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Why Was There No “Battle for Baghdad”?

Guest post by Charles Butcher

Iraqi soldiers march in Baghdad. By DVIDSHUB.

Iraqi soldiers march in Baghdad. By DVIDSHUB.

In June 2014, the “Islamic State” captured a string of cites in northern Iraq and appeared to be threatening Baghdad. Although fighting did not reach Baghdad, other civil wars have transitioned into a ‘battle for the capital’, such as those in Afghanistan, Liberia, and Somalia. Understanding why this happens is important. Capital cities are often a county’s most populous and productive city, mediation efforts are less common and less effective when fighting approaches the capital, and this situation probably attracts foreign intervention.

I’ve recently published a study examining this question, using data on the proximity of fighting to capital cities in civil wars from 1975-2011. The study showed that ‘multipolar’ civil wars are fought nearest to the capital, while ‘bipolar’ conflicts are fought substantially further away and ‘unipolar’ conflicts are fought largely in the periphery. Multipolar wars exist where the government and two or more rebel groups are evenly matched (Afghanistan in the early 1990s is an example). Bipolar wars exist where the government and one rebel group are evenly matched (such as in Rwanda in 1994) and unipolar wars exist where the government is much stronger than the rebels (such as the numerous ethnic insurgencies in Myanmar). The study also showed that internally divided rebel groups are more likely to fight in capital cities.

Initially, these results might seem surprising. Don’t’ all governments ‘fight to the death’ and only the strongest (and presumably the most internally coherent) rebels reach the capital, regardless of how many actors there are? If we think about fighting in the capital as a bargaining failure, these patterns make more sense.

Wars start because actors disagree about who will win, according to bargaining theorists. Fighting reveals information about the likely winner of a military conflict. The more fighting, the more that actors learn about each other and the more their predictions about the outcome of the war should converge. As these predictions converge, fighting becomes less valuable and wars are more likely to end.

Civil wars are most commonly conceptualized as unfolding over time, but they also unfold over space. Most civil wars start in the periphery and there are strong incentives to capture/hold the capital. I argue in the article that fighting takes on information-rich conventional forms (i.e set piece battles) as opposed to information-poor guerrilla warfare as battles come closer to the capital. As such, more information should be revealed as fighting gets closer to the capital, and wars should end before a climactic ‘battle for the capital’ occurs.

They sometimes do not because the richness of information revealed by fighting is moderated by the number of conflict actors and the balance of power between them. Most fighting in civil wars is dyadic (i.e, between two actors). Actors learn from dyadic fighting about each other and the likely outcome of the war simultaneously in bipolar wars. Usually belligerents know enough about each other to avoid a battle for the capital in this scenario. Dyadic fighting reveals less information in multipolar wars because actors learn about each other, but not the intentions and capabilities of third and fourth rebel groups who are strong enough to turn the tide of the war. Thus, they learn a lot about each other, but less about the likely outcome of the war. The lingering uncertainty may cause governments and rebels to gamble on a ‘battle for the capital’.

Internally divided rebels fight in the capital because they face commitment problems. When rebels think that they are going to win, the faction that stands to gain the presidency sometimes cannot credibly commit to its allies that it will not exploit this increased power. This may cause successful rebel groups to split as they reach the capital (think Somalia in 1991). If the government knows of internal rebel divisions it may attempt to hold the capital, hoping that these commitment problems are activated (as was possibly the case in Bangui in 2013).

The study suggests that the ‘battle for Baghdad’ did not materialize because IS learned, on approach, that attacking the capital would be extremely costly, and they would probably lose. Uncertainty was low in this case. Other sources of uncertainty may also be important, especially the intentions of foreign states (the U.S and Iran were key players in June 2014). Practically, knowing the balance of power between conflict actors can provide leverage on how more ‘symmetric’ civil wars (which have become much more common since the end of the Cold War) may play out – at least as far as the possibility of fighting descending on capital cities is concerned.

Dr Butcher is a Lecturer at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies and Coordinator of the Masters Program at the University of Otago. 

The United States: Laggard on Women’s Representation, Promoter of Women’s Representation

By Sarah Bush

Women attend a shura on voting and running for office in Helmand, Afghanistan. By Helmand PRT Lashkar Gah.

Women attend a shura on voting and running for office in Helmand, Afghanistan. By Helmand PRT Lashkar Gah.

In my very first post on Political Violence at a Glance, I discussed some of the ways that the United States and other international actors have pressured Afghanistan to ensure that women are adequately represented in its parliament. But what that post didn’t address was why the United States is in the business of trying to advance women’s political participation in the developing world in the first place.

I was reminded of that question recently when I was reading about the decision in Germany to institute a quota for the number of seats on corporate boards that must be reserved for women. It is difficult to imagine the United States adopting a similar policy. In fact, the United States is hardly a trailblazer today when it comes to women in leadership positions in political and civic life. For example, the United States is just the 72nd best country in the world in terms of the proportion of women in the lower or single house of parliament. Ironically, Afghanistan is 39th.

Despite the United States’ relatively mediocre standing cross-nationally in terms of women’s representation, promoting women’s political participation in the developing world has become a major component of its efforts to aid democracy in other countries. Whereas the U.S. government dedicated few resources to women’s representation as a component of democracy assistance when it began funding it in the 1980s, my analysis in a new book suggests that it is now a major component of the American democracy assistance portfolio. Given the United States’ mediocre scores when it comes to women’s political participation, why is it encouraging other countries to do better?

