Terrorism and Insurgency

What causes terrorist and insurgent groups to form? How do they evolve over time? What factors predict conflict escalation?

Introducing the Armed Group Dataset, 1970-2012

Status: Working Paper

Abstract: Data limitations on the campaign histories and organizational characteristics of smaller armed groups often leads scholars to omit key information about these actors in the study of terrorism and insurgency. This risks introducing selection bias into our empirical understanding of political violence. This article addresses these gaps by introducing an original dataset on 1,202 armed groups that operated in 124 countries between 1970 and 2012. It outlines the dataset’s construction and highlights some of the new group-level variation within it using a principal component analysis. It then showcases its comparabilities to existing datasets along with a replication analysis of state sponsorship and armed group duration.  The dataset creates substantial opportunities for developing and testing new theories about terrorism, insurgency, and civil war.

Negative Economic Shocks and Militant Formation

Status: Under Review

Abstract: Do poor economic conditions cause militant campaigns? Conventional wisdom suggests negative economic shocks should increase the likelihood of rebel campaigns and civil conflict, but existing research finds little to no support for this claim. This paper suggests these results arise for two reasons. First, scholars conflate when campaigns form and when campaigns escalate to war. Second, scholars tend to ignore militant campaigns that never intensify into civil conflicts. I argue negative economic shocks increase the probability militant campaigns initially form, but these effects tend to dissipate before a campaign ever transitions to civil war. Using original data on the timing of 944 militant campaigns between 1970 and 2007, I estimate the effect of export commodity price shocks on the probability of formation. I test the underlying mechanisms by seeing how different shocks mobilize different social sectors to militancy and how these shocks affect campaign dynamics over time. The results show shocks increase the probability of formation due, in part, to hampering the state’s repressive capacity. However, the lag time between formation and civil conflict reduces the long-term effect of these shocks. These findings advance understanding about the causes of political violence and risks of economic shocks.

Motive, Opportunity, and the Timing of Militant Formation

Status: Working Paper

Abstract: When do armed groups launch violent militant campaigns, and why? Armed groups often organize for years before forming violent militant campaigns, but when and why they transition to violence is relatively unclear. This papers develops and tests a group-level explanation of militant formation. I argue an armed group forms a militant campaign when it acquires the resources to stage violent attacks. The speed at which an armed group amasses these resources depends on two factors: its latent capabilities and its growth rate. I identify different group-level and country-level factors that could affect an armed group’s growth by changing either its motives or opportunities to organize. I test these stories using an original dataset on 1,202 militant campaigns between 1970 and 2012 and a multilevel discrete hazard analysis. The results show that armed groups transition sooner when they have previous combat experience. Further, varying conditions catalyze different types of campaign formation. Separatist groups are more likely to launch violent campaigns when suddenly motivated to do so, but center-seeking groups are not. This paper advances understanding about the causes of political violence and timing of conflicts.

Splintering, Extremism, and Militant Violence (with Katy Robinson)

Status: Under Review

Abstract: Within the terrorism and insurgency literature, splinter groups have a reputation for being incredibly violent due to their extremist preferences, but few empirical tests have assessed this claim. In this paper, we address three inter-related questions to test the conventional wisdom: Do splinter groups conduct more attacks than other types of armed groups? Under what conditions is splinter violence more prevalent? And, finally, why do splinter groups behave this way? Using cross-national organizational data on 1,202 armed groups, we show that splinter groups conduct more attacks than non-splinter groups, but only across countries. Within countries, splinter groups are no more violent. Additionally, splinter attacks are no more prevalent than non-splinter attacks around opportunities for spoiling new peace agreements or outbidding in fragmented conflict environments. To explain why splinter groups are only sometimes more violent than other armed groups, we develop and test two competing mechanisms. On the one hand, splinter groups may be more ideologically extremist, resulting in more violent campaigns to intimidate opponents. On the other hand, splinter groups may be organizationally stronger due to combat experience, resulting in lower organizational costs to fighting. Using genetic matching techniques, we test these two stories and show that organizational capacity, not extremism, drives splinter violence. These results advance understanding about political extremism and the consequences of splintering for armed conflict.

