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Theorising Rebellion

Lieutenant Geoffrey Godkin of Mentoring Task Force - Four observes the Tangi Valley from a high point while on patrol with the Afghan National Army.

A Framework for Irregular Warfare

Australia has a long history with insurgency and considers its experience in Phuoc Tuy, Vietnam and Uruzghan, Afghanistan, as examples evidencing a reputation as a world leader in this space. An innate capability for insurgency and irregular warfare would seem logical given the frequency of insurgency in our region; almost all South-East Asian nations have experienced insurgency since World War II.[1] Despite this context and recent operational experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, to uncritically assert that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is a world leader in countering insurgency is dogma that is unhelpful.[2]

The Defence Strategic Update (DSU) 2020 pivots the ADF from such operations. A common refrain is that it directs away from what some have termed the ‘distraction’ of the post-9/11 era and towards preparation for major combat operations.[3] This is an incomplete narrative. The Cold War era demonstrated that major power competition manifests in the ungoverned and under-governed fringes; the proxy conflicts that manifest through support to irregular groups ranging from the Viet Minh to the Provisional Irish Republican Army. The reality is that we need to be able to respond across the spectrum of conflict.

Today, irregular competitions ‘remain and are expanding’.[4] The Pashtun insurgency came to its fateful conclusion in August 2021; al-Qaeda has been degraded but not defeated, with affiliates now stretching from the Philippines to West Africa; the Syrian Civil War approaches a decade in duration, with no end in sight; post-Cold War popular revolutions characterised as ‘Colour Revolutions’ were recently seen in Venezuela and Belarus; Russia continues to leverage private military companies, outlaw motorcycle gangs and the ‘Novorussia’ narrative to leverage Russian-speaking minorities in pursuit of Russian strategic objectives in the Ukraine and elsewhere; and China leverages its Maritime Militia and State-Owned Enterprises (SOE) to advance national interests.[5] Rather than being ‘distracted’, the ADF learned prescient lessons over its past two decades of fighting non-state armed groups. The very efficacy of such groups in exhausting Western powers points to the leverage that can be generated through state sponsorship of proxies. Such lessons must therefore now be organised into new thinking about Irregular Warfare in today’s digital age.

This essay seeks to codify such lessons in order to reinvigorate Australian strategic thinking about the challenges of Irregular Warfare—the first shots towards expanding thinking about today’s challenges. In this essay, I firstly introduce a broad framework for understanding Irregular Warfare, before articulating a theory for examining the facets of irregular conflicts—a model termed the ‘Triangle of Rebellion’. This theory is then applied to the example of foreign fighter mobilisation in North Africa to practically illuminate how the Triangle of Rebellion might assist policymakers in understanding irregular challenges.

  1. Introduction—A Framework for Irregular Warfare

Analysis of Irregular Warfare is complicated by language. The term implies infrequency, and perhaps then being of marginal interest to the military practitioner. This view is incorrect: indeed, David Kilcullen argued almost a decade ago that the exact opposite is true. Of 464 conflicts in the Correlates of War database from 1815 to 2010, 385 might be classified as irregular conflicts, making it the most frequent form of conflict.[6]

Irregular War is better described by firstly describing regular war — war conducted by regulation.[7] The regulations we mean are those of the Treaties of Westphalia that underpin our conceptions of the central role of the nation-state in international affairs and the Weberian norm of states’ rights to a monopoly of violence within their territory.[8] Consequently, Irregular Warfare is that which is conducted outside the regulations of international relations. This definition centres upon the employment of violence by non-state armed groups, and therefore incorporates groups that might be termed terrorists, guerrillas, revolutionaries, insurgents, militias and Mafiosi. Furthermore, this definition illuminates the importance of irregular actors; they erode the Westphalian norms that underpin the rules-based global order.

Doctrinally, the US military defines Irregular Warfare as ‘a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations’.[9] The keyword struggle points towards this form of warfare being a contest, amplified by the words legitimacy and influence, where the contest is for the people rather than for terrain. In recent years, the lazy lexicon of terrorism has degraded our focus on governance and the representation of a target population, to instead seeing a targeting problem. In so doing, it has desensitised Western militaries to the root causes of violence that exist within a population. This terrorism lexicon has in turn resulted in repeated Western surprise at Salafi-jihadist insurgent mobilisation, from Jemaah Islamiyah striking in Bali to Islamic State winning Mosul.[10] This idea that we might reconceive all forms of non-state actor radicalisation, including that of terror, through the lens of irregular mobilisation is an important reframing of the problem that was noted by Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko’s study of the 19th century Russian terrorist group, Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will).

It is possible that the mechanisms of political radicalisation identified here may be general mechanisms of collective action, operating not just in mobilising for political conflict but for any kind of collective mobilisation in which self-interest is lost in or joined with some larger group or cause.[11]

Mobilisation of irregular groups occurs through a structural framework of an underground, an auxiliary, a public component and an armed component. The armed component might be considered the cells which perpetrate terrorist acts. The public component is that which engages in overt politics, an example being the public services components and the Lebanese politicians working for Hizbollah. The underground, the ‘support’ elements of logistics, intelligence, command and control. The auxiliary, the part-time or co-opted support such groups draw to the cause. The ratio of these ‘support structures’—the underground, auxiliary and public components—to the armed component varies between 50:50 and 90:10 but support will generally be approximately 80 per cent of the organisation.[12] The auxiliary has a low ‘barrier to entry’, often consisting of passive assistance. The underground requires active assistance. Thus, a hierarchical ‘staircase’ of increasing radicalisation to a cause is reflected through its structural components. [13]

The recognition of this structural fact highlights the incomplete nature of our current paradigm: why do we focus on the minority 20 per cent and not on the majority 80 per cent who provide the weapons, intelligence, indoctrination, training, safe-houses and propaganda that are needed for a ‘terror’ act that contributes to the insurgency? With this mindset and lexicon, I now continue by exploring the variables that influence how irregulars are mobilised and hypothesise a model I provisionally term the ‘Triangle of Rebellion’. This hypothetical model affords insight into understanding how irregulars are energised by mobilising narratives.

