Rebel Tactics

What makes rebels change their tactics?

Counterinsurgency is a strategically complex business. Just as governments develop new tactics to take back territories captured by rebel groups, these groups shift tactics and strategies in response to changes to their operational environment. So when governments confront subsequent terrorist attacks like Chechen extremists’ attack on the Moscow subway or Al-Shabaab’s bombing of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, they must evaluate whether their counterinsurgency efforts are failing or succeeding. Does increased violence mean that rebel groups are resurging, or are these rebels simply resorting to more desperate and limited tactics? By understanding how changes in the economic, political, or strategic environment alter tactical decisions, analysts can make better inferences about the attractiveness of one counterinsurgency tactic over another.

To study rebel tactics, Bueno de Mesquita considers two tactics that rebels have available to them, which he refers to as conventional and irregular. The key difference on which he focuses are that conventional tactics are most effective when the rebels can field a large number of fighters, whereas irregular tactics, such as terrorism or guerilla attacks, can be used effectively even by a small group of extremists. This allows him to link counterinsurgency, rebel mobilization, and tactical choices to uncover the following insights.

First, the quality of the (economic or political) alternatives to fighting have different effects on the likelihood of conventional or irregular conflict. A decrease in the quality of alternatives increases mobilization and, thus, the use of conventional tactics. But such a decrease has more subtle effects on the use of irregular tactics. Very high-quality alternatives lead to no fighting at all. Very poor alternatives lead to high levels of mobilization and so, conventional rather than irregular, conflict. Irregular conflict, then, only occurs when the alternatives are neither too good nor too bad.

Second, successful counterinsurgencies diminish rebel capacity and reduce mobilization, leading rebel leaders to transition from conventional to irregular tactics. Lacking a fighting force capable of deploying conventional tactics that might actually take and hold territory, rebel groups turn to irregular tactics like the terrorist attacks in Moscow or Nairobi. Thus, while successful counterinsurgencies can lead to an increase in terrorism, guerilla attacks, and other forms of irregular war fighting, these terrorist attacks signify that rebels are losing, not winning.

Third, conflict begets conflict. Fighting reduces the attractiveness of non-violent alternatives. Hence, the more intense the campaign of violence at one point in time, the higher future mobilization will be and, thus, the more intense fighting is likely to be in the future—creating a vicious cycle of violence.

Journal of Political Economy (2013)

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The University of Chicago