There are several factors at work, including changing norms and women’s activism. Beyond those dynamics, however, is a broader, and important, evolution in the way that the United States aids democracy in the developing world. In a nutshell, promoting democracy today is a technical endeavor in which donors often gravitate towards activities that avoid directly challenging political elites in the states that are the targets of aid. Attempting to enhance women’s representation is one example of such an activity; supporting local governance is another. Democracy assistance wasn’t always this way, I’ve argued – when it began in the 1980s, it was a more overtly political endeavor, with many programs supporting the activities of dissidents, political parties, and trade unions. The field’s evolution has to do with changes in the U.S. government, changes in the countries that are the targets of democracy promotion, and the professionalization of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that design and implement democracy assistance. As I explain elsewhere, “Although donor and target countries put important constraints on the work that these NGOs engage in, the NGOs – which I collectively refer to as ‘the democracy establishment’ – also make a significant impact on how democracy is promoted overseas.”

Support for women’s political participation helps organizations in the democracy establishment survive and thrive, even in non-democratic countries that put restrictions on more directly confrontational activities. The director of an NGO in Jordan – a country where the U.S. government has been strongly committed to advancing women’s participation – helped illustrate this dynamic in an interview with me. He told me that he did not hold Jordanian citizenship and so he was worried about the possibility of being kicked out of the country if he were to aggravate the government there. He said, “I know that I don’t want to talk about political rights here in Jordan because of my delicate personal situation, even though I’d like to. So all I can do is women’s issues, rather than more political issues.”

Is the rise of support for women’s political participation a good thing for democracy? According to some points of view, the answer is no: promoting women’s political participation can help autocracies mimic the appearance of liberal democracy for international audiences in order to secure aid and other international benefits that will help them survive. All the same, having more women in parliament could be good for gender equality and it may plant the seeds of democratization in such countries down the line – and in countries that are firmly autocratic, a more confrontational approach to democracy assistance might not be possible anyway. Perhaps eventually U.S. support for women’s political participation overseas will end up having a boomerang effect and translate to new action at home.

Is Boko Haram a Roving Bandit?

Guest post by Kyle Beardsley and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch

A stylized portrait of Boko Haram. By AK Rockefeller.

A stylized portrait of Boko Haram. By AK Rockefeller.

In recent months, Boko Haram has devastated a number of communities across a vast swath of Northern Nigeria, and even reaching into Chad, Cameroon and Niger. Although Boko Haram has some territorial control in the border regions near Lake Chad, its attacks do not occur in a consistent geographic area, but rather devastate communities with considerable distance between them. This mobile pattern contrasts with other, more geographically-fixed rebel groups, such as the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) fighting for the self-determination of the Ijaw people and control of the rich resources in the Niger Delta in Southern Nigeria.

We examine in two recent articles forthcoming in International Studies Quarterly (with Nigel Lo) and International Studies Review how the participants in armed conflict shape geo-spatial patterns and the implications for conflict management and peacekeeping. In considering these questions, it is helpful to draw an analogy between Boko Haram and Mancur Olson’s roving bandits. As a thought experiment, Olson considers roving and stationary bandits operating under anarchy. Roving bandits rely on brute force to move from place to place, extract rents, and move onto another location after they drain the available resources in one place. Stationary bandits, in contrast, extract resources by taxing local production and hence develop an encompassing interest in the welfare of the local economy. The stationary bandit will be wary of extracting all the currently available resources, as this will leave them with fewer resources to extract in the future. As such, stationary bandits extract resources not just through naked coercion, but also through some form of implicit social contract. They provide public goods—such as security—and, in return, receive rents from the local population. This provides an incentive for the stationary bandit to invest in the conquered area rather than completely exploit it. In this sense, stationary bandits set up hierarchical relationships that resemble a proto-state. Armed actors able to establish consistent hierarchy can come to rule with consent, or legitimate authority, rather than through more costly brute force against continued resistance. In the intrastate conflict context, rebel groups that stay localized—and, by implication, fight in more consistent locations—can better compete with the state as the side with legitimate authority and win local support.

If stationary bandits have an advantage of being able to establish authority and some degree of consent from the local community, then what does this suggest about Boko Haram as a mobile group? What has prevented Boko Haram from establishing stronger hierarchies within Northern Nigerian and surrounding communities, and driven the group to ravage communities and depend on power through coercion and fear?

In our recent study, we explore why the conflict zones in some intrastate armed conflicts tend to exhibit substantial year-by-year variation, while the conflict zones in others tend to concentrate in consistent areas. Moreover, in another study, we assess the ability for peacekeeping forces to contain the geographic spread of armed conflict. We posit that rebel groups frequently face the dilemma of whether they should stay mobile and vary the geographic location of their activities, or seek to operate in a consistent theater. Consistency provides an opportunity to consolidate authority among local communities and become stationary bandits, but mobility might be the only way to survive against government forces. Central governments face a dilemma of their own. Strategies that focus on containing groups effectively allow rebel groups to establish strong local roots. In contrast, uprooting rebels and giving chase is difficult and often counterproductive.

We argue that armed actors can choose over a menu of options in terms of specific attack targets and locations. Rebel groups that lack both sufficient strength and strong local ties must vary their battle locations to remain viable. We empirically explore the movement of conflict zones using the Georeferenced Event Dataset (GED), which has defined conflict zones as polygons that encompass the battles in each year. We then specifically measure mobility as the proportion of overlap in the zones from the previous year to the current year. For example, the figure shows the armed conflicts involving the SPLM/A, which is associated with low mobility, in 2002 and the LRA, which has very high mobility, in 2001.

Figure: GED polygons for the LRA in 2001 and the SPML/A in 2002. Current-year polygons are in blue, previous-year polygons are in yellow, and the areas of overlap are in green.

Figure: GED polygons for the LRA in 2001 and the SPML/A in 2002. Current-year polygons are
in blue, previous-year polygons are in yellow, and the areas of overlap are in green.

