Conflict and Peace
Topic 2: Peace and Conflict Factors in
Part 2: Economic Activity of Rebel Groups
Economic Activity of Rebel Groups
T here is considerable variation across conflicts in the ways that rebel groups operate in the economy. Sometimes they act as
economic producers, providing public goods; often however they act as extractors. Such variation in their behavior has
implications for the economic well-being of populations as well as for the course of the conflict.
HOW DO REBELS FINANCE THEMSELVES?
• The ability of groups to control lucrative economic sectors determines whether they can launch
and sustain a campaign (World Bank research);
• Requirements needed to sustain a rebellion may be very low: examples of low-tech, low-cost but
long-lasting rebel movements. Small arms can be very cheap. And so can labor. In cases where there
is local support for the actions of rebel groups, as with Chechyan rebels, the Viet Cong, and the
IRA, it may be possible for people with regular employment to serve as “part time guerillas”.
• The primary means of financing is wealth derived from control over valuable natural resources
such as drugs, oil, timber and “conflict diamonds.” However, rebel groups also rely heavily on
agricultural products – such as cashew nuts, tangerines, hazelnuts or bananas – to finance their
• A second means for funding is money collected from nationals based overseas.
• Another source of rebel financing is sponsorship from third party sources.
• A final source of financing is voluntary transfers (notably “subscriptions”) and involuntary
transfers (notably looting) from civilian populations. Such transfers may determine the viability of a
rebel organization, and may condition its need for cash from other external sources.
Rebels as Economic Producers
Rebel groups also engage in economic production, in
some instances, by functioning as service providers and as
organizers of economic activity, rebel groups may act as
surrogate states, underscore the irrelevance of the
government and develop support among civilian populations.
There is, however, considerable variation in the extent to which
and the form in which rebel groups provide services.
While in some places groups imitate states as service
providers, elsewhere, they imitate states as extractors, using
forced labor to manage local economies.
This variation in the extent to which rebel groups provide
public goods is of substantive importance, it is also likely to have
implications for the forms of violence, for whether a war is
sustainable and for options for peace settlements.
The links between rebel groups
and organized crime
“Organized criminal group is a structured group of three or more
persons, existing for a period of time and acting in concert with the aim of
committing one or more serious crimes or offences in order to obtain directly
or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit” The United Nation Convention
against Transnational Organized Crime
“Terrorism is a criminal act, but it is more than criminality; terrorism is
essentially a political act. Terrorist groups can be understood as criminal
organizations with a political or ideological objective and the readiness to use
violence to achieve it” Policy Working Group on the United Nations and Terrorism
Hybrid forms of organisation that clearly combine an explicit political
or ideological goal with a desire to make profit through illegal activities and
willingness to use significant level of violence – both discriminate and
indiscriminate – in pursuit of that goal.
In many cases rebel group is a hybrid organization: partly criminal group, partly
terrorist group and partly mercenary
Transformation of a rebel group into an organized
• A change in the ratio of profit-making activities to terrorist strikes;
• The loss of intensity in political demands and a lower public profile, reflecting
a downgrading and ultimately an abandonment of the political agenda;
• A political settlement that leads to a cessation of terrorist strikes but is
followed by an increase in organized criminal activities – resulting from a
phenomenon that one observer has described as “fighters turned felons”;
• A reduction in the number of attacks on innocent civilians and ultimately an
abandonment of such attacks unless they are related to profit-making
activities or the protection of such activities;
• A growing concern with avoiding harm to victims of kidnapping and a
concomitant emphasis on negotiations for ransom payments that will
guarantee the safe release of those victims rather than killing them to coercive
Transformation of an organized criminal group into rebel
Just as a terrorist group can become enamored of wealth rather than a political or
ideological cause, an organized criminal group could become highly politicized and radically
alter the focus of its activity from the accrual of profit through illicit business to bringing
about political change through indiscriminate violence.
• Political rationalization for criminal activities such as drug trafficking,
which are internally legitimized by focusing on their damaging impact on
citizens of countries hostile to the cause;
• Donations by the group or some of its members to radical political causes;
• Regular and systematic associations between members of criminal
organizations and known militants;
• A readiness to barter drugs or other trafficked commodities for weapons or
explosives, rather than simply selling those commodities for profit;
• Adoption of political rhetoric as part of a more visible public profile.
An illustration of transition of organized criminal
group into terrorist organization
The Madrid train bombing of 11 March 2004
The Madrid train bombings consisted of a series of
coordinated bombings against the Cercanias (commuter
train) system of Madrid, Spain on the morning of 11 March
2004 (three days before Spain's general elections), killing 191
people and wounding 1,800.
The official investigation by the Spanish Judiciary
determined the attacks were directed by a Muslim al-Qaeda-
inspired terrorist cell although no direct al-Qaeda
participation (only "inspiration") has been established.
Spanish Muslims who did not carry out the attacks but who
sold the explosives to the terrorists were also arrested.
There is an evident that the hashish trafficking group
became involved in the Madrid bombing. That might have
been primarily a result of the willingness of the head of the
group to die with the other perpetrators terrorists who killed
themselves rather surrender to the police surrounding the
house. However, this is very uncharacteristic for a drug
trafficker intent on profit it suggests that he had embraced a
militant form of fundamentalism.
Organizational and operational similarities
between organized criminal and terrorist groups
• Both are generally rational actors;
• Both use extreme violence and the threat of reprisals;
• Both use kidnappings, assassinations and extortion;
• Both operate secretly, through at times publicly in
• Both defy the State and rule of law;
• For a member to leave either group is rare and often
• Both are highly adaptable, innovative and resilient;
• Both have backup leaders and foot soldiers
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and Terrorism (Volume: 24, Number 1), January 2001, pp.43-58
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Makarenko, Tamara. Transnational Crime and its Evolving Links to Terrorism
and Instability: in Jane’s Intelligence Review. 2001. pp.22-24
Skaperdas, Stergios. 2001. “An Economic Approach to Analyzing Civil Wars”
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