Small Wars Journal

Psychology of Participation in Insurgency

Fri, 01/27/2012 - 5:53am

Editor's Note:  Steven Metz gives us a look into the psyche of insurgents, arguing that we fail to understand them due to our own preconceptions and mirror-imaging of western logics, ideals, and norms onto others.  What drives insurgents "is not political objectives, but unmet psychological needs," he writes.


"Who can tell the truth in a world filled with double deceptions, handlers, confusedloyalties, liars, self-loathing, professional deceivers, disinformation, black propaganda, and betrayers?"

Kevin Toolis

Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within the IRA's Soul


            It's common sense: to make insurgents quit the fight or to deter other people from joining them, to understand their appeal, we must know what makes them tick.   This is easier said than done as we Americans face a mental barrier of our own creation--we insist on approaching insurgency (and counterinsurgency) as a political activity.  This entails a major dose of mirror imaging.  We are a quintessentially political people, but it is politics of a peculiar type, born of the European Enlightenment.  We assume that the purpose of a political system is to reconcile competing interests, priorities, and objectives.  From this vantage point, we see insurgency as a form of collective, goal-focused activity that comes about when nefarious people exploit the weaknesses of a political system.  It occurs when "grievances are sufficiently acute that people want to engage in violent protest."[1]  The state cannot or will not address the grievances.  And since insurgency is political, so too are its solutions: strengthen the state so it can address grievances and assert control over all of the national territory.  The improved state can then return to its mission of reconciling competing interests, priorities, and objectives.

            Much of the world--including the parts prone to insurgency--sees things different.  Most often the political system is used by an elite to solidify its hold on power and defend the status quo.  Most insurgents do not seek a better political system but rather one that empowers them or, at least, leaves them alone.  People become insurgents because the status quo does not fulfill their needs.  This is a simple observation with profound implications.  It means that the true essence of insurgency is not political objectives, but unmet psychological needs (although political objectives may serve as a proxy for psychological needs as insurgent leaders seek to legitimize and popularize their efforts).

            While insurgency unfolds within a specific cultural context which causes much of the variation in it, basic human needs are trans-cultural.  While simplistic, the familiar Maslow's hierarchy portrays this:


Insurgency arises from a combination of two conditions: significant unmet psychological needs, and the feasibility of violence (via both attitudes receptive to it and the actual tools of armed action).  To grapple with this, a psychological conceptualization of insurgency would be more powerful and useful than a political one.

            This paper is intended as a first, tentative step toward such a psychological conceptualization.  It will focus on the most basic element: motivation--the things which compel an individual to become an insurgents.  I will first offer a few comments on my methodology, then a framework for visualizing insurgent motivation.  I will follow this with a series of propositions on the motivation of insurgents and, finally, suggest some implications of this approach.



            A complete psychological conceptualization of insurgency would require rigorous and comprehensive primary source data from as many insurgencies as possible, preferably all of them.  This is, of course, unattainable.  There is some primary source data based on interviews by scholars and members of nongovernmental organizations with former insurgents and, in some cases, with people who could have become insurgents but did not.  I have relied on it as much as possible.  But even this data has a number of flaws.  First, the coverage is uneven.  There has been extensive research in Sierra Leone, Colombia, El Salvador, and Northern Ireland; some in Peru, Uganda, and Palestine; but little beyond the occasional journalistic report, insurgent propaganda release, or operationally-focused prisoner interrogation from Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, eastern India, Thailand, and the Philippines.  Today those conflicts continue, making scholarly research dangerous.  Often governments do not want to give voice to the insurgents lest it help legitimize their cause. 

            Second, researchers rely captured or former insurgents.  These people are likely to portray themselves in a positive way and emphasize the extent to which they were motivated by legitimate and worthy causes, thus skewing the data.  Those willing to talk to researchers are likely to be the less committed insurgents so the data collected may not accurately portray the motives of those who elected not to talk (or who were killed in the conflict).

            Third, time may distort the memories of former insurgents leading them to overemphasize the idealism of their deeds.  As Stathis N. Kalyvas points out, "unsettled periods generate simultaneously a need for strategic non-ideological action and an ideological explication of these actions."[2]  There is a window of opportunity following a conflict when the available data is "ripe"--it is safe for former insurgents to talk frankly, but not so long that their memory has faded or become distorted.  All of this means that the available primary source data is the best we have but we must remain aware of its shortcomings.

            I must mention one other methodological note.  I have assumed that the motivational structure of insurgency is similar but not identical to other forms of violent action, particularly terrorism, but also including militia activity and, to an extent, participation in organized crime.  I thus use some information from those venues while remaining aware of the differences.  To take one major example, pure terrorist groups are smaller than insurgencies.  Participation is more risky.  Hence terrorism offers fewer opportunities for personal empowerment or enrichment than insurgency.  Both are likely to attract a cadre with similar motivation, but insurgency will also attract a body of followers, associates, and supporters with different motives.  As appropriate, I will make note of this distinction.



            Five major categories of motives inspire individuals to consider association with an insurgency, associate with it, or actually join.  Based on Maslow's Hierarchy of human needs, three of them can been seen as part of higher order motivation: fulfillment, empowerment, and enrichment.  Two are lower order: social obligation and survival.


            Clearly we must deconstruct this if it is to make sense and be useful.  The primal or lower order types of motivation include survival.  People become insurgents to survive amidst chaos and violence.  They have little commitment to the political objectives or ideology of the movement.  Any powerful gang or militia could substitute.  As with inner city street gangs in the United States, though, individuals may associate or join as a means of survival but eventually be indoctrinated into the ideology of the group, thus developing a deeper commitment. 

            The notion of social obligation operates in tribal societies where the traditional power structure remains important (in contrast to tribal areas where the traditional structure has broken down, leaving young males as "free agents" susceptible to recruitment by insurgents).  David Kilcullen describes this process in Afghanistan.[3]  Local leaders see the growing power of the national government (a process spurred by the United States and other outsiders) as a threat to their power and prerogative, and to their group's cultural identity.  To defend against this, some of them form alliances with Taliban insurgents and provided fighters.  So these individuals may themselves care little about the Taliban or its objectives, but become insurgents because of the social obligations incurred within their tribe and traditional power structure.  The same process unfolded in Iraq's Anbar province until 2006 when local leaders began to see foreign fighters associated with al Qaeda as a greater threat than the United States or the central government in Baghdad.

            The higher level motivations are more important, complex, and interesting.  They overlap but, in a general sense, people associate with or join insurgencies because they will gain power, gain access to money and other resources, or to fulfill needs such as a sense of identity, belonging, and justice.  The best way to describe this is via a typology--a cast of characters if you will.  I call them "the survivors," "the lost," "the thugs," "the ambitious," "the aggrieved," and "the idealists."  These are what German philosophers call "ideal types."  Real living, breathing, sweating, and bleeding individuals will most often have attributes of several types but usually can still be characterized as one or the other.  For this reason, thinking in terms of motivational types helps unveil the richness of insurgent motivational clusters.

            The Survivors:  The survivor is an insurgent who lives in an environment where it is safer to be part of an armed group than not.  The insurgency is the only armed group available or, at least, the most receptive and powerful one.  Research with former insurgents of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone, for instance, showed that 88% were abducted into the movement as children and 42% of those who joined said they did so because they feared what would happen to them if they did not.[4]  Like criminal gangs, insurgencies offer both carrots and sticks--they protect joiners and threaten to hurt non-joiners.  Abduction is the "purest" method of recruiting "survivors."  It has become pervasive in Africa.  In addition to the RUF, Renamo in Mozambique, the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, and the bevy of militias and insurgents in Eastern Congo have made extensive use of it.[5]

            In conflictive regions, particularly those which were economically weak before the outbreak of violence, insurgency and illegal activity often are the only ways to make a reasonable living.  Human Rights Watch, for instance, found that to be the case in Liberia.  Most of the insurgents which the group interviewed were "deeply affected by poverty and obsessed with the struggle of daily survival."[6]  The inability to provide for families was a source of anger and shame to young men, thus making them receptive to the only employers actively hiring: the insurgents and warlord militias.  In Sierra Leone, individuals offered payment in money or diamonds by the insurgents were six times more likely to join the RUF than local self defense militias even though doing so entailed greater risk.[7]  In the absence of material inducement, individuals were equally likely to join the insurgents or the self defense militias depending, in large part, on which group controlled the region they lived in (survivors exhibit a bandwagoning effect, tending to join the stronger group since that maximizes the near term chances of survival).[8]  In a survey of former Colombian insurgents, Marcella Ribetti found that many listed employment as a reason for joining.[9]  And, to make it even more attractive, the work was sporadically risky but not tedious or physically demanding (something one also sees with organized crime--witness "The Sopranos.")  This suggests that insurgency (and crime) hold particular appeal in cultures which do not attribute high esteem to the type of hard work associated with menial, lower level jobs (which are the type most likely to be created during a  counterinsurgency campaign).

            The Lost:  The lost is someone whose life is missing meaning, structure, or a sense of identity, and who becomes convinced that the insurgency offers these things.  The insurgency, in other words, fills a psychic void.  As with the military, involvement can simplify life for those overwhelmed by a lack of structure and with difficulty making decisions.  Life becomes simpler because the insurgent leadership makes daily decisions.  Jessica Stern noted this dynamic when studying religious based terrorist groups.  "What seems to be most appealing about militant religious groups," she wrote, [is that] whatever combination of reasons an individual may cite for joining is the way of life is simplified.  Good and evil are brought out in stark relief."[10]  This suggests that individuals who are psychologically with a low tolerance for complexity and ambiguity are prime candidates for insurgency recruitment (as for recruitment into the military).

