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Countering the Insurgency at Home

Written by Nick Perna.


In 2011, I was assigned to head up a gang suppression team for my department. The team was formed in response to an increase in violent crimes such as homicide, shootings, assaults, and the like.

Our marching orders were simple: decrease the level of violence and get the gang problem under control. We were a “surge” of sorts, a three-man team that augmented an existing five man street crimes team. We organized our schedules to provide coverage seven days a week. My team got the not-so- highly sought after “Sunday through Wednesday” schedule. We were given pretty wide latitude regarding how to deal with the problem and the full support of our administration. Our hours were constantly changing to keep the criminals off-guard. We did a lot of work in low- profile operations in unmarked cars and civilian clothes. We intermingled with higher profile operations like the Street Crimes team, department patrol teams, and a County Gang Task Force, thus integrating unconventional with conventional assets.

Like any good tactical unit, we gathered information regarding the enemy (gang) activity. We identified certain areas where gang members, our version of insurgents, were congregating and consolidating. These neighborhoods were essentially hostage to this activity.

To borrow a term from the Vietnamera counterinsurgency, we came up with a plan to “deny sanctuary” for the gangsters. We did this by conducting a zero tolerance approach to all criminal activity within those areas. I referred to this as “death by a thousand cuts.” This was the offensive phase of our COIN operation.

We used a series of low profile surveillance missions to identify the main players, then armed with that information, went after them in their neighborhoods as well as anywhere else we could find them. We built cases on the major players for felonies and went after all the rest for everything from warrant arrests to minor infractions such as open container violations. This “area denial” approach succeeded in getting most of the gangsters to leave the area.

In a year we arrested 192 subjects, most for gang violations. Whenever possible, we booked them into jail or juvenile hall. We worked many major cases, going after the major players committing and ordering assaults, as well as drug dealers.


In an attempt to go after the “worst of the worst,” we launched Operation Red Dawn. We utilized a confidential informant who targeted gang members dealing drugs. The operation involved assets from our team, our department’s Street Crimes Team, the county Narcotics Task Force, the District Attorney’s Office, and others.

Arrest and Search warrants were secured for eight of the major figures in the gang. These warrants were executed in a high profile operation involving our SWAT team and other tactical teams. By identifying and going after what the military would classify as High Value Targets (HVTs), we were able to inhibit the gang’s command and control structure and significantly affect their day-to-day operations. This also decreased the number of gang-related drug sales and weakened the gang’s control over the areas they claimed as their turf. The whole thing was supported by an information operations campaign in which the media was involved. This was done through press releases that were published in local newspapers and on social media.

All eight suspects were convicted or pled to charges and received stiff sentences due to California’s laws regarding crimes committed as part of a gang conspiracy.

This was followed by the defense phase. This basically involved high visibility presence patrols by all officers in the area. We did this to retain the ground we gained. Just like in combat, when you abandon an area, the enemy will move back in, regardless of how decisively you defeated them there.

The stability phase for an operation like this can be difficult. Stability, in law enforcement terms, roughly translates to citizens getting involved in the safety and security of their neighborhood. Unlike military COIN, it doesn’t involve the complete withdrawal of “combat forces.” Instead, it entails a partnership between the people who live in a particular area and the cops who are paid to protect it.

To a certain extent, it might be easier on the law enforcement side since we’re technically not going anywhere, but most agencies are stretched pretty thin, so once a neighborhood has quieted down, the attention turns to another area. This means it is essential for the people who live in those neighborhoods to get involved in keeping the peace. For us, that meant reaching out by way of town hall meetings, citizen’s academies and social media, interfacing with the public, and identifying key communicators.

Symbolism is important in a COIN campaign in the defense and stability phases, whether it be getting rid of reminders from the previous regime or not allowing gang graffiti to remain in an area. Either one can undermine a successful operation.

