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Transformations of violence during the decline of insurgencies

Final Report Summary - TRANSFORMATIONS (Transformations of violence during the decline of insurgencies)

Marie Curie research Project “Transformations of violence during the decline of insurgencies”

This research project examines the transformation of violence during the decline of violent insurgencies. It starts from the observation that forms of violence and violent actors change and are re-shaped in various ways over the course of violent conflict, in particular during phases of decline. These processes often contribute to ending insurgent campaigns by weakening, isolating, or fragmenting insurgent movements, but at the same time entail a proliferation of armed groups and can result in the diffusion and perpetuation of violence well beyond the “official” end of insurgent conflicts. The aim of this research project is to identify typical patterns of transformation and to analyze the relational and environmental mechanisms that drive these processes. In particular, it focuses on the spread of indiscriminate violence, the intertwinement of political violence with other forms of violence, the emergence of hybrid violent actors, and processes of transnationalization. The project relies on a comparative analysis of three cases: the violent campaigns by Islamist movements in Egypt (al-Jamaa al-Islamiyya) and Algeria (GIA, GSPC) since the early 1990s, and the violent insurgency of Sendero Luminoso in Peru (1980 to the present), focusing on developments during and after the peak of insurgent mobilization. This comparison is designed to combine similarities in the structure and aims of the insurgent movements and in the patterns of violence with differences in their cultural and political setting, in order to identify basic common patterns and mechanisms.
Description of research:
The project is based on three main types of data: (1) Event-data analysis based on a combination of datasets taken from existing databases (GTD) and a database on a particular type of violent incidents (at least one fatality) created for the project, which includes richer descriptions of violent attacks as well as more detailed information on locations and local settings. This dataset includes more than 2000 reports on violent incidents. A combined analysis of these datasets allows to identify changes in the forms and types of violence as well as shifts in their spatial distribution. (2) The second type of data used is an extensive collection of documentary sources obtained during extensive archival work in Lima and (previously) in Egypt, including reports by local security forces and intelligence agencies, internal documents of the armed groups as well as more than 50 (partly restricted) testimonies given by militants as well as victims and local residents in areas of violent confrontations, which were obtained from the archive of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission and private collections. (3) Finally, 24 personal interviews with (former) militants, political activists, human rights activists, and local journalists and researchers were conducted during two periods of field research in Peru (in June/July 2013 and August 2014) as well as among exiled activists (and former militants) in Europe (April 2013 and June 2014). The project also relies on a collection of more than 70 interviews previously conducted in Egypt. The latter two types of data - documentary sources and personal interviews - provide rich and detailed insights into the transformation of armed groups during violent campaigns with respect to changing strategies and repertoires of violent action, and with respect to changes in the internal makeup of these groups, particularly shifts in leadership and forms of command and control, and changes in the social background of new recruits.

Among the main achievements of this research project is that it has developed an analytical approach – building on social movement theory and studies on the micro-dynamics of violence in civil wars – which allows to trace and explain patterns of transformation in violent campaigns by focusing on dynamics of interaction between armed groups and their socio-spatial environment and patterns of organizational transformations. This framework – as theoretical papers or as applied analysis of the cases studied in the project – has been presented at several international conferences (ECPR 2013/2014, ISA 2014) and smaller workshops (EUI 2013, Tuebingen 2013), and forms the basis of several single-authored (peer reviewed article in Civil Wars; book chapter in Bosi et al 2014) and two collaborative publications (peer reviewed journal articles with Lorenzo Bosi, forthcoming; with Jerome Drevon, in preparation) and contributes to a collaborative research project on changing forms of political violence (with Donatella della Porta and Lorenzo Bosi, in preparation).
Event-data analysis of the violent insurgencies in Egypt and Peru showed two main patterns during phases of decline: Firstly, the spatial distribution of violent attacks shifted away from initial concentration in strongholds of the armed groups towards neighbouring areas and finally towards more scattered patterns and to peripheral regions of the countries, with an overall decline in the number of attacks. Secondly, qualitative analysis of violent events identified shifts in target selection and forms of violence, from attacks on police officers to violence against civilian informers and collaborators, and finally the entire civilian population in certain villages; and shifts from discriminate to increasingly indiscriminate and deliberately brutal attacks designed to terrorize the local population. In other words, phases of decline in the violent insurgencies examined in this project were characterized by patterns of radicalization in forms of violence combined with spatial shifts towards peripheral areas and more scattered patterns in the distribution of events.
The perspective put forward in this project argues that these trajectories can be traced and explained by linking them to patterns of interaction between armed groups, their military opponents (government forces), and the local population in specific settings, and the way these interactions are intertwined with the organizational transformation of militant movements. The qualitative analysis of the armed groups based on documentary sources and interviews, thereby, allows to identify an escalating dynamic of local resistance to armed groups, which is triggered by violent intervention of government forces and driven by a mechanism of eroding control, violent coercion, and social isolation, which form a self-reinforcing dynamic of radicalization and erosion of local support. Secondly, the qualitative analysis allowed to identify a pattern of organizational transformation during phases of decline, which is characterized by the influx of younger and often more radical members in certain parts of the movement (due to changing patterns of recruitment and “generational cycles”) as well as the organizational fragmentation of armed groups and the erosion of command and control by the central leadership (as a result of pressure from government forces and the evasion to peripheral areas). These dynamics crucially reinforce the patterns of radicalization in the relationship between armed groups and their social environment on the local level, as they entail lack of control over and eroding discipline among rank and file members, contributing to a loss of constraints on violent practices but also to eroding military capabilities, accounting for the decrease in numbers and at the same time the radicalization of forms of violent attacks.