  1. The Triangle of Rebellion Model

The origins of the Triangle of Rebellion model lie with the following quotation as a metaphor pertaining to the study of terrorism:

[T]he researcher should not confuse his role. His role is not to ‘fight’ the terrorist fire; rather than a ‘firefighter’ he should be a ‘student of combustion …[14]

The model begins by using this analogy. The combustion triangle illuminates that a fire requires heat, fuel and oxygen within which it can exist and indeed, depending upon the ratio of the three variables, thrive. As firefighters well know, take away any one component of the triangle, and the fire may be suppressed. The combustion triangle and my hypothetical triangle of rebellion are shown pictorially below.

The Triangle of Rebellion model
Figure 1: The Triangle of Rebellion model

Relative deprivation is the heat that sustains the rebellion; organisation is the fuel that sustains, directs and expands the cause; and competition for control over the population is the oxygen that sustains the flame of rebellion. A competition for control escalates a non-violent grievance into popularly supported violence, captures international media attention and sympathy, and serves to desensitise a population to violence. The spark of a suitable incident reverberates within the echo chamber of these pillars, intensifying pre-existing narratives into populist narratives that ignite rebellion. Akin to an oil refinery, the heat of an effective narrative carries aloft with the winds of hope, to ever increasing grades, those for whom that narrative resonates and those who believe that change is possible (as per Figure 2 below). At a low commitment threshold, there are those who acquiesce and thus turn a blind eye to the insurgent organisation in their midst—the phenomenon of a spiral of silence. At increasing commitment thresholds of belief, people join auxiliary and underground support networks, some rising to become those at a very high threshold, who radicalise to a suicidal commitment to the cause. Of note is that those radicalised to a suicidal commitment are the vast minority; a considerably larger number of those sympathetic to rebellion constitute the auxiliary and underground components, many of whom are likely to be reconcilable.[15] These components of the model will now be examined in turn.

The Holistic Triangle of Rebellion model
Figure 2: The holistic Triangle of Rebellion model
  1. Relative Deprivation

The Syrian-born Abu Ibrahim, who worked in Islamic State’s intelligence offices in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, noticed that ‘religion was not the main engine for most of the fighters he met, but desperation’.[16] Desperation was also a characteristic facet of James C. Scott’s study of peasant rebellion in south-east Asia.[17] These ideas of desperation as a mobilising function – relative to a particular component to society - builds upon Ted Gurr’s robust analysis in Why Men Rebel, and thus is viewed as a broadly applicable concept across Irregular Warfare.[18]

David Sterman and Nate Rosenblatt of New America found that:

… fighters from North Africa were socioeconomically underprivileged and came from regions characterised by a lack of access to economic and political power … [however], ISIS fighters from the Arabian Peninsula were relatively better off and came from regions with closer links to political elites.[19]

Contrary to a popular narrative, terrorism is not a dynamic of poverty; Alan Krueger and Maleckova Jitka, for example, find that individuals with higher incomes and higher education levels are slightly more likely to join a terrorist group.[20] These findings highlight how different grievances exist, several of which can yield a radicalising effect.

The case of Belgian foreign fighters for Islamic State further illuminates that grievances are an insufficient reason to explain a mobilising dynamic. ‘By March 2013 … an estimated 70 Belgian youngsters were then said to be in Syria.’[21] Belgian-Moroccans are significantly overrepresented in this group, accounting for up to four-fifths of Belgium’s foreign fighters.[22] For Belgian-Moroccan families, the gap between natives and immigrants (from outside the European Union) in terms of employment and education is higher than anywhere else in Europe, and they are therefore overrepresented in the lower rungs of most socio-economic categories (unemployment, housing, health, education).[23] That Belgian-Moroccans feel themselves unfairly ostracised by the Belgian community is a logical conclusion. Similar findings likewise characterise Dutch foreign fighters for Islamic State.[24] Indeed, ‘the average fighter at the time of joining ISIS was 26 to 27 years old, single, had travelled to less than two foreign countries, had the education equivalent of a high school degree’[25]—all variables which suggest a frustration with their limited opportunities compared to their expectations.

