Friday Puzzler: Why do Extremists Disproportionately Gain When States Falter?

Flag via Wikimedia.
Flag via Wikimedia.

By Barbara F. Walter

One of the puzzles associated with the war in Syria is why radical Islamist groups such as Al Nusra flourish while more moderate groups do not. Al Nusra — al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria — had no real presence in the country until civil war broke out in 2011. Since then, it has become the dominant militant group fighting the Assad government. A similar pattern occurred during the civil wars in Mali and Iraq, where Islamic extremists rose to prominence fairly quickly amid a field of competing factions.

So today’s puzzler is this: Why has al Qaeda had such success in countries experiencing civil war? Why are more moderate groups less able to organize and thrive in the competitive marketplace of opposition groups?

Most of the puzzles I present are about phenomena for which I don’t have good answers. I present them as “puzzlers” because they truly are puzzling to me. This is true of last week’s puzzler. I honestly don’t know whether sexual abuse of women in the U.S. military is worse than in any other co-ed military. I suspect it is, but the data don’t exist to confirm or deny this. I also honestly don’t know why sexual abuse might be more widespread in the U.S. military, if it in fact is. What I can say, though, is that the U.S. government should be funding and supporting research that helps answer these two questions — it’s embarrassing how little we know. With an estimated 26,000 U.S. servicemembers sexually assaulted in 2012 (a 35% increase since 2010), the American public, its soldiers, and the mothers and fathers of potential soldiers deserve to know what’s driving this trend and what can be done to stop it.

  1. A revolution is a high-trust endeavour — the classic Schelling game where everyone must move at once or else die. The way that such game are practically solved is with a binding precommitment mechanism that allows people to plausibly communicate that they commit to future action.

    Totalizing ideologies — and religion in particular — are very well suited to being binding commitment mechanisms because all of the members have a sufficiently common set of values and understandings that they can make credible claims to each other and everyone knows how to effectively and cheaply punish defectors within the group. This makes them naturals at commitment and coordination games of this sort.

    It also makes them extremely well suited to other acts of high-stakes coordination like repression and genocide, though, so that’s a minus.

    1. Very good points. There is always critical moment in a revolution once the radicals make their move and it revolves around the response of the other groups. If they “play by the rules” and are moderate in their steps to confront the radicals they will lose. See, for instance, the Russian revolution which after the overthrow of the czar was led by liberal and democratic socialist reformers. A small minority, the Bolsheviks, was able to overthrow that government which limited itself to a tempered response to the threat. The extrajudicial killing of 6-8 men (or perhaps only two, Lenin and Trotsky) might have saved the country much grief.

  2. In Syria, extremists groups’ atrocities and preferred Islamist governance is often unpopular, as are their often foreign fighters. But other reporting indicates that extremists tend to be more discipled and better fighters, and their members less likely to be unmotivated opportunists, traits which attract support.

    If the conflict continues I would not be surprised if extremist groups continue to gain at the expense of their moderate or secular peers.

  3. I like the Weistein-ish argument that discipline and motivation attract support, both because AQ appears more sincere and more capable.

    Obviously, then, any pre-organized and dedicated group will receive a windfall of support during a civil war or regime change, regardless of its moderation. But this post has me wondering if those holding (relatively) politically extreme views are more likely to organize, particularly in repressive contexts…

  4. Along with the norms of commitment that Grant Gould mentioned above, I wonder if the fact Islamist fighters and their political entrepreneurs are usually more experienced than homegrown resistance might also add to their successes in these environments. The other rebel groups comprise of fighters who were either civilians or defected soldiers prior to the conflict.

    Like in the Spanish Civil War’s political extremists (Soviet backed or trained fighters and propagandists who had experience in other theatres, both militarily and politically as opposed to the anarchists, democratic socialists and other republicans), the Islamists in Syria probably have more experience in human resources management, partly because of organizational memory.

    It would be interesting to compare the different training doctrines, regimes and environments for recruits within the rebels if possible.

  5. Funding. Al Nusra and other extremist groups have an easy money tap in Saudi and Qatar, while the more “moderate” groups regularly go begging to the West.

    Here’s just one of the legion of articles:

    “The group is well funded – probably through established global jihadist networks – in comparison to moderates. Meanwhile pro-democracy rebel group commanders say money from foreign governments has all but dried up because of fears over radical Islamists.”

    In fact, most pieces on Al Nusra mention the money.

    Here’s another:

    “The well-resourced organisation, which is linked to al-Qaida, is luring many anti-Assad fighters away, say brigade commanders”

  6. Extremists are more successful because they are committed to victory, while moderates are generally committed to living the normal, peaceful life. This playing field is steeply tilted against moderates, who are more likely to flee or get killed when violence breaks out. The very idea of “waging peace” is a play on words, a cruel joke. Prophecies of war are more self-fulfilling than those of peace, and extremists reap the benefits of this asymmetry.