            The need to belong and to create an identity is particularly strong (and problematic) during adolescence.  Adolescence "is characterized by feelings of opposition and resistance to authority and power structures in the family, at school, and at the state level.  In addition, it is a time when injustice and its unacceptability are strongly felt."[11]  It is also a time when young people have weak impulse control, a need for increased self esteem, and an attraction to idealistic commitments.[12]  This is the reason that adolescents form a major source of insurgent recruits, particularly for insurgencies such as Renamo, the RUF, and the Lord's Resistance Army that did not have a deep foundation of legitimacy or popular support.[13]  The insurgency becomes a surrogate family for those who have lost their real ones.[14]  Like all young people, adolescents are powerless but unlike small children, they find this grating, even intolerable.  "By belonging to a radical group," Post, Sprinzak and Denny write, "otherwise powerless individuals become powerful."[15]  In a study of the Oodura People's Congress--an ethnic militia/insurgency in Nigeria--Yuan Guichaoua found that 45% of the participants said that joining the movement improved their status and reputation.[16]  This makes adolescents perfect candidates for insurgency.  It provides structure and identity, filling psychic empty spaces.  This has both an individual and a collective dimension.  Peer pressure is vitally important for "the lost," particularly young ones.  Marc Sageman has demonstrated the crucial role of social networks rather than any individual psychological propensity in leading young men to join jihadist terror networks.[17]  This same process functions in insurgency.

            Anything which makes an individual "lost," separating him or her from their source of structure, meaning, and identity, increases their vulnerability to insurgent recruitment.  For instance, Jessica Stern notes that Hamas identifies potential suicide bombers by looking for someone who is "anxious, worried, and depressed," specifically someone who is young, immature, unemployed, and convinced that life is pain and he (or she) has lost everything of worth.[18]  Insurgents also find prisons, refugee camps, and émigré communities ripe recruiting ground.[19]  It was not coincidence that the September 11 bombers met as part of a culturally isolated Muslim community in Europe, or that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was won over to violent extremism while in a Jordanian prison.  They were lost and then found.  In a storm, any island seems safe.

            Similarly, some insurgent movements have found that exploiting religious themes helps attract recruits who are spiritually lost.  The contemporary Islamic extremists, whether affiliated with al Qaeda or not, provide the starkest illustration of this, but not the only one.  The Lord's Resistance Army did the same with a blend of Old Testament, Pentecostal Christianity and local superstitions.[20]  Many other African insurgencies such as the Mau Mau movement in Kenya during the 1950s wove traditional religious beliefs into their ideology.  The Guatemalan and Peruvian insurgencies utilized the mystical religion of their indigenous foot soldiers.  And religion was certainly a factor for insurgents in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, and for the Jewish insurgents fighting against the British mandate in Palestine.  Even the avowedly secular communist insurgents of the 20th century understood the need for spirituality and developed an ideology which played the same psychological role as religion.

            Boredom also contributes to a sense of being lost.  In rural areas and urban slums, insurgency seems to provide excitement for those whose lives are devoid of it.[21] This theme appears over and over when former insurgents explain their motives.  Ribetti, for instance, heard it from Colombians, particularly from the female insurgents she interviewed who sought to escape the tedium of a woman's life in rural areas.[22]  Louise Shelley observed that youth violence and association with terrorism is often linked to "the glamour of living dangerously and the adrenalin flow that is associated with living precariously."[23]  States not susceptible to insurgency have proxies for youth boredom and the need for excitement which drains these impulses into less destructive channels, whether video games, violent movies, sports, or fast cars.  Societies without alternatives--particularly ones where the educational system has collapsed like Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and he tribal areas of Pakistan can see boredom be channeled into political violence.[24]

            The Thugs:  There are people in every society--usually young males--with a propensity for aggression and violence.  Insurgency attracts them since it is more prestigious and legitimate than crime, and has a better chance of gaining internal or external support.  It offers them a chance to justify imposing their will on others.  This is amplified when a nation has a long history of violence or major military demobilization which increases the number of thugs and puts many of them out of work.  In many parts of the world, whole generations have never known a time without brutality and bloodshed.  Sierra Leone is a perfect example of this.  The RUF emerged from a group of young people from the slums of Freetown known for their antisocial behavior.[25]  While this group sometimes provided violent muscle for politicians, it also served up the raw material for the RUF, leading Ibrahim Abdullah and Patrick Muana to label it the "revolt of the lumpenproletariat" (a word coined by Karl Marx to describe society's lowest strata).[26]  Thugs seldom create or lead insurgencies, but they do provide many of its foot soldiers.

            The Ambitious:  A large literature has emerged in the last decade focusing on "greed"--the desire for personal gain--as a motivation in internal war.[27]  Greed can be for material goods, power, or status.  Simply put, insurgency has appeal in a system where upward mobility is blocked for the talented and ambitious members of the lower classes--where the elite is impermeable.  Logically if a state develops other lest risky means for upward mobility, it can decapitate an insurgency.  This will never work perfectly.  Even in a society like the United States where the elite is extremely permeable and multiple avenues for upward mobility exist, there are still those who pursue illegal paths which appear easier or more exciting.  But the smaller the pool of talented, ambitious members of the non-elite available, the less the chances that an insurgency can coalesce and persist.   

            The Aggrieved:  Americans, with their political perspective on insurgency, understand grievance.  The primary fuel of the aggrieved is sensitivity to injustice.  They believe that the existing political and economic system, or specific government policies or practices (such as pervasive corruption) are unfair to some group defined by class, region, ethnicity, religion, or race.  Injustice must be punished and stopped.  The only way to do that, they believe, is through armed action since it cannot be ameliorated through peaceful means.  Such insurgents consider themselves victims and their actions defensive.

            Three things are important about this motivational type.  First, over time grievances can become transcendental.  This means that they are no longer the result of specific government policies or actions, but are based on the notion the very existence of the government (and the elite it is felt to represent) is intolerable.  The Palestinian and al Qaeda insurgencies demonstrate this.  It is doubtful that any change in policy by the Israeli government or the United States could satisfy them.  Only the total destruction of their enemies (and the existing power system) will  restore justice.  Often this type of insurgent borders on nihilism, concluding that destruction is a vital component of creation.  They are the Kali of the insurgent galaxy.  Second, the grievance can be personal or group based.  Personal grievances are particularly important in cultures with an ingrained sense of justice where group members (be they a family, tribe, or clan) have an obligation to seek revenge when one of their members are harmed.  Combined with a powerful sense of male honor, this fueled a large segment of the insurgency Iraq's tribal areas as family and tribe members felt compelled to strike at American forces when one of their own was killed, taken prisoner, or otherwise dishonored.  Finally, grievance is widely seen as the most legitimate and acceptable rationale for insurgency, so is often used by insurgents to describe their motives even when it is not the most pervasive or powerful.  But in a general sense, the more focused an individual and a culture are on justice, the greater that the aggrieved play in an insurgency.  If a population could be given the Myers-Briggs personality test,[28] those who score a hard "J" (for judgmental) would be candidates for insurgent membership (I myself fall into this category!).

            The Idealists:  Idealists are closely linked to the aggrieved.  But rather than being driven by the desire to end injustice by imposing revenge, they seek to construct a more just and equitable system.  Theirs is a New Testament world-view rather than the stern Old Testament mindset of the aggrieved.  While true idealists are rare, their ability to inspire and legitimize the insurgency gives them influence out of proportion to their number.



            Rather than attempting a full scale theory or model of insurgent motivation, I will advance the idea by sketching a framework, combining a series of propositions with a visualization and typology.  Some of these propositions border on the self-evident but nonetheless need stated to build toward the visualization.  All could be tested with further research--call them propositions in search of data.

            Individuals who associate with or join an insurgency have multiple motives, sometimes even conflicting or contradictory ones.   This means that a counterinsurgency program which addresses one or even several motives which led an insurgent to take up arms might not lead him or her to lay down their arms.  It is extraordinarily difficult (but important) to identify the decisive motive within a cluster.  Sometimes even the insurgent themselves might not be able to.  Motives lower in Maslow's hierarchy of needs are more important to an individual, but easier for a counterinsurgency program to address. 

            Motive clusters determine the form and intensity of individual's involvement with an insurgency.  Clusters which incorporate or are dominated by motives higher in Maslow's hierarchy will generate more intense involvement with an insurgency, possibly in a full time or leading role.  Clusters lower in the hierarchy are more likely to generate sympathy, support, or association.  It is easier to convince insurgents with lower level motive clusters to abandon the insurgency, or to convince individuals drive by lower level motives to resist association in the first place.

            Motives may be elaborate and complex, based on linear logic, but they may also include emotions, feelings, and perceptions.  Much of the research on insurgent (or rebel) motivation focuses on linear logic and rational choice.  This may, in fact, dominant the decision making of some individuals.  But it provides an incomplete picture.  Motivation is sometimes sub- or supra-rational, particularly when grievances become transcendental.  In an insurgency with a cross-cultural dimension (e.g. when the United States is involved in a counterinsurgency campaign in a non-Western culture), the logic of motivation may be translucent or opaque: logic has a cultural component.

            The motive cluster of an individual or group changes over time. Insurgent leaders realize that idealists and the aggrieved are most committed to the cause, but are rarer than survivors, the lost, the ambitious, or even thugs.  For this reason, they attempt to shift the motive cluster of survivors, the lost, or thugs to idealism through indoctrination and other solidarity building efforts.  Conversely, an insurgent who joins based on grievance or idealism may become jaded remain involved out of fear or simply because there are no better opportunities available.  In such cases, insurgency becomes his or her livelihood.  Personal gain is more important than vengeance or idealism. 

            The motive clusters which predominate in a given insurgency change over time.  Insurgencies normally begin with a small cadre of the aggrieved or idealists; they then add the ambitious and thugs and may eventually incorporate the lost or survivors.  In a handful of insurgencies, the idealistic and grievance based component increases as the insurgent leaders find ways to shift more and more followers to these motive clusters.  In most cases, the idealism of insurgency depletes and it devolves into a criminal gang or personal militia with a political veneer, particularly since late joiners to an insurgency are more likely to expect tangible benefits than the early joining, more idealistic component.