Conflict Contagion and Militant Mobilization (with Lindsay Hundley)

Status: Working Paper

Abstract: Do civil wars in neighboring countries increase the risk of civil conflict at home? Despite some evidence of contagion effects from the Arab Spring and the Color Revolutions, scholars still disagree over how and even whether militant violence spreads. We argue this debate exists, in part, because of a lack of fine-grained data about lower-level militant campaigns, which had the potential to escalate into national revolutions. This paper develops a new theory to explain both when and why political uprisings spillover by disaggregating along conflict intensity. We argue that contagion effects increase the likelihood that armed groups mobilize to challenge the state, but state reactions minimize the escalation of these conflicts. The paper derives a series of observable predictions about under what conditions contagion effects are most likely to emerge and test these hypotheses on an unprecedented, cross-national dataset of approximately 1,200 militant campaigns between 1970-2012.

Threat Detection and State Responses

Why do states prioritize some militant threats over others? How do states identify emerging militant threats? What factors predict state response?

Credit: Sgt. Ryan S. Scranton

Uncertainty and Civil War Onset

Status: Under Review

Abstract: Why do some armed group campaigns escalate to civil war, while others do not? Only 27% of campaigns between 1970 and 2012 ever became violent enough to surpass the threshold commonly used to demarcate “civil conflict.” I develop a theory that argues this variation occurs because of an information problem. States neutralize potential civil war threats on the basis of observable characteristics about an armed group’s prospective strength, but two scenarios make it harder to get this decision right, increasing the risk of civil war. I identify a set of group-level risk indicators for civil war and apply machine learning methods to test the predictive ability of these indicators. The results show observable information poorly predicts escalation to civil war in strong states, but not weak states. Further, less visible campaigns are more associated with civil war. These findings advance understanding about why civil wars begin and the effect of uncertainty on conflict. 

Agents of Subversion? Subnational Analysis of State-Sponsored Terrorism

Status: Working Paper

 Why do states provide external support to some armed groups, but not others? Between 1970 and 2012 29% of the armed groups operating around the world received external support from at least one sponsor state. Sponsor states have unusual discretion in choosing whom to support because there are often multiple militant groups operating in the same target state. However, incentives for a militant group to misrepresent its preferences in these multi-actor environments can create uncertainty about its suitability for external support. This paper builds on insights from principal-agent theory to explain how a sponsor state navigates this potential adverse selection problem and how it strategically decides whom to support. I test these predictions on an original dataset about external support for armed groups using a combination of fixed effect regressions and classification methods. I show two types of shared ideological preferences and historical support for ideologically-similar militants drive selection. This paper advances understanding about the strategic logic of external support in multi-actor environments.

Signal and the Noise (with Katherine Irajpanah)

Status: Working Project

Abstract: Why do states identify some armed groups as credible threats, but not others?  Existing explanations argue states should assess the threat of armed groups by looking for costly signals. Emerging terrorist and insurgent groups, however, often lack incentives to signal their strength, undermining the utility of conventional frameworks.  Instead, we develop an alternative argument that states assess the risk of these emerging armed groups based primarily on their priors about the most dangerous types. We identify different international and domestic political factors shaping these priors and show how these affect government threat perceptions. We develop a signaling model to illustrate this logic, showing a government’s best response to different types of militant threats tends to result in a pooling equilibrium outcome. We derive observable implications and process trace the mechanism through a case study of the 1979 Herat Rebellion in Afghanistan, where Soviet and American policy-makers reached opposing conclusions about the same armed group. We use supervised machine learning techniques to chart rhetorical differences in threat perception and archival materials from Soviet and American intelligence sources to explain decision-making in each state. Our findings advance understanding about the effect of uncertainty on threat perception, intelligence failures, and political violence.

Other Papers

Uncertainty Trade-Off: Reexamining Opportunity Costs and War (with William Spaniel)

Status: Published (International Studies Quarterly, 2019)

Abstract: Conventional wisdom about economic interdependence and international conflict predicts increasing opportunity costs make war less likely. But some wars occur after trade flows grow. Why? We develop a model that shows a nonmonotonic relationship exists between the costs and probability of war when there is uncertainty about resolve. Under these conditions, increasing the costs of an uninformed party’s opponent has a second-order effect of exacerbating informational asymmetries about that opponent’s willingness to maintain peace. We derive precise conditions under which war can occur more frequently and empirically showcase the model’s implications through a case study of Sino-Indian relations from 1949 to 2007. This finding challenges how scholars traditionally believe economic interdependence affects the probability of war—instruments like trade do not solely mediate incentives to fight through opportunity costs.