The results from our study corroborate the claim that rebel groups tend to keep operations localized if they can. But fighting over many locations becomes likely when they lack the ability to attain harbor from local communities or the resources to compete militarily with state forces.

Boko Haram fits this pattern well. Its aims do not focus on the establishment of some ethnic homeland. Indeed, its recent alliance with the Islamic State is indicative of goals related to the spread of an extremist ideology and the global recruitment of resources and recruits. And even if Boko Haram preferred to keep operations local, it does not have strong alliances with local community groups that would be willing to conceal the activities of Boko Haram and confer informational advantages against government counterinsurgency efforts. Although the Nigerian armed forces have appeared inept in the struggle against Boko Haram, its sizeable military should perform better against a group that stands and fights in consistent locations rather than spreading its forces so thin across space.

As a result of the severity of Boko Haram’s tactics and ability to terrorize and kill throughout so a large area, there have been recent movements for greater international involvement. Chad and Niger have begun cooperating with Nigeria to target Boko Haram’s activities along the porous borders, and the UN Security Council has recently issued a press statement condemning recent attacks by the rebel group. ECOWAS has also considered joint military action and has called for the African Union to refer the matter to the UN Security Council.

If the UN Security Council were to authorize a peacekeeping force for Nigeria, might this help contain Boko Haram, and reduce the geographic spread of its violence? Our article in International Studies Review explores the ability for peacekeeping operations to contain the mobility of conflict. We argue that peacekeeping missions tend to have defensive rather than offensive mandates. Indeed, the mandate that authorized the creation of an Intervention Brigade as part of the MONUSCO mission in the DRC (UNSCR 2098) explicitly calls for this type of brigade to be considered as exceptional and not a precedent for other missions. Defensive-oriented peacekeeping missions can contain the mobility of armed actors by using monitoring to decrease the informational advantages of mobile groups, impeding the actual movement of armed groups that are hesitant to violently move peacekeepers from their paths, and reducing the willingness of states to uproot insurgents from local communities while under observation. We find that, on average, armed conflict zones tend to exhibit geographic consistency when peacekeeping missions, especially large ones, are present.

So, does it follow that a robust peacekeeping operation in Nigeria would help contain Boko Haram? Not necessarily, for two reasons. First, in some additional analyses, we find that peacekeepers do not do as well in containing conflicts that involve groups, like Boko Haram, which are not fighting for an ethnic homeland. Peacekeeping missions do much better in containing conflict when the armed actors can use the cover of the peacekeeping missions to blend in with a cooperative local population. Second, although peacekeeping missions are associated with some, albeit limited, conflict containment for groups that are not fighting for an ethnic homeland, it is not clear that containment would be desirable for groups like Boko Haram. Some of the containment effect of peacekeeping might be working through restraining government efforts to root out and pursue armed groups. While it is easy to see this as fulfilling the objectives of peacekeeping missions in countries where the government is clearly the more culpable party in doling out the bloodshed, this case is more difficult to make with regard to Boko Haram. If Boko Haram were to be able to consolidate its activities locally, non-combatants in those areas may be even more deeply brutalized.

Peacekeepers are lousy counterinsurgents and more likely to provide cover to Boko Haram rather than enforce measures against their brutal tactics. But less obviously, international and domestic efforts to bolster the Nigerian government’s fighting capacity and to diminish that of Boko Haram—for example through cutting off the resources—could be successful in the long run but may unintentionally contribute to the mobility of the group in the short run. However, mobility reflects the weakening of the group and its need to flee rather than fight. The new Nigerian government must not only pursue the group by military means but also improve and consolidate its own hierarchy with the affected communities, so as to deny safe harbor and relief to Boko Haram.

Kyle Beardsley is an Associate Professor at Duke. Kristian Skrede Gleditsch is a Professor at University of Essex.

Support for War or Polls on Steroids? On Americans’ Enthusiasm for Military Operations Against Iran

Guest post by Aaron Hoffman

The Azadi Tower in Tehran, Iran. By Christiaan Triebert.

The Azadi Tower in Tehran, Iran. By Christiaan Triebert.

Are Americans ready to use force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? A day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress about preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Fox news released a poll showing 65% of respondents backed the use force in support of this goal. Paul Waldman, though, a senior writer for The American Prospect, rejected the idea that the public was souring on US diplomatic efforts. As he saw it, Fox “juiced” the results by asking people about their support for the use force if that was the only way to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

Waldman is right that people who are out of options are more enthusiastic about the courses of action that remain open to them. The surprise is that removing the phrase that upset him might not make people less eager for war with Iran. The reason is that people take it for granted that military force is a tactic of last resort, used when diplomatic solutions to foreign policy problems are either unavailable or ineffective. Reminding people that diplomatic alternatives to war are unappealing has the same effect on people’s enthusiasm for war as telling them nothing at all about diplomacy.

In the article, “Norms, Diplomatic Alternatives, and the Social Psychology of War Support, which the folks at The Journal of Conflict Resolution and Sage Publishers kindly ungated (see here for the abstract and here for the full text), my research associates Christopher R. Agnew, Laura E. Vanderdrift, Robert Kulzick, and I used a series of experiments to demonstrate how unstated assumptions about force being a tactic of last resort influence war support. After reading a short foreign policy scenario, study participants were asked about their willingness to support a US military operation in light of what they read. We told people in the baseline conditions nothing about diplomatic alternatives, not even that they were available. Participants in the other conditions were told that the available diplomatic strategies were either likely or unlikely to resolve the issue in the scenario.

The results we got from these simples messages were striking. People who were told nothing about diplomatic alternatives supported the use of force at the same rate as those who were told the available diplomatic alternatives were likely to fail. This is surprising. People who are told nothing about diplomatic options should draw no conclusions about them — the use of force might be under consideration even when diplomacy works. Logically, the utility of force and the utility of diplomacy are independent of one another.