It is therefore key to note that Gurr’s thesis argued that what mattered was relative deprivation, not absolute deprivation. Indeed, the interpretation of what form a deprivation may take, as shown in these examples, is inherently subjective—it might be simply a perceived lack of excitement or status, thereby motivating an individual to seek risky activities quite divorced from ideological considerations.[26]

  1. Organisation

Mobilising recruits requires an organisation which provides the strategy, propaganda, safe houses, transport, funding, weapons and intelligence needed to undertake operations. Such organisation takes time and energy to build, but also exposes the organisation to suppression by government security forces. In early phases, trust is essential. This recognition was examined in detail by Paul Staniland, who concluded his study of insurgent organisation by noting: ‘Insurgent groups are built by mobilising pre-war politicized social networks’.[27]

Staniland found several different models of organisation that might be adopted depending on the broader environmental context.[28] In certain groups, such as Jemaah Islamiya, ‘these relationships were formed predominantly through common attendance at madrassahs, mosques, and religious study groups … and, later, through kinship ties’.[29] It has been identified not only that pre-conflict social groupings are key to establishing trusted networks essential to effective organisation but also that these friends are ‘instrumental in the radicalisation process’.[30] In a similar manner, Aisha Ahmad in Jihad & Co.: Black Markets and Islamist Power identified the role played by businesses, particularly smuggling networks, in providing infrastructure (physical, logistical and funding) that supported Islamist proto-state formation by the Taliban, al-Shabaab and Daesh (or Islamic State).[31]

Organisational structure, local business loyalties and blunt financial calculations are all dynamic, evolving with a jihadist group’s changing environment. Even small-scale protest has similar mobilisation requirements to insurgency or terrorism; thus certain components of an organisational structure might be inherited by a mobilising insurgent group.


Organisation serves multiple ends. It attracts individuals with shared interests and worldviews and then provides the affiliation they desire, functioning as a virtuous cycle that addresses the relative deprivation felt by these individuals. Organisation also inherently provides undertakings with low commitment requirements, addressing the need for underground functions such as recruiting, propaganda or facilitation.[32] Organisation is also essential: resources must connect from suppliers to users.

Staniland’s research on insurgent groups concludes by noting that ‘patterns of violence, governance, and strategy are likely to be linked to insurgent organisation, [and therefore] strategy will work best if it is guided by the organisational structure of the insurgent group being targeted’.[33] Staniland’s comment, in the context of this advanced model, could go further. Indeed, strategy formulation against any irregular armed group can be guided by understanding its organisational structure and its inherent strengths and weaknesses.

  1. Competitive Control

Competitive control is a term introduced by David Kilcullen that builds upon observations by Bernard Fall of the Viet Minh insurgency.[34] These writers note that a competition for control over a population is a key characteristic of irregular conflicts. The concept is expanded upon by David Galula’s recognition that an insurgent organisation is typically a minority of the population, who compete for the allegiance of the ambivalent majority of the population.[35] Both sides thus seek to draw the allegiance of the ambivalent majority.

Rebellion against a strong authoritarian government is fragile and easily suppressed, particularly if the ambivalent majority report on insurgent activities. Conversely, if the government is weak, areas under its authority might be ungoverned or under-governed and  insurgency can take root.[36] Rebels might compete effectively for the allegiance of the majority of the population, due to the absence of competition from a government. The idea of a contest of competitive control over a population directs attention to whether the Weberian norm of the monopolisation of physical force exists, and also to the legitimacy to rule. Should the government lack such legitimacy, the situation is ripe for a competition of control. Legitimacy is expressed through the court of public opinion, and therefore might be self-diminished through the excessive use of coercive powers.[37]

Competition for control over a population might, as Louise Richardson identifies, be achieved via social factors, such as a ‘complicit surround’:

Individuals in a community are exposed to a host of assumptions, conditions, and obligations that make supporting or joining a terrorist organisation appear either natural or unavoidable and which may include community acceptance of violent means.[38]

The dynamic of complicit surround was highly evident in the methods ISIS employed to (successfully) exert control over its territories.[39] Conversely, a complicit surround, such as that in Kurdish-controlled regions of Iraq and Syria, might also serve to ‘firewall’ elements of society from Salafi narratives. This type of societal coercion is imperfect; risk-taking adolescents may choose to join certain external groups as a means to express rebellion against their parents and/or broader familial authority.

A competition for control may present as state-directed repression, as was seen during the Cold War, with challengers to that repression being groups such as Solidarity in Poland and Otpor! in Yugoslavia. Several studies support the notion of an inverted U-shaped curve in which communities that are significantly repressed and those with effective channels for alleviating deprivations (such as democracies) are least likely to experience insurgent violence.[40] Indeed, it is notable that Solidarity and Otpor! manifested upon the weakening of the Soviet Union’s influence. The significantly repressed, or those experiencing severe deprivations, are too busy trying to survive, and violent rebellion is quickly crushed.[41]

Engaging in this competition, organised resistance takes on existing discontent and channels it against a form of authority. With these prerequisites, a ‘spiral of silence’ may manifest. Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann introduced this term in 1974, drawing upon the recognition that ‘to the individual, not isolating himself is more important than his own judgement’.[42] Noelle-Neumann identifies that ‘the mass media have to be seen as creating public opinion: they provide the environmental pressure to which people respond with alacrity, or with acquiescence, or with silence’.[43] Today, this includes social media.[44] A resistance organisation thereby seeks to present its case as the dominant opinion, encouraging the acquiescence of those with dissenting views. It may do so through intimidation, through leveraging online media to present a disproportionately frequent opinion, or through assassination of dissenting views—all of which feature heavily in the approach taken by Islamic State to establish control over Ar-Raqqah.[45]

This dynamic of a competition for control was closely observed within the area controlled by ISIS, despite Western expectations of imminent local rebellion during the period 2015–2017. Charlie Winter, writing for the Naval War College, noted that between 2014 and early 2017, ISIS worked to ‘inhibit access to the Internet, jam radio signals, and ban satellite dishes’.[46] Isolation of the population from alternative viewpoints served a virtuous cycle by negating competing narratives, reinforcing pro-ISIS narratives and mitigating adversarial intelligence penetration. This was a form of fabricating a complicit surround that snuffs out other competitors for control. All of these factors help to demonstrate why a popular uprising against ISIS never occurred, despite the relative deprivation felt by the population when comparing their existence to the expectation established by Islamic State narratives.

