New Research Centre on Armed Groups

About the author(s):

Dr Florian Weigand is Co-Director of the Centre on Armed Groups and a Research Associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research focuses on conflict zones, borderlands and other complex environments, how they function and are governed. Florian is the author of 'Waiting for Dignity: Legitimacy and Authority in Afghanistan' (Columbia University Press, 2022) and 'Conflict and Transnational Crime: Borders, Bullets & Business in Southeast Asia' (Edward Elgar, 2020). He also is the co-editor of the 'Routledge Handbook of Smuggling' (Routledge, 2021).

Ashley Jackson

Dr. Ashley Jackson is the author of “Negotiating Survival: Civilian-Insurgent Relations in Afghanistan” (Hurst & Co./OUP, 2021),  co-director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups and an Associate Researcher with the Conflict, Security and Development Research Group at King's College London. Her research focuses on engagement with armed groups, and she has written on these and related issues for Foreign Policy, NY Times, Washington Post, and others. She holds a PhD from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.

 

Pascal Bongard is Co-Director of the Centre on Armed Groups and Humanitarian Research Scholar with the Fordham University’s Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs. He has extensive experience in humanitarian engagement with armed groups and has published widely on the issue. He was a Co-Investigator of the research project https://words2deeds.org/ on armed groups’ practice and interpretation of international humanitarian norms. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics and an MSc in International Relations from the Geneva Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

After two years of incubation within the London-based think tank ODI, the Centre on Armed Groups has now been established as an independent organization in Geneva, Switzerland. The Centre aims to support efforts to reduce violence and end armed conflict. It does this through conducting innovative research on armed groups, creating safe spaces for dialogue and learning, and providing advice on engagement with armed groups. The Centre has built a wide network of experts, practitioners, and analysts, who cover now more than 50 armed groups across 30 countries as well as a range of thematic areas, such as Islamic law and humanitarian access. 

Armed groups, from Islamist insurgencies in the Sahel to gang violence in the Americas, play an increasingly important role in global security issues. Some 175 million people are estimated to live in areas controlled by armed groupsThe number of non-international armed conflicts has more than doubled since the early 2000s and there are more armed groups to contend with. Today, there are an estimated 500 to 600 armed groups globally which the ICRC designates as “of humanitarian concern”. As we have seen in Libya and Syria, armed groups are also more prone to fragmentation, which makes them more difficult to engage and make peace with. 

The nature of armed groups is changing, so must our approach to dealing with them. Current approaches are, too often, based on flawed understandings of armed groups. Part of the problem lies in the lack of evidence-based research. Moreover, many actors are ill-equipped to engage with armed groups and lack guidance to support staff on the ground. 

The Centre aims to address these gaps. Our 2023-2025 strategy – Armed Groups in a Changing World – outlines the Centre’s approach to better understanding and engaging with armed groups, amid an increasingly fractious geopolitical order. Priority areas of research include understanding civilian-armed groups relations, armed groups’ practice and interpretation of international humanitarian norms, and armed group economies. 

Understanding agency in civilian-armed group interactions

Within both the academic and policy literature, civilians are rarely seen as having significant influence over armed actors, or over conflict dynamics more broadly – but that is starting to change. This joint paper with ODI kicks off a broader project exploring civilian-armed group relations, and the implications for policy and programming. The paper urges to think of ‘civilians’ and ‘armed groups’ as diverse, fluid and overlapping categories, and refocus our attention on how civilians exercise agency. It concludes by outlining a social capital-based framework for understanding these dynamics. Field research in Somalia, Myanmar and Mali will test and build on this framework.

