From Nascent Insurrections to Full-Blown Insurgencies: Why Some Militant Groups Engage in Sustained Armed Conflicts

The following post summarizes findings from NPSIA Ph.D. Candidate Michael Shkolnik’s latest research paper.

In October 2014, the Sinai-based militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis conducted a sophisticated, multi-pronged attack targeting two Egyptian military positions and killing 31 soldiers. A month later, that group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, escalating violence and solidifying itself as an unprecedented threat to Egyptian national security. The dramatic and rapid rise of the Islamic State group and its affiliates shocked many observers around the world. By waging a successful military campaign in 2014, the militant organization was able to gain control of significant territory in Syria and Iraq, consolidate new power bases in the region, attract an unprecedented number of foreign fighters, and coordinate large-scale attacks around the world. Now, as the group loses its core territorial stronghold, observers are concerned about the potential emergence and escalation of other terrorist insurgencies around the world.

Data on terrorism and civil wars point to a sharp increase in militant activity worldwide in recent years – both in terms of casualties from terrorist attacks and battle-related deaths during armed conflicts. It is puzzling why some initially weak militant groups, who face immense difficulties in garnering material resources and support, are able to eventually engage in sustained violent operations and confront more powerful militaries. Most militant groups fail to survive beyond their first year, let alone pose a serious threat. Why do some militant groups engage in sustained armed conflicts while other groups do not?

In a recent paper, I conduct quantitative regression analysis on 246 prominent militant groups from 1970-2007 and find that, on average, organizational characteristics are better predictors of sustained armed conflict than measures of group capabilities. Some of my core findings diverge from current explanations of insurgency onset or outcomes. Posing a serious challenge to a state is not necessarily a function of how powerful or capable a group may seem – it’s more about the competitive militant environment and internal organizational capacity to effectively mobilize resources and maintain armed hostilities against regime forces. Three particular factors of importance emerged from my analysis: group ideology, organizational structure, and competitive militant environment.

Militant Group Ideology

Exploiting or fueling grievances among a particular population is critical for groups to mobilize for an insurgency. Some militant groups should be more capable of capitalizing on grievances than others – particularly religious and ethno-nationalist groups that can draw on resources from a well-defined constituency. Religiously motivated groups, in particular, tend to be more lethal and maintain indivisible objectives, making negotiated settlements improbable. These types of organizations are also better at overcoming key militant organizational hurdles: collective action and principal-agent problems. Religious groups are often in a stronger position to effectively screen recruits and mobilize resources via their robust social networks compared to more secular rivals. This is one explanation behind why Hamas was better at managing its operatives than its more secular rival Fatah. Religious groups rarely achieve their ultimate objectives. But my research suggests that those religiously motivated militant groups are far more likely to engage in sustained armed conflicts than other ideologically oriented groups – whether they are ultimately successful or not.

Organizational Structure

Research on social movements and militant group structures suggests that centralized and formally structured groups are more likely to achieve broader objectives than more decentralized groups. Militant groups with hierarchical structures tend to be more lethal and have a higher likelihood of ultimately defeating the states they fight. More centralized and integrated groups are more capable of allocating resources effectively, reducing principal-agent problems, and keeping lower-ranking members in line with the group’s broader objectives. By looking at a different dependent variable, however, my findings challenge conventional wisdom: groups with relatively less centralized command and control are just as likely to engage in sustained armed conflict than the most hierarchically structured organizations. Groups with more autonomous cells and specialized wings should still be able to launch a sustained insurgency, regardless of whether they end up beating the regime. Less centralization might make it harder for counterinsurgency forces to infiltrate and dismantle militant groups.

Competitive Environment

Competition for resources and manpower among rival constituent factions and other rebel groups is particularly crucial in the early phases of a violent conflict. Violence serves as an important signal of capabilities and resolves among groups competing for leadership of a particular constituency. Recent work highlights the importance of rival relations and internal movement structure to assess strategic success. In general, I find that more competitive militant environments also reduce the likelihood any particular group presents a major threat to the states they fight. This study also finds that the overwhelming majority of militant groups that engaged in sustained armed conflicts were the most dominant group in their environment around the time the group challenged the state. In the nascent stages of an insurgency, militant groups often have to consolidate rivals – whether by destructive campaigns or alliance formation – before emerging as the dominant organization and then taking on the regime.

