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Applying the theory and techniques of Situational Criminology to COIN: reducing insurgency through situational prevention.



This article introduces the 25 techniques of Situational Crime Prevention (SCP). These techniques are based on a set of powerful theories within the fields of Environmental and Situational Criminology and offer a practical means to apply these theories to the reality of the asymmetric battlefield. Use of the 25 techniques would expand our repertoire of interventions, and enable a security force to intervene in the causal chain events to prevent or reduce the occurrence of insurgent violence and crime.

Relevance of Situational Prevention in COIN

Counterinsurgency (COIN) techniques should be the practical application of good theory. Regrettably, theory is often considered irrelevant to security forces when conducting COIN operations. Criminologists Marcus Felson and Ronald Clarke argue this irrelevance likely comes from attributing insurgency solely to political, religious, or socioeconomic factors. Unfortunately, these factors are often beyond the purview of counterinsurgency, and therefore, often have little practical application. (1)

Opportunity theories within criminology could bring theoretical relevance to COIN operations by emphasizing principles and techniques that can be implemented at all levels of conflict to reduce insurgent violence and crime. These techniques are derived from the following three theoretical approaches: routine activity theory, crime pattern theory, and the rational choice perspective. Felson and Clarke say these theories build on the old adage that "opportunity makes the thief." In COIN operations these theories build on David Kilcullen's concept of the "accidental guerilla." These theories, principles, and techniques are described here as are techniques that can be used to reduce insurgent opportunities, and thereby also reduce insurgent violence, crime, and the number of accidental guerillas. (2)

Behavior is a Function of Both the Person and the Environment

Individual behavior is a function of both the person and the environment. This is one of the most well known principles in Social Psychology, and is referred to as Lewin's Equation, often expressed in the symbolic terms of B = f (P, E). Most COIN theories focus primarily on the person and discount the situational factors within the environment that turn an insurgent's motivation into action. (3)

Insurgency is a form of behavior, and as such is also governed by the Lewin's Equation. Insurgent behavior depends upon the conjunction of motivation (of whatever nature and whatever source) with opportunity (whether defined in terms of risks, efforts or rewards of the act). (4) Lewin's Equation shows the importance of the immediate situation in understanding an insurgent's behavior, rather than relying solely upon their past experiences. The causal effect that the environment has on insurgent behavior is evidenced by the fact that no attack can take place without overcoming the physical requirements to carry it out.

Conversely, the majority of people with strong political or religious grievances do not take up arms against the state, and many of the people that do participate in a rebellion belong to the upper or middle class. (5) At this time there is no theory based upon the person that will always lead to an insurgency, but situational opportunities within the environment are always necessary for insurgent activity to occur.

Insurgent violence and crime are, in part, a result of situational opportunities within the environment. If we approach insurgent acts of violence as politically motivated crimes, they can be prevented or reduced through the application of the 25 techniques of SCP. These techniques originate from five core principles: increasing effort, increasing risk, reducing rewards, removing excuses, and reducing provocations.

Theoretical Perspectives

SCP is a strategy that addresses specific crimes, or insurgent activity by managing, designing, and manipulating the environment in a manner that seeks to increase the risk to the offender, while reducing the offender's potential reward for committing the act. (6) It is informed by theory, and as stated earlier has Lewin's Equation as one of its foundations. Situational prevention also draws from three approaches within Criminology: Routine Activity Theory, Crime Pattern Theory, and the Rational Choice Perspective.

These three theories are often referred to collectively and individually as opportunity theories. Each of the theories is unique, but they all share three common assumptions. The first assumption is that crime, in this case insurgent activity, is a result of an interaction between disposition and situation. The second and third commonalties are that all three theories seek to explain criminal acts, not criminals, and stress the importance of situational opportunities.

Routine Activity Theory. Routine Activity Theory was developed by criminologists Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson and states that in order for a crime to occur three things must come together at the same time and place: a likely offender, a suitable target, and the absence of a capable guardian to prevent the crime. This theory assumes there is always a likely offender, and focuses on targets, guardianship, and place. (7) Because all three elements must be present for a crime to occur, if you can control one element you can prevent or reduce crime. This is often modeled as the "Basic Crime Triangle", but could also be viewed as a "Basic Attack Triangle" as shown below.