            Control of a region also affects the motive cluster which predominates in an insurgency.  When an insurgency controls a region, survivors join as part of the bandwagoning effect (since joining is safer than not joining).  That means that an insurgency which controls extensive territory will see a larger role for survival motives than one that controls little or no terror.  The latter will be dominated by grievances and idealism since those inspire greater risk acceptance.[29]

            The vulnerability of an individual to specific motivations varies.  Vulnerability arises from several factors.  One is age.  As noted, the trauma and stress of adolescence makes that age group vulnerable to an organization that promises meaning, identity, and power, and promotes (or purports to promote) idealistic objectives.  Adolescents whose normal framework for maturation--the family or local social structure--have broken down are particularly vulnerable.  A traumatic event can also make an individual vulnerable to insurgent recruitment.  This can be something within the personal experience of the potential recruit such as losing access to education or a job, or having a friend or family member killed or arrested.  It can also be indirect, collective or ascribed such as a government massacre or the killing or capture of a respected leader. 

            The role of traumatic events seems to vary from insurgency to insurgency.  Interviews with former insurgents in Colombia and Sierra Leone found few instances where specific traumatic events led to joining the insurgency.  In Northern Ireland, Palestine and, based on journalistic accounts, Iraq, it was more common for individuals to mention a specific trauma which led them to become insurgents or terrorists.  Local conditions probably account for this.  In Sierra Leone and the Colombian hinterlands, there was virtually no effective government presence so joining the insurgents was a less radical step for an individual.  Joining required little motivation.  In Northern Ireland and Palestine, there was an effective government presence.  This made joining the insurgents or terrorists more risky.  It often took a major and immediate personal trauma to propel an individual through their natural risk aversion.  And as noted earlier, any separation from traditional structures of meaning and identity increase vulnerability.  This includes prisons, refugee camps, émigré populations, or even attendance at a college or university when it separates the students from their families. 

            Vulnerability can also be systemic rather than purely individual.  Societies in transition are classic examples.  The insurgencies of the 20th century normally did not occur in the most traditional and backward nations, but in nations that had begun modernization.  Traditional structures for meaning and identity had broken down, but modern ones had not yet matured.[30]  Insurgents capitalized on this psychological "unoccupied terrain."  Some of today's insurgencies such as those in Afghanistan, Nepal, and much of Sub-Saharan Africa unfold in societies where traditional structures have broken down but modern ones have not taken root.  This makes them vulnerable to insurgency. 

            A history of violent conflict increases systemic vulnerability.  For a variety of reasons, it is easier to start the second, third, or fourth insurgency in a state than the first.  Violence has been normalized, shattering the normal psychological aversion to it.  The normal structures of meaning and identity are weak.  And, in most cases, the war economy associated with preceding conflicts had a lingering and distorting effect.  People remember how to smuggle, how to extort funds, and so forth.  In many cases, those who benefitted economically and psychologically from the previous conflict would like to regain what they lost.

            Prevalence and role of motivation clusters varies across cultures, especially way in which violence, justice, and authority are  perceived.  In cultures where violence is normalized through a history of armed conflict or respected due to a warrior tradition, the psychological barriers to joining an insurgency are low.  That means that the insurgents can easily recruit the lost, survivors, the ambitious, and thugs.  In cultures where violence is abnormal, the psychological barriers to joining an insurgency are higher.  This means that the bulk of recruits must come from the aggrieved or idealists.  In cultures which place a high premium on justice or where national authority is little respected, the psychological barriers to joining an insurgency are again low, leading to recruitment of lost, survivors, the ambitious, and thugs.  In cultures where the national authority is generally respected and thought to rule justly, the psychological barriers to joining an insurgency are high, forcing the insurgents to recruit primarily the aggrieved and idealists.


            I am not a social psychologist so any policy or strategy implications I draw from this foray into the psychology of insurgency are tentative.  But it does seem clear to me that if my basic assumption is valid--if insurgency results from the confluence of widespread unmet psychological needs and the means of violence--then counterinsurgency must both lower the utility of violence and provide alternative structures for meeting unmet psychological needs.  The central psychological concept for understanding insurgency is more expansive and complex than  grievance (which is the political expression of unmet needs).  It is alienation.  Counterinsurgency must be counter-alienation.  This means that a comprehensive counterinsurgency program must address all of the motive clusters.  It cannot stop at articulated grievances, but must also provide non-violent structures for identity, self discipline, empowerment, prestige, and meaning.

            It is relatively easy to derail any inclination which the lost and survivors have toward insurgency.  The lost need alternative frameworks of identity and belonging.  Survivors need a way to live other than insurgency.  The thugs are harder since even if prevented from becoming insurgents, they will have a deleterious effect.  Long term imprisonment may be the only solution.  The aggrieved, particularly those for whom grievances have become transcendental, and idealists are the most difficult because their motives are the least tangible and most expansive.  Luckily, these types are fairly rare

            Effective counterinsurgency must continue long after the insurgency appears defeated.  Like all violence, insurgency has lingering psychological effects.  Researchers have noted the prevalence of post-traumatic stress syndrome in societies emerging from insurgency.[31]  At a systemic level, counterinsurgents must remember that over time, insurgency becomes both a livelihood and a life style.  If the insurgents retain the life style after the insurgency, the state remains fragile and conflictive.  El Salvador, Peru, and Guatemala all demonstrate this, with many insurgents simply becoming part of criminal gangs.  Comprehensive counterinsurgency must, as far as possible address this.  And it must remember that former insurgents do not become gang members simply because there are no other jobs available (although that is part of it).  They do so because as insurgents they felt empowered.  They were feared (and, like American gang members and mafia, confused fear with respect).  They did not have to work long hours.  So if the counterinsurgency program is to prevent insurgents from simply stripping off their ideological veneer and becoming pure criminals, it must find ways to address the empowerment issue.

            Of course this is easier said than done.  But there are solutions.  One alternative system of identity, meaning, and empowerment is the military.  Ironically, militaries and insurgencies both recruit heavily from the lost, survivors, and idealists.  While it might seem counterintuitive, one of the most effective things that a state seeking to deal the final death blow to an existing insurgency or prevent a defeated one from re-emerging can do is significantly increase the size of its military to provide an alternative psychological framework for potential recruits.  The United States should recognize this and help partner states vulnerable to insurgency sustain a military that might, to us, seem unnecessarily large.  This one step is emblematic of the larger one we must take to be effective in counterinsurgency: we must stop thinking in purely political terms and understand the psychological dynamics at play.

[1] Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, "Greed and Grievance in Civil War," Oxford Economic Papers, 56, 2004, p. 564.

[2] Stathis N. Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 46.

[3] David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

[4] Macartan Humphreys and Jeremy M. Weinstein, "Who Fights? The Determinants of Participation in Civil Wars," American Journal of Political Science, 55, 2, April 2008, p. 438

[5] Jeremy M. Weinstein, Inside Rebellion: The Politics of Insurgent Violence, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 111-121; Heike Behrend, "War in Northern Uganda: The Holy Spirit Movements of Alice Lakwena, Servino Lukoya and Joseph Kony (1986-1997)," in African Guerrillas, ed. Christopher Clapham, Oxford, James Currey, 1998; and Paul Jackson, "The March of the Lord's Resistance Army: Greed or Grievance in Northern Uganda?" Small Wars and Insurgencies, 13, 3, Autumn 2002, pp. 29-57.

[6] Youth, Poverty, and Blood: The Lethal Legacy of West Africa's Regional Warriors, New York: Human Rights Watch, 2005, p. 13.

[7] Humphreys and Weinstein, "Who Fights?" pp. 448-9.

[8] Ana M. Arjona and Stathis N. Kalyvas, "Rebelling Against Rebellion: Comparing Insurgent Recruitment," paper prepared for the Mobilisation for Political Violence Workshop, Oxford University Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity, March 17-18, 2009, p. 12.

[9] Marcella Ribetti, "The Unveiled Motivations of Violence in Intra-State Conflicts: The Colombian Guerrillas," Small Wars and Insurgencies, 18, 4, December 2007, p. 707.

[10] Jessica Stern, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, New York: HarperCollins, 2003, p. 5.

[11] Rachel Brett and Irma Specht, Young Soldiers: Why They Choose to Fight, Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2004, p. 3.

[12] Fusan Cuhadaroglu, "Youth and Violence," in Political Violence, Organized Crimes, Terrorism, and Youth, ed. M. Demet Ulusoy, Amsterdam: IOS Press, 2008, p. 12.

[13] Jeremy M. Weinstein, "Resources and the Information Problem in Rebel Recruitment," Journal of Conflict Resolution, 49, 4, August 2005, p. 613.

[14] Krijn Peters and Paul Richards, "Why We Fight: Voices of Youth Combatants in Sierra Leone," Africa, 68, 2, 1998, p. 183.

[15] Jerrold M. Post, Ehud Sprinzak, and Laurita M. Denny, "The Terrorists in Their Own Words: Interviews with 35 Incarcerated Middle Eastern Terrorists," Terrorism and Political Violence, 15, 1, Spring 2003, p. 176

[16] Yuan Guichaoua, "Why Do Youths Join Ethnic Militias? A Survey on the Oodua People's Congress in Southwestern Nigeria," unpublished paper prepared for the Oxford University Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity, March 2006, p. 17.

[17] Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. [17] Post, Sprinzak, and Denny found the same thing ("The Terrorists in Their Own Words," p. 173

[18] Stern, Terror in the Name of God, p. 50.

[19] The American approach to counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan created immense prison populations and thus assisted insurgent recruitment by providing a concentrated body of "the lost."

[20] Lawrence E. Cline, "Spirits and the Cross: Religiously Based Violent Movements in Uganda," Small Wars and Insurgencies, 14, 2, Summer 2003, pp. 113-130

[21] Brett and Specht, Young Soldiers, p. 13.  Again, this same factor contributes to military recruitment--from the Scottish Highlands to the isolated farms of the United States in the Civil War, young men have long joined the army seeking relief from the tedium of farm life

[22] Ribetti, "The Unveiled Motivations of Violence in Intra-State Conflicts," p. 712.

[23] Louise Shelley, "Youth, Crime, and Terrorism," in Political Violence, Organized Crimes, Terrorism, and Youth, ed. M. Demet Ulusoy, p. 137.

[24] The correlation between weak or failed school systems and gang activity in the United States also demonstrates this dynamic.