  1. The Popular Narrative and a Spark

A joint venture between United States Army Special Operations and John Hopkins University, Assessing Revolutionary and Insurgent Strategies (ARIS), notes that ‘in isolation, narrative framing is unlikely to effectively mobilise without … political opportunity and resource mobilisation’.[47] The spark of rebellion, an idea around which a narrative can coalesce, might be humiliation[48] or trauma—actual, cultural or psychological.[49] Such trauma can disengage social inhibitions towards violence, particularly if paired with broader grievances and a narrative that engages the individual emotionally.[50] These narratives are constructed from two key facets:

a.       In-group/out-group dynamic. Narratives help to form group identity due to reinforcement of shared values, motivations, history and identity. Such narratives ‘need to persuade their audiences of the necessity and effectiveness of taking collective action to address the challenges and grievances around which the group has mobilised’.[51] Collective action often deliberately leverages a low commitment threshold, such as providing a financial donation or hiding weapons, in order to commit an individual to illegal group activities, from which commitment to the in-group then occurs.

b.       A popular narrative. Having established an in-group/out-group dynamic, narratives must continue to emphasise and reinforce the identity of the group to sustain control over its target population. ‘Identity provides a reinforcing feedback loop for terrorism … a symbolic act inspiring solidarity among those sharing interests with the terrorists.’[52] Initially, a terrorist act might be intended to reinforce this narrative, to highlight that some are willing to become martyrs to the cause, thus reinforcing the popular narrative.

Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko describe escalating radicalism as being contingent upon three mechanisms: ‘an asymmetry in perception of harm, a shift from material prize to status and power prize, and a sunk-costs framing of the conflict. Together these mechanisms make each step in the escalation a reason to escalate further’[53]—a staircase of mobilisation. Sunk cost inhibits regression (or deradicalisation) when an individual has crossed the Rubicon of having engaged in politicised violent action or crime. Indeed, groups may deliberately require initiates to commit such acts as a formalising process in escalating radicalisation within the organisation. Summer Agan of ARIS therefore concludes, ‘Narratives are crucial to understanding the behaviour of groups such as resistance movements’.[54]

The spark to a resonant narrative might be difficult to predict, yet it is nonetheless crucial to understanding the attraction of resistance movements and functions as a force multiplier.[55]

  1. Case Study—North African Foreign Fighters

The case of Libyan foreign fighters demonstrates how relative deprivation can become self-fulfilling. Libya recorded 18.8 per cent of the fighters in the Sinjar Records.[56] Darnah, Libya, with a population just over 80,000 compared to Riyadh’s 4.3 million, ‘stood out as largest per capita numbers of fighters’.[57] Furthermore, Libyan hometowns of the fighters from the Mediterranean seaboard (Darnah, Misrata, Sirte and Benghazi) collectively represent 93 per cent of the Libyan foreign fighters.[58] Of the Libyan total, 85.2 per cent were willing martyrs.[59] These statistics point towards concentrated geographic dissatisfaction being translated into radicalisation, noting that these four towns very quickly became associated with the Libyan opposition to the Ghaddafi regime in early 2011. The seeds of dissatisfaction with the Ghaddafi regime in both Darnah and Benghazi originated in an uprising by Islamist organisations in the mid-1990s, particularly ‘the Libyan Fighting Group (jama’ah al-libiyah al-muqatilah), [which] claimed to have Afghan veterans in its ranks’.[60]

More broadly, Ghaddafi’s coup to seize power in 1969 ushered in a period of Arab nationalism which from 1975 onward saw increasingly extreme modes of repression. During Ghaddafi’s rule, there were few avenues for political dissent, but also limited ability to organise an opposition. Protests beginning in February 2011 culminated with NATO intervention to support rebel forces. Perpetuation of the civil conflict thus serves to reinforce the conditions which cause relative deprivation among the local population. Indeed, among ISIS foreign fighters:

… sixty-nine percent of Libyan fighters reported being underemployed; 32 percent reported being unemployed, working in agriculture or day labour, and 37 percent reported unskilled work or being students. Nineteen percent of the fighter contingent explicitly reported being unemployed.[61]

Libyan fighter deprivations were therefore both a cause for and a function of the civil war. Eastern Libya suffered from higher underemployment, lesser political representation, poorer access to social services and poorer service provision than in Libya’s west and Ghaddafi’s tribal power base, thus creating a strong source of economic deprivation.[62] As Libya’s GDP per capital contracted by almost half, the economy likewise contracted, pushing many Libyan government employees into unemployment.[63] Libya was in 2010 relatively wealthy, with a ‘per capita GDP more than 2.7 times that of Algeria, the state with the next highest per capita GDP [in North Africa]’.[64] Indeed, this simultaneous cause and effect situation has also drawn fighters to the conflict: ‘over the past seven years, 2,600–3,500 foreigners have joined or attempted to join jihadist groups in Libya’.[65]

It was in this context that Libyan militias were able to rapidly recruit, leveraging funds captured from state banks. ‘Unsurprisingly, cronyism grew rampant. Competing officials in different ministries paid only those militias from their own towns, tribes, and regions’, with parochial interests rapidly fragmenting society, taking tribal positions and generating new deprivations among the population.[66] Salafi-jihadist organisations thus found fertile soil for their seeds to take root as cadres returned from fighting in Syria.

