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

By Michael Shkolnik, Ph.D Candidate, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University

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.


View of the Sinai overlooking Egypt from” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Facts for a Better Future


Cross-posted from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs blog



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