Inside Rebel Groups: The Objectives, Industrial Organization, and Behavior of Rebel Groups

While scholars have invested substantial effort to conceptualize the organizational features and the internal dynamics of rebel groups in civil conflicts, I argue in my dissertation that the broader literature on civil conflicts and research on the “industrial organization” of rebel groups have not yet systematically analyzed the following key dimension of the organization of rebel groups: the publiclydeclared goals of rebel groups and their association with the internal politics of these groups. In light of this, my dissertation addresses the following three questions:

  1. How do internal politics within rebel groups influence some rebel groups to adopt extremist goals while others adopt more moderate aims?
  2. How and when does the publicly-declared goals of rebel groups influence their strategic behavior with the government—and thus civil conflict outcomes?
  3. Under what conditions do the organizational features of rebel groups influence internal politics within these groups and how?

The first part of the dissertation, I first develop a typology of the publicly-declared goals of rebel groups that ranges from extremist aims (e.g., takeover of the state) to moderate aims such as seeking job quotas. Building on this typology, I develop an incomplete information bargaining model which posits that the distinct differences between the publicly-declared goals serve as a credible screening mechanism for rebels that allows them to credibly signal their intentions to the government. This facilitates the opening of a bargaining space, which increases the possibility of formal negotiations between the warring parties under certain domestic institutional conditions. I also develop a new global dataset in which I operationalize novel (i) measures of the publicly-stated goals of over 150 rebel groups and (ii) event data on the occurrence of formal negotiations. 

The second part of my dissertation uses the tools of bargaining theory to understand how strategic interaction between leaders and rank-and-file members within rebel groups drives the “selection” plus sustained advocacy of declared extremist goals and ideology versus moderate aims. The theory’s main prediction is that leaders in rebel groups characterized by a greater degree of formal institutionalization of within-group decision-making and agenda-setting are more likely to select and consistently advocate extremist goals as well as ideology when the military capacity of these groups is sufficiently high. I develop and operationalize new measures of not just extremist goals but also variation in the ideology of rebel groups for each rebel organization in my global sample.

The third part of my dissertation examines the phenomenon of formal political splits within rebel groups. I develop an in-depth theoretical story which posits that the extent to which strategic decision-making—and military command structure—in rebel groups is centralized combined with the “age” of these groups (i.e., how long they have existed) influence the likelihood of within rebel-group splits. The theory suggests that the hierarchical decision-making structure of highly centralized groups induces agenda control and rent-seeking by leaders of these groups. As these centralized rebel groups age and become more established, the more experienced rank-and-file members in these groups will oppose such agenda control plus rent-seeking and engineer internal political splits within these groups.  I also operationalize a novel event data on the occurrence of formal splits within rebel groups to test my hypothesis.

My dissertation contributes to the study of civil conflicts by showing how the “industrial organization”—such as the publicly-declared goals and the degree of centralization—of rebel groups influence not only (1) how they interact with other actors in civil conflicts (such as the government) but also (2) the internal politics within these groups and thus the organizational fate of these groups. Especially, it shows that the variation in the publicly-declared rebel group goals as well as the strategic interaction between the leader(s) and the rank-and-file members in these groups have important policy implications. Specifically, governments should be sensitive to the publicly-stated goals of rebel groups as these groups convey their credibility and intentions through these goals. Furthermore, the study calls into attention the importance of within rebel group politics as it shapes not only what type of publicly-stated goals a rebel group will adopt but also the stability of the group.