One such group, Ansar al-Sharia, that emerged from this chaotic environment was characterised by its organisation. In Benghazi, the group provided a program of charity and social services; it ‘repaired schools, swept the streets of garbage and distributed food, heaters, and blankets to the poor’.[67] Training camps were established to the south of Benghazi through which recruits, both local and foreign (Tunisians in particular), were funnelled. Once trained, Ansar al-Sharia quickly won a contest for the population of Benghazi through an assassination program that liquidated more than 13 ex-regime officials in July 2012 alone.[68]

The case of Tunisian foreign fighters demonstrates how unresolved relative deprivation can shift its expression over time. The cities of Kebili and Tunis were the second and third highest per capita recruiting pools for ISIS, followed by Bizerte (7th), Sidi Bouzid (9th), Ariana (11th), Sousse and Kasserine (13th and 14th respectively). These figures demonstrate the disproportionate recruitment sourced from Tunisia to Islamic State ranks; indeed, approximately 7,000 Tunisian foreign terrorist fighters are believed to have been mobilised to join the Islamic State.[69] The causal factor in this case seems to be the economically struggling neighbourhoods around the capital, Tunis, from which these fighters originated.[70] ‘These regions had also been active protest hubs during the Arab Spring, and some were recruiting grounds for previous jihadist conflicts.’ Indeed, in the post Arab Spring environment, ‘chronic underdevelopment of inland regions such as Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine has seen poverty, unemployment and illiteracy rates in these areas soar’, further contributing to a sense of relative deprivation in the face of soaring democratic optimism.[71]

The organisation of discontent in Tunisia drew upon:

… the chaos of Libya [which] provided new networks with which Tunisian Salafist jihadists could connect and another route that fighters could take to Syria. It also provided an ungoverned space where Tunisian jihadist networks could maintain their activities as the Tunisian government began to crack down on groups like Ansar al-Sharia.[72]

Similarly to the example of Libya, the organisation of political opposition to the Ben Ali regime was overwhelmed through electoral vote rigging and press censorship. Repression under the Ben Ali regime in the 1980s and early 1990s led to many jihadists being exiled to Europe, during which time a sizable number served in the Bosnian and Algerian wars.[73] Additional repression in the period 2013–2014 again served to shift the Salafist-jihadist problem elsewhere, notably to Libya.

The popular optimism felt upon the removal of the Ben Ali regime was instead replaced by disenchantment with a continued lack of progress on post-revolution economic and structural reforms.[74] The Tunisian case thus suggests the shifting manifestation of extreme frustration, as the anticipated remediation of relative deprivations in the post Arab Spring environment has failed to materialise.

So what? The dynamics witnessed in Libya and Tunisia became self-sustaining mechanisms. The proliferation of smartphones, expanding mobile phone connectivity, small unmanned systems, and man-portable lethality combined to both democratise and enable remote or proxy warfare that was leveraged by regional powers in the North African (and other) conflicts.[75] These means enhance the ability for patron states and transnational Salafi-jihadist groups to exploit discontent with the means to engage in violent acts. An irregular mobilisation dynamic can accelerate quickly, as it did in 2011, as the brakes of a global rules-based order fail to be applied by regional nations that are overcome by the zero-sum calculus of geopolitical competition.

  1. Conclusion

This article represents a first push into consideration of the complexity of future irregular war. Such consideration is essential if we are to prepare for the future; insights into which have already been provided by the conflicts of the post Arab Spring.

This article has sought to lay the foundation for ADF doctrine and, indeed, for understanding among the broader national security community. Specifically, I propose the Triangle of Rebellion model as a useful tool to inform analysis of irregular conflict and the mechanism that draws individuals towards non-state armed groups. The Triangle of Rebellion model forms a baseline of analysis within which other papers within this Collection reframe the context and explore the underlying strategy applied by irregular groups. My introductory analysis has, by necessity of space and time, focused on Salafi-jihadist organisations. In time, further exploration of the theory advanced in this publication should include examination of Shi’a Islamic groups (such as Hizbollah [76]), Hindu and Sikh nationalist groups, and historical European groups (such as the anarchists and the People’s Will). While further study needs to be done, the model presented here shows promise as being broadly applicable. With this baseline, the ADF might thus be prepared to understand, engage and prevail in future irregular conflicts.

This article is one essay from the Irregular Warfare Essay Collection.


[1] These conflicts include Malaya (1948–1955), Indonesian Darul Islam (1958–1962), Indonesian East Timor (1975–2000), Indonesian Aceh (1976–2005), Papua New Guinea (1988–1998), Philippines Huk Rebellion (1946–1956), Philippines MNLF (1971–1996), Vietnam (1960–1975), Cambodia (1967–1975), Kampuchea (1978–1992), Laos (1959–1975) and the ongoing insurgencies in Myanmar, Southern Thailand and the southern Philippines.