The guardian is not always a member of a security force, but could be anyone whose presence or proximity would deter a crime from happening. A target can be a person, place, or an object whose location in time and space puts it at more or less risk of criminal attack. (8)

Routine Activity Theory considers targets from the criminal's point of view. Evaluating targets from an insurgent's point of view is important because insurgents, like criminals, will only be interested in targets they value. This provides some explanation as to why every potential criminal opportunity is not exploited, and why every potential insurgent target is not attacked.

Felson and Clarke state that, "although the routine activity theory begins with the basic elements of crime and activity patterns, it ends up emphasizing changes in technology and organization on a societal scale." (9) A societal scale example would be the increased use of global communications technology by everyday people. This technology is exploited to increase the political value of insurgent violence and acts of terrorism, and allows the movement of information and money across regional and international boundaries. These are structural changes in the situational opportunities for insurgency and terrorism that have societal implications. (10)

Crime Pattern Theory. Crime Pattern Theory was developed by environmental criminologists Patricia and Paul Brantingham. It seeks to discover how offenders look for and find criminal opportunities in the course of their everyday lives. Because insurgent violence is mechanically and operationally the same as ordinary crime, it can be used to understand how insurgents identify and select targets while going about their activities of daily living.

Crime Pattern Theory. This argues that opportunities for insurgent violence do not always occur randomly, insurgents often search for and create these opportunities. Crime Pattern Theory also provides insight into how an insurgent evaluates these opportunities and chooses to act upon them.

There are three main elements of Crime Pattern Theory: nodes, paths, and edges. Nodes are the places that a person goes such as home, work, and places of recreation. The space around these nodes is considered activity space which is a sub component of a person's overall awareness space. Activity space is where people do the things that they do: live, work, socialize, commit crime, or engage in insurgent activities.

Paths are the routes that people take to and from these nodes. Offenders and insurgents look for opportunities and targets around their activity nodes and along the paths between them. Edges refer to the boundaries of the areas where an insurgent lives and works. Certain types of attacks are more likely to occur at the edges, such as sectarian violence between ethnic groups. More violent events occur along the edges because people from different activity spaces come together at the edges. Clarke and Felson state that the edges become important because there is a distinction between insiders and outsiders. Insiders will more often attack within their activity spaces, while outsiders will find it safer to attack at the edges and then retreat into their own areas. (11)

Brantingham and Brantingham would argue that target selection is largely dependent on routine pathways used by insurgents to move between their normal, daily activity nodes. Attacks are most likely to occur where the awareness space of the insurgent transects with suitable targets. (12)

Crime Pattern Theory is also modeled with a triangle. The diagram (right) shows how an insurgent would go from his residence to work to recreation. Around these nodes of activity, and along the paths and edges he would look for situational opportunities to conduct attacks. Crime pattern theory posits that insurgents may find these opportunities a little ways off their paths, but they prefer to conduct operations in the areas that they know. This is because the effort and risk required to commit an attack increases the further an insurgent moves outside of his activity space. The diagram also shows a buffer zone around the insurgent's residence. There will be little insurgent activity within the buffer zone because of the risk of being identified and renounced to the authorities. There are five target areas within the diagram. Attacks are more likely to take place in target areas 1, 2, and 3 because they transect the insurgent's activity space. Target areas 4 and 5 are less likely to be attacked because they do not intersect with the insurgent's activity space. The insurgent may in fact be unaware of target areas 4 and 5 if they are also located outside of his awareness space.


Crime pattern theory also provides insight on how an insurgent evaluates opportunities and chooses to act upon them. The following is an adaptation of some of the principles of crime pattern theory taken from the institute of Canadian Urban Research Studies. As insurgents move through a series of activities they make decisions. When these activities, such as planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are repeated frequently, the decision process becomes routine. This routine creates an abstract guiding template. For decisions to commit a crime this is called a crime template. For decisions to commit insurgent attacks this can be called an attack template, and more specifically in this case, an IED attack template. (13)

Individual insurgents or networks of insurgents conduct attacks when there is a triggering event and a process by which they can locate a target or a victim that fits within an attack template. Insurgent actions change the bank of accumulated experience and alter future actions. This is also called scripting, and one of the goals of the counterinsurgent should be to rewrite the insurgent's script by introducing failure into their operations.