[25] Weinstein, "Resources and the Information Problem in Rebel Recruitment," 615.

[26] Ibrahim Abdullah and Patrick Muana, "The Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone: A Revolt of the Lumpenproletariat," in African Guerrillas, ed. Clapham, pp. 173-4.

[27] For instance, Collier and Hoeffler, "Greed and Grievance in Civil War"; Paul Collier, "On the Economic Consequences of Civil War," Oxford Economic Papers, 51, 1999, pp. 168-83; Paul Collier, "Doing Well Out of War" in Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars, ed. Mats Berdal and David Malone, Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2000; and Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, "On the Economic Causes of Civil War," Oxford Economic Papers, 50, 1998, pp. 563-73.

[28] The Myers-Briggs personality indicator is used by many corporations and government organizations.  It is simplistic--I use it here to suggest how psychology could be used to better understand insurgency rather than as a final solution.  The indicator is based on four scales: EXTROVERT - INTROVERT (drawing energy from outside or within); INTUITIVE - SENSING (drawing energy from a “sixth sense” or from the five other senses); FEELING - THINKING (basing decisions on personal information or on logic/rules); PERCEIVING - JUDGING (preferring spontaneity or organization).

[29] Arjona and Kalyvas, "Rebelling Against Rebellion," p. 12.

[30] The classic analysis of this problem is Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968.

[31] Dean Owen, "When Violence, Terror, and Death Visit Youth," in Political Violence, Organized Crimes, Terrorism, and Youth, ed. M. Demet Ulusoy, pp. 52-66.


Categories: psychology - politics - insurgency

About the Author(s)

Dr. Steven Metz is Professor of National Security and Strategy at the US Army War College and a nonresident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Prior to his current position Dr. Metz was with the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute serving as Director of Research, chairman of the Regional Strategy Department, research director for the Joint Strategic Landpower Task Force, director of the Future of American Strategy Project, and project director for the Army Iraq Stabilization Strategic Assessment. He has also been on the faculty of the Air War College, the US Army Command and General Staff College, and several universities. He has testified in both houses of Congress and spoken on military and security issues around the world. He served on the advisory panel for the Secretary of Defense Strategic Portfolio Review for Close Combat Capabilities, the RAND Insurgency Board, the Senior Advisory Panel on Special Forces—Conventional Forces Interdependence, and as a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute. Dr. Metz is the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy and many publications on strategic futures, insurgency, military strategy, and defense policy. He is currently writing a book on the future of insurgency.   


If the specific "status quo" that we are actually dealing with today -- that which fails to meet peoples and population groups various needs -- if this "status quo" is actually the constant and seemingly endless governing and societal changes that have become necessary in order to accommodate globalization,

These constant and continuing changes to various people's ways-of-life tending to alienate, as in the case of the industrial revolution before it, specific population groups but, also, even whole states and societies,

Then what would a "counter-alienating" counter-insurgency initiative look like today; given the case identified above and these conditions?


Fri, 02/17/2012 - 12:02am

In reply to by Stan Wiechnik

You describe the beginning of a journey wherein you are faced with a choice - on one hand a 'honourable ' calling to the US Army/Jihad or a life of crime with say the Bloods as an American or the heroin trade as an Afghan. Where this mirroring breaks away from reality is if you choose the US military you are largely insulated from the effects of criminal element which surrounds your Afghan 'twin' who has chosen to embrace 'jihad' and take the fight to the infidel.

The blinkered view which focuses on the beginning of the journey fails to appreciate that any 'jihadist ' in Afghanistan has been fighting the infidel since the Saur Coup in 1978 - when atheism was decreed the official religion of Afghanistan.

If by some miracle any muj has survived 30 years of conflict he would not be availed the option to be comfortably retired, well educated and fully pensioned American twin.

You would in fact have an individual who has suffered a life of impoverishment and danger whilst surrounded by drug running friends and neighbours whose houses, 4WDs, fine clothes, gold jewellery and regular pilgrimages to Bangkok and Mecca is in your face every winter you trudge home to your family living in the NWFP after taking the 'good' fight to the Marines, Paras, SAS, SEALS and Green Berets.

The simple reality is that any such 'idealist' individual has long been dead or is broken physically or spiritually. Any offspring and their peers would be acutely aware that 'jihad' does not offer 4WDs, big houses, fine clothes, expensive jewellery and international travel.

In fact it offers death,trauma, poverty and ridicule.


Stan Wiechnik

Thu, 02/02/2012 - 6:26pm

In reply to by SMH

The answer should really come from DR. Metz, but I did want to make a couple of observations.

Regarding the first question: you might as well ask what makes a person decide to enlist in the Army. When I was a young PFC and we had people over the house (I was married, so the parties were always at my house) we would kid amongst ourselves that we were all "broke"; each of us had problems or issues that brought us to the military and the military gave us an identity, home, and a pride that we were lacking elsewhere. We all could not satisfy something in the civilian world -- some need -- that we could satisfy in the Army.

Now, an insurgent may have the same reasoning. They are seeking an identity or a pride that their regular life does not provide. But there is something in common between both we newly enlisted Solders and the insurgents; we chose this specific path because it was an acceptable path for our society. By this I mean that those of us that enlisted in the US Army had other options. I could have joined a criminal gang and gotten prestige and an identity that would be respected (in certain sectors). But it was not one accepted by the general population. It was not a legal path. If I killed as a member of a gang it was not legitimized by the value system of the population. Similarly, an insurgent can become a criminal or they can join an insurgency. Actions taken as a member of the insurgency are validated by the legitimacy the insurgency has within the population. Their actions are in concert with the values of that segment of the population that reject the government's claim on legitimacy, but are in alignment with the insurgent's claim on legitimacy. Amongst that part of the population they are not criminal, they are soldiers fighting for what is right. That is why they take up arms in my opinion.

I believe there a few factors that are being overlooked in this theory. I agree that psychological needs are not being met in the lives of insurgents, but I think there are questions that need to be considered:

1. Approximately what percentage of that population becomes actively involved in an insurgency? If we were able to take a close look at the whole population, I think we would find that a large majority would admit to being one, if not several, of the motivational types listed by Dr. Metz. But only a small portion of that population is willing to take up arms to support a cause. What is the real drive that triggers someone to act on their need?

2. Should the focus of counter-insurgency be placed on meeting the psychological needs of the higher motivational types? In my experience, the higher motivational types (idealist/aggrieved) make up the leaders, while the lower types (survivors/lost) make up the followers.

3. Aren't political means the way to meet these psychological needs? In order for any change to occur that places food on the tables, jobs for the unemployed, opportunities for the achievers, outlets for the thugs, and meaning for the lost will have to be achieved through politics of some sort.

Bill C.

Wed, 02/01/2012 - 11:21pm

Note: I have modified this comment again.

"People become insurgents because the status quo does not fulfill their (psychological) needs."

Should we consider that the "status quo" we should be most concerned with -- to wit: that which does not meet various peoples/population group's psychological needs -- may be (1) modernity generally and/or (2) the western version of modernity specifically?


Herein, let us consider the long-running and continuing United States/western world's initiative to cause/help/require "outlier" (those not like us) states and societies to not only (1) modernize but (2) to modernize only along western lines.

In circumstances such as these, how does one achieve recognition/psychological fulfillment (to wit: "status?") except by being a modern-day "insurgent," to wit:

a. By being one who rejects modernity altogether (AQ and the Taliban?) or

b. By being one who achieves -- and claims for oneself -- one's own version of modernity (China, et al.?)

Thus, for counterinsurgency to be effective, and to be "counter-alienating" as the author suggests, should we suggest that it must specifically be (1) devoid of the requirement to modernize and (2) devoid of the requirement to modernize only along western political, economic and social lines?

Bill M.

Tue, 01/31/2012 - 12:00pm


Outstanding response, and while much of it may be a statement of the obvious as you wrote, that seems to run parallel with common sense isn't all that common. I hope those who are rewriting our COIN doctrine reflect on your comments. I actually think Bob's World, Steven Metz, and your ideas (at least for me) are all starting to converge in a useful way.

Thanks, Bill


Tue, 01/31/2012 - 9:17pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

<i>all agree that it is the current political system that is preventing them from attaining what it is they seek; and see that their best chance to improve their situation is by creating political change.</i>

"What they seek" is likely to span a fair range, and that range has to be considered. Mass bases are likely to fight because they are angry or afraid, because they see government impositions as a threat to their well being or existence. For leaders ("the ambitious" in Dr Metz's breakdown) what is sought is likely to be personal: position, power, wealth. People who seek these things often try to leverage concerns that they think will draw enough followers to get them what they want, and they often abandon those issues once they have what they want.

Rank-and-file insurgents may be "disaggregated" from the movement by finding and resolving whatever they are afraid of or angry about. Defusing leaders with concessions will typically be a lot more difficult, as no concession short of surrender gives them what they want.


Tue, 01/31/2012 - 8:25pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

I'm not sure that we need to look at insurgency, or any of the other situations you describe, as problems that need to be "cured" with different solutions. Problems they may be, but they are not generally our problems, and blundering into another society with an imperfect understanding of the dynamics at play (our understanding is always imperfect, often severely so) and a desire to promote our own interests often makes things worse. We need to break away from the reflexive assumption that insurgency needs to be countered, and that other people's problems are something we need to cure.

As you said above, the categories Dr Metz describes are found throughout society, including, often prominently, among counterinsurgent forces or government agencies. We need to understand those and their motivations as well as we understand the insurgent.

Stan Wiechnik

Tue, 01/31/2012 - 8:55pm

In reply to by RandCorp

First, I would like to say that I agree with the idea of using human needs as a framework for explaining insurgent political activity (or for that matter political activity in general). I am also an advocate of Maslow's hierarchy because it is a hierarchy and therefore a useful tool. There are other, more recent motivational theories like Deci and Ryan's self-determination theory or my personal favorite, Terror Management Theory (which states that people are motivated by the knowledge of their own mortality). Other theories help explain why we are motivated to act, only Maslow's places these categories in an order that helps explain preferences for actions. Despite claims that it is only applicable in Western cultures it tracks well with Schwartz's universal values that have proven to be cross-cultural.