[2] Robert O’Neill’s ‘Three Villages of Phuoc Tuy’, Quadrant, vol. 11, no. 1 (1967) stands in stark contrast to Ron Boxall and Robert O’Neill (eds), Vietnam Vanguard: The 5th Battalion’s Approach to Counter-Insurgency (Acton ACT: Australian National University Press, 1966). Despite Robert O’Neill’s involvement with both articles, the broader Vietnam Vanguard project demonstrated that very few of the Australian Army officers involved in 5RAR’s rotation understood counter-insurgency doctrine. In simple terms ‘Three Villages’ argued the benefit of a population-centric approach, whereas Vietnam Vanguard argued for an enemy-centric approach. Ultimately, Thomas Richardson’s Destroy and Build: Pacification in Phuoc Tuy, 1966–72 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017) concludes by stating that ‘Pacification did not succeed in defeating the National Liberation Front within Phuoc Tuy’, echoing an advisor’s observation that it was ‘as if we had never really been there’. Some might argue a similar conclusion with regard to Uruzghan province. Andrew Mumford similarly challenges the dogma of counter-insurgency expertise in the British Army: ‘The British response to the complexities of 21st century insurgencies, particularly in their decentralised and globally networked form, has threatened to expose this competency [in counter-insurgency] as a colonial-era myth.’ Andrew Mumford, Puncturing the Counterinsurgency Myth: Britain and Irregular Warfare in the Past, Present and Future (United States Army War College: Strategic Studies Institute, September 2011), p. vii.

[3] Department of Defence, 2020 Defence Strategic Update (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2020)

[4] Michael Knights and Alex Almeida, ‘Remaining and Expanding: The Recovery of Islamic State Operations in Iraq in 2019–2020’, CTC Sentinel, vol. 13, no. 5 (May 2020).

[5] Ucko and Marks are more pointed in their criticism in this regard: ‘What is both fascinating and of enormous concern is that this emerging insurgent approach is mirrored by the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine employed by Russia.’ David Ucko and Thomas Marks, ‘Violence in Context: Mapping the Strategies and Operational Art of Irregular Warfare’, Contemporary Security Policy, vol. 39, no. 2 (2018), p. 222.

[6] Sebastian Gorka and David Kilcullen, ‘An Actor-Centric Theory of War: Understanding the Difference between COIN and Counter-Insurgency’, Joint Forces Quarterly, vol. 60 (1st quarter, 2011).

[7] Ucko and Marks (2018) advance a similar idea: ‘Irregular warfare—best thought of as warfare unregulated by the laws and norms of war—has appeal also for state actors seeking to offset traditional military weakness or extend their influence’ (p. 212).

[8] Max Weber, ‘Politics as a Vocation’, in HH Gerth and C Wright Mills (eds), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 78.

[9] Joint Staff, JP1: Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States (2013).

[10] Further examples are examined by Ucko and Marks: ‘Western strategists were surprised by Hezbollah’s use of conventional approaches within an irregular matrix in its war against Israel in 2006—despite ample familiarity with analogous efforts by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), never mind the Vietnamese doctrine and practice that led to communist victory in Southeast Asia and which both FMLN and FARC drew upon’ (Ucko and Marks, 2018, p. 212).

[11] Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko, Friction: How Radicalisation Happens to Them and Us (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 216.

[12] Assessing Revolutionary and Insurgent Strategies (ARIS), Undergrounds in Insurgent, Revolutionary, and Resistance Warfare, Robert Leonhard (ed.), (United States Army Special Operations Command and John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, 2013).

[13] This terminology is a deliberate homage to the work done by Fathali M Moghaddam, ‘The Staircase to Terrorism: A Psychological Exploration’, American Psychologist, February–March 2005. Moghaddam’s work centres upon a recognition that ‘the current policy of focusing on individuals already at the top of the staircase brings only short-term gains. The best long-term policy against terrorism is prevention, which is made possible by nourishing contextualised democracy on the ground floor … the metaphor of a narrowing staircase leading to the terrorist act at the top of a building … Whether someone remains on a particular floor depends on the doors and spaces that person imagines to be open to her or him on that floor … As individuals climb the staircase, they see fewer and fewer choices, until the only possible outcome is the destruction of others, or oneself, or both’ (p. 161).

[14] Alex P Schmid and Albert J Jongman, Political Terrorism (New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2008), p. 179.

[15] Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro, ‘Homeward Bound? Don’t Hype the Threat of Returning Jihadists’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 93, no. 6 (2014). Byman and Shapiro quote work by Thomas Hegghammer, who found that ‘only one in nine [Saudi] fighters who went abroad between 1990 and 2010 came back interested in attacking at home’.

[16] Vera Mironova, Ahmet Mhidi and Sam Whitt, ‘The Jihadi Who Came in from the Cold’, Foreign Policy, 10 August 2015.

[17] James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1976).

[18] Ted Robert Gurr, Why Men Rebel, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1970).

[19] David Sterman and Nate Rosenblatt, All Jihad Is Local, Volume II: ISIS in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula (New America, April 2018), p. 4.

[20] Alan Krueger and Maleckova Jitka, ‘Education, Poverty and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 17, no. 4 (2003), p. 28. Furthermore, Krueger and Jitka ‘find strong evidence that a lack of civil liberties is more directly correlated to participation in terrorism’, thus reinforcing this focus upon relativity. ‘An assessment of Jemahh Islamiyyah terrorists determined that more jihadis than not had either some college or advanced technical training. Even with this training, however, a majority still worked in unskilled jobs’—Darcy ME Noricks, ‘The Root Causes of Terrorism’, in Paul K Davis and Kim Cragin (eds), Social Science for Counterterrorism: Putting the Pieces Together (Santa Monica CA: RAND, 2009), p. 31.