The following is an example of how this process could be applied to forming an IED attack template. A lightly defended convoy of military vehicles traveling down a pre-identified section of roadway is observed by an insurgent. This acts as a triggering event that fits his IED attack template, and the insurgent attempts to attack the convoy with an IED. If the attack is successful the template is reinforced. If the attack fails, or if an insurgent is captured or killed the template must be revised. During this period of revision, subsequent attacks may be prevented or delayed until the template can be rewritten, often resulting in a net decrease of attacks over time.


Rational Choice Perspective. The Rational Choice Perspective focuses on the insurgent's individual decision making process. Its main assumption is that insurgent activity is purposeful behavior and that it is designed to benefit the insurgent. The Rational Choice Perspective also attempts to see the act from the insurgent's point of view. Clarke describes the Rational Choice Perspective as seeking to "understand how offenders make crime choices when driven by a particular motive within a specific setting, which offers the opportunities to satisfy that motive." (14) It assumes the insurgent thinks before acting and takes into account some benefits and costs in committing an attack.

Although insurgents make rational decisions, their rationality is bounded by risk, uncertainty, and the operational constraints that they face. Clarke theorizes that the "offender's calculus is mostly based on that which is most evident and immediate, while neglecting the more remote costs and benefits of crime or its avoidance." (15)

Specificity is also an important aspect of the Rational Choice Perspective. To understand an insurgent's choices, it is necessary to analyze each specific type of attack. The reason for this specificity is that each type of attack has different objectives and is influenced by very different situational factors. For example, there are several different types of bombing attacks, including IEDs, car bombings, and suicide bombings.

This is not to say that insurgents who conduct one type of bombing would never conduct another, it simply states that conducting a suicide bombing attack is quite different from planting an IED. Each type of attack is conducted against entirely different targets, with different types of bombs, and different objectives. Insurgents have to make different choices when conducting different types of attacks, and therefore each type of attack must be analyzed specifically. (16) Specificity makes modus operandi a primary consideration within the rational choice perspective.

These three theories can be categorized by the level of explanation that they address. Routine Activity Theory looks at insurgent behavior from the societal level; Crime Pattern Theory addresses the Meso or local area, and the Rational Choice Perspective addresses the individual. Each theory treats situational opportunities as a cause of insurgent behavior, and focuses on what an insurgent actually does while engaging in these activities. Clarke and Felson argue that together these three theories tell us that insurgent opportunities can be changed by society and the local community, while the individual insurgent makes decisions in response to these changes. They further state that "altering the volume of crime opportunities at any level will produce a change in criminal outcomes." (17) Therefore, altering the volume of insurgent opportunities at any level will also produce a change in the outcomes of insurgent activities, in particular, violence and crime.

The Opportunity Structure of Insurgency

Clarke and Newman have identified a basic opportunity structure that is required for crime to occur, and have theorized that terrorism and insurgency require the same opportunity structure. The opportunity structure of terrorism and insurgency consists of targets, tools, weapons, and facilitating conditions. (18) They call these the "four pillars of terrorist opportunity," and state that they are a "result of technology, the physical environment of society, and the systems and services that help it to function." (19) The opportunity structure can be analyzed as described below.

Targets. Clarke and Newman identify eight characteristics of targets that make them attractive to terrorists and insurgents and express them through the acronym EVIL DONE. (20) EVIL DONE is a tool that assists in identifying and prioritizing potential targets through the eyes of an insurgent. (21)

Exposed: Targets that are highly visible and attract attention, such as the Twin Towers in New York City.

Vital: Targets that provide critical necessities for the daily functioning of society, such as transportation systems, utilities, and communication systems.

Iconic: Of symbolic value, such as the Pentagon or religious shrines.

Legitimate: An acceptable target in the eyes of the enemy's public.

Destructible: Any target that can successfully be destroyed or disabled.

Occupied: In order to inflict as many casualties as possible.

Near: Close to the insurgents base of operations or those easily accessible by mechanized transportation, making them close in time.