That people who were told nothing about diplomacy supported the use of force at levels similar to those who were told diplomatic alternatives were unlikely to work tells us they believe leaders only consider using force when diplomacy is ineffective. In contrast, people who were told that diplomacy would work were less likely to support the use of force than the other participants. This result is not surprising, but it confirms that the positive and negative information we presented our subjects about diplomacy influenced their thinking.

The lesson is that unstated assumptions about the availability of viable alternatives to the use of force inflate the public’s willingness to support war fighting. Policymakers and scholars that track public attitudes about the use of force should be aware that polling question that make no mention of diplomatic alternatives probably exaggerate the amount of support that exists for war at least until quality diplomatic alternatives are exhausted. The corollary for pollsters is this: there is no need to add language about diplomacy’s inability to solve foreign policy problems to increase support for military operations. Standard questions about the use of force juice support for war all by themselves.

Aaron Hoffman is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Purdue University.

Where is the Muslim Gandhi?

By Cullen Hendrix for Denver Dialogues

Mahatma Gandhi.  By Luiz Fernando Reis.

Mahatma Gandhi. By Luiz Fernando Reis.

Recently, the Korbel School’s Center for Middle East Studies hosted a dialogue on what was billed as “one of the most vexing questions of our time”: where is the Muslim Gandhi? That is, where is the leader who will use nonviolent strategies to deliver Muslim populations from authoritarian rule? Especially in the Arabian Peninsula, majority-Muslim populations continue to be ruled by autocratic governments. The Arab Spring wave of protests across the MENA region renewed interest in the power of nonviolence in the region, but five years since its inception, radical change has proven elusive.

The typical reasons proffered for the absence of a Muslim Gandhi range from the purported militarized bent of Islam to the paucity of liberal-minded educational institutions and influence of Western political thought in the Muslim world. Even accepting these points – and, to be clear, I am not – there should be plenty of qualified candidates: sharp minds with impeccable humanitarian bona fides and a commitment to pursuing regime change or self-determination via nonviolent means. The “Muslim world” is 1.57 billion people strong: if it can be home to the world’s tallest man and host the world’s longest charitable telethon, it contains multitudes. Indeed, there’s already been a pretty decent contender for the title: committed pacifist and anti-British activist Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, an ally of Gandhi’s whose role in history has been largely overshadowed by his more famous compatriot. The problem is not a lack of potential candidates.

The problem is that these candidates are drowning in oil. The Middle East is the world’s most oil-rich region. It is also the least democratic. This is not a coincidence. Natural resource wealth – particularly oil – helps autocratic regimes resist pressures to democratize.[1] As Michael Ross and others have pointed out, resource wealth endows governments with ample resources to employ against dissidents, violent and nonviolent alike, and insulate themselves from political change.

By providing social services, resource-rich regimes can address some of the basic needs of the population without involving them in the policymaking process. These public services range from broad consumer subsidies for food and fuel (many oil- exporting countries subsidize fuel to the tune of 70 percent or more) to education, health care, and one-time direct transfers. After Arab Spring protests broke out in Tunisia and Algeria in January 2011, the Kuwaiti government announced that all Kuwaiti citizens would receive grants of 1,000 Kuwaiti dinars (about $3,500 in current dollars) and free food staples for 13 months. These policies, though ostensibly enacted to commemorate Kuwait’s 50th anniversary of independence and the 20th anniversary of the expulsion of Iraqi forces, also addressed one of the key issues motivating Arab Spring protests in the region.

Despite investments in broad social services and systems of patronage, oil-rich regimes still may face domestic pressures for democracy. If carrots are not enough, sticks—harsh repression—can be employed. Major oil-exporting countries accounted for 4 of the top 10 military spenders in percentage of GDP terms, including the top three: Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates – and oil-rich states tend to lavish spending on their police forces as well.

The results of the Arab Spring were telling in this regard: Resource-poor countries, such as Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia, experienced regime change (Egypt and Tunisia) or responded with virtually immediate pledges of economic and political reforms (Morocco). In contrast, resource-rich regimes proved much more difficult to oust from power. Only one resource-rich regime, Libya, fell as a result of the Arab Spring, and Libyan forces would likely have crushed the Benghazi-based opposition in the absence of NATO-led multilateral intervention.

Finally, oil-rich economies are not as easy to freeze out of markets for their goods and international capital, making them less susceptible to nonviolent movements. Gandhi – and later, Nelson Mandela – were successful in bringing their respective targets to their knees by using work stoppages and stay-aways (Gandhi) and international condemnation and product boycotts (Mandela) in order to cow the British and apartheid South African governments. South Africa’s regime crumbled not because of armed attacks, but because it couldn’t finance a nuclear program, domestic industrialization, and repression of its majority population, after having been frozen out of capital markets and witnessed its exports dry up.

In both instances, civil society used nonviolent but highly coercive economic levers to bring the regime to the negotiating table. In oil-rich economies, the people do not have similar sources of influence: labor unions and domestic product boycotts will not undermine the government’s sources of revenue, which are primarily external; as the Iranian case has demonstrated, oil is notoriously difficult to freeze out of international markets, and attempted boycotts actually tend to raise prices. When governments are beholden to their local economies and populations for revenue, they tend to act in their interests. When oil exports disrupt this fiscal contract, it removes one of the best sources of leverage a nonviolent popular movement can hope to have.

The Muslim world is large, diverse, and home to many who are ideologically committed to peace and nonviolence. Where is the Muslim Gandhi? Perhaps he or she is drowning in oil. It remains to be seen whether the recent slump in oil prices may open up the political space for him or her to breathe.