[21] Rik Coolsaet, Facing the Fourth Foreign Fighters Wave: What Drives Europeans to Syria, and to Islamic State? Insights from the Belgian Case, Egmont Paper 81 (Brussels: Royal Institute for International Relations, March 2016), pp. 7–8. ‘Almost all were members of Sharia4Belgium, a neo-radical Islamist group created in early 2010 and particularly active in Antwerp’, thus also confirming subsequent analysis regarding the social networks that help organise discontent towards mobilisation.

[22] Ibid., p. 9.

[23] Ibid., p. 31.

[24] Daan Weggemans, Edwin Bakker and Peter Grol, ‘Who Are They and Why Do They Go? The Radicalisation and Preparatory Processes of Dutch Jihadist Foreign Fighters’, Perspectives in Terrorism, vol. 8, no. 4 (2014). ‘The group of Dutch foreign fighters consists mostly of individuals … originating from lower or lower middle-class socio-economic backgrounds … During the radicalisation and preparatory processes, our research subjects increasingly isolated themselves from society’ (pp. 107–108).

[25] Nate Rosenblatt, All Jihad Is Local, Volume I: What ISIS’ Files Tell Us about Its Fighters (New America, July 2016), p. 7. These demographic statistics correlate with ‘the median ISIS fighter from the Arabian Peninsula … 23 or 24 at the time he entered Syria’ (­­Sterman and Rosenblatt, 2018, p. 42). They are only marginally different from those captured in the Sinjar Records: ‘The average age of foreign fighters to Islamic State in Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007 was 24-25 years old and the median 22-23 years old. Most fighters in the Sinjar Records did not indicate their profession [approx. 3 in 4 did not] … of those that did, 42.6 per cent were students’. These totals also suggests an overwhelming majority of the sample were unemployed—see Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman, Al-Qa’ida’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records, Harmony Project (West Point NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2008), pp. 16–17.

[26] ‘The search for status and risk taking can be unrelated to any sense of grievance or ideology’ (McCauley and Moskalenko, 2011, p. 69).

[27] Paul Staniland, Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2014), p. 9. Furthermore, ‘the greatest substantive agreement is on the idea that committed individuals bring their friends and family members into terrorist groups using the strength of their relationships first—as opposed to the strength of their grievances or their faith’ (Noricks, 2009, p. 36).

[28] These organisational models are ‘Vanguard’, ‘Parochial’, ‘Integrated’ and ‘Fragmented’ organisations, the details of which are not necessary for this essay.

[29] Noor Huda Ismail, ‘The Role of Kinship in Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiya’, Terrorism Monitor, vol. 4, no. 11 (2006).

[30] Edwin Bakker, ‘Kihadi Terrorists in Europe’, Security Paper No. 2 (Clingendael: Netherlands Institute of International Relations, December 2006). Furthermore, ‘group dynamics such as peer pressure and intra-group affection seem to have been crucial in the process’ of radicalising al-Qaeda recruits from Saudi Arabia (Thomas Hegghammer, ‘Terrorist Recruitment and Radicalisation in Saudi Arabia’, Middle East Policy, vol. 13, no. 4 (2006), p. 50).

[31] Aisha Ahmad, Jihad & Co.: Black Markets and Islamist Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). This finding is reinforced by Gretchen Peters, Seeds of Terror: How Drugs, Thugs, and Crime are Reshaping the Afghan War (New York: Picador, 2020).

[32] An example of this phenomenon in practice is noted by Della-Porta: ‘Once having joined an underground group, the activists would be required to participate at increasingly demanding levels of activity, whether in terms of the risk or the time involved. They usually began their careers in the underground by distributing leaflets or renting an apartment for the group. The longer they remained underground, the more likely they were to end up participating in robberies and assassinations’. D Della Porta, Social Movements, Political Violence, and the State: A Comparative Analysis of Italy and Germany (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 179.

[33] Staniland, 2014, pp. 227–229. Staniland’s formatting in this quotation is indicative of his conclusions that organisational structure matters, irrespective of the type of group being targeted.

[34] David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla, (London, UK: Scribe Publications Pty Ltd, 2013); Bernard B. Fall, Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina, (Harrisberg PA: Stackpole Co, 1961, Version 4, reprinted in 1994).

[35] David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (Westport CT: Praeger Security International, [1964] 2006).

[36] Seth G Jones, Waging Insurgent Warfare: Lessons from the Vietcong to the Islamic State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), notes that ‘a large body of quantitative evidence suggests that weak and ineffective governance is critical to the onset of insurgencies’ (p. 27).

[37] David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (London: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[38] Louise Richardson, What Terrorists Want (New York: Random House, 2006).

[39] ‘The ISIS group’s practice of killing civilians and captive soldiers seems arbitrary and barbaric when viewed from the outside … By killing those who resist, ISIS intends to encourage others to submit.’ Michael WS Ryan, ISIS: The Terrorist Group That Would Be a State, Centre on Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups Case Studies (Newport RI: United States Naval War College, December 2015), p. 60. Such violence is evidently coercive control but, as we will see in due course, also contributes to a dynamic of a ‘spiral of silence’.

[40] For example, Eubank and Weinberg (1994, 1998, 2001), Harrelson-Stephens (2006) and Gurr (1970) are quoted in Noricks, 2009, pp. 23–30.

[41] This dynamic of severe repression choking an insurgency was noted in Juozas Luksa, Forest Brothers: The Account of an Anti-Soviet Lithuanian Freedom Fighter, 1944–1948 (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2009).