But my problem is with the obvious contradictions in Dr. Metz' statements on American barriers to understanding non-western (non-liberal) politics. After correctly observing that we have a tendency to see everything through our American eyes, as individuals, he goes on to proclaim that non-western politics can only be explained though viewing the society as individuals. "Most often the political system is used by an elite to solidify its hold on power and defend the status quo. Most insurgents do not seek a better political system but rather one that empowers them or, at least, leaves them alone." This is a throwback to Marxist ideas that the only way to explain why these traditional societies are what they are is by explaining it through the elite subjugating the population. It certainly could not possibly be because of anything more complicated, like a client-patron relationship that fulfills the client's need for an identity and secure place in a social structure; an actual application of Maslow's hierarchy.

This kind of thinking, that everyone in the world must think exactly like us, is why we believe the only solution to every problem is a nation building effort to recreate American Democracy where ever we go.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 02/01/2012 - 2:52pm

In reply to by RandCorp

I've never said what the Taliban offered or offer is "better"; only that what we put in place is illegitimate and as dedicated to excluding those who affiliated with the Taliban as the Taliban was and will be to those who affiliated with the Northern Alliance.

What was the Northern Alliance 10 years ago, and what was the Taliban 10 years ago is only a guideline for what those two organizations are today. In make up, in purpose, in how they are apt to act if in power or out of power. Many opportunists, such as Gul Agha Sirzai, jumped on board the Northern Alliance band wagon once it found itself hitched to the decisive combat power and $$$ of ISAF.

As to VSO and ALP, great tactical programs both, but neither can overcome the strategically infeasible construct they are forced to operate under. Those days of simply forcing a political solution on some foreign populace and expecting it to stick and not lead to transnational terrorism at home are over. We need to accept that and move on to smarter strategy. No amount of great tactics can overcome a fatally flawed strategic construct. We proved that in Vietnam, and now, like the Soviets before us, are proving it in Afghanistan.

We can wish GIRoA was not simply a Nothern Alliance monopoly dedicated to its self-preservation; but that will not make it so. Only true reconciliation that makes room for other voices at the table; and a new constitution that allows Afghan processes leader selection and local, district and provincial level patronage to function with leaders actually tied to those communities and owing their patronage to the same, can move this forward IMO. Other approaches may be workable as well, but I cannot see how we get more than temporarry suppression of the symptoms with the current scheme.


Wed, 02/01/2012 - 1:53pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

You constantly refer to the Afghan government institutions and security forces as the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance was/is essentially a pure Tajik organisation with a small number of Harzara and Uzbeks.

That being the case how is it that the Afghan Army and police can be referred to as the Northern Alliance when the majority of its members are Pathans. What gives the pathans living in Pakistan the right to kill Pathan soldiers and policemen? How can you claim this fight is a noble cause for the insurgent and an exercise in legitimacy by the Quetta Shura? Given the opportunity could you say this in fairness to Karzai - who is also happens to be a Pathan.

The recent Taliban government had a history of persecuting everyone in Afghanistan - both Pathan and Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaris with equal measure. Has their stay under the auspices of the Pak ISI and their involvement in the heroin industry suddenly made their attitude to governance '..a trip to the light fantastic.. '? If so who is currently placing bombs in mosques and laying IEDs which nine times out of ten kill Pathan civilians?

You rightly claim that Afghans are very village-centric in their ethnicity. Some people claim the SF run VSO and ALP programs represent a important tool in enabling a village-first approach to peace - are you suggesting a ISI run program managed from Quetta is a better option?


Robert C. Jones

Wed, 02/01/2012 - 7:22am

In reply to by Stan Wiechnik

Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, etc are all modern examples of insurgency in the information age. The "Phase 1" described and refined by Mao and practiced by many others before and after his efforts in China IS NO LONGER A REQUIREMENT FOR SUCCESS. That is a fascinating, and for states with a casual attitude toward their populaces, frightening proposition. There is no such thing as an insurgency with "no leaders," but it is certainly possible to have one today with many leaders, that will organize and morph on the fly. No longer necessary is the "sanctuary" of covert organizations, cells, communications, etc; sanctuary comes in the form of social media and speed of action. For governments this puts insurgency outside their OODA loop.

So, again, in Libya, it is understanding the psychological drivers of the leadership and their political causation and goals that is most helpful. Many who join the rank and file will share those same thoughts; others will simply see this as a path to better opportunity for caring for their families; others will simply be opportunists, and from chaos there is always opportunity. Some will be "drafted." Without a base of popular support I doubt any of these movements would have succeeded. Thus they were most likely all insurgencies rather than Coups by some small, powerful group.

Take this to Afghanistan where the insurgency breaks into two large groupings by psychology and primary causation: There is the Revolutionary aspect of the insurgency that is represented by the leadership taking refuge in Pakistan and is primarily political and a response to their being sent into exile due to the artificial shift in power created by the US and NATO, coupled with their unwillingness to accept the Northern Alliance monopoly on power and opportunity codified under the current Constitution and protected by ISAF. This is the head, and so long as the head exists there will be a tail and the insurgency may be suppressed, but not resolved through force of arms.

Then there is the resistance arm of the insurgency. This is what ISAF battles day in and day out; and what we build ANA and ANP capacity to help defeat. This is a response to the foreign occupation of their country, and the Northern Alliance occupation as well (If you are from a couple valleys over, you are a "foreigner" in many parts of Afghanistan, even if of the same ethnicity). The reistance also can be suppressed, but it so long as this foreign presence persists it will regenerate as well, doubley so with the Revolutionary leadership continued leveraging of these fighters to their political ends.

The current operational design in Afghanistan is illogical. It protects the primary source of causation for the Revolutionary aspect of the insurgency, while at the same time is the primary source of causation for the resistance aspect of the insurgency through its very actions to perform that protection. I would laugh if it didn't make me cry.


Stan Wiechnik

Wed, 02/01/2012 - 6:20am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

I disagree that studying the psychology of the rank and file does nothing to help resolve an insurgency. Understanding the motivation of the rank and file in Libya or Egypt would certainly have helped if you were looking at things from Gaddafi or Mubarak side of the equation. Those "insurgencies" had no leadership. Many took credit claiming to be the leadership but they were social movements. The only effective way to have changed things there was to understand the reason and make accommodations.

You hit the nail on the head with the idea that the current government in Afghanistan is not considered legitimate. If it were would all those rank and file members be so willing to pick up a rifle and fight?

It is just as important to understand why the American GI fights if you want to design effective ways to mute their power, like using children against them or having them loose faith in the validity of the fight they are in. It matters very much to be able to understand why any force fights.

That said I think we mostly agree on other points. There is a clear distinction between criminal and political insurgencies from a theoretical perspective (not always so clear in practice) but they must be approached differently. In a developed political insurgencies you may have a political and military wing of the movement. Eliminating the military wing alone probably won't kill the insurgency. Likewise, a political solution may not stop all the criminal activity and violence but it will certainly eliminate most of it in the short run.

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 01/31/2012 - 9:00pm

In reply to by Stan Wiechnik

What % of the soldiers/fighters in any conflict are "just trying to survive"? The fighters aren't the ones who start these conflicts, nor do their fights define these conflicts. Nor does defeating the fighter resolve these conflicts. It is the psychology and motivation of the leadership that matters most; and for most insurgencies one finds those motivations in the upper end of Maslow's heirarchy and a firm belief that it is political change that will see those needs addressed and that no effective legal means of attaining such political change are available.

Studying the psychology of why a rank and file member of the Taliban picks up a rifle (most are resistance fighters who fight primarily because it is the honorable thing to do when a foreign army occupies your country and attempts to force some illegitimate form of government upon you; that also upends the pre-existing balance of patronage and power across the country), is interesting, but will hardly help you understand how to resolve the insurgency. No more than studying the psychology of the rank and file American GI or German soldier would help understand how to prevent the next World War.

Stan Wiechnik

Tue, 01/31/2012 - 8:39pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

You make a great point. Separating political motivations from other motivations, criminal or otherwise, is an important part of divining the motivation of the participants who are the real threat and who can reintegrate into society once the key players are neutralized. It is also helpful in determining whether simply neutralizing the central figures are enough to eliminate the threat or whether you are fighting an idea; are you trying to kill a snake or a hydra as some others here have noted.

It is difficult to say that the Revolutionary United Front was ever a real political insurgency. They seemed to have no real political agenda, they seemed more like a group of thugs. That did not make them any less of a threat to the population or the government. What it does mean is that the 88% of the people who were recruited were not there because they believed in an alternative form of government or legitimacy, they were just trying to survive.

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 01/31/2012 - 7:27pm

In reply to by RandCorp

True enough, the government with the rule of law on its side can be a bit more subtle in its forced recruiting than the insurgent, who is by definition an outlaw no matter how noble his cause.

But to my point: If it is not political in purpose, and if the pursuit of those political ends are not illegal; and if this is not pursued by some distinct populace within a nation-state; then it is not "insurgency."

Before anyone should spend a great deal of time worrying about why various individuals "join" an insurgency, I believe it is very important to first gain a clear understanding of what differintiates an insurgency from other forms of illegal, populace-based movements.

Most aren't invovled at all, but get swept up in events at times. Some are followers. Fewer are leaders. It's politics. Most governments, (definitely the government formed from the Northern Alliance, dedicated to preserving a monopoly of Northern Alliance supremecy; and illegitimately installed by the US and sustained by NATO), are faced with such movements because they deny any effective legal options for political challenge from the segment of the populace the insurgency is coming from.

Don't put all the blame on the insurgent until you give him effective legal options and he fails to prevail upon the same. Those countries don't tend to have insurgencies though...particularly when the populace as a whole recognizes the right of that particular government to govern them ("legitimacy").


Tue, 01/31/2012 - 5:52pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

I am not familiar with any government which has recruiting Sargents who walk up to a potential recruit and place a gun to their head and say "You're a soldier now" and off you go to fight.

