Violent Non-State Actors and Complementary Governance: What ISIS, Hizballah and FARC Have in Common

This post originally appeared in the Security Sector Reform Centre and was co-authored by CCW Director of Studies Annette Idler and James J.F. Forest. The post has been nominated for 'post of the year' at The Duckies.  

A growing body of research has illustrated how an insurgency – like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – is but one of many instances where a non-state entity may take advantage of ‘governance voids,’ ‘ungoverned spaces,’ or ‘lawless areas’ in a weak or failing state. In fact, these terms have been used in reference to many of the world’s most troubling security challenges, from brutal war scenarios in Africa to soaring homicide rates in Latin America and bloody unrest in the Arab world.

Yet these are seldom ‘ungoverned spaces.’ Frequently, there is actually some sense of order, but the nation-state is not considered the primary or effective authority that maintains that order. For example, Tuareg and Berabiche groups exercise authority in various parts of the Sahel region of Africa; on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, Moros have contested the authority of the Manila government; and transnational criminal networks have significant power throughout the tri-border area of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil. In countries like Nigeria and Senegal, non-state entities engaging in some semblance of governance may include traditional clan and tribal leaders entrenched within deeply established patronage networks. In many parts of south Lebanon, Hizballah’s permission is required for anything from the acquisition of building permits to the provision of social services. On every continent scholars have identified non-state actors who provide a functioning security and intelligence apparatus, an infrastructure for commerce and transportation, and even a local customs-based or religious mediation system (such as tribal councils or Sharia courts) for resolving disputes—none of which are necessarily controlled or even sanctioned by the state.

A common explanation for why non-state actors provide public goods and services is that they do so in exchange for acceptance of their authority. Territorial and political control is seen as a central motivator of non-state actors’ decision-making and behavior. This leads many observers to assume that the political and socioeconomic environment of weak states is one of inherent competition for power and control among non-state actors, with a feeble state government trying in vain to exert some level of control or influence over the population.[1] However, our research highlights the need to move beyond this dichotomy of state versus non-state actors, and calls for considering the more nuanced ways in which a variety of actors may contribute bits and pieces to an overall complex security environment.

Building on our prior work on West Africa and the Afghanistan-Pakistan tribal belt and drawing on recent extensive field research in the Andean border region, we found patterns of behavior in which competition among non-state groups is not the norm. Instead, several instances were found in which the Colombian rebel groups FARC and ELN, right-wing groups that emerged after the demobilisation of the paramilitary umbrella organisation AUC, and criminal groups work collaboratively or have tacit non-interference agreements to provide public goods through arrangements we characterize as ‘complementary governance.’ Within these stable relationships among rebels, paramilitary-like groups and criminals, three such ‘arrangements of convenience’ stand out: transactional relationships, strategic alliances and pacific coexistence.[2] In the first case, governance is segregated into different territorial units, in the second case, groups ally to form one joint ‘governance actor,’ and the third case is based on a fragile balance of social recognition of various groups.

Operating under these arrangements, the armed actors provide public goods, control the monopoly of violence, and are socially recognized by the local population. The complementary nature of the governance functions takes shape in distinct ways that are related to each arrangement. Thus, taking into account the particularities of these relationships becomes crucial to understanding the groups’ decision-making and behavior, especially in terms of how they exert illicit authority through various forms of governance. Our analysis also points to the importance of economic opportunity in the perceived legitimacy of a government. A state that is unable to provide robust economic opportunities for its people should expect that citizens will turn to a burgeoning shadow economy for their livelihood, and non-state actors can derive authority by supporting that shadow economy.

Confronting the security challenges resulting from the social recognition of violent non-state groups will require more than a commitment to deploying a government’s law enforcement or military forces to those areas. When focusing exclusively on the paradigm of competing governance, the ‘state building’ strand of thought promotes increasing state presence, fighting back the group by either military force or by winning back the hearts and minds of the local population (or by a nuanced combination of both). However, our analysis suggests that current state building approaches are ill-equipped to transform areas of “shadow citizenship”, where local communities live in a consensual relationship with violent non-state groups as governance providers into regions with a citizenry engaged in a social contract with the state.[3] State responses have to account for the local non-state dynamics upon which the shadow citizenship is based.

By depriving violent non-state groups of their ‘shadow citizenry’ the illicit actors’ authority is reduced to crude power and it will become increasingly difficult for them to maintain a governance system that follows their own logic. Lacking the local communities’ consent they will have to resort to violence to impose their rules. This is what we believe is currently happening in the areas of Iraq and Syria where the Islamic State is subjugating communities by force and ruling them by fear. Islamic State’s leaders are attempting to establish political governance and a functioning economy to build some sense of legitimacy, but they have recognized the need to collaborate with other non-state actors to achieve their objectives. Therefore, addressing one group in isolation in our counterterrorism/counterinsurgency response to the Islamic State is insufficient. Rather, an understanding of the complex relationships that it has with other groups provides entry points that could be instrumental for dismantling the complementarity of its non-state governance.

Governments cannot simply replace the political authority of non-state actors in areas with more than one actor. More innovative policies are needed that take into consideration the nature of the relationships among various violent non-state groups. Identifying the specific form of arrangement—for example, transactional relationships, pacific coexistence, or strategic alliance—can lead to a better understanding about the nature of complementary governance in order to develop effective responses. For example, our analysis suggests that a strategic alliance may be the hardest to dismantle. Breaking the alliance among several violent non-state groups thus might be the first step to undermine their illicit authority. However, such an undertaking is likely to induce violence, thus policymakers would have to determine whether the costs are low enough for the perceived benefits of these actions.

To sum up, we must acknowledge that a violent non-state actor can earn political authority and social recognition among a local population, and we must understand the sources and nature of their illicit authority, how it is exerted, and who benefits and why. Further, we must move beyond the dichotomized understanding of state versus non-state governance, and open up the debate to include a recognition of governance that is comprised of multiple violent non-state groups.

[1] Forest, J J F 2010 Zones of Competing Governance. Journal of Threat Convergence, 1(1): 10–22.

[2] Idler, A, 2015, Arrangements of Convenience: Violent Non-state Actor Relationships and Citizen Security in the Shared Borderlands of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. Doctoral Thesis, Oxford: University of Oxford; Idler, A, 2012a, Exploring Agreements of Convenience Made among Violent Non-State Actors. Perspectives on Terrorism, 6(4–5). Available at: http://www.ter­

[3] Idler, A, 2012b, Arrangements of Convenience in Colombia’s Borderlands: An Invisible Threat to Citizen Security? St Antony’s International Review, 7(2): 93–119.