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Rebel Reliance: Part I

If the money is there to fund a fight, a once-vulnerable group may become bolder, but there’s a major catch.


This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

Battles are a curious event, requiring two participants but whose timing is decided almost entirely by the planning and malice of one half of the equation. This is especially tricky when it comes to rebel or insurgent groups, who have extra incentives to carefully pick battles given their inherent vulnerability. One possible explanation for the timing and frequency of battles has to do with the resources a rebel group has on hand. If the money is there to fund a fight, a once-vulnerable group may become bolder, but there’s a major catch. If the money from controlling and exploiting resources directly is too good, rebels may lose interest in rebellion, instead choosing stable profit over political contestation.

In “Rebel Resource Efficiency and the Escalation of Civil Conflict,” authors Bryce W. Reeder, Dongjin Kwak, John R. Smith, and Michael D. Wales examine rebel propensity toward battle as a function of rebel control of resources.

If the money is there to fund a fight, a once-vulnerable group may become bolder, but there’s a major catch.

“We begin from a basic, noncontroversial premise: rebellion costs money,” the authors write. Securing, generating, and sustaining that income is difficult work, and it leads political rebels to follow paths and patterns more common among armed criminal enterprises than rival political factions. This means looking to the black market for resources, whether illegal, like narcotics, or commercial, like timber. By nature of rebel exploitation, the resources in insurgent hands pass through black markets before arriving at legitimate ones.

“Rebels holding these types of nonlootable resources often resort to the sale of booty futures,” the authors write. “A booty future is a promise to provide future access to a particular resource to an outside financier after the rebel group has achieved its political goals and overthrown the government. In exchange for future access to a major resource, such as an oil refinery, wealthy external patrons will provide funding to rebel groups in the present.”

Looking at the complex nature of present and speculative assets controlled by rebels, the authors divide their model of rebel resourcing into three stages. There’s a “vulnerability phase,” when rebels control few resources and are most at risk from state repression. This can be followed by an “emboldened phase,” when rebels with a steady income and power base turn those resources into an attack on the government. Then there’s an “exploitation phase,” where rebels focus on the profit and wealth from resources over the further pursuit of political violence.

“While many factors contribute to a group’s decision to rebel against the government, this paper suggests that the ‘greed’ element plays a different role than the ‘grievance’ element in predicting insurgency,” the authors write. “Rebels accumulate resources in order to field capable fighting forces. At a high enough level of resource portfolio efficiency, greed overcomes grievance for the rebels; the perceived injustice the group initially organized may remain, but groups with highly productive resource holdings choose to pursue profits over justice, vengeance, or governance.”

Rebellion is a common-enough phenomenon that understanding the material underpinnings behind how groups chose to fight and not fight can help policymakers understand if their foes are desperate and starving, well-fed and hungry for battle, or living off the fat of the land, and perhaps open to a political settlement.

Kelsey D. Atherton


Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the author of Inkstick's weekly newsletter, Critical State. His reporting has appeared in Popular Science, C4ISRNET, and The New York Times.


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