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How states can constrain resort to political violence

Recognising there are political elements to any campaign of militant violence makes it less ‘terrifying’ for society and is crucial in developing measures to constrain it. 

Changing the frame: an Islamic State video rationalising the organisation's effective suppression of the Iraq-Syria border. Flickr / Karl-Ludwig Poggemann. Some rights reserved.

States frequently decide on security initiatives during attacks or in their immediate aftermath. This is far from ideal. In a perfect world, such ‘counter-terrorist’, political-cum-security decisions would be taken calmly and dispassionately. But attacks create the opposite climate, with states having knee-jerk reactions—feeling a need to be seen to respond aggressively.

The serial reactions of US governments to the threat posed by militant Islamists in the last decade fit easily into this profile. It is all too clear this approach has failed. The recent release of CIA papers shows such coercive security stances did not elicit information or stop political violence during the ‘war on terror’.

The hard-line security approach tends to miss the political dynamics at play and fails to recognise that nationalist militants in particular are motivated by political aims. They are not entirely irrational. At the very least, militants have to frame their resort to political violence in that manner for their constituency, on whom they rely for support. There lies the solution: in the political structures, in the resources on which militants can draw and in the framing of the specific conflict.

However understandable in response to attacks, a show of strength is not enough—and actions taken will have consequences. Responding to frightening levels of violence by upping the ante and allowing militants to set the agenda is not a strategic rejoinder: it is an emotional response. In the heightened aftermath of attacks there is a demand for such action but leaders need to pursue evidence-based solutions which are contextualised and targeted.

Not new

States are currently responding to a variety of security issues: weak states, the increase in lone-actor militants and the growing number of ‘Western’ militants travelling to conflict zones like Iraq and Syria. All require immediate responses. But states and civic actors need to remain very conscious of the full array of legal and political options available and avoid seeing each development as extraordinary and utterly new.

Violence develops and evolves but militants will always attempt to shock and provoke through its character and intensity. Such contextualising is imperative: if violence is characterised as extraordinary, it follows that the response should be extraordinary—and so outside of the rule of law and human-rights protections. Responses framed thus are usually repressive and play into the hands of the militants, who can then claim they need to defend ‘their’ people in turn.

Most political violence is ordinary and frequent, a case in point being Iraq in the 2000s. Indeed the frequency of suicide bombings there meant it fell off the news agenda: there was nothing new, despite the exceptionally high numbers killed over time. This meant, however, that the only way the militants could get back on to the agenda was to kill larger numbers or shock with barbarous tactics. The agenda being set currently by groups active in Iraq and Syria, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, reflects this. Militants are aware that attacks which capture the news agenda are those that are new and deemed extraordinary—the danger, from their point of view, is that such attacks become depicted as the norm. The public need to be encouraged to examine the use of violence over a longer period, to identify trends and patterns, rather than accept uncritically news coverage of what is ‘new’.

The murderous assault on Charlie Hebdo and the associated killings and hostage-takings, like the slaughter of children at a military-run school in Pakistan, were designed to capture attention and terrorise, and they led the news agenda—because the tactics were seen as new. But the responses don’t need to be. We must learn from the past and other contexts about what has worked and what has not.

Exceptionalising the use of political violence, rather than seeing it as part of a continuum, results in poor decision-making, because it fails to see the linkages between the militants and their motivations, their constituency and the political structures. Failing to understand political violence makes it exceptionally difficult to constrain and solutions proffered in that context most likely will exacerbate the situation. Rather like a medical doctor, there is a need to diagnose the problem before deciding on a course of action—and that must be a course for which there is evidence it can work.

Environment for militancy

By examining the data on attacks by militants throughout a conflict it is possible to track when violence rises and falls. The levels and tactics adopted at different times depend on the environment for militancy. Are there political opportunities or constraints? Are there safe houses, volunteers, arms and money? And is there support from those whom the militants claim to represent? The interaction of all these factors can explain variations in violence and they are instructive if the state or civic actors wish to intervene to constrain it.

Changes in the political structures create opportunities for the various actors involved in a conflict. These changes are identified by the militants and they will act to forward their own agenda accordingly. They may have identified grievances, as well as military and political goals, but they need opportunities to act. Such opportunities, which may be temporary, are offered by peace processes, elections, shifting alliances, a crisis of government, reduced state capacity or changes in the use of state repression.

Failing to understand political violence makes it exceptionally difficult to constrain and solutions proffered in that context most likely will exacerbate the situation.

Militants seize these opportunities and will seek to maximise their influence. This can take the form of militants acting as ‘spoilers’,  deciding to launch a campaign on a state with reduced capacity or in reaction to state actions, linking it to stated political aims to mobilise their supporters.

But political constraints can act as the counterweight. Examples would be strong alliances against violence across party or state lines, political stability and perceived state legitimacy. Absolute repression may also appear effective but it is not compatible with the democratic management and settlement of conflict—and, in any event, any such ‘effectiveness’ is entirely short-term.

Policy-makers need to keep the political opportunities low and the political constraints high, to limit the opportunities for militants. However strong the knee-jerk temptation, repression offers a political opportunity to militants and should be avoided.

Even if militants have political opportunities and timing on their side, they still need resources and structures to mobilise supporters. It is imperative that the state disrupts the acquisition of such resources as outlined above (safe houses, arms and so forth) and reduces the capacity of the militants to carry out attacks and mobilise support.

In accordance with the law, the state must ensure it does not inadvertently encourage and enable the militants’ constituency to assist them, that fundraising is made as difficult as possible, that arms routes are monitored and observed, and that while membership should be proscribed, the barriers to exit should be kept as low as possible. The issue of resources should be approached in a very pragmatic manner, with the goal at all times to reduce capacity and ensure that resources available to the militants are kept low.

‘Them versus us’

As can be observed from recent efforts by Islamic State, the framing of a conflict is central to a militant group’s strategy. It will make great efforts to frame the conflict on its terms and so to promote its agenda. Militants cannot consistently carry out violence without the support of their constituency and a ‘them versus us’ framing will mobilise new supporters and define the conflict in polarising terms.

Although new technology and social media have become the focus of attention in this regard, the content and arguments to persuade are the same, whether they are written and distributed by hand, recorded on DVD, voiced in sermons and lectures or circulated online. The challenge for policy-makers is to engage with the messaging and speaking points, and to do so technically across the various platforms. Diplomacy, as well as all forms of media and public opinion forming, must be systematically utilised.

As with political structures and resources, it is imperative to constrain the support the militants can mobilise. The best way to do so is to address the underlying grievances of the constituency which the militants claim to represent and to ensure the militants cannot claim ‘victimhood’ or justify their resort to violence, because legal and democratic avenues remain open and operational.

About the author

Dr Aoibhín de Búrca is the author of Preventing Political Violence Against Civilians: Nationalist Militant Conflict in Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).


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