  7. I truly believe I know the answer as to why the most violent groups come to the fore in cases of civil unrest. I grew up in Northern Ireland and saw this process unfold myself. It is only recently however, after training in psychoanalysis and after reading the work of Andrew Lobaczweski, that I understood what had happened. The key to understanding why violent groups emerge so forcefully is to recognise that a minority of people suffer from dangerous personality disorders – psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorder, and paranoid personality disorder. This minority is psychologically predisposed to violence and greed in a way that the normal majority is not. In situations of civil unrest, individuals with these disorders are at an advantage over people with normal psychology. The pathological groupings they form do not conform to normal standards of human behaviour and so they can easily gain influence. They do so not only because of their ruthlessness, but also because they appeal to vast swathes of the normal population – an appeal which comes from their dogmatism, from stoking paranoia about the ‘enemy’, and from exploiting the majority’s anger (via the skilful use of propaganda) at the real injustices that inevitably do exist. People with these disorders have fixed pathological world-views in which real equality with others is inconceivable; in which normal human relationships based on compromise are impossible; and in which normal human compassion is either easily overridden or entirely absent. Their rise to power is therefore invariably accompanied by increasing divisions in society, a ramping up of the rhetoric of hatred, and an increase in violence that quickly spirals out of control. While the majority in society suffer, those with dangerous disorders thrive in such violent conditions, and revel in the brutal environment they have created. Under normal circumstances, this dangerous minority is kept under control by institutions such as the rule of law, electoral democracy, human rights legislation and cultures of tolerance. When such safeguards are eroded, pathological groups are able to emerge and sieze control.

  8. Thanks much for this insightful question. Here’s my take on it: Perhaps the nature of conflict may partially explain as to why radicals gain an upper hand; in terms of ethnic and religious conflicts, which one has observed, the narrower someone goes into the conflict, the narrower one’s identity is defined in relations to others. See there is this desire to claim power and purity: anyone more purer will listened to more than anyone corrupted by inter-mingling with groups of other ethnicities and faiths. Al-Nusra got the lead because of their narrow religious message in a conflict with religious overtones., but the more radicals can also overtake them. May be that’s why should conflict drag on, the radicals of today may appear moderate of tomorrow. It is not that only moderates talk of peace, as someone observed above, even the radicals promise eternal peace to all!

  9. Size, context, and, like some others have let on, “trust”. As Fearon and Laitin and a host of other scholars that have studied civil war, technologies of rebellion, and civilian victimization have made clear, it doesn’t take a large group to be a fairly successful warring party. Further, what matters more than religion or ethnic identity is the ability to provide benefits, particularly security. If AQ can better police it’s members from committing atrocities against the general population, if they are better able to punish defectors under their control, and if they are better able to better provide for the safety of the population in which they reside, they are more likely to be successful in realizing some of their political objectives.

    To recap:
    Size matters: Moderate groups are likely to be larger and more difficult to police, mixed/weak messages notwithstanding.
    Context: A context in which violence is prevalent creates opportunities for groups that are better able to provide safety for a given population (the rationalist literature paints civilians as sensitive to changing military capabilities of warring factions as well as the likely benefits various warring parties can provide).
    “Trust”: This relates to policing. Maybe the strict values that members of Islamist groups share make policing of members easier and the punishing of those who violate norms and rules of the group more public thus deterring would be violators.

  10. In terms of Syria, the answer is fairly simple: culture. No, not that “culture” (scary moslem/arab/religious/fanatic tribal culture) but organizational culture. The Islamist rebel groups (note , suspending the term extremist for a moment), such as al-Nusra, are gaining traction because they have a more effective, durable organizational culture. Many of the above comments pointed to key pieces of this puzzle, experience, funding and a cross-cutting ideology on which to mobilize. But those elements also blend together into a formidable organization structure that supports success. Experienced fighters, when funded and provide equipment succeed and success is attractive. They also, most likely, have leadership skills with a convenient and persuasive rhetorical reservoir from which to rally the troops. That experience and ideology is also associated with 2 critical “cultural” success factors: hierarchy and discipline. Look at Hezbollah. Whatever you want to say about that group, people follow their marching orders.

    Thus, when a group like this comes to town they work better, look better and critically, stay in line. If the order is “no looting” in a village they secure, there is none. When combined with financial resources, they are well positioned to “win the hearts and minds” — This article nailed it:

    The other question, why not the non-Islamist groups, liberal or secular groups? (note, again suspending the word “moderate”) Well the first answer to this part of the puzzler is a follow up question” which ones? Those who initially led the protests? The free Syrian army(ies)? The Syrian Liberation Front, The Syrian Liberation Army, the Syrian Islamist Front, the National Salvation Front? Splitters!!! See here:

    It looks to me that the non-Islamist rebel groups are largely localize factions, which are at times cobbled into the umbrella of expatriate opposition groups – themselves often bifurcated. And while this is a description not analysis, it is key as it is a dynamic seen across the Middle East. During the 70s and 80s, which Islamist were a foil to radical nationalist and Marxist ideologies a lot of the secular opposition were killed, pushed into exile or co opted. That means that those who remain either have a stake in the regime (one of the comments above mentioned that) and something to lose or have limited voice and organization. Those outside are out-of-touch and equally divided. And what’s their message? They have too many, and most are esoteric and disconnected from the norms and needs of the masses, and therefore easy to discredit. See:

    This is what is plaguing Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Palestine. The liberals can’t get themselves together and have lost the field to the better organized, networked Islamist groups who speak the language and address the needs of the average man. Yes, the language of Islam is helpful and has resonance, but its the organizational wherewithal that matters.

    Finally, I would like to challenge the premise of the question – why do extremists gain and moderates lose. Please operationalize the definition of these key terms. What makes a group an extremist group in general and within the specific context of the Syrian civil war? Tactics? Ideology? Proposed plan for governance? Treatment of civilians in the areas under their control? As these terms are becoming the basis for decision of who and whether to arm the rebels I think they need some immediate and rigorous clarification. I think this telegraph piece highlights the need for precision.

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