Theoretical and Policy Implications

This study offers some implications for scholarship and policy, by examining an underexplored outcome of interest and addressing a selection bias prevalent across literature on political violence. It is important to study analytically distinct phases of armed conflict and differentiate between various militant group objectives (i.e. organizational, strategic) when evaluating success. Understanding this phenomenon is critical since groups that sustain military operations gain more influence and fundraising capabilities while further weakening the target state. Battlefield successes, in turn, encourage more recruitment and defections from rival groups. It is far more difficult for states to defeat a full-fledged insurgency than prevent a nascent insurrection from flourishing. There is no single theory that can explain particular militant group trajectories and counterinsurgency campaigns require context-specific analysis. But this paper presents generalizable empirical associations across diverse militant groups, while acknowledging the limits of large-n research, and identifies key cases for in-depth analysis by the author in subsequent work.

 

Michael Shkolnik is a Ph.D. Candidate at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He recently served as a senior adviser and scholar-in-residence with the Strategic Foresight unit in Canada’s foreign ministry, focusing on futures of terrorism and international security trends. In the past, Michael worked with security-related research institutes in Ottawa, Washington D.C., and Israel. The views expressed here are strictly those of the author.

 You can follow him on Twitter:  @Shkolnik_M

 

 

Advertisements

Probably a Violation of the Terms of Service: Donald Trump’s Tweets and the Risk of War

by Mark Haichin

Well, it’s hardly surprising that something went wrong with Donald Trump’s trip to Asia. It seemed to be going fairly well at first, too, at least by the standards set by Trump’s behaviour this past year – mostly due to the fact that he avoided raising uncomfortable topics such as human rights and democracy in China and the Philippines. But then he found himself defending Vladimir Putin’s denials about meddling in the US elections last year and being forced to awkwardly clarify his remarks when it was pointed out that the US intelligence community strenuously disagreed. And on November 12th, he responded to an earlier statement by the North Korean government that referred to him as an “old lunatic” with a passive-aggressive tweet where he called North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un “short and fat” (though for whatever reason he didn’t take offense to being described as a lunatic).

The fact that the President of the United States is petty enough to launch insults at other heads of state over Twitter, especially in the way a stereotypical teenager would, is a problem in itself. It transcends merely embarrassing behaviour to become an outright national security concern, however, when those insults are aimed at the leader of a hostile nuclear weapon state that is already feeling seriously threatened by a number of other tweets and hostile signals, as North Korea has over the course of the past year. Perhaps most blatantly, an earlier tweet by Trump in late September, which stated that North Korea’s leaders “won’t be around much longer,” was explicitly referred to by the North Korean government as a declaration of war (which is admittedly a frequent statement). Bizarrely, threatening another state apparently doesn’t count as a violation of the Twitter terms of service, as presidential statements are considered newsworthy by default and thus supersede pesky rules like not harassing and threatening people.

All of this serves to indicate the broader issue that Trump’s use of Twitter is circumventing the usual means of conducting diplomacy – which is especially concerning in light of reports that his administration is essentially gutting the State Department. In the past, professional diplomats have been key in preventing conflict by communicating with each other and clearing up possible misperceptions that leaders might have about the intentions of their peers. Such misperceptions have a tendency to lead to war between states, as leaders on both sides overestimate the other side’s actual hostility and willingness to fight until one or the other decides they need to strike first.

Unfortunately, this seems to be what’s happening between Trump and Kim Jong-Un at present. North Korea’s government has long been concerned about the US invading and removing it from power (given that they had fought during the Korean War and has never fully ended hostilities with US-aligned South Korea), and invested significant resources into developing a nuclear arsenal in order to prevent this. The present consensus is that if the North Korean government believes that it is about to be attacked by the US and overthrown, it will retaliate with every weapon at its disposal – after all, if Kim Jong-Un and his lackeys are removed from power, they’ll likely be killed like Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi were, so what would they have to lose at that point? By threatening this kind of retaliation, the regime’s intent is to make any attempt at overthrowing it a suicidal venture, especially since the Kim family’s style of governance over the years have made it readily apparent that they are willing to do anything to stay in power. Naturally, the reasonable thing for other states to do in this situation would be to avoid any kind of signal that would lead the North Korean government to think it will be attacked, such as threatening to “rain fire and fury” on it in response to its nuclear tests.