Easy: Targets that are accessible with minimal security, and are within the insurgent's operational capacity to attack. (22)

Tools. Newman defines the tools of insurgency as "products that are used in the course of an attack." (23) Motor vehicles, mobile phones, false identity documents, and information about the target are almost always used by insurgents during the course of an attack. Ordinary criminals also seek out and use many of these same tools. There are generally three ways that the tools of insurgency can be controlled:

* Modify the products so that they cannot be used for criminal purposes.

* Make the products more difficult to obtain illegally.

* Track the use of the products. (24)

Weapons. There are nine characteristics that make weapons attractive to insurgents, and are expressed through the acronym MURDEROUS.

Multi-purpose: Weapons that can be used against different type of targets.

Undetectable: Weapons such as plastic explosives that can pass through security checkpoints.

Removable: Easily transported.

Destructive: Explosives are more destructive than small arms. A fully automatic weapon will be more destructive than a handgun.

Enjoyable: Terrorists and insurgents, like criminals and soldiers, become attached to their weapons.

Reliable: Dependability is an important factor in mission success.

Obtainable: The ability of an insurgent to acquire the weapon by whatever means.

Uncomplicated: Weapons cannot be more sophisticated that the insurgent's ability to use them.

Safe: Explosives are less safe for an insurgent than firearms. (25)

Facilitating Conditions. Clarke describes facilitating conditions as the, "social and physical arrangements of society that make specific acts of terrorism possible." (26) Facilitating conditions make it ESEER for insurgents to conduct their operations, and are expressed by the same acronym.

Easy: Examples include cash, as a means of exchange, and governmental corruption.

Safe: Governments inability to authenticate and individual's identification.

Excusable: Kinsmen injured or killed as a result of collateral damage.

Enticing: Cultural and religious endorsement of heroic acts of violence.

Rewarding: Some insurgents are paid for their services. Other insurgents may seek status, absolution, or the promise of sex in the afterlife. (27)

Opportunity structures operate at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of an insurgency, but it is at the tactical level where the opportunity structure of an insurgency is most profound. Newman argues that the first step to understanding the opportunity structure of an insurgency is to identify it at the tactical level. Tactical level opportunity structures are identified, "by focusing on the specific economic, physical, cultural, and social elements within the environment, on the ground where the insurgents operate." (28) By identifying the targets, tools, weapons, and facilitating conditions at the tactical level, we can trace the links between what are essentially local insurgent activities, and the operational and strategic conditions that both enhance and constrain them. (29)

The Five Principles of Situational Prevention

SCP theory introduces 25 opportunity-reducing techniques. According to Clarke and Newman the principal value of these techniques is to increase the repertoire of possible interventions used to reduce specific forms of insurgent violence and crime. The 25 techniques are designed around five main principles that research has shown to affect the decision making process of criminal offenders. These five categories are also the core principles of SCP: increasing effort, increasing risk, reducing rewards, reducing provocations, and removing excuses. (30) Charts articulating the principles with their corresponding techniques and suggested COIN related interventions are shown in subsequent pages.

The first two principles of increasing effort and risk are cost variables. There are five techniques designed to increase the perceived level of effort to commit an attack, and five techniques that are designed to increase the perceived risk in conducting an attack. The third principle of reducing anticipated rewards is a benefit variable. The five techniques within this category are intended to reduce the insurgent's anticipated rewards. The last two principles of removing excuses and reducing provocations can be considered supplemental variables. Each of these categories also has a set of five techniques designed to remove excuses (justification, rationalization) for violence, and immediate provocations or temptations for committing an attack.

SCP theory argues that situational changes should be made that seek to increase the perceived amount of effort and risk, decrease anticipated rewards, and remove excuses and provocations. The theory advocates for a balance between increasing perceived costs and decreasing perceived benefits. An imbalance will either result in an attack being conducted, or an over allocation of security resources. Specifically, when an imbalance indicates benefits exceed costs, an insurgent will make the rational choice to commit the attack. When the imbalance increases perceived costs beyond what is needed to counterbalance anticipated rewards, an attack is deterred, but this may result in an over allocation of security resources.

Adapting SCP theory to COIN operations then leads to the following linear propositions:

1. Increasing the effort required to commit specific insurgent activities leads to a reduction in those activities.

2. Increasing the risk involved in committing specific insurgent activities reduces leads to a reduction in those activities.