I do not dismiss "survivors, thugs, lost and ambitious" - in fact I believe they are the COG of the Afghan insurgency. Your claim that they - " are in every society, all the time." is perhaps where we diverge the most.

Dr Metz makes it very clear he is referring to individuals who are willing to kill to survive, bully people to death, kill in order to feel relatedness and kill for money and personnel gain. He is not referring to normal societal behaviour which you are alluding to.

I will quote Dr Metz again as I think it may help explain where we disagree -

"This is easier said than done as we Americans face a mental barrier of our own creation--we insist on approaching insurgency (and counterinsurgency) as a political activity. This entails a major dose of mirror imaging."

which I suggest is your position and

" It means that the true essence of insurgency is not political objectives, but unmet psychological needs."

which is mine and the good doctors'.


Robert C. Jones

Tue, 01/31/2012 - 3:12pm

In reply to by RandCorp

Governments also "recruit at the barrel of a gun" as often as not. And remember, the insurgents are not the insurgency any more than the soldiers are the war.

But those you dismiss as "survivors, thugs, lost and ambitious" are in every society, all the time. Do all of these engage in the illegal politics of insurgnecy any more than they do in the legal politics of stability? No. Do they seek opportunities and benefits within each? Certainly.

Not all challenges to states are insurgency, just as all diseases are not cancer. I hope, good doctor, you do not simply seek to lump all disease under a single heading that facilites the only cure in your little black bag. Dr. "War is War" always wants to show up with his bone saw and scalpel and start cutting, regardless of the disease he encounters.

When a handful within the military grab power in a Coup, it certainly was a challenge to government, but with no base in the populace is not insurgency and is cured with a different set of solutions.

When a small group outside of government grab power and wealth, as in Sierra Leone, again with little basis in the populace for their cause, it is not insurgency and is cured with a different set of solutions.

When a drug cartel grows rich and powerful until it converts a country into what is essentailly a criminal enterprise, that is all about profit and power and is not an insurgency and demands a different cure.

By distinguishing conflicts by criteria tied to the nature of their formation rather than to the character of their effects or the tactics employed, one gets to more effective approaches.

So, yes, I believe all fit within politics, legal or illegal. Just not all in the same way or for the same purposes; and in both most are happy to simply wait to see who wins and hope it does not affect them to severely.


Tue, 01/31/2012 - 2:28pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

I am having trouble understanding where the survivors, the thugs, the lost and the ambitious (greedy) fit into your political matrix. I understand where the aggrieved and the idealist fit into 'illegal politics' but as Dr Metz points out these people are rare. I would go further and suggest in a conflict such as in Af wherein the opponent has much more firepower, these highly motivated souls are quickly killed off. The old soldier's lament that "We wear the medals braver men died for." goes for the comrades of the insurgent as well - if not more so.

Dr Metz cites one example where 88% of the insurgents were recruited at the barrel of a gun - where does the political motivation kick in on that poor wretches motive cluster?


Robert C. Jones

Tue, 01/31/2012 - 8:47am

I largely agree with Dr. Metz on this, and have employed Maslow as an important tool in understanding insurgency for several years now. For those sent to far away lands, such as Iraq and Afghanistan for what are called "COIN" missions, the reality is primarily one of dealing with "insurgents" rather than with the insurgency as a whole. Maslow is not much help there. But it is when one backs up to the level where Americans and Westerners in general really struggle, and that is at the strategic level of understanding these problems for what they are, and then designing an overall construct that is most likely to lead to an enduring success. We have policy makers who think "the surge" of more troops, or the employment of pop-centric tactics, or a shift to a reliance on CT are all strategies. They aren't.

First it is important to appreciate that for a populace-based uprising to be an "insurgency" it must have two components:

1. It must be political in purpose. (not just in effect)

2. It must arise from a significant (not necessarily majority, but significant, even if just in a particular region of the state), distinct segment of the popualce. Most of whom will not be fighters, but are part of the insurgency all the same.

Now, as in all politics, some people run for office, and some people vote, and some sit on the fence. What motivates a person to run for office is very different than what motivates a person to vote for or endorse some candidate. In it's most basic form, insurgency is simply illegal politics.

Those who run for office, or opt to take leadership roles in an insurgency, are most likely primarily motivated by emotions that track with the higher end of Maslow's model. Many of those who endorse and support such candidates, or who lend their support to an insurgency in some capacity, are probably more likely to take a more fundamental perspective. But all agree that it is the current political system that is preventing them from attaining what it is they seek; and see that their best chance to improve their situation is by creating political change.

In America we are fortunate to have a legal construct for such political debate and competition; that for all its flaws, Americans generally trust in. We may debate hanging chads and birth cirtificates, but we've never had a President delay an election or refuse to honor the mandates of the Constitution and the American People. We think of this like we think of oxygen. No one notices until it isn't there; and then it becomes a matter you are willing to fight for.

Maslow is important for understanding insurgency. So is the appreciation of the fact that so much of Western study and writing on insurgency is written with a heavy bias and perspective of some foreign power seeking to sustain or change governance in some foreign land in ways designed to favor that foreign power. That is not a healthy perspective, and it skews our thinking on this.



In my neck of the woods, and I suspect in much of the developing world, survivors and thugs, and to a lesser but significant extent the lost and the ambitious, are more often found on the counterinsurgent side: army, police, paramilitary, armed groups associated with political or business interests. They have more scope for satisfying their needs there.

Fighting is dangerous and difficult business, especially fighting (as most insurgents do) against a larger, better funded, better armed enemy. It's always worth considering the possibility that anger, fear, or both are involved as significant motivators.

Nothing wrong with thinking about this stuff, but it's possible to overthink it. Sometimes people fight the government because the government is kicking them around, or because it's seen as an alien invader or representative thereof, or both. In these cases you don't need to look too far or too hard for motivation.

The town I live in went from general sympathy with insurgents to wholesale insurgency over a brief span in 1988, and was a hotbed for a decade after. The transition came when government troops killed 3 children in 2 incidents over a span of a few weeks. How much psychology does it take to figure out why people fight someone who kills their kids? Into what convenient bracket would you place people who fight because their children are being shot, or their farms and homes seized?


Tue, 01/31/2012 - 2:40pm

The strength of this article is the lack of political argument in the content of the message. If you spend much time with people who are attempting to avoid being killed by Special Forces it quickly becomes apparent how little politics and ideology is mentioned; let alone advocated as a subject of importance as to what kind of future you hope to have.

Though it is often mentioned that Westerners fail to identify an insurgents motives - the insurgents do not labour under this shortcoming and readily recognize the list of characters the author identifies in his article. He wrote -
" The best way to describe this is via a typology--a cast of characters if you will. I call them "the survivors," "the lost," "the thugs," "the ambitious," "the aggrieved," and "the idealists."

The defining characteristics are fairly self-explanatory (even to a Westerner) but I think it is important to note "the ambitious" is meant to describe those motivated by greed and personnel gain rather than a more noble calling such as to heal the sick, feed the hungry or be accredited with writing a new Field Manual.

The author draws attention to the fact that an individual may have several of these characteristics that may change over the passage of time or the changing of circumstance/situation. Once again this mystery may seem obscure to the Westerner but is rather obvious to the insurgent. There are two famous individuals who I believe represent a good argument as to the importance of recognizing ‘motive clusters.’

The first is Osama bin Laden. The excessive politeness, homily greetings, facial cosmetics , effeminate demeanour and insistence on speaking Koranic rather than modern Arabic defined him to the Afghans as the deluded messiah rather than the international terrorist mastermind his 'charismatic' disposition seemed to suggest to the Westerner. He no doubt had elements of ‘the idealist’ and “the aggrieved” as a result of the profanity of the presence of infidels in the ‘land of two mosques’ but the rather obvious saviour complex was his primary character trait.

In fairness the Afghan proverb "Behind every hill there is a king, behind every mountain there is a messiah." is not common western parlance (even in an election year) whereas in much of Asia and especially the sub-continent; every large market square, bus station, mosque, religious college etc has these deluded souls saving the world. Consequently the traits are readily recognised – especially if they are foreigners.

The twirling of the forefinger around the temple region was the usual Afghan response (albeit out of sight) rather than the supposed reverence oft captured by the media whenever the AQ entourage swept thru a room, garden, street etc. The common sentiment was as long as the money flowed in they could carry on with their circus as much as they liked.

It would surprise very few Afghans who met with him that he ended up sitting in a bare room watching videos of himself saving the world and guarded by women and children and a sleeping chowkidar.

The second individual who IMO has always been a much more important person to understand is Ayman al-Zawahir. You could not get a more different person from OBL. Complete absence of airs and graces and for an Arab quite boorish and direct in his conversation. Appeared to be very calculating and patient in his answers and listening. Very much “the idealist” and as much as his Muslim Brotherhood background would insist on it, he seemed to possess a genuine rage towards Israel and the plight of the Palestinians - enough for him to threaten a fellow guest which did not go down well with the host. However there is nothing ‘wide-eyed’ about ALZ and he seemed to be somewhat disappointed with the OBL ‘circus’.

This sense of dissatisfaction may have been the reason ALZ developed the one type of insurgent who is missing from the ‘cast of characters’ listed above – ‘the retard’. The individual who owing to a mental disability is deployed by AQ as a suicide bomber. No doubt ALZ’s medical background suggested vulnerable people with the appropriate handlers and pharmaceutical drugs could become unstoppable human bombs or more ‘idealistic’ like him.

He had a large entourage travelling with him and overhearing non-Arabic conversation I ventured over to a group of around twenty young men. All were non-Afghan – North Africans, French, Brits, and a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. The kid revealed he’d been homeless, abused etc and the ‘brothers’ back in New York saved him and he found Allah etc. They were delayed for a few hours owing to a air-strike and in watching them it became obvious they were all mentally disabled. It was if AQ had trawled the world for young vulnerable people and delivered them to the region to detonate them.

The Afghans suggested it was better to use foreigners as they didn’t have the family connections the local ‘retards’ were encumbered with. Though I would suggest that would not stop many being ‘volunteered’ for martyrdom.

