• Gavin Lyons (Guest Contributor)

A Game of Chance or a Calculated Risk: Hidden Drivers and Subsequent Orders of Effects

Updated: May 16

In this article, Gavin takes a look at what can drive civil unrest in a country, how quickly this can develop; and how these drivers are usually just the tip of the iceberg. Using Iraq as a case study in understanding these drivers, Gavin takes entrepreneurs and small organization leaders through a developing situation from the eyes of an intelligence and security professional who was in-country during this time, providing key points in how an entrepreneur or small organization leader should view uncertain regions of the world.

Risk versus Reward.

A plethora of opportunities exist, both globally and domestically, for an entity to embrace. These are continually clouded in risk versus benefit, however the more risk averse an entity is, the more this will dictate the nature and volume of opportunities that present themselves. As such, a range of actors and influences need to be addressed and mitigation measures implemented in order to achieve the desired outcome. For the purpose of this piece we will address emerging drivers of conflict on the global landscape that have the potential to neutralize or restrict positive outcomes for a venture, whether business related or otherwise.

A range of existing drivers of conflict are present and will remain extant in the majority of contested regions (operational environments) around the globe. These include political aspirations, established and traditional resource competition, historical friction points and religious/ideological differences. An operational environment may contain multiple drivers however there is traditionally a primary friction point that initiates conflict. It is this point that will likely shape the intensity and duration of the event. These drivers are to a larger extent existing influencers, factored into the decision making process in both the regional and country-wide realms, however emerging drivers have the potential to greater influence an area of operations than any other factor.

Emerging drivers can be described as those that contribute to the dissatisfaction of a population due to a shortfall in expectations. This can include access to water, food insecurity, technological failures, poor electricity supply and access to perceived opportunities. This list is far from inclusive, however with the regions most effected by conflict enduring large scale youth bulges and increasing urbanization, these potential friction points have become influencers that are often overlooked and misunderstood.

Increasing global urbanization has forced Governments to modify the established governance and security templates in order to address opportunities for populations, noting this is far from completed. This urbanization, along with numerous other factors, has given rise to increased expectations of civilian populations whom are seeking a better life with opportunities.

This inability to address the desires and needs of a population has presented governments with a plethora of problems that their security apparatus have to a moderate extent been unable or willing to deal with.

Iraq - Summer 2018.

Iraq presents a recent example of this case. The most common shortfall is insufficient infrastructure and as was recently seen, water and electricity security in the South of Iraq became a high priority for the population. This dissatisfaction evolved from, and was influenced by the responses of domestic security forces to several protest activities that were based on the traditional driver of inequality of revenue sharing from the regions extensive hydrocarbon industry.

Although access to water and electricity was not the initial fuel for the fire that became broad-scale civil unrest, it was the key driver for the ignition point that inspired the broader population to enter into violent protest activity. Chronic water infrastructure failure resulted in shortages that witnessed large areas of the southern provinces with no access to drinking water. This failure was the result of decades of Central (Baghdad) Government mismanagement despite the large assistance programs from global state and non-state actors. With a limited ability to rapidly respond to large infrastructure projects, the Government of Iraq could simply apply promises and band aid solutions to a problem that would require continued prolonged investment in order to address the issue. This required a ‘leap of faith’ from the civilian population, one that they were not prepared to take based upon the historical performance of Baghdad, as such civil unrest spread to neighboring provinces and culminated in moderate scale violence that was aimed at not only the Central Government, but also the Shia Militia Groups and Iranian-supported entities in operation throughout Southern Iraq.

Support for the movement spread to central Baghdad and large scale protests were witnessed throughout the city, the Government’s response included traditional measures of increased security presence which resulted in movement restrictions, public gathering restrictions, roaming military and security patrols; and increased detentions and arrests.

Although this slightly inflamed the situation, the key action that dramatically increased the rhetoric from the civilian population was the disruption to internet services. The Government simply ‘cut’ the internet, thus restricting the ability of individuals to use social media platforms to generate dialogue and coordinate protest activity. In central Baghdad this had a far greater impact on the population due to the dominant age demographic. Iraq, like many developing or rebuilding nations, has a youth bulge that is anchored in the millennial generation, and to this group the impact upon their expectation of the ability to communicate unhindered contributed to increased dissatisfaction with the Government. One can understand the response by the Government and Security apparatus, following the Arab Spring widespread access to social media and internet-based communications platforms was cited as a key reason for the spread of the revolution, one that ultimately contributed to the Syrian Civil War. No informed individual would question the actions of the Government, however the response by the civilian population, one whom holds a high degree of nationalism, was overwhelmingly negative.

Further, the impact upon the already faltering economy was estimated to be US$100 million per day, greatly interrupting the ability of domestic and international government and commercial operations. To a larger extent, Iraq disappeared off the global map, and many entities suffered considerable financial and reputation losses due to poor planning and reliance upon Government-controlled infrastructure. However, this entire situation could have been avoided through a moderate degree of situational awareness and procurement of platforms operating outside of the Iraqi sphere.


A series of misguided steps by the Central Government destroyed its credibility with a nationalistic population that followed it through the Islamic State Wars. The military’s Commander in Chief, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, was ostracized, and political machinations aside, destroyed his chances of retaining the Premiership. These results indicate a government with numerous competing priorities and a poor situational awareness of those they are tasked with leading.


In such situations it is imperative that continued assessment and monitoring of your operational environment be undertaken, being mindful of extant and emerging drivers. However, we in the West must understand our priorities are not always shared priorities and with this in mind, it is imperative any endeavor into a region of the world that carries uncertainty or risk utilize an intelligence and security component tasked with developing a benchmark preparation document, and undertake monitoring to validate and support the decision making process of a commander, or in this case; you. Every environment and situation is different, and this is why key people whom understand the ever-evolving miasma that is the human and physical terrain of a country are paramount to the success of any endeavor.

Gavin Lyons is a former Embassy Intelligence Officer based in Baghdad and an Australian Special Operations Command Intelligence Operator.

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