3. Reducing the anticipated reward of engaging in specific insurgent activities leads to a reduction in those activities.

4. Removing excuses for engaging in insurgent activities leads to a reduction in those activities.

5. Reducing provocations to commit insurgent activities leads to a reduction in those activities.

These propositions are taken directly from situational crime prevention theory and, by extension, the rational choice perspective.

The 25 Techniques of SCP

The first set of five techniques are designed to increase the effort required for insurgents to engage their targets, acquire their weapons, use their tools, exploit facilitating conditions, and maintain their organization. When operations become more difficult an insurgent system will be forced to expend more effort and resources to successfully maintain its operational tempo. Clarke and Newman argue that, "if we can raise the level of effort high enough for some their tasks, we may see them either give up on a particular target or take much longer to execute their terrorist mission." (31) The five effort reducing techniques are shown in the following table with some possible COIN related interventions.

Increasing the risk of being killed, captured, or mission failure is a cost consideration within an insurgent's individual decision making process. Even a suicide bomber faces risk, the risk of mission failure. The five risk increasing techniques are shown in the table below with possible COIN related interventions.

Reducing the anticipated rewards of insurgent and terrorist activity is becoming recognized as an effective strategy, not only in reducing that activity, but also in hampering insurgent recruitment efforts. Marc Sageman says that it is important to take the "glory" out of engaging in these activities, as glory is a type of reward. (32) The five reward reducing techniques not only help prevent attacks, but mitigate the subsequent damage from successful attacks, denying the insurgents their anticipated rewards.

Reducing Provocations and Removing Excuses are the final two principles of situational prevention, and each of these principles offer five additional techniques that assist in allaying insurgent violence and make it inexcusable.

The value of these techniques of situational prevention is that they offer a practical means to apply the principles of opportunity theory to the reality of the asymmetric battlefield. Use of the 25 techniques would expand our repertoire of interventions, and enable a security force to intervene in the causal chain events to prevent or reduce the occurrence of insurgent violence and crime.

The 25 techniques also provide a way of systematizing an insurgency reducing strategy. Situational prevention must be a continual process to be an effective part of counter insurgency operations. Criminals, terrorists, and insurgents are adaptive. They will make rational decisions to exploit new opportunities whenever they become available. This is one of the limits of situational prevention; there is never a final solution. (33)


Insurgent behavior, like all behavior, is a function between the person and the environment. As such, insurgent activities depend on the conjunction between the insurgents' motivation (of whatever nature and whatever source) and the situational opportunities presented to them within their environment (whether defined in terms of risks, efforts or rewards of their acts). (34) Insurgent opportunities can be changed by society and the local community, while the individual insurgent makes decisions in response to these changes.

The 25 techniques of Situational Prevention provide a means to reduce the volume of insurgent opportunities, and affect insurgent decisions by altering their perceptions of risk and anticipated rewards. Altering the volume of insurgent opportunities at any level will also produce a change in the outcomes of insurgent activities, in particular, violence and crime.


(1.) Marcus Felson, R. V. G. Clarke, Opportunity Makes the Thief: Practical Theory for Crime Prevention (London: Home Office, Policing and Reducing Crime Unit, Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, 1998), 1. This introduction is modeled from Felson and Clarkes introduction and extended from criminology to COIN.

(2.) Ibid.

(3.) "Field Theory-Kurt Lewin at " Accessed 3 March 2010.

(4.) R. V. G. Clarke and Graeme R. Newman, Outsmarting the Terrorists (Westport: Praeger Security International, 2006).

(5.) Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008),

(6.) Ronald V. Clarke, "Situational Crime Prevention: Its Theoretical Basis and Practical Scope," Crime and Justice 4 (1983), 225-256, p1.

(7.) Felson, 5.


(9.) Ibid., 6.

(10.) Ibid.

(11.) Ibid.

(12.) Pat Brantingham and Paul Brantingham, "Crime Pattern Theory," Institute for Canadian Urban Research Studies. Accessed February 2010.

(13.) Ibid.

(14.) Felson, 7.

(15.) Ibid., 14.

(16.) Ibid., 7.

(17.) Ibid.

(18.) Clarke and Newman, 9.

(19.) Ibid.