[1] Ross 2001, Smith 2004, Ulfelder 2007, Bueno de Mesquita and Smith 2010, Al-Ubaydli 2012, Hendrix and Nolan 2014.

Ethnicity and Collective Targeting in Civil Wars

Guest post by Lisa Hultman and Hanne Fjelde

Gabriel, a South Sudanese man, in a refugee camp in Uganda. By European Commissions DG ECHO.

Gabriel, a South Sudanese man, in a refugee camp in Uganda. By European Commissions DG ECHO.

A few days ago UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on the Security Council to take action to end the systematic killings of ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East. It is not rare that policy makers and journalists highlight ethnic dimensions of violence against civilians. In many conflicts, we see widespread collective targeting of civilians based on their ethnic identity. Bosnia and Southern Sudan are but a few examples.

Yet, whereas numerous news reports and case studies from contemporary conflicts testify to the importance of ethnicity in accounting for civilian targeting, there has so far been very little evidence from quantitative studies to corroborate such notions. One study finds no evidence for the hypothesis that ethnic/identity conflicts are more likely to see mass killings. Another study finds only weak evidence for a correlation between ethnic/identity conflicts and violence against civilians by rebel groups. How can we reconcile the apparently conflicting patterns emerging from qualitative accounts and quantitative research results? In a recent article in Journal of Conflict Resolution we propose that the discrepancy can be explained by the fact that previous quantitative studies have not assessed the impact of ethnicity at the most appropriate level of analysis. So-called ethnic conflicts may not be more violent on average, but ethnicity could still be an important factor in accounting for local patterns of violence within conflicts.

We argue that governments and rebel groups often use ethnic affiliation to identify groups of suspected enemy supporters when individual preferences and political affiliations are not known. Knowing that civilian constituencies provide crucial logistical support, warring actors have incentives to engage in collective targeting of civilians along ethnic lines as a strategy for weakening the enemy’s capacity.

Ethnicity often plays an important role in shaping networks of civilian support. Not only do ethnic groups often share political grievances. Ethnic social networks also facilitate recruitment and group cohesion during armed conflicts. This does not mean that civilians always favor armed groups who claim to represent their ethnic group. Nevertheless, ethnic ties make collaboration more likely. The enemy knows this. If the actual sympathies of the civilian population are not known, ethnic identity provides a profiling criterion at the group level that armed actors can use to identify potential enemy supporters.

Our empirical analysis of violence against civilians in sub-Saharan Africa, 1989-2009 supports these contentions. We combine geographically disaggregated data on violence against civilians with data on settlement patterns of ethnic groups from which the civil war actors mobilize their support. The results show that armed actors are more likely to target civilians in areas where the enemy’s ethnic constituency resides. The effect is strongest for governments; they are five times more likely to target civilians in areas inhabited by ethnic groups that the rebels claim to represent. Rebels, in turn, are more than twice as likely to target civilians in areas with ethnic groups that the government represents.

We lack systematic data on the ethnic affiliations of civilian victims. Our inference is hence based on using geographic settlement patterns as a proxy for the identity of the victims of violence. In sub-Saharan Africa ethnic groups tend to cluster geographically. These settlement patterns facilitate collective targeting along rival ethnic lines; they also allow us to make a best guess about the identity of the victims. Nevertheless, the reality is certainly more complex. Civilian victims are a more heterogeneous group than our data allow us to pick up; warring actors may mistakenly target civilians from their own ethnic group, or there may be parallel processes of intra-ethnic violence taking place in a conflict. In addition, some groups may refrain from collective targeting along ethnic lines, knowing it may consolidate civilian support for the enemy. Disentangling these dimensions are important questions to tackle for future research.

Returning to the initial question about whether ethnicity is a useful factor for explaining atrocities: our answer is that strong links between armed actors and ethnic groups provide incentives for collective violence against civilians. This group-level identification of potential enemy supporters often leads to massacres and indiscriminate attacks – and those are the ones we read about in the news.

Lisa Hultman and Hanne Fjelde are both Associate Professors of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden.

Weekly Links

By Danny Hirschel-Burns

Caspar David Friedrich, “Two Men Contemplating the Moon,” 1825-30. Via Peter Eimon.

Caspar David Friedrich, “Two Men Contemplating the Moon,” 1825-30. Via Peter Eimon.

Shouldn’t corrupt construction companies be contributing to infrastructure development in Africa? Somewhat relatedly, how does Chinese aid affect government behavior? Negatively, it seems.

Richard Dowden argues that Kenya’s government has systematically failed to deal effectively with terrorism. Similarly, Joshua Keating argues Uhuru Kenyatta’s performance is increasingly concerning. And in the aftermath of Garissa, it’s clear the “War on Terror” narrative has outlived its usefulness. While instability in Somalia contributes to terrorism in Kenya, Somaliland is a peaceful anomaly, but it can’t seem to get international recognition.

Prison gangs as governments. And what’s the objective of incarceration? If a prisoner released early by mistake reforms, should he go back to prison?

Islam Karimov runs one of the world’s most repressive regimes, but his grip now extends far beyond Uzbekistan’s borders, as government-hired hitman keep assassinating exiled dissidents.

Boko Haram will still be a threat under the government-elect of Muhammadu Buhari, but will he cooperate with other countries, particularly Chad, to counter it?

Sudan is preparing for elections on Monday, and though opposition parties are allowed to run, many plan to boycott, and the ruling National Congress Party is expected to cruise.

What sorts of analysis do policymakers really want from academics?

There are still many details to be worked out on the Iran nuclear deal. But on the other hand, it’s the existence of the agreement itself, not the details, that matter. Finally, domestic politics and disputed nationalism: what it means to be a hardliner in Iran.