Trump, however, seems to lack the filter that most heads of state possess, and regularly tweets whatever he’s thinking without so much as consulting advisors and diplomats as to whether it would be a good idea to do so (or to make sure his remarks are anywhere close to factually correct). Moreover, as the leader of the US, his comments are easy to interpret as his country’s official position. So when Trump tweets that the US has prepared military solutions to deal with North Korea, it’s only logical for the North Korean government to seriously consider the possibility that an attack is likely. Given the heated rhetoric on both sides, it is likely that either North Korea or the US ends up believing that the other side is about to attack and decides to strike first, even if it turns out that no such attack is imminent. While there have been calls in the US to mitigate this by removing Donald Trump’s authority to launch a nuclear first strike (with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee actually debating this), Trump’s erratic tweets could still help provoke a war by giving the impression that there may be a conventional attack.

The fact of the matter is this: Donald Trump’s habit of blustering and threatening leaders on social media is not just unbecoming of a world leader, but is a threat to US national security in its own right, as it may lead other states to believe an attack is imminent even when this is not the case. If a nuclear war were to break out, that threat could end up having dire consequences for states beyond the belligerents, especially if other nuclear weapon states like China (which is technically allied with North Korea, if only out of perceived necessity). Shutting down Trump’s Twitter account seems like a simple solution to this, if only because it would force him to think about what he says a little more and potentially go through somewhat more sensible advisors. Yet Twitter’s moderators claim that even his most threatening tweets don’t actually violate their terms of service due to their newsworthiness, and thus his account shouldn’t be shut down or even suspended in response. We can only hope that they decide to change their minds before one of Trump’s tweets leads to disaster.

 

Mark Haichin is a PhD candidate with the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He has a Masters in International Relations (Research) from the London School of Economics, UK. He specialises in issues relating to nuclear deterrence and proliferation. In addition, he has strong research interests in terrorism, ethnic conflict, and international relations.

Benefiting from the Conflict in the Korean Peninsula: How China Came Out on Top

By 

OVERVIEW AND HISTORY OF THE CONFLICT

The basis of international affairs surrounding North Korea is the Korean War 1953 armistice. A permanent peace agreement was never enacted, and therefore, all interactions with North Korea continue to be conducted under the auspice of war-time conditions.  Awkwardly, North Korea signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, and would later agree (1994) to phase out its nuclear capabilities in exchange for international support in development of a civilian nuclear power program.  This dynamic has created conditions for international access to North Korean nuclear programming.

US authorities determined, in 2002, that North Korea maintained a secret nuclear weapons production program and in 2005, an energy crisis in North Korea resulted in the US, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and China agreeing to provide energy aid and ‘economic cooperation’ (i.e. a transfer payment) to North Korea in exchange for the North’s pledge to dismantle all nuclear weapons and facilities.  North Korea accepted the terms of the agreement and promptly violated them by conducting separate ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests.  This commenced a pattern which can be observed from 2006-2016:  North Korean leaders agree to dismantle its weapons program in exchange for payment; after a period of time an advancement in ballistic missile or nuclear weapons is revealed; additional payment is demanded; and the process starts over.

As of 2017, North Korea claims to have successfully conducted a test of a hydrogen bomb and appears to have advanced long-range missile technology to a point where their weapons may be capable of reaching North America.  Only very recently has China increased pressure on North Korea with a view to nuclear disarmament.  One possible explanation for the late arrival of China in this role is the usefulness of a rogue North Korea vis-à-vis China’s regional military interests.  For example, committing the US Navy to force project against North Korea reduces US capacity to offset expanding Chinese control in the South China Sea.  As such, this dynamic creates a three-way security dilemma worth assessing.

WHAT IS AT STAKE?

Before we launch into the explanation as to why actors are behaving the way they have over the last few months, it is important to identify the objectives of each state. So, what does each player want?

State actor Main objectives

 

United States ·         Avoid loss of critical economic partnerships with Japan and South Korea as regional actors move closer in terms of economic integration

·         Maintain regional military dominance of Chinese containment

·         Maintain regional military dominance of Russian containment

 

China ·         Control over the South China Sea and extending economic waters/zones

·         Maintain military buffer with the United States and avoid Russian-like NATO containment

·         Maintain centralized control of RMB to favour exports and ideally avoid US accusations of currency manipulation

 

North Korea ·         Development of sophisticated military deterrents to preserve the regime militarily

·         For domestic purposes, missile defense has become a cultural cornerstone and serves in preserving/legitimizing the status of the Kim dynasty

·         Status quo: return to the conditions of the armistice agreement, re-instate trade mainly with China and Russia and receive aid from the United States

Although Japan and South Korea are important players in this conflict, because they are not nuclear powers and have played a diminished role in the escalation of the conflict in recent months, they are excluded from this analysis.