(20.) Graeme R. Newman, "Reducing Terrorist Opportunities: A Framework for Foreign Policy," Crime Prevention Studies 25 (2009), 33-60.

(21.) Rachel Boba, "EVIL DONE," Crime Prevention Studies 25 (2009), 71-92. Boba scales the criteria to develop a methodology to score and rank targets consistently across target types and between different analysts.

(22.) Newman, 33-60.

(23.) Ibid.

(24.) Clarke and Newman, 117.

(25.) Newman, 33-60.

(26.) Clarke and Newman, 117.

(27.) Newman, 33-60

(28.) Ibid.

(29.) Ibid.

(30.) Clarke and Newman, 188-189.

(31.) Ibid., 189.

(32.) Sageman, 177.

(33.) Clarke and Newman, 6.

(34.) Ibid.
Situational          Technique         COIN Related
Prevention                             Intervention

Increase Effort  1. Harden         T-Barriers, shatter
                 Targets           proof glass

                 2. Control        Gating, fencing,
                 Access            entry phones, swipe

                 3. Screen Exits   Tickets needed,
                                   export documents,
                                   property tagging

                 4. Deflect        Street closures,
                 Offenders         parking restrictions,
                                   no loitering

_                5. Control Tools  Disable unregistered
                 and Weapons       cell phones, RFID/GIS
                                   tracking of weapons
Situational                 Technique           COIN Related
Prevention Principal                            Intervention

Increase Risk         1. Extend             Deterrence
                      Guardianship          patrolling, take
                                            routine precautions

                      2. Assist Natural     Lighting, defensible
                      Surveillance          space design, hotline
                                            reporting numbers

                      3. Reduce Anonymity   National ID Card,
                                            register SIM cards in
                                            cell phones,

                      4. Utilize Place      Reward vigilance,
                      Managers              care takers, employee

                      5. Strengthen Formal  CCTV, alarm systems,
                      Surveillance          security guards,
                                            metal detectors
Situational                 Technique           COIN Related
Prevention Principal                            Intervention

Reduce Rewards        1. Conceal Targets    Low profile vehicles,
                                            avoid identifying
                                            signage and markings

                      2. Remove Targets     Limit unnecessary
                                            convoys, removable
                                            electronics in

                      3. Identify Property  Stamp small arms, GPS
                                            tagging, property
                                            markings, vehicle ID
                                            numbers (VIN)

                      4. Disrupt Markets    License vendors,
                                            controls on
                                            classified ads

                      5. Deny Benefits      Use of publicity to
                                            highlight hypocrisy
                                            of insurgent acts,
                                            design guidelines to
                                            reduce casualties
Situational                Technique           COIN Related
Prevention Principal                           Intervention

Reduce Provocations   1. Reduce            Treat public
                      frustrations and     courteously, expanded
                      stress               seating, efficient
                                           queing (line

                      2. Avoid disputes    Seperate rival
                                           factions, fight
                                           enemy's stragegy not
                                           his forces

                      3. Reduce emotional  Avoid provocative
                      arousal              announcements, clear

                      4. Neutralize peer   Marginalize
                      pressure             agitators, say no

                      5. Discourage        Rapid clean up of
                      imitation            attack scenes, censor
                                           details of modus
Situational               Technique           COIN Related
Prevention Principal                          Intervention

Remove Excuses        1. Set Rules          Clear ROE, clear
                                            rules for public
                                            demonstrations, clear
                                            regulations, codes of

                      2. Post Instructions  No parking, no entry,
                                            no cell phones

                      3. Alert Conscious    Require ID and
                                            signature, visable

                      4. Assist Compliance  Barriers, public
                                            restrooms, litter
                                            bins, designated
                                            parking areas

                      5. Control Drugs and  Alcohol free events,
                      Alcohol               public shaming

Major Gibbs is a Psychological Operations Officer currently assigned to the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, California. He is pursing Master of Science Degrees in Defense Analysis and Joint Information Operations. Prior to attending NPS I was assigned to the 1st PSYOP BN at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He has served as a PSYOP Operational Detachment Commander, HSC Commander, and the Battalion Assistant Operations Officer and deployed twice to Iraq in support of OIF.
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Author:Gibbs, Stephen R.
Publication:Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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