Frustration with Georgia’s ruling party is high, and that’s likely to mean the emergence of political extremists.

The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen doesn’t seem to have a clear strategy as Egypt prepares to send in ground troops. And despite a lack of enthusiasm for the intervention, the United States is offering support.

Steven T. Zech looked at Anonymous cyber-attacks on ISIS earlier this week for Denver Dialogues, but they’re not the only target in the Middle East; Anonymous also has Israel in its sights.

What did the U.S. actually know just before and during the Rwandan Genocide? Far more than Bill Clinton would like to admit. Another world leader in denial is Nicolas Maduro, who insists that US sanctions aren’t hurting his country.

Where Do Pirates Go?

Guest post by Ursula Daxecker, Brandon Prins, and Jessica Di Salvatore

EU Naval Force intercept a skiff with suspected pirates on board, December 15 2012. By EUNAVFOR.

EU Naval Force intercept a skiff with suspected pirates on board, December 15 2012. By EUNAVFOR.

The rise (and decline) of Somali piracy. Increasing attacks on oil tankers off of Nigeria’s coast. Maritime piracy is a hot topic these days, and academics have taken notice. In fact, this renewed attention has led to a number of useful findings about piracy’s causes.

For instance, we now know that governments with low state capacity struggle to police coastlines, combat crime, and thus experience more piracy. Poor economic conditions, such as a lack of legal labor market opportunities or a decline in fisheries production, have also been linked to increases in piracy. In addition, favorable geography for pirates, including long coastlines or proximity to shipping routes, contributes to an environment attractive for prospective pirates.

Yet while these findings help us understand why some countries or regions are particularly prone to piracy, fewer studies helped us understand where pirates choose to go to plan and carry out attacks. Although experts have long noted that pirates need sanctuaries on land to operate, few could explain how pirates choose locations for organizing attacks. This question is fairly important, since the answer helps predict where pirates take hold—and hence, helps governments to direct resources to prevent it.

In a forthcoming article in International Interactions, we argue that pirates are rational, criminal actors who generally weigh the potential gains from successful attacks against the risk of capture. Distance from government power centers or difficult coastal terrain should help reduce the risk of capture and thus influence the calculus of pirate organizations. Indonesian “island pirates,” for example, carry out attacks from areas separated from administrative and economic centers by sea or long roads. As shown in the map of piracy incidents in Indonesia in 2013 below, piracy incidents cluster at significant distance from Jakarta.

Piracy incidents off Indonesia’s coast in 2013, piracy data from International Maritime Bureau. Map created by Jessica Di Salvatore.

Piracy incidents off Indonesia’s coast in 2013, piracy data from International Maritime Bureau. Map created by Jessica Di Salvatore.

The location of attacks far away from Indonesia’s capital suggests that pirates avoid places where the government presence is strongest. An implication of this pattern is that the location of pirate organizations and attacks should be a function of state capacity. By state capacity, we mean the ability of the government to “get things done.” In the context of piracy, this means being able to police coastlines and territorial waters, control difficult or distant territory, and provide public services (e.g. education, health care, and others) so people are less inclined to engage in criminal activity. In more capable states, then, pirate attacks should occur further away from centers of government power such as state capitals. In Indonesia, improvements in state capacity over the last 15 years track with our expectations: Average capital-pirate attack distances have increased from around 500 kilometers in 1998 to over 1,000 kilometers in 2013, while Indonesia’s government effectiveness score has improved by more than 50% in the same time frame.

Yet in very weak and fragile states, pirates take advantage of the inability of the government to project power. This means that pirate attacks may occur even in close proximity to government power centers. Clusters of pirate attacks close to Mogadishu, Berbera, and Bossaso, significant political and commercial cities in Somalia and Somaliland, illustrate this dynamic in weak states.

Our findings have some validity beyond Indonesia and Somalia. Using geocoded data on piracy from the International Maritime Bureau, quantitative analyses support our expectations that improvements in state capacity result in noticeable increases in median piracy distance.

Ok, so pirates are informed strategic actors. What do these findings mean for policy? Clearly, policymakers in piracy-prone states should pay attention to the geography of governance reforms. Reforms that improve local governance in distant or otherwise remote locations should be most promising in helping to avoid the displacement of piracy. That said, improvements in governance are not a panacea for countering piracy, since such improvements may displace rather than eliminate piracy. From a scholarly perspective, and more broadly, our findings call for renewed attention to the causes and consequences of sub-national variation in state capacity.

Ursula Daxecker is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam, Brandon Prins is Professor of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, and Jessica Di Salvatore is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Amsterdam.

Virtual Vigilantes: “Anonymous” Cyber-Attacks Against the Islamic State

By Steven T. Zech for Denver Dialogues

Anonymous advertisement in support of Operation ISIS.  Via Twitter.

Anonymous advertisement in support of Operation ISIS. Via Twitter.

This past month the “hacktivist” collective known as Anonymous intensified its cyber-attacks against the Islamic State. Anonymous affiliates (or “Anons”) coordinated with other hacker groups to identify and track online support for the Islamic State. Over one hundred hackers helped to compile and release a list of thousands of Twitter account names as part of #OpISIS, a campaign to disrupt the Islamic States’ virtual presence. What is Anonymous? Why are its affiliates targeting the Islamic State? And is it a good idea?

The many faces of Anonymous

Anonymous is a hacker collective that dates back to 2004. Academics and journalists have described Anonymous as a “shape-shifting subculture” or a “series of relationships,” rather than an organization or unified movement. Anonymous affiliates include both “merry pranksters” and sophisticated social advocacy networks. Its ranks have taken action against targets ranging from the Church of Scientology, for perceived efforts at censorship, to large financial services companies like MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal, for complicating donation efforts to WikiLeaks at the behest of the U.S. State Department. Other examples of Anonymous operations include support for large-scale social movements in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.

