Surviving the Struggle: Engagement and the Transformation of Violent Non-state Actors

Posted on Posted in Case Study, Current Issue, Featured, Summer 2014: Non-State Actors

By Kevin E. Grisham, PhD

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

Change and transformation are constants of the human experience. To survive, humanity is continuously adapting and changing through the millennia. State and non-state actors in their various organizational forms also adjust and transform.[1] Violent non-state actors (including guerilla movements, insurgents, and terrorist organizations) continually change their organizational forms, and their strategies, to carry on their struggle against opponents. Non-violent non-state actors do the same, such as the adaptation of marketing materials by international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) to gain more supporters and sympathizers in the global community. For example, Amnesty International began producing short videos for their YouTube channel that had the feel and appearance of a commercial for mainstream television.[2] The use of social media and the creation of new frames was an apparent attempt to appeal to a younger generation of supporters.[3] An example of violent non-state actors using the same approach of readapting the framing and priming of their core message can be seen in the recent announcement of al-Qaeda’s release of a new online magazine, Resurgence.  The core messages contained within Resurgence are similar to previous messages in Inspire (another al-Qaeda magazine), however, the message has been reframed and presented in a different manner to appeal to a wider and younger audience.[4]

Violent non-state actors often find themselves in the same position as INGOs when attempting to gain greater human resources. A series of frames which outline the complexity of a violent non-state actor’s belief system in a simplified manner is necessary to coordinate a multitude of individuals who have different ideas and motivations for being part of the group. The development of a common frame of struggle allows the violent non-state actor to maintain control over its human resources. As the dynamics of the struggle change, it is necessary for the violent non-state actor to modify its belief system and associated frames. An example of the changing of frames can be seen in the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s (PIRA) shift from a stance of political abstention and absenteeism to a frame of struggling with, as the slogan goes, an “Armalite in one hand and a ballot in the other hand.” The PIRA’s most recent frame shifted even further to a sole focus on political struggle without any armed resistance. The necessity of changing frames has been noted by scholars of and participants in rebellious movements alike.

Without revising their original frames, violent non-state actors would have difficulty continuing to maintain human and physical resources drawn from their supporters.[5] A struggle over the belief systems and related frames within the organization could lead to splintering and a series of new trajectories for the violent non-state actor. Without human resources, the struggle of the violent non-state actor withers, and the organization ceases to exist. The form and function of the organization changes as shifts in the belief systems and associated frames occur.

Interaction and Transformation

Violent non-state actors often find themselves far removed from their original struggle over time: in Northern Ireland, the Provisional Irish Republican Army and Sinn Féin (SF) went from fighting the British government and Unionists to disarming and becoming a legitimate political party. Evidence of this transformation from rebels to politicians was seen recently when Martin McGuinness, former PIRA commander and now Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, attended a state dinner hosted by Queen Elizabeth of the UK at Windsor.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), originally a populist movement, transformed into a criminal syndicate involved in the illicit drug industry.[6] The violent non-state actor had once issued laws in the Colombian territory they controlled outlawing the growth, production, and selling of cocaine. By March 2000, the Central Staff of FARC-EP issued a statement outlining a shift in their stance on the permissibility of being involved in the cocaine trade. Additionally, “Law 002: On Taxation” outlined the acceptability of other forms of criminal activity, including kidnapping for ransom, to gain resources for FARC-EP.[7] The transformations of FARC-EP and the PIRA are due to the interaction of belief systems and associated frames of the organization, political accessibility to the government, and human and physical resources. Changes in one of these elements can potentially change another.

Adaptation, or lack thereof, influences the internal dynamics of an organization and how subgroups approach their struggle and the world around them.[8] Splintering within violent non-state actor organizations abounds in part because of the internal struggles that occur over belief systems and associated frames. Such struggles often begin as organizations they make connections with government actors and gain political access. Some individuals who want to stay true to the group’s original beliefs will develop their own pool of human resources. The more pragmatic members will draw their followers, supporters, and sympathizers into a separate group and pursue the opening offered by the connection with government actors.  For example, when members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) were offered positions by the Philippine government, a splinter group formed: the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) developed from those individuals who wanted to stay true to the struggle of the Moro people.[9] This also occurred in the dissident groups (the Continuity IRA and Real IRA) that grew out of the PIRA and SF as the Good Friday peace process progressed.[10]

Engagement and Changing the Message as a Means to Peace

The multitude of recent transformations of violent non-state actors (including FARC-EP, Abu Sayyaf Group, the PIRA and SF, the African National Congress, Hezbollah, and Hamas) suggests a possible way to negate some degree of their violent activities.

