas. They decrease the cost of information gathering which is more important for poor and small countries. For example, the United Nation plays a key role for states, especially small states, in receiving information about international politics and systemic issues.

The Regional IGOs includes the European Union (EU), AFRICAN Union (AU), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) etc. they also play roles that are similar to the global IGOs to their member states at the regional level.

International Non-Governmental Organization (INGO)

According to a UN decision, INGOs are defined as “any international organization which has not been established by an inter-governemntal agreement” including those which accept governmental agencies or ministers as members.27 Their numbers increased more than 23,000 in the early 1990s and their effectiveness for transnational policies become “crucial participant in the international policy process”.29 INGOs create and mobilize global networks by creating transnational organizations, gathering information on local conditions through contacts around the world, alerting global network of supporters to conditions requiring attention, creating emergency response around the world, and mobilizing pressure from outside states. Some of these INGOs are:

  1. Multinational Corporations (MNCs)
  2. National Liberation Movement (NLMs)
  3. Religious and humanitarian Organizations
  4. Terrorist groups and drug traffickers

The most prominent contemporary INGOs are multinational Corporations (MNCs), they are huge firms that own and control plants and offices in at least more than one country and sell their goods and services around the world. They are large corporations having branches and subsidiaries operating on a worldwide basis in many countries simultaneously. They are major driver of global economic integration and establish unprecedented linkages among economic worldwide.30 MNCs can be classified according to the kinds of business activities they pursue such as extractive resources, agriculture, industrial products, transportation, banking and tourism. The most notable MNCs are industrial and financial corporation (banks being the most important). According to Miyoshi, naturally the primary objective of MNCs is profit maximization.31 Examples of MNCs are Coca-Cola, Shell, Chevron, Guinness, etc.

National Liberation Movements (NLMs)

NLMs are formed by individuals who give loyalty to and identify themselves with ethno-national groups besides nation-states. Many people pledge their primary allegiance not to the state and government that rules them, but rather to their ethno-national group which shares a common civilization, language, cultural tradition, and ties of kinship. As a result of this, national liberation movements are increasingly gaining importance in the world setting. NLMs have been playing an effective role in international politics for decades, especially in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Examples of them are:

Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) which has been playing a key role in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

African National Congress (ANC) of Nelson Mandela of South Africa which eventually brought down the white supremacist government.

SWAPO of Nambia

There are some stateless nations also that are effective actors of international relations. They are: Palestinians, the Catholics in North Ireland, the Tibetans in China, the Basques and Catalonians in Spain, the Quebecois in Canada, the muslims of Kashmir and Serbia, the Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka, and the Kurds in the Middle East.32

The Epistemic Communities

These communities provide technical knowledge to increase international cooperation. They are communities of experts sharing a belief in a common set of cause-and-effect relationships as well as common values to which policies governing these relationships will be applied.

The Religious And Humanitarian Organization

These are INGOs organized on religious basis and human rights lines. The most influential religious group is the Catholic Church. It was a major force in the middle Ages. Superior to kings and emperors. The most notable example of international human rights regime is constituted by the council of Europe. The European Commission of Human Rights receives, reviews, and evaluates complaints from individuals living in the member states, and the European Court of Human Rights makes legally binding decisions. Member states turned over their sovereignty to the organization on these issues. These non-state actors are mainly concern about morality, human rights, environment and social values. For example, International Red Cross, International Red Crescent, and Amnesty International are the most well known and influential NGOs among humanitarian international organizations that monitor human rights worldwide. The first two gives assistance to wartime prisoners and send help in areas affected by natural and man made disasters in peace time. They mainly work along with the United Nations and related organizations lines.

Terrorist Groups And Drug Traffickers

This group use terrorism as the main instrument and largely lack large scale support from the public although national liberation movements and ethnic groups sometimes use terrorism, terrorist organizations are different from NLMs since terrorism is their main means of struggle. Individuals and groups engage in terrorism for different political, economic, social, religious, cultural and even personal reasons. Their goals are to publicize their grievances and aspirations to international community by hijacking, assassinating, kidnapping, and attacking on embassies. As long as the state system and the world system leaves some groups or states out of the system, terrorism will continue to be an instrument of those who are weak. However, strong states also use “state terrorism” against the powerless groups or states.33 The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on United States have made other states in the international system to be on security alert all over the world.

Terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, Talibans are the most talked about groups in the world. Even though drug traffickers are engaged in profitable ‘transnational business’, they are similar to terrorist organizations because they use illegal means, including assassinations and kidnappings and deal with products banned by international community.

The role of non-state actors in the international system is so great that some states have given away part of their economic, military, social and even political sovereignty to these non-state actors. Non state actors have been able to cover up for states in the areas where they are facing problems or where they have failed. Also some non-state actors have created some problems that the international system is trying to solve now. By and large, the role of the non-state actors cannot be ignored, whether positive or negative.

Get Complete Project Material

5,000 5000

The Complete Material Will Be Sent to You in Just 2 Steps

Quick & Simple…

Step One Purchase

Make Payment (Through Transfer) of ₦5,000 to the Account Below

Zenith BankAcc No: 1225513212
Samphina Academy
Current Account

Or CLICK HERE To Pay With Debit Card

CLICK HERE To Purchase Material ($15)

Step Two Purchase

Send the Following Details on WhatsApp ( 08143831497) After Payment

  1. Payment Details

  2. TOPIC: Al Qaeda As A Non State Actor In Contemporary International Relations

The Complete Material Will Be Sent To You On WhatsApp After Receiving Your Details
T & C Apply

  Contact Our Help Desk

Need a Different Topic? Perform a Quick Search

List of Related Works

Click on Any Topic to Preview the Content

Samphina Academy

Samphina Academy is an Online Educational Resource Center that is aimed at providing students with quality information and materials to aid them in succeeding in their academic pursuit.