So rather than a reflection of fanaticism and unshakeable resolve the suicide bomber – like his fellow travellers the lost, the survivor, the thug, the aggrieved and the idealist – is in fact a sign of weakness and desperation.


Gov't Mule

Mon, 01/30/2012 - 10:08am

Examining the motivations of insurgents can be useful, and kudos to the author for highlighting the issue of individual and cultural variations in motivation. But using another Western lens, and an overly simplistic one, in the form of Maslow's hierarchy is as limiting as other forms of mirror imaging. There are theories of motivation that are richer, more recent, and more supported by scientific evidence (see research by McClelland and McAdams, for example).

Stan Wiechnik

Mon, 01/30/2012 - 6:37am

I will reply in greater depth later but don't confuse my interest in the motivations of the insurgents with any attempt at a Hearts and Minds (HAM) campaign amongst the general population. If you are either a government or assisting a government who is involved in a HAM campaign amongst the general population you don't have an insurgency, you have a civil war. Worse yet, you probably already lost you are just too arrogant to see it.

You really only have three options in a political insurgency; concession and integration, long term suppression, and annihilation. As Dr. Metz points out by separating the motivations of the insurgents into groups helps to identify which different methods may be needed for members with different motivations.

I would also agree with Bill that security forces, or at least regular Infantry forces, are the wrong force to deal with the problem. You will need specialized forces to concentrate on that element that needs to be removed and you will need other forces to assist with the concessions and integration.

You need to understand the political motivations of the insurgents to work the political angle to solving the problem with that part of the insurgent population that can be reached. It is either that or 24/7 patrols to maintain your authority or killing off the entire insurgent population.

Mark O'Neill

Mon, 01/30/2012 - 8:01pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Hi Bill,

Sorry for what will ultimately be a short reply in terms of the multi-facted response your question demands, I am quite busy at the moment. You asked:

In summary do we fool ourselves with a proscriptive doctrine based on HAM?

My short answer is yes. I hope to elaborate fully when I can present some of my completed work in a few months.More to follow in time..

The issue you raise about the Host Nation government's attitudes is a real problem. It is a statement of the obvious perhaps, but a lot of the problem arises from what I would classify as 'poor strategic choices' by the intervening states ('second-party counterinsurgents') or, more often than not 'not making any strategic choices' (ie sliding into a situation without a sound strategy).

I will digress a bit to set up the rest of my response. We need to keep in mind what Douglas Blaufarb wrote in 'The Counterinsurgency Era' when (hopefully, before) we resort to hitting the 'default HAM paragdigm' button. Parapharsing: 1) the Host Nation government are not idiots - no matter what we may think of them, they were 'good enough' to rise amongst their peers to become the political elite of their society. 2) They know what the issues are. They simply do not want to , or cannot, do anything about it. (see point1). 3) When second-party counterinsurgents insist upon such reforms , they are indeed asking the HN political elite to put their head in the noose. If it (reform) were that easy, and at no risk to either their own status , safety or hold on power, the HN elites would have done it already.. once again , see point 1 above.

Back onto my point - here is where the rubber hits the road. You are essentially right when you suggest that if the HN government can't or will not change, then we / they are on the path to purgatory. Bingo. That is what one gets for making dumb strategic choices. As Colin S. Gray wrote, 'the impossible is not a condition. It is impossible.' Pick a fight that is intractable, you should not be surprised when it proves to be so.

In an environment where the HN government is in fact either vaguely democratic or even mildly reformist, and has some semblance of the rule of law,(as opposed to being aspirationally democratic in our dreams), we can demonstrate that effective counter-violence and counter-subversion conducted by counterinsurgents will ratchet up the costs to the insurgency, thus changing the insurgent's 'rational calculus' about the ongoing use of violence in their quest. I am not offering this as opinion, there is empirical evidence to support this in contemporary and historical case studies.

However, to borrow an apt recent US saying, 'you cannot put lipstick on a pig'. The fact is that if interventionist states (second -party counterinsurgents) make strategic choices that see them stuck with a non-reformist and or non-democratic HN partner, then we will see counter-violence and counter-subversion be effective insofar as attrition of insurgent capability, but ineffective in moves towards accommodation and reconciliation. But then again, so will anything else.

I argue that in instances such as this, my approach is still more effective than the HAM paradigm for interventionist states - as the HAM approach fails immediately at the point of a recalcitrant HN government without delivering any of the degradation of enemy capability. There is ample empirical data available to suggest that embarking upon the HAM strategy by second-party counterinsurgents in a situation where we have backed a 'dud' HN government through inept strategic choices actually contributes to a worsening situation with respect to legitimacy, corruption and subversion.

The bottom line is that we cannot expect counterinsurgency approaches (or any others) to render 'good' what are 'dumb' strategies or ideas (or make up for the lack of strategy). If we do remain committed to action with undemocratic or non-reformist HN , the evidence suggests that the approach I described still offers better outcomes for the intervening states' national interests than the HAM paradigm. That is crucial given that it is 'selfish' national interest that drives intervention in other people's wars, not altruism...

Once again,apologies for trying to accomodate some of the thinking from six years research and work into one post.



Bill M.

Mon, 01/30/2012 - 1:17am

In reply to by Mark O'Neill


Thank you for a thought provocative post. I definitely agree we tend to do poorly when we define the center of gravity as the population. Making this the core of the military's doctrine for COIN is one of the reasons in my view we have been less than successful in both Afghanistan and Iraq. It implies that our main effort should be trying to sell the superiority of our ideas while trying to underminine the ideas of our adversaries as a means to defeat the insurgent, yet this approach has repeatedly failed as you pointed out in your paragraph 3. We're the foreigners, our ideas are foreign, and they're not considered legitimate.

However, your point in paragraph 4 is less than clear. I am trying reconcile your point with Bob's World points about the population losing control of its government. In many cases the government we support will not allow a democratic system to emerge that will allow the adversaries to pursue their ends legally, so denying them their means to pursue their ends extralegally through violence and subversion will require another approach, one that will usually require a substantial use of force or the threat thereof.

The defeat mechanism for an insurgency varies based on the context of each conflict. It may be to target the means that the insurgents use to influence the population (fear, money, common goals)? But if the insurgents and select groups of the population have common goals, then does that imply the defeat mechanism must shift to political reforms? If the government refuses to reform, then does the defeat mechanism shift from political to military?

In summary do we fool ourselves with a proscriptive doctrine based on HAM?

Ken White

Sun, 01/29/2012 - 8:21pm

In reply to by Mark O'Neill

Truly excellent comment and a great summation. The only thought I can add is that this:<blockquote>"...funnily enough, security forces are not a bad tool to do that..."</blockquote>is quite true <i>but</i> it is necessary for said Forces to be correctly employed or much time, effort, money and many lives are certain to be wasted.

Such employment will not consist of having those Forces involved in social work, they are not and should not be organized, equipped and / or trained for it...

Whatever the motivations for an insurgency, the real key will almost always be the timeliness, methodology and effectiveness of the responding government and its allies. Force, as always, should be only used if there are no other options and then it will generally be found that well targeted application by small numbers with true expertise and competence are far superior to mass.

A mass of third party Forces is particularly inappropriate and if that third party is further seen as trying to overly interfere with a host nation, no good will come of it.

Mark O'Neill

Sun, 01/29/2012 - 6:10pm

Quote :For what it’s worth I think you are on the right path by looking at the motivations of insurgents as central to defeating them.

This comment captures the problem with the counterinsurgency paradigm inherent in contemporary Western military doctrine (FM3-24 / MCWP 3-33.5, AFM 10 and LWD 301 amongst other)and the 'Hearts and Minds' (HAM) approach (what Gian calls 'population centric COIN'.

Whilst my experience and research tells me that it rarely hurts to know as much as you can about your opponent, their motivations and methods, it does not logically follow that understanding their motivations is 'central' to defeating them.

This relates to what I think is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the problem that insurgency presents.Let us break this down:

1. The fact that people who form and organise insurgencies think differently / have different motivations and or political / social objectives to either the governing polity or normative society of their state is not a problem per se. I contend that every contemporary , modern society has people, many people often, who have different views and aims to their government. In many western liberal democracies such a right of dissent and the liberty to express such dissent is guaranteed by the constitution and / or a bill or rights. Legal dissent from the 'governing view' is rightly regarded as fair discourse and the life blood of democracy.

2. Insurgents take this dissent a step or two further and use violence and subversion. Herein lies the true nature of the insurgency 'problem'. It is not that they have different motivations: it is the fact that they adopt illegal ways and means to achieve their ends.

3. So we are presented with some options. Option One (the core of the HAM paradigm) is to attack and defeat the insurgent's motivation / political message / objective). This brings in a whole host of challenges that the inevitable default weapon in COIN (the security forces) is ill-equipped (and will generally always be so..)to handle. I contend that this has rarely, if ever worked (woudl like someoen to show me where..). And for all the nice rhetorical flourishes post 2003 about the inter-agency and all of the 'attention' supposedly paid to it, the primary COIN weapon of the US , UK and Australia in places like AFG remains... the security forces.

4. Option Two. Realise that the 'problem' is not dissent, but the means used to express it. Attack , deny, disrupt the use of violence and subversion. Accept dissent and create an appropriate political space for it. An insurgencies 'defeat mechanism' is not defeating their ideas, it is denying their abilty to use violence and subversion. And, funnily enough, security forces are not a bad tool to do that...

5. Of course, such an approach is contingent upon a truly democractic approach. By 'them' (the host nation) and 'us'. It runs the risk of exposing whta I sense is the hypocrisy at the heart of many western nation's 'democratisation' agendas. (What if 'they' elect Hamas/ the Taliban/the MB??....)Well, at least we will not have to cloak our opposition to other politcial ideals in the (inappropriate) cloak of counterinsurgency...

So the way ahead? I wrote in my Lowy Institute monograph ' Confronting the Hydra' a few years back that you cannot shoot ideas out of someone's head. That is both an obvious and enduring truism. But you can shape an insurgent's 'rational calculus' (apologies to C von C and Tom Manhken) to the point where she/he accepts that the use of violence and subversion to achieve that idea is an approach that is not worth the price...