Some operations demonstrate the contested nature of the Anonymous label. For example, in Ferguson, Missouri some Anonymous elements organized a “National Day of Rage” that sought to overshadow a previously planned protest calling for a “National Moment of Silence.” In another case a group of hackers claiming to operate under the Anonymous banner released a video threatening Israel with an “electronic Holocaust.” Significant differences in priorities and ideological tenants exist among those who claim affiliation. In an online YouTube video, a Guy Fawkes mask explains:

You cannot join Anonymous. Anonymous is not an organization. It is not a club, a party, or even a movement. There is no charter, no manifest, no membership fees. All we are is people who travel a short distance together, much like commuters who meet in a bus or tram. For a brief period of time we have the same route; share a common goal, purpose, or dislike; and on this journey together we may well change the world. Nobody could say you are in or you are out.

“Anons” come from all religious, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds. Both men and women (i.e. “Anonymisses”) have joined Anonymous operations. Supporters do not act on behalf of a particular nation, nor do they have fixed objectives.

A convergence of interests: From cyber-terrorist threat to (potential) ally

In early 2012 the director of the NSA warned of Anonymous’ growing capabilities and the potential for disruptive attacks against the United States. A genuine fear that Anonymous might have the ability and desire to target the American power grid seemed to take hold within the U.S. government. Many involved in U.S. defense worried that this loose network of technologically savvy civilians might constitute a real threat to national security. However, in light of recent actions against Islamist militants by hackers operating under the Anonymous banner, these fears seem to have subsided.

A tacit alliance appears to have developed between numerous Western states and several Anonymous affiliates based on a shared interest in combating militant Islamist groups. Anonymous began strikes against the Islamic State after a wave of beheading videos appeared on the internet last year and it targeted suspected proponents of Islamist terrorism more frequently after the attack on the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. One Belgium-based group vowed to fight for the “inviolate and sacred right to express opinions in any way” after the Paris attacks and started to target accounts on social networking sites linked to Islamist terrorism. Anonymous affiliates prepared operations aimed at Islamist militants and their supporters, largely driven by moral repugnance.

The cyber collective initiated its latest round of offensive operations several days before U.S. president Barack Obama asked Congress to authorize the use of military force against the Islamic State on February 11, 2015. Anonymous took down Twitter handles tied to Islamic State supporters and generated a list of Facebook pages that should be monitored. The hacker collective released a statement that, “The terrorists that are calling themselves Islamic State (ISIS) are not Muslims!” Anonymous promised the Islamic State that, “We will hunt you, take down your sites, accounts, emails, and expose you. From now on, no safe place for you online. You will be treated like a virus, and we are the cure.”

Anonymous continues to release statements with updates related to #OpISIS. After their latest round of take-downs, participants explained the need to raise more awareness about the long list of social media accounts they identified:

The more attention it gets the more likely it becomes Twitter takes action in removing these accounts and making a serious impact on the ability of ISIS to spread propaganda and recruit new members. You don’t have to be tech savvy to contribute, simply clicking retweet or like could mean the difference between almost 10 thousand active accounts or 10 thousand suspended ones. Help us fight.

The goal of Anonymous is to pressure Twitter into removing more accounts linked to Islamic extremism. Twitter has taken action against many accounts, but remains uncertain how to proceed. Twitter co-founder and his employees have received threats that Islamic “lions” would be coming for them in response to their meddling. This case provides an interesting example of the important interactions among civilian activists, government, and businesses, as each plays a role in confronting security challenges tied to religious extremism.

The pros and cons of Anonymous support

In a recent interview, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, identified crucial factors that should compliment a U.S.-led air campaign in Iraq and Syria. Humanitarian assistance must reach the hundreds of thousands of displaced people that have fled territory now under Islamic State control. Governments should bolster border controls and strengthen legal tools to reduce the influx of foreign fighters. Finally, a comprehensive strategy must include a stronger counter-presence on social media. Could Anonymous provide additional assistance on this front?

Limiting the Islamic State’s ability to share its vision and disseminate directives is a key part of any strategy aimed at halting its expansion. However, U.S. efforts to stop Islamic State propaganda and to generate a convincing and coherent counter-narrative have found little success. Anonymous may succeed where some government offices have not (e.g. the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications). In a recent Foreign Policy article, Emerson Brooking argues that the U.S should provide greater support for Anonymous affiliates already combating the Islamic State, perhaps putting them on the government payroll or offering Bitcoin bounties. Increased pressure would push the Islamic State deeper into the web, hindering its communication and coordination capacity. Enabling tech-savvy civilians to attack the Islamic State’s web presence may help to minimize the communicative effects of civilian beheadings and other acts of counter-normative violence. A “cyber-militia” could help to address many of the new technological challenges faced in 21st century armed conflicts.

Alternatively, Anonymous support could prove detrimental to state efforts to combat the Islamic State. Some reports suggest that government investigators would actually prefer that the accounts stay up. Removing virtual trails to suspected militants could hinder investigators’ ability to gather intelligence, map out communication networks, and track down operational cells. For example, one intelligence expert who follows Islamic State tweets described five foreign-born fighters communicating openly over Twitter about a planned meeting in a Syrian cafe. By monitoring, instead of removing accounts, intelligence practitioners can glean information about potential threats to improve existing counterterrorism efforts. Policymakers must evaluate the trade-offs between limiting propaganda and coordination and hindering intelligence collection.