MAKING SENSE OF THE CURRENT CONFLICT

In the defense literature, “Security trilemma” – whereby a state, in a complex web of deterrence relationships, may increase its security forces against a belligerent (or perceived as belligerent) state, simply to see a third state feel more insecure. This is the case of North Korea which has alienated its Chinese ally in an effort to develop its nuclear programme and, if its claims are true, reach miniaturization of a nuclear warhead for its long-range weapons. However strict and unfavourable the sanctions may be (and they most definitely are detrimental to the regime), the progression of the regime’s missile and nuclear capabilities seem to have succeeded in galvanizing the domestic population and pushing its military deterrence agenda forward. North Korea succeeds in 2 out of 3 of its objectives.

Although China fears escalation in the Korean conflict, its implementation of economic sanctions against North Korea have set aside previous Sino-American disagreements with regards to accusations of currency manipulation and expansion of territorial waters in the South China Sea. With China able to exert its influence through domestic monetary policy and its expansion in the South China Sea, mild escalations that avoid full fledged warfare have largely benefited the Chinese. Not only have events favoured Chinese foreign and domestic policy, but their alignment with US foreign policy has temporarily camouflaged or immunised them from the ire of Washington that was omnipresent during the last US administration. The recent rapprochement in Sino-American foreign policy may have favoured China, but may endanger longer term relations with North Korea that acts as an important buffer state against American containment. China wins all 3 of its main objectives.

For its part, the US has maintained its spheres of military and economic interests in the region, albeit at the cost of letting China grow its own military might in the South China Sea. Americans have containment directly adjacent to Chinese borders. The American approach is one of incremental pressure on the North Korean regime by forcing the regime to break under pressure. Whether this be an intra-state civil rupture or a North Korea ready to return to the bargaining table with one hand tied behind its back remains unclear. Thus far, the US has largely maintained its objectives in the region but coming short of exerting pressure on China in other matters. The US succeeds in 2 out of 3 of its main objectives.

WHO WINS AND HOW?

In light of the framework set forth, how would each state characterize a victory in this conflict?

China wins: Current conflict distracts from their other objectives elsewhere and avoid going back to the accusations of currency manipulation and influences in the South China Sea of the Obama administration.

US wins: Culmination of North Korean threats never occur dismantling image of nuclear capability and nuclear miniaturization. Possible implosion of the Kim regime under economic and diplomatic pressure.

NK wins: Go back to status quo with only mild tensions enough to justify military and nuclear fixation for the purposes of controlling the domestic population. Ideally, coerce some form of concession from the US whether it be the withdrawal of trade restrictions or a foreign aid payment.

Unfortunately, these “wins” are unlikely or at the very least short-lasting. No single actor will walk away from this conflict unscathed at the expense of other state actors. However, one thing remains certain: war would be catastrophic and detrimental to all, including other surrounding states such as South Korea, Japan and Russia. Compromise will have to be achieved, ideally through diplomatic channels. Although military options remain on the table, these unsavoury options leave much to be desired. With estimates in the millions of casualties within days, every other diplomatic solution should be exhausted before calling upon a forceful intervention. As for the diplomatic solution, time will tell whether the economic pressures on the North Korean regime are enough to bring it to the bargaining table. However, the North Koreans may force an impasse thinking that they could in turn force the Americans back to the bargaining table if nuclear miniaturization is achieved and successfully tested in the eyes of the world. Regardless of the state of the seemingly deadlocked negotiations between the US and North Korea, China’s recent rapprochement to US foreign policy has deflected attention away from previously contested areas in the South China Sea and has temporarily put an end to American accusations of currency manipulation.

 

Samuel MacIsaac is a PhD student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, where he specializes in International Economic Policy. He holds a Masters in Economics from the University of Montreal. His research interests include international migration, international finance and trade, and international relations. He has written on issues relating to negative interest rates, the impact of trade on education outcomes and forecasts of immigration within Canada.  

