Opinion / Research

How to analyse a rebel group pragmatically?

Sometimes information provided by the media and historical accounts can be confusing, especially for those who have little knowledge about a particular country and its features (social, economic, demographic, political). So, often discussions over a specific internal armed conflict in the global sphere revolve around soundbites captured in popular discourse and media. Cross your heart and ask yourself, how much do you really know about the currently most famous insurgent/terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Al Qaeda, the former FARC, the different Ukrainian insurgents, SPLM-IO or the different Taliban (Pakistani and Afghan)? Chances are high that you know something but it is a very incomplete picture.

In order to understand these groups there is no other way than to gather information. Unfortunately, it typically takes the following steps. You type in some searches into Google, you check Wikipedia, and then additionally one or two media articles. Sometimes, you buy a book but this is time consuming and you are typically flooded by information from the author’s specific perspective instead of creating an own set of information and connections between those.

The remedy is to gather information systematically but how to go about that? In the following, I want to propose a framework at which information to look in the beginning in order to create a scaffolding on which you can attach later different layers of additional information. Have a look on the following figure:



Here, I distinguish three pillars on which every politically armed movement must be based on. The first you should do is to understand the political/social demands of the rebel group. Whether you agree with the demands or not, or whether you find the demands trustworthy or concealing does not matter. Political demands of the rebel group form the baseline according to which the organisation is able to frame itself and relate to other political actors in the (national/regional/global) system it operates. Understanding the socio-political demands provides an insight into the grievances which exist within a society between different groups and those grievances are often a rallying point for those who support the group. Furthermore, the political alignment of the group, even if only as a mask, let’s you speculate about potential internal and external sympathisers and active supporters.

The second component is the military strategy the group implements to achieve its goals. Analyzing the geographic location of internal armed conflict, the weapons used in combat, the strategies employed to win over government forces, the hierarchical in-group structure, the size of the rebellion, the source of recruits and the techniques used additional to military means as well as a comparison to government forces and strategies will provide a sketch about the current abilities and capacities. Without this understanding, it is impossible to comprehend the realities on the ground, the perception of the local population towards the rebel group as well as the government and the strength coercive measures have on attaining victory. This assessment is complemented by analyzing the socio-demographic environment in which the rebel group operates.

Lastly, it is mandatory to understand the finances of the rebel group. An armed group cannot survive without financial means which are needed to pay soldiers, procure armament and ensure supplies that ranges from housing to food. After the emergence of the armed conflict, often a war economy is created in which the local society and the rebel group engage in economic transactions without supervision of the central government. This shadow/combat economy is the source on which armed groups can thrive. Moreover, external actors like third states or diasporas might provide crucial investments towards the rebel group. Hence, domestically involved actors change their initial interests as they become embedded into a new socio-economic structure. Some actors, even the population and the government, can come to the conclusion that protracted low-intensity warfare is from an economic perspective more conducive than achieving political goals.

These three dimensions give a good first impression about the rebel group as well as the overarching conflict. In general, this procedure helps to understand the current situation without becoming swept over by an immense amount of historical information. Therefore, it is especially conducive for laymen (and laywomen) as well as policy makers and those who work for policy makers. For those who want to go deeper into the conflict itself, there are no boundaries. One can delve into history, try to understand the regional and global environment or invest time to analyse other societal groups involved. For a quick glance, this three step procedure offers a systematic way to dis-aggregate information and then assemble it together into one coherent picture within 2-3 hours of work. It is a pragmatic approach for those who do not have much time and energy to invest but require a baseline understanding of a particular conflict.

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