Anonymous interventions may also generate unintended negative consequences, as they have in previous operations. For example, Anonymous affiliates misidentified the person responsible for the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. When Anonymous affiliates got involved in a case where two teens sexually assaulting a young girl in Ohio, their actions accidentally revealed the identity of the victim to the public. There is no accountability in place for the allegations and actions of Anonymous activists targeting suspected Islamist militants and those sympathetic to their cause. Without coordinating with investigators and the intelligence community, an Anonymous activist might disrupt an ongoing operation or spark retaliatory actions by the Islamic State.

Ultimately, policymakers must remain mindful of how increased civilian participation could introduce new challenges in the fight against the Islamic State. The involvement of businesses like Twitter in efforts to combat violent extremism complicates policymaker decision-making. Furthermore, cases of direct civilian participation in combat operations have raised important questions about the legality and desirability of involving non-state actors in violent conflict. While the U.S. government has taken steps to keep its former soldiers from joining the ranks of Kurdish security forces, its stance on cyber activism remains ambiguous. Anonymous’ participation might provide an additional tool in the struggle against the Islamic State and violent extremism, but the effects of its participation remain unclear.

Notes on the Conflict in Yemen: Local vs. Transnational Roots of Violence

Guest post by Thomas Eilers

Street art in Yemen. Photo by Thomas Eilers.

Street art in Yemen. Photo by Thomas Eilers.

Shots crackled sporadically throughout the day as dark plumes of smoke rose from different areas of the city. Protesters took to the streets of Sana’a in early June 2014, angered by fuel shortages and high gas prices. The young men demonstrating on the street that I lived on carried a sign reading, “need water.” Most were angry with President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and the transitional government for failing to provide basic goods and services. At the end of the day, President Hadi dismissed five ministers. Two months later the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, took advantage of the widespread frustration and led major protests calling for the government to step down. One month later in September, the Houthis took control of Sana’a.

Yemen is mired in a civil war overshadowed by regional rivalries. On its face, the conflict appears to fit nicely into the regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran and is often spun as Sunni versus Shia, but the Yemeni conflict cannot be reduced to this. Instead the war is being fought by multiple factions including the Houthis, supporters of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, “loyalists” of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, southerners seeking the creation of their own state, tribal fighters, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In Yemen, religious sects are prioritized after regionalism, tribalism, and political party affiliations but this has not prevented outside actors from using the deteriorating situation to their advantage.[1] In sum, this is a contest to build and be the state, which has local roots but external patrons.

The airstrikes by Saudi Arabia and partner nations in Operation Decisive Storm are meant to return President Hadi to power and prevent Iran from gaining a foothold in Saudi Arabia’s backyard. Many believe that the Houthis would not be able to take over the capital without the help from Iran but this misrepresents the nature of the movement and the conflict.

The Houthi movement is associated with the Zaydi sect of Islam, which is unique to northern Yemen and is in fact as close to Sunni Islam as it is to the “Twelver” school of Shia Islam practiced in Iran.[2] Through 2004 to 2010, the Houthis and Saleh fought six wars. During these “Saada Wars” the Houthis proved to be capable fighters and gained supporters as then President Saleh used increasingly destructive military and economic tactics to try to counter and to defeat the Houthis.[3]

During and after the chaos of the protests in Yemen influenced by the Arab Spring, the Houthis gained control of Saada and moved into neighboring territory. The group won support outside of its traditional Zaydi base by becoming a voice for those frustrated with the lack of progress following the uprising in 2011.[4]

Although Iran has provided funding to the group and offered some military training (the extent is debated), the Houthis rise is more easily explained by their alliance with former president Saleh. After Saleh was forced from office, he was able to secure immunity. Essentially left for dead, he proved why he was able to remain in power for 33 years by aligning himself with his once bitter enemies, the Houthis, to work together to bring down former allies including the Islah party, the influential al-Ahmar family, and Ali Mohsen, a general who turned against Saleh during the Arab Spring and fought the six wars against the Houthis.

Today the combined Houthi and Saleh forces have swept through Yemen and continue making gains in southern Yemen despite the airstrikes by Saudi Arabia and partner nations. Hadi’s supporters in Yemen are fractured. Even after countries threw their support behind Hadi when he fled to Aden, Hadi was unable to capitalize on this and was forced to flee Aden. His return to Yemen is far from certain as the airstrikes are unlikely to either force the Houthis and Saleh to the negotiations table or drive them from Sana’a making an invasion even more likely.

Moving forward, there are two important developments to monitor besides a ground force invasion. It is important to monitor the reaction of Yemenis to the airstrikes. At first, the military intervention was cheered by some Yemenis, particularly in the south, but as airstrikes increase and kill civilians, this will potentially cause Yemenis to side with the Houthis. It is also important to watch for the eventual split between the Houthis and Saleh. The two entered an alliance and succeeded in eliminating mutual enemies, but Saleh has always had the desire to return to power and will try and distance himself from the Houthis.

This Saudi intervention though masks the roots of the conflict, which is what brought people to the streets in early June 2014. Dwindling oil and water supplies as well as a devastated economy ensure an unstable, fragile state with multiple actors vying for control over the legitimacy of violence. Like I witnessed in 2014, there will be future protests and conflict until people’s needs are met and a capable state can provide security and stability.

Thomas Eilers is an MA student at American University studying US Foreign Policy and National Security. He spent the past summer in Yemen studying Yemeni politics.

[1] Gabriel Koeler-Derrick, ed. 2011. “A False Foundation? AQAP, Tribes and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen,” Combating Terrorism Center, West Point, available at

[2] Barak A. Salmoni, Bryce Loidolt and Madeleine Wells, Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen: The Houthi Phenomenon (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2010) available at

[3] Christopher Bouek. 2010. “War in Saada: From Local Insurrection to National Chellenge,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace available at

[4] Charles Schmitz, 2015. “Misadventures in Violence in Yemen: Operation Resolute Storm,” Middle East Institute, available at


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