Within our work on civilian-armed group relations, the Centre is also exploring the implications for civilian protection. The relationship between armed groups and local populations is often portrayed as either predatory or symbiotic. However, local populations are not just passive actors in conflict and armed groups do not only exploit and abuse civilians. Humanitarian and peace actors increasingly recognise the need for a shift in approaches to humanitarian protection, and consideration of how civilian engagement strategies can be supported, or at the very least not undermined. In the last edition of Humanitarian ExchangeCentre co-director Pascal Bongard, together with Centre fellow Leigh Mayhew, as well as Gemma Davies and Veronique Barbelet, provides an overview of the state of evidence and practice with regard to community engagement with armed actors for protection, prevention and peace. The article summarises the outcome of a scoping exercise by Humanitarian Policy Group as part of the first phase of two years of research focusing on community engagement with armed actors for self-protection. In the same edition, Centre co-director Ashley Jacksonfocus on the case of Afghanistan and discusses the dilemmas faced by civilians living in Taliban areas pre-August 2021, and the tactics people used to resist and renegotiate the terms of Taliban control. In interviews with Centre fellow Carla Rutacivil society representatives from Cameroon, Iraq and Lebanon look back on several years of engagement with armed groups on community protection, highlighting different approaches and strategies as well as the risks and challenges associated with implementing them.

Another important aspect of civilian-armed group relationship is legitimacy, specifically how armed groups seek to create it and what shapes how ordinary people determine whether an authority is ‘legitimate.’ In his new book, Waiting for Dignity: Legitimacy and Authority in Afghanistan, Centre co-director Florian Weigand investigates how legitimacy is built and lost in armed conflict. Drawing on 500 interviews, he examines the perspectives of ordinary people in Afghanistan as well as those of rival claimants to authority: insurgents, warlords, members of parliament, security forces, and community leaders. 

Armed groups’ practice and interpretation of international humanitarian norms

Despite a well-established field of study on compliance to norms in international law, we know relatively little about how non-State armed groups perceive international humanitarian norms and act upon them. Centre co-director Pascal Bongard, Centre fellow Annyssa Bellal and Dr Ezequiel Heffes recently wrapped up a major research project that shed light on the practice and interpretation of ten core humanitarian norms by armed groups. Funded by UK Innovation and Research, the project was the result of a collaboration by a diverse set of institutions, including the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, the American University in Cairo, Geneva Call, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Diakonia International Humanitarian Law Centre. 

Based on several case-studies, the project’s comparative summary analysis shows that most groups studied, including some Islamist groups, have engaged on humanitarian issues, albeit to various degrees and backgrounds; that some thematic international rules are more accepted than others; and that many groups have gone further to their obligations under IHL, such as committing to prohibit the use of anti-personnel mines or the recruitment of persons below the age of 18, indicating support to a growing trend towards norms which are not yet considered international customary law. The study also shows that engagement with ANSAs in a dialogue towards respect for IHL can lead to positive outcomes for the protection of civilians. Centre co-director Pascal Bongard authored the case-study on the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) in Mali while Centre co-director Ashley Jackson and Centre fellow Rahmatullah Amiri, co-authored the case-study on the Afghan Taliban

Armed groups and economy

Armed groups exert significant economic power, but this is often seen in terms of illicit economies and criminality. This means that many features of how armed groups seek to regulate economic activity are often overlooked. One of this is taxation. Together with the International Centre for Tax and Development (ICTD) at the University of Sussex, the Centre has conducted extensive research on how and why armed group tax. Our research shows that taxation is a major source of income for armed groups. However, taxation is not only about generating revenue. In addition, taxation enables armed groups to reinforce their ideology, to project authority, and to develop institutions and build legitimacy. This makes taxation a powerful tool for exercising control over civilian populations. The two Centres will continue their partnership in 2023 to gain a more empirically grounded understanding of armed group taxation. This stream of work includes a workshop on “Roadblocks and Revenues”, held on 15-17 May 2023 at the Danish Institute for International Studies in Copenhagen.

Armed groups and peace

Finally, the Centre on Armed Groups has been exploring the perspective of armed groups on peace processes. Being a stakeholder of the Principles for Peace (P4P) initiative, the Centre has conducted research on how armed groups perceive peace processes, how conflict transformation has to be designed from their point of view and what they think the international community needs to do differently. The research, which fed into P4P’s Peacemaking Covenant, showed that armed groups expect the international to be engaged more sustainably. In particular, they criticised the rapidly increasing and decreasing international interest in specific peace processes and the high turnover of staff – demanding more continuity that enable the building of trust relationship.

For further details on the Centre’s work, see www.armedgroupscentre.org

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