Bryan Bereziuk is a PhD student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where he specializes in International Conflict Management and Resolution.  He is an experienced practitioner in counter-insurgency operations and defence organizational development.  His research interests include counter-terrorism policy development, insurgency containment, and international technology transfers. 

CSEC and airport Wi-Fi

CBC certainly broke an interesting story this morning with the release of documentation from Edward Snowden’s collection. The story “CSEC used airport Wi-Fi to track Canadian travellers: Edward Snowden documents indicates ‘Canada’s electronic spy agency used information from the free internet service at a major Canadian airport to track the wireless devices of thousands of ordinary airline passengers for days after they left the terminal.’

Understandably this is causing a bit of a kerfuffle. CSEC has issued a statement that states that in order to fulfil CSEC’s foreign intelligence role ‘CSE is legally authorized to collect and analyze metadata. In simple terms, metadata is technical information used to route communications, and not the contents of a communication.’

While more is sure to break on this in the coming days I’ll stick my neck out here and suggest this may not have been against the law. If this was an exercise or trial or field test of a capability still in development then it wasn’t an intelligence gathering operation and, as such, might be considered permissible.

Continue reading

NPSIA Well Represented at Upcoming Strategic Studies Conference at the University of Calgary

The Annual Strategic Studies Conference on “Global Security: Past, Present, and Future” at the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies (CMSS) is taking place on March 1-2. Three PhD students from NPSIA are presenting at the conference.

The annual conference is multidisciplinary and aims to stimulate discussions on a range of issues, both domestic and international. The conference acts as an open forum for public debate on topics ranging from terrorism and conflict prevention and management to arctic security and defence policy. The audience has also expanded to include students from all backgrounds and disciplines, current and retired military personnel, corporate representatives, and the general public.

The conference draws individuals from various professional and academic backgrounds while providing a stimulating and well-grounded exploration of contemporary and historical, and traditional and non-traditional security issues facing Canada and the world. By raising awareness of the most pressing and potentially pressing issues of the day, the conference empowers graduate students to inform, educate, and create continued interest in the strategic, defence, and security considerations shaping our national policy.

The two-day conference kicks off with an opening address by Dr. David Bercuson, the Director for the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies. Keynote speaker Dr. James Boutilier, the Asia-Pacific Advisor for the Maritime Forces Pacific Headquarters, will then deliver a talk titled “Alarming Uncertainties: 21st Century Challenges for Students of Global Security.” After his presentation, Dr. Boutilier will chair a panel on “Pacific Security in the 21st Century.”

Alejandro Pachon is a third year PhD student at NPSIA and will be presenting on the “Contemporary Dynamics of Civil Unrest” panel. His paper is entitled “Force and Turmoil. Towards a Theory of Armed Forces Behavior during Cycles of Mass Protest.” The paper focuses on the case of Tunisia and seeks to explore why the coercive apparatus of the state sometimes defects and decides to support the challengers of the regime.

Also presenting on the same panel is Marko Jovanovic who is beginning his PhD at NPSIA. He will be presenting his paper entitled “Invest, Divest, and Re-Invest: Extreme Interactions of Politics and Economics in the Global Political Economy during the Arab Spring.” The research presented examines the impact of economic sanctions on host nation economies through FDI in the resource extraction sector, using Libya as a case study. Overall, the paper addresses three broader issues: first, the wider international policy debate of the effectiveness of economic sanctions; second, the increasing relevance and scale of FDI flows in the 21st century global political economy due to continuing economic liberalization of local economies; and, third, Middle Eastern and North African countries strategic importance for global energy security and unique political risk challenges to inward FDI flow.

The final presenter from NPSIA is Joe Landry, a first year PhD student presenting on the “Human Security” panel. His paper is entitled “Understanding State Failure: A Two-Stage Empirical Analysis of the Influence of Exogenous Shock Events in Fragile States.” This empirical paper uses a two-stage large-N rare events logistic regression analysis to, 1) examine the structural causes of state fragility, and 2) determine the risk factors of state failure. It investigates how states at various levels of fragility respond to shock events such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters, economic shocks, and influxes of refugees. Findings indicate that high fragility scores lead to an increased propensity of state failure. Moreover, the study observes that the probability of state failure depends on the type of shock experienced. These results have key policy implications for international engagement in fragile states, indicating that greater attention must be paid to both the level of fragility and the nature of shock events in unstable environments.

We wish the best of luck to all of those representing NPSIA at this event!