Ordinary Rebels: Rank-and-File Militants between War and PeaceTea

For most scholars and practitioners, non-state armed groups brings to mind the sound and fury of warfare. However, the vast majority of militant groups operate outside of active conflict, treated as nuisances or potential partners by states forces rather than enemies. Just because guns are silent, though, does not mean they are unimportant. Even in periods with little actual fighting, militants leverage the threat of violence to negotiate for political power, to sway elections, to provide or capture public services, and to police local populations. My book project asks: how do armed groups change when states look the other way?

I argue that the threat of government violence – or absence thereof – transforms armed organizations from the inside out, shaping who takes up arms and which leaders they follow. Most work on armed groups focuses on armed leaders: what they want and how they attract and control soldiers to achieve those goals. I instead focus on the thousands of decisions by recruits, soldiers, and supporters that empower and constrain armed leaders. By making life safer and easier for militants, toleration attracts recruits with little pre-existing commitment to the organization or movement. By opening room for local governance, toleration pushes rank-and-file militants to follow more ideologically-moderate faction leaders over more extremist incumbents. So while toleration enables armed movements to become larger and better resourced, it also sows disagreement within and between armed organizations and creates new constituencies for cooperation with the government.

The book relies on two main research strategies, implemented over seven months of fieldwork in and around four separatist regions in Northeast India and Sri Lanka. The first is a set of innovative survey experiments with nearly 400 likely militant recruits and 100 civilian elders, exploring how different types of recruits decide to mobilize under crackdown and toleration, and which leaders they prefer to follow. The second is 75 in-depth interviews with current and former armed leaders, rank-and-file militants, and civilians who operate alongside rebel organizations, tracing the trajectories of four armed movements in and out of toleration.

In other words, the book is about ordinary rebels in two senses. First, it shows how ordinary militants – not just leaders – shape the structure and behavior of armed groups. Second, it explores how becoming part of ordinary civilian life – transitioning from rebels to mere militants – shapes the behavior of armed actors.