One way to best facilitate this is to identify key communicators in a certain area. As a psychological operations officer in Baghdad, Iraq in 2003, I tried to communicate with district elders whenever possible. This was done in part as a sign of respect to their status in the community. It also facilitated quicker, more efficient communications. A message delivered from a respected member of a community can be more effective than a message delivered through radio, television, handbills, leaflet drops, and loudspeaker operations (traditional forms of dissemination used by Army Psychological Operations). This is a double edged sword and care must be taken not to legitimize thugs or create the impression (or worse, reality) of something other than equal treatment of all citizens.

In the town where I work, we had a Polynesian street gang that was causing major problems, mainly in the form of committing street robberies and violent assaults. The members of the gang were very anti-police and difficult to deal with. One of our officers opted to speak with the father of a particularly large family that had many members in the gang. The patriarch in question was a well-known and well-respected member of the local Polynesian community.

When problems arose with the younger family members, the “elder” would be consulted. On many occasions, he was able to intervene on behalf of the police and get the members of not only his family but members of other families to decrease the amount of violence.

Another example of this is in Ramadi, Iraq in 2006. Ramadi had traditionally been a bastion of anti-coalition activity since the start of U.S. involvement there.

U.S. commanders met with influential Sunni Sheiks who were opposed to the insurgency. These sheiks were able to rally forces to support U.S. forces in routing much of the insurgent activity.

Prior to forming the partnership with Coalition forces, these Sunni Sheiks had been fighting against the United States and her allies.

Two ways the military delivers messages: HMMWVs with loudspeakers and face-to-face communications. Law enforcement relies primarily on face-to- face, with social media playing an integral part as well.

Stability operations in law enforcement are often led by community policing units, the civil affairs of the cop world.

They conduct town meetings, “sensing” sessions, neighborhood watch programs, citizen’s academies, block parties and all the other events designed to involve and engage the community. But they can’t do everything. All officers need to interact with the public, engage them in conversation, and try to address their needs. Just like the military, we don’t want to be seen as occupiers. We prefer to be seen as liberators and defenders.

Counter insurgency, both at home and abroad, is a difficult task. In both cases, we need to go into battle with a sword in one hand and an olive branch in the other. We walk the fine line between not doing enough and allowing evil to spread or doing too much and provoking a population that could be our greatest ally. The U.S. military’s manual on COIN, FM 3-24, states, “The more force used, the less effective it is.” This is especially true in the defense and stability phases. It is an art based on knowing when and where to crank it up, followed by the proper time to throttle it back, that ultimately determines whether or not it will be a successful campaign. The adjacent world must be taken into account. On both fronts, adversaries often step beyond the edges of the operation to return at a time of greater advantage.

Warfare sometimes resembles police work, and vice versa. Fixed battles between conventional forces are rare if the attacker does not have an advantage. Lines are often blurred. Cops and soldiers can learn a lot from each other about how to conduct business, even while honoring and abiding by the Constitution.

Comparisons can be drawn and lessons can be learned when it comes to how we handle our business when operating in less than permissive environments. For the military, this is working in towns, villages, and cities with a mix of pro-Coalition residents, anti-American fundamentalist insurgents, and folks just plain caught in the middle. In terms of law enforcement, the ghettos and hoods of America bear some similarities. I use ghettos as an example because they offer a similar brand of danger and violence as places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, albeit not generally on the same scale.

COIN has been around for as long as warfare has been conducted. Successes and failures can be studied in recent examples from places like Malaya with the British in the 1950s and later with Americans in Vietnam. It has been used extensively in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. It has many facets, but at a minimum it involves the following:

  1. Taking the fight to the enemy and destroying his will to fight
  2. Denying the enemy support and sanctuary by accomplishing (A).
  3. Winning the support of the local populace.
  4. Maintaining it (C).

It’s a little different in law enforcement. When it comes to fighting crime it’s impossible to completely eliminate crime from a particular area, but the basic tenets remain similar.


Mr. Perna is a Police Officer with the Redwood City Police Department. He has served as a gang and narcotics investigator, is a member of a Multi- Jurisdictional SWAT Team, and is currently a team leader. He previously served in the U.S. Army (Airborne) and is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.