How Governments Influence Competition between Militant Groups

By Justin Conrad and William Spaniel

When Algeria descended into violence in the 1990s, two militant groups – the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS) and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) – competed for supremacy of the rebel movement. The competition between the two groups, in fact, became a major source of violence during the Civil War. Similarly, competition between Irish republican groups appears to have influenced their use of violence during the Troubles. The Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) assassination of Lord Mountbatten, for instance, may have been a response to increasing competition from the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA).

While both cases involved militant groups using violence in response to competition, there is one notable difference. The Algerian government, despite signing a truce in 1997 with the various militant factions in the conflict, failed to effectively end the groups’ recruitment efforts. As a result, competitive violence among these groups continued to plague the country. In Northern Ireland, on the other hand, government enforcement measures – the use of informants, in particular – played a key role in reducing terrorist recruitment levels, and ultimately, the level of violence. Despite competitive violence among militant groups in both conflicts, government enforcement and counter-recruitment policies appear to have influenced the violence in one case, but not the other.

The idea that militant groups might use violence in response to increased political competition is not a new concept. Political scientists have dubbed this behavior as “outbidding”: when groups face greater levels of competition, they may use public displays of violence to differentiate themselves from one another. Potential recruits and supporters constitute the “audience” for such violence. But much of the existing outbidding literature assumes competition among groups occurs in a vacuum, largely ignoring the role of an important strategic actor: the government. Not only is the government the ostensible target of the groups’ political violence, but it also potentially has the power to influence their recruitment processes.  Government efforts to intercept or discourage volunteers should logically undermine the outbidding process. Fewer potential recruits means fewer incentives to use violence to attract those recruits. On the other hand, ineffective government enforcement can create additional opportunities to use violence in an effort to outbid each other.

In our study, “Competition, Government Enforcement and Political Violence,” we explore these strategic dynamics with a model of outbidding that explicitly incorporates the government and its capability to police militant group recruitment efforts. We derive expectations from our model that support the classic outbidding hypothesis: more groups should result in more violence overall (see Figure 1: there is more aggregate violence when there are 4 active groups than when there are 2). However, the additional amount of violence is smaller when the government is better at enforcement.

Government's Marginal Cost of Enforcement
Figure 1

We subsequently test this expectation using data on terrorist violence from the Global Terrorism Database and a variety of measures capturing the relative costs of government enforcement. Figure 2 shows one set of results that captures the basic argument. Each line in the graph represents the predicted number of terrorist attacks a state will experience when there is a specific number of active groups (0, 1, 2, 3, and 4 groups). Again, more groups are associated with higher predicted counts of terrorist attacks. But the effect is clearly influenced by the relative costs of government enforcement (here, measured as the government’s relative political reach). As the number of groups increases and competition becomes particularly intense, we see lower enforcement costs having a pacifying effect on the amount of violence the state experiences. These effects are highly robust to a number of specifications and measures.


Figure 2
Figure 2


The results of the study offer an additional insight: they help refute an alternative to the outbidding hypothesis. The outbidding thesis suggests that more groups lead to more violence because of competitive pressure. But any evidence of this effect would be consistent with an alternative explanation: when there are greater levels of grievances among the population, more people will be willing to both join groups and commit violence. This line of argument, however, does not predict the interactive effect that our study identifies. In other words, we provide evidence that groups do indeed engage in competitive violence while also providing evidence that the government can influence these dynamics.

The lessons for counterterrorism policy are fairly straightforward. Conventional wisdom in academic and policy circles often recommends an “enemy of my enemy” approach where states play factions off one another to undermine their capability to use violence. Our analysis, however, provides additional support for the outbidding thesis that increased competition can lead to more violence. And we identify specific conditions under which this violence is most likely to occur. In a new study presented at the 2018 MPSA conference, one of the authors used original data on intergroup competition to provide additional insight into how group violence is determined by concerns about direct competitors as well as broader concerns about the conflict environment. Ultimately, this line of research suggests that while groups may frequently outbid one another with violence, there is much more to the story than previously imagined.

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearchAbout the Authors: Justin Conrad is Associate Professor of Political Science at UNC Charlotte. His research on intergroup competition is funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation. William Spaniel is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh. Conrad and Spaniel received the Best Paper in International Relations for their study, “Competition, Government Enforcement, and Political Violence,” presented at the 2017 MPSA conference.