Sat, 01/28/2012 - 12:32pm

This is a very comprehensive article and it is really a mystery of what goes on in the mind of someone who wants to join these insurgencies. It is more sad than anything but at some point we are all responsible for our own actions.

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There are always going to be radicals out there who feel somewhat left behind in society , those who do not understood <a href="">this info before signing up</a> and they may want to join some of the insurgencies.

Pepe LePew

Sat, 01/28/2012 - 4:27am

Interesting article, but some concerns:
Quite a bit of over-reliance on Maslow's hierarchy, which is somewhat problematic if that theory is flawed and not applicable to all civilizations or groups of humans.

I applaud the innovative position on this contemplation of COIN, but we need to steer clear of "applying psychology with some universal categorization" because that continues the limited psueudo-scientific procedure of reductionism and categorization. Humans adapt, and are tricky- hence irrational.

Or, to steal a page from Michael Caine's 'Alfred' in the new Batman series, "some men just want to watch the world burn." They essentially reject the hierarchy- or break the categorization in such a way that renders the process mute.

Great article and we've all been passing it around a bit. Some really interesting COIN insights.

Have you considered fleshing this out with a cognitive bias dimension? Seems many of the more empirical classifications could allow you some added granularity if you ever wanted to take this beyond broad categorization and into a non-lethal targeting arena. Would seem great for use in a matrix setting. Sort of a tangential leap into practical application, but I was curious.

Again, thanks for the article and thanks to SWJ for posting!

Stan Wiechnik

Fri, 01/27/2012 - 5:55pm

In reply to by Bill M.

I welcome the debate. I will caution you to be careful. There is a lot of "bad" sociology out there that is based on Marxist ideas about the structure of society. The concept being that the structure, which is based on materialistic ideals, alters the superstructure, or the realm of concepts and laws. According to Marx the powerful manipulated the superstructure to validate the structure that benefited them. It has not basis in psychology and realistically predates most of the modern theories on anthropology.

Likewise be careful of Weber's thoughts on legitimacy and the idea that you can manipulate which type of legitimacy a population will accept. This is a misreading of the idea as pointed out by Beetham.

Bill M.

Fri, 01/27/2012 - 5:38pm

In reply to by Stan Wiechnik


Good point, I'll have to go back to the drawing board and relook by thoughts on the ability of political system changes to effect social changes. My gut is telling me there are probably some examples where this was done effectively, but as you pointed out there definitely several examples of where this approach has failed. Like all things related to COIN, the dynamics are driven by an overall context, so even if we outlined a broad approach on this concept (political change leads to social change), the how it should be done (if it should) would vary greatly on context. I'm going to put some books off the shelf and look for examples. This is a debate well worth having.

Stan Wiechnik

Fri, 01/27/2012 - 2:07pm

In reply to by Bill M.

I largely agree with your comments but must disagree with your first point. You make the statement “All individuals make decisions based on their individual psychology, but their psychology is largely shaped by their social and political environment. If you change the social norms and political system you can change the psychology of individuals in it.” You can change political systems but you cannot change social norms. We changed the political systems in both Iraq and Afghanistan but we could not change the social norms that reject those political changes. We can force the population to conform to our selected social norms through force, but we cannot change social norms. The Soviet Union spent years trying to change the religious social norms in Russia. They could keep the people from openly practicing their religions but they could not destroy that social norm just like we cannot create liberalized social norms in Afghanistan.

Social norms are a reflection of the population’s values and values are the operationalization of people’s needs. That is why knowing what needs are motivating the population or a segment of it is critical. As Ronald Inglehart notes that where a people’s needs change their values change (although these changes are usually intergenerational). Satisfying one level of need causes the people to seek the next higher level. The result is a change in the value system that leads to a change in social norms that can lead to a change in political structures, violently if need be.

I guess I should make the caveat that while you can't directly change norms, you can directly change needs. For example, prior to 9/11 the U.S. was happily plodding along with the majority of people feeling that their need for relatedness was satisfied and they were working on autonomy. Immediately after 9/11 fear caused the population to give a little and concern itself more with relatedness. The result was a surge in nationalism and a willingness to give up some of the liberal rights associated with autonomy. Continued fear over time could have resulted in an even greater nationalistic leaning and more rights being set aside. My point is that the motivation to make these changes come from our needs which result in a change in our values and norms.

Bill M.

Fri, 01/27/2012 - 12:53pm

Psychological motivation is a critical factor, and as the author stated Maslow’s theory is overly simplistic, because people do not always pursue physiological and safety above all else, but willingly sacrifice those to pursue higher psychological and spiritual needs. Others will pursue excess as a way to meet their psychological needs (who dies with the most toys wins). I agree that the actual motivation of individuals can vary considerably, but to claim that the political status may be irrelevant is a bit of a reach. All individuals make decisions based on their individual psychology, but their psychology is largely shaped by their social and political environment. If you change the social norms and political system you can change the psychology of individuals in it.
That doesn’t mean that changing the political system will necessarily address the motivating drivers of the insurgency or insurgents, so I agree with the author that approach can be too simplistic. One point the author touches on indirectly is the power of identity (again largely influenced by your social standing whether as a student, gang member, soldier, insurgent, or terrorist). Once you assume that identity, that identity can trump the reasons you originally joined a particular identity group, so now the underlying conditions for those in the groups have changed. Soldiers and Marines should understand this.

The author makes a great point about our assumption that “the purpose of a political system is to reconcile competing interests, priorities, and objectives. From this vantage point, we see insurgency as a form of collective, goal-focused activity that comes about when nefarious people exploit the weaknesses of a political system”. Insurgencies are rarely a single collective addressing a specific set of grievances. I think he is right that the true essence is unmet psychological needs versus political, but why can’t those unmet psychological needs in some cases be addressed by political changes that change the social environment, which in turn change individual’s psychology?

Even if he doesn’t say it, he clearly points out that our doctrine that is largely fixated on economic development (with the build phase of clear, hold, build being decisive) is flawed. Motivation related to identity, self-discipline, empowerment, prestige, and meaning are not going to be addressed with simplistic development programs that try to tie the populace to the government. They don’t want to be tied to the government in many cases, so our pursuit of a stronger government will in many cases result in a stronger resistance. The assumption that all people are so simple that they can be bribed to support the government we’re supporting with economic development has been proven to be incorrect. It is time to move beyond the clear, hold and build approach to COIN and pursue a better understanding of the real drivers of conflict. What are the solutions for peacefully integrating different identity groups? That is the problem to be solved, not necessarily making the government stronger, unless the objective is to empower the government to maintain power by suppressing its population. That is a method, and that method at times may serve our interests, but it is not “the” method we should base our doctrine on.

Outlaw 09

Fri, 01/27/2012 - 10:12am

While an interesting article it totally misses the core issue.

Having spent an inordinate amount of time talking with Iraqi insurgents about their own drivers we as Westeners cannot get into their mindset as we oursleves were never actual insurgents. Some of us do "understand" as we came from that world in the 60s and 70s but we are a dying breed.

The article misses a critical point that is inherent in both the Shia and Sunni insurgent groups---take a look at all of their released battle videos and IO videos---check out the imagery as expressed in the language, the culture, the religious, and the music---that is what drives the groups.

Regardless of the reason for joining---which is secondary in nature---the above values are at the core.

West Point CTC published in March 2006 The Islamic Imagery Project-Visual Motifs in Jihadi Internet Propaganda---it was totally overlooked in 2006 and is still overlooked in 2012.

Until we Westeners are willing to ignor the term propaganda when viewing their videos and until we are willing to totally immerse ourselves as individuals into the realm of imagery we will never "understand" the global Salafi jihad movement. Begs the question are we willing to do that?

By the way it also applies to IO/battle videos being released by the TB and related groups.


Fri, 01/27/2012 - 9:38am

How about economics? When you don't have a job what are you going to do?
The Taliban pay their people better than most jobs do. You can throw your morals and values out of the window. Self preservation is number one.

Furthermore, the TB as you know threaten many of these people to become insurgents. For example, if you don't do this, we will kill your family.
Violence, fear and intimidation is what the TB is made of, thugs and criminals. Therfore, I'm seeing a gang like mentality or even organized crime when dealing with the TB.

Currently, I serve as a Mentor/Advisor to the Afghan National Police.
I work on with the police on security side of COIN and Foreign Internal Defense.

Stan Wiechnik

Fri, 01/27/2012 - 9:09am

For what it’s worth I think you are on the right path by looking at the motivations of insurgents as central to defeating them. I also believe that Maslow’s hierarchy is the correct foundation for the theory. My comments have to do with how you broke down higher and lower level motivations and what seemed like a belief that the higher level motivations have a stronger pull than the lower level ones.

Modern motivational theory uses different terms for some of the needs that can be fit into Maslow’s categories. One of the psychological needs that I feel is critical in political situations is relatedness. It is the need to feel like you are part of a larger group. This need is central to the ideas like tribalism and would fall into the lower level needs. It can be a very powerful need. A person who is trying to satisfy this need will do whatever necessary to be part of that group. Needs are also tied to values. The value structure of a group brought together by the relatedness places the needs of the group above the needs of the individual.

Westerners tend to discount this need and its related motivations. They assume that anyone who is a member of a group like this that does not really believe that the needs of the group outweigh their individual needs. They must be brainwashed or being kept in the group by force. That must be the case because westerners are driven by the need for autonomy, a higher level psychological need. Do not assume that everyone is motivated by the drive for autonomy or that anyone who is a member of a group that does not believe in individual freedom is being forced into that group.

From a political perspective, the line between autonomy and relatedness equated roughly to the distinction between liberal and non-liberal political legitimacy. Liberalism is built almost exclusively on the rights of the individual (autonomy) while non-liberal forms of legitimacy include both rights and duties (relatedness). Liberal forms of legitimacy need no example. Non-liberal forms that include things like African Communitarianism which is built both on the rights of the individual as well as their duties to each other. Political bodies transitioning across this line will probably experience revolution or at least instability.