RAND Researchers Investigate the New Face of Insurgency

During the Cold War, state support or sponsorship of insurgencies was a common instrument of foreign policy for Washington and Moscow. The United States, for example, used the Nicaraguan contras as part of its policy to contain (and roll back) communism, while the Soviet Union backed communist guerillas in countries such as Angola and Greece to further its influence. Regional powers also recognized the utility of insurgencies to promote their interests.

Although Washington and Moscow no longer spend the hundreds of millions of dollars they once did in funding such foreign policy ventures, insurgencies have continued and in some cases grown -- at least 74 have continued or emerged in the last decade. Moreover, state sponsors, including Iran, Rwanda, Angola, and Pakistan, still back insurgents, though these countries devote far smaller amounts of money and resources to their proxies. Diasporas (immigrant communities established in foreign countries) are also playing a growing role in sustaining several strong insurgencies, as do other non-state actors such as refugees and Islamist movements.

Five RAND authors have collaborated on a new publication, Trends in Outside Support for Insurgent Movements, in which they analyze the changes in the nature of outside support for insurgencies since the end of the cold war. Their report indicates that while state support for insurgencies has remained important in the past decade, the vast majority of state support came from regional neighbors rather than from global superpowers. Examples of the type of aid that states offer include arms, money, and materiel; safe havens to organize and train; and diplomatic assistance, including representation for the insurgents' cause in international forums. Frequently, state support is provided for geopolitical reasons rather than for ethnic or religious rationales.

Diasporas have provided important support during the past decade. Unlike states, diasporas provide more reliable funding and tend to refrain from seeking control of insurgent movements. More importantly, diasporas are largely motivated by ethnic affinity. Overseas communities often feel sympathy for the struggles of their kin back home, and they may also feel a sense of guilt that they are not helping out the cause in a more direct manner. Diasporas, however, cannot offer the same kinds of diplomatic and physical support that state sponsors provide.

One of the most important forms of support a state can provide, ironically, is passive acceptance of diaspora activism. Immigrant communities and other interested outsiders often openly raise money, distribute propaganda, and aid an insurgency's cause with little interference from a host government, even when that host government generally opposes the insurgency. Shutting down diaspora support requires action by their government hosts, but these hosts often have difficulty differentiating between non-insurgent immigrants and activists. It remains relatively easy for many illicit organizations to operate abroad, particularly within democratic states, where concerns about civil liberties, diaspora political pressure, and other factors have led to a de facto toleration for insurgent fundraising activities. Two important policies to monitor, therefore, are the host government's willingness to police immigrant communities actively, and the host society's willingness to assimilate immigrants. When diasporas are allowed and invited to assimilate into their adopted countries, links with their homeland and associated identification with the objectives of insurgents may well diminish.

Other non-state actors have begun to play important roles in fostering and sustaining insurgencies, such as religious organizations, wealthy individuals, foreign guerrilla movements, and even human rights groups. Of these other non-state actors, refugees often provide the most significant form of non-state support. They provide manpower for insurgent organizations, particularly in the aftermath of mass population upheaval and displacement. The Taliban, for example, was formed among displaced Afghans and seminary students in Pakistan. Refugees are generally motivated by a powerful desire to regain their homeland or to restore their nation's influence.

The value of outside support depends on, among other things, the requirements of the insurgency, its ability to acquire what it needs domestically, and the strength of the state it is fighting. Safe havens, money, political support, and direct military aid are important forms of support that insurgencies receive. Training may also be valuable in the early days of an insurgency. Supporters may also provide weapons, volunteers, intelligence, and organizational advice. Assistance from external sponsors produces costs as well as benefits for the insurgents, however. Foreign manpower can lead to a loss of nationalist credibility; a large influx in money can lead to corruption; and, more broadly, external aid can decrease an insurgent movement's freedom of action.

Understanding insurgent struggles since the end of the Cold War requires recognizing the changing agendas and limited means of state sponsors, the possible increase in the role of diasporas, and the rise of other nonstate backers. This recognition includes understanding that not all outside actors are equally important -- that their impact varies according to the needs of the insurgent movement and the context of its struggle. It requires understanding that the traditional, country-based focus in assessing insurgencies is no longer valid. And finally, it requires understanding the importance of passive support - that besides tracking the flow of arms, money, volunteers, and other active forms of support, analysts must also look at what is not done in host countries that allows diasporas and other interested outsiders to operate freely.


The research for this publication was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center (ISDPC) of RAND's National Security Research Division (NSRD). NSRD conducts research and analysis for a broad range of clients, including the U.S. Department of Defense, allied foreign governments, the intelligence community, and foundations.