The engagement of political pragmatists within violent non-state actor organizations by government actors presents an opening. This opening may be enough to shift political pragmatists towards a path of non-violent struggle (i.e. through the ballot box versus at the end of a gun barrel). In taking this new path, the organization will either cease to exist, or it will adapt, as the organization’s beliefs and associated frames adapt to the new environment. As supporters and sympathizers react to internal changes and support new approaches to the struggle, the pragmatic leadership and rank-and-file members will continue their adaptation. This adaptation is necessary to maintain and increase the physical and human resource pool.

These transformations are not instantaneous and need time to unfold. The Obama administration’s recent engagement of the Taliban illustrates this point. There are a variety of subgroups within the Taliban, and to engage the more pragmatic members will assist the U.S. and its allies in pushing violent non-state actors towards struggling within the political system, rather than from the outside. Splinter groups that refuse this adaptation have formed and will continue to form. But, as noted by Adham Saouli concerning the transformation of Hezbollah in Lebanon, “political groups are often changed by the real world and by the conditions they face in trying to survive there.”[11] The pragmatists within the Taliban will persist over time due to their transformation, and the splinter groups will not persist. Given the choice between struggles where many lives are lost, or a non-violent political struggle where lives are not lost, supporters and sympathizers will more often choose the latter. Two example of this can be seen with the PIRA in Northern Ireland and the African National Congress and Umkhonto We Size (Spear of the Nation or MK). In the author’s fieldwork in Northern Ireland in the late 2000s, several former PIRA members and current Sinn Féin members noted that as the death count increased in the 1980s, many saw that the armed struggle was futile in the long term.[12] Similarly, in the final days of apartheid in South Africa, a debate grew within the ANC and MK between various subgroups over continuing the struggle. In both cases, the pragmatists won the argument and helped to move the organization toward a new approach. In the case of the PIRA, the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA developed as the schism between the pragmatists (e.g. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness) and the hardliners widened.

As Darwin noted, entities do not need to be strong to survive, they just need to adapt. Surviving the struggle is the goal of all non-state actors—whether they are violent or non-violent. Through embracing the reality of these possible adaptations and transformations, state actors may even partner with violent non-state actors and influence this change for the better. Survivability is key for all actors. Understanding and effecting transformation should be a means to that end.

References and Notes


[1] Norden, Deborah L. “The Organizational Dynamics of Militaries and Military Movements: Paths to Power in Venezuela.” Civil-Military Relations in Latin America: New Analytical Perspectives. Ed. David Pion-Berlin. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001. 108-134. Print., and Scott, Richard W., Organizations: Rational, Natural and Open Systems. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1992. Print.

[2] One can see multiple examples of this use of social media by Amnesty International by going to the following: http://www.youtube.com/user/AmnestyInternational.

[3] According to Snow and Benford (137), a frame is “[an] interpretative schema that simplifies and condenses the ‘world out there’ by selectively punctuating and encoding objects, situations, events, experiences, and sequences of action.” Snow, David A. and Robert D. Benford. “Ideology, Frame Resonance, and Participant Mobilization.”  International Social Movement Research 1 (1988): 197-218. Print.

[4] Cole, Matthew and Robert Windrem, “Al Qaeda Announces New English-Language Terror Magazine.” MSNBC News, March 9, 2014. Web. April 10, 2014.

[5] Survivability is a central goal of any movement. Maintaining “membership, funds, and other requirements of organizational existence” is essential to this survivability. Zald, Mayer N. and Roberta Ash. “Social Movement Organizations: Growth, Decay and Change.” Social Forces 44.3 (1966): 327–341. Print.

[6] Recent media accounts concerning the ongoing peace process between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP suggests the violent non-state actor is transforming again from criminal syndicate to potential non-violent political actor. See Watts, Jonathan and Sibylla Brodzinsky. “Colombia Closes in on a Peace Deal that Could End World’s Longest Civil War.” The Guardian, March 16, 2014. Web. March 18, 2014.

[7] Grisham, Kevin E. Transforming Violent Political Movements: Rebels Today, What Tomorrow?  New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.

[8] Details concerning interactions and their impacts on transformation of violent political movements are outlined in the Collective Political Violence Transformative (CPVT) model discussed in Chapter Three of Transforming Violent Political Movements (28-59).

[9] McKenna, Thomas M. Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Print.

[10] Another, more violent non-state actor grew out of a different transformation of MILF.This splinter group became known as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). Similar to FARC-EP’s transformation, the ASG transformed into a criminal syndicate following the death of its founding leader, Janjalani.

[11] Saouli, Adham. “Lebanon’s Hizbullah: The Quest for Survival.” World Affairs 166.2 (2003): 71-80. Print.

[12] For more details of these two cases, see Grisham, pp. 121-154 and 155-186.

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