Armed group formation in civil war: ‘Movement’, ‘insurgent’, and ‘state splinter’ origins

Fundamentally different dynamics of conflict shape armed group origins in the context of broad-based mobilisation, peripheral challenges to the state, and intra-regime fragmentation

Photo credit: Nina Luong.

Anastasia Shesterinina

Michael Livesey

This is a summary of the typology of armed group origins underlying the Civil War Paths project that was published in Review of International Studies; the original publication can be read here.

How do non-state armed groups form in intra-state armed conflicts? We argue that fundamentally different dynamics of conflict shape armed group origins in the context of broad-based mobilisation, peripheral challenges to the state, and intra-regime fragmentation. Armed groups that emerge in these contexts in general differ in their initial membership and leadership, the basic organisational dimensions. These dimensions underlie the descriptive typology of ‘movement’, ‘insurgent’, and ‘state splinter’ origins of armed groups that we generate.

The meso level of armed organisations

Our analysis focuses on the meso level that takes place above the level of individuals and below the level of collectivities. Focusing on the meso level and on armed groups as organisations is an analytical decision that helps us connect the micro- and macro-level dynamics of conflict. Centring armed groups is a vantage point from which to approach the organisational structures that armed groups establish, which have bearings on both individuals faced with these groups and the evolution of conflict. From this perspective, armed group origins encompass the broader context in which armed groups emerge and the ways in which individuals involved in them build their organisations.

Conflict dynamics and armed group formation

At the heart of our analysis is the argument that different dynamics of conflict shape armed group origins in different ways. We find that armed group formation in contexts of broad-based mobilisation, peripheral state challenges, and intra-regime fragmentation entails substantively different interactions through which the actors involved form and transform.

In the context of intra-regime fragmentation, interactions within and between civilian and military elites that generate coup and elite splintering dynamics lie at the origin of armed groups. While military defections to uprisings have been discussed in this context, contexts of broad-based mobilisation present fundamentally distinct conflict dynamics. Here, it is not intra-regime interactions but those between and within social movements, the state’s repressive apparatus, wider audiences, and foreign actors that create dynamics of movement fragmentation and militarisation, including loyalty shifts in the regime, and repurposing of opposition from which armed groups emerge. Finally, in peripheral state challenge contexts, interactions between a small number of insurgents, local civilians, and local and central state actors underlie counter-insurgency dynamics that centre on the secrecy that armed groups require to form.

These different dynamics of conflict at the outset of armed group activities condition their membership and leadership, at least to an extent, with implications for their ability to engage with other actors in the military, political, and social realms.

A typology of armed group origins

Armed groups with ‘movement’ origins are defined by their association with broad-based mobilisation and the legitimacy that this affords, at least early on. These groups draw their members from social movement organisations and opposition networks who as a result share a collective identity. They enjoy pre-existing organisational resources and at least some domestic and foreign support for the goals of the movement from which they emerge as they engage in public confrontation with the state. But their capacity to pose unified opposition to the state stems from the movement’s ability to direct their activities towards common goals. These groups often fragment the broader movement as they compete with one another for human and material resources, generating complex arrangements of actors in civil wars.

In turn, the secrecy of armed groups with ‘insurgent’ origins vis-à-vis the state defines their operations. Their activities are organised outside of government purview by a limited number of members whose recruitment is based on trust and who develop organisational structures to induce discipline, particularly with regard to the spread of information. These groups initially engage in minor violence against accessible state targets. Their reliance on local communities limits their violence against civilians, especially because they initially lack alliances with other non-state armed groups or foreign support. Yet access to resources over time and the need to adapt to evolving counter-insurgency can transform these organisations into full-fledged and brutal insurgent armies and even broader movements.

Finally, fragmentation within the regime defines ‘state splinter’ armed groups. These groups emerge from current or former civilian government or military whose membership is at first fixed by this background. They engage in such activities as coup d’état attempts that evolve into civil wars, which might be secretly planned but are publicly executed. These activities identify and implicate individuals involved in ways that pose high stakes for and, thus, bond participants. The organisations that emerge in these cases have pre-existing leadership, military resources, and skills, which form the basis of initially disciplined, cohesive groups with insider knowledge of the government’s weakness. They transform as they expand to new members who lack prior government and especially military experience and as divisions within their diversifying leadership disintegrate the original core and aims of the group.

At their outset, then, ‘state splinter’ groups whose members are mobilised from the current or former military or government differ from ‘insurgent’ and ‘movement’ groups that mobilise outside of the regime, where the former groups are defined by relatively closed membership due to their inherent vulnerability vis-à-vis the state whereas groups that emerge from broad-based mobilisation have a more open membership boundary. These groups also diverge in pre-existing leadership experience and skills. In general, ‘state splinter’ and ‘movement’ groups enjoy these pre-existing organisational resources that stem from their prior activities in and outside of the regime, respectively, which ‘insurgent’ groups often lack. But ‘state splinters’ have an insider understanding of the regime from which they originate, which is generally not available to ‘movement’ and ‘insurgent’ groups.

This typology offers a useful heuristic for future studies of armed group formation and outcomes of interest, including the use of violence, in cases of armed groups with different origins. But we also show that these origins are best viewed not as competing models but through the lens of parallel processes of armed group formation that can overlap and co-exist, even in the same conflict. Future research should, therefore, consider different origins which we identify in comparison through an in-depth analysis of armed groups’ complex histories.