[42] Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, ‘The Spiral of Silence: A Theory of Public Opinion’, Journal of Communication, Spring 1974, p. 43. The application of this theory to terrorist radicalisation was explored by Paul Lieber and Yael Lieber, Reconceptualizing Radicalized Groups and Their Messages, Occasional Paper (Tampa FL: JSOU Press, October 2017), who noted that the ‘Spiral of Silence theory reasons that individuals who perceive themselves to be in the majority opinion group are more likely to speak up, and vice versa for those in the minority’ (p. 6).

[43] Noelle-Neumann, 1974, p. 51.

[44] An examination of the influence of social media upon the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 is provided by Linda Herrera, Revolution in the Age of Social Media: The Egyptian Popular Insurrection and the Internet (Brooklyn NY: Verso, 2014).

[45] Nate Rosenblatt and David Kilcullen, How Raqqa Became the Capital of ISIS: A Proxy Warfare Case Study (New America, July 2019).

[46] Charlie Winter, Totalitarian Insurgency: Evaluating the Islamic State’s In-Theatre Propaganda Operations, Center on Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups Case Studies (Newport RI: United States Naval War College, 2017), p. 30.

[47] Summer D Agan (ed.), Narratives and Competing Messages: Assessing Revolutionary and Insurgent Strategies (United States Army Special Operations Command, 2018), p. 35. ‘Political opportunity is a concept used to explain how the larger political environment alters the perception of chances of success or failure in resistance movements … resource mobilisation, explains how groups leverage existing and acquired resources, whether financial, technical, or organisational, that enable resistance movements to emerge and sustain their operations.’

[48] ‘What transforms deprivation into unbearable suffering, and prompts people to retaliate with protest or even violence is humiliation. Acts of humiliation convince people that punishing the humiliator is a just duty along the lines of jus ad bellum.’ Mustafa Kirisci and Ibrahim Kocaman, ‘Humiliation Is the Key to Understanding Widespread Rebellion’, Political Violence at a Glance, 29 July 2020 (accessed 15 November 2020).

[49] For example, the death of a family member was found to be linked with the decision to join the rebels in Speckhard and Akhmedova’s study of Chechen fighters. See Anne Speckhard and Khapta Akhmedova, ‘The New Chechen Jihad: Militant Wahhabism as a Radical Movement and a Source of Suicide Terrorism in Post-War Chechen Society’, Democracy and Security, vol. 2, no. 1 (2006).

[50] These factors are particularly notable when grievances challenge sacred values, which in turn serves to ‘generate hostility in the target audience … and disengages the rational component of the brain’ (Agan, 2018, pp. 28–31).

[51] Ibid., p. 4.

[52] Christopher Paul, ‘How Do Terrorists Generate and Maintain Support?’, in Paul K Davis and Kim Cragin (eds),  Social Science for Counterterrorism: Putting the Pieces Together (Santa Monica CA: RAND, 2009), p. 126.

[53] McCauley and Moskalenko, 2011, p. 120.

[54] Agan, 2018, p. 12.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Felter and Fishman, 2008, p. 7.

[57] Ibid., p. 10. Darnah was also the highest per capital recruitment source for ISIS since 2012, at 21.5 per 100,000 Sunni residents (Rosenblatt, 2016, p. 13). ‘Derna had a reputation for being too headstrong … so the dictator humiliated it … Beset by despair but nourished by a culture of resistance, its young men went to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Returning, they sought to topple the dictator himself, joining the LIFG insurgency in the mid-1990s … Unemployment, drugs, and hopelessness soared … At the turn of the millennium, hundreds of them flocked to fight with jihadist groups against American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan’ (Frederic Wehrey, The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), pp. 115–116).

[58] Felter and Fishman, 2008, p. 12.

[59] Ibid., p. 19.

[60] Ibid., p. 12. Interestingly, unlike Assad, Ghaddafi released Muslim Brotherhood inmates from incarceration in an effort to moderate the Islamist opposition (p. 13). A key grievance was the 28 June 1996 massacre of political prisoners at the Abu Salim prison, reportedly involving 1,200 men being executed, many of whom hailed from the eastern city of Benghazi (Wehrey, 2018, p. 27).

[61] Sterman and Rosenblatt, 2018, p. 23.

[62] Ibid., pp. 5–6.

[63] Ibid., p. 22.

[64] Ibid., p. 23.

[65] Aaron Zelin, The Others: Foreign Fighters in Libya, Policy Notes 45 (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2018), p. 3. Zelin further notes that this total is just a shade below the mobilisation of foreign fighters to Iraq from 2003 to 2011 (4,000–5,000), thereby highlighting the escalating phenomenon of foreign fighter mobilisation over time.

[66] Wehrey, 2018, p. 87.

[67] Ibid., p. 108.

[68] Ibid., p. 110.

[69] Soufan Group, ‘Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq’ (The Soufan Group, December 2015).

[70] Approximately one in four Tunisian foreign fighters to ISIS came from Tunis (Sterman and Rosenblatt, 2018, p. 65).

[71] Natasha Quek and Syed Huzaifah Bin Othman Alkaff, ‘Analysis of the Tunisian Foreign Terrorist Fighters Phenomenon’, Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, vol. 11, no. 5 (RSiS, Singapore: Nanyang Technological University, May 2019), p. 2.

[72] Sterman and Rosenblatt, 2018, p. 32.

[73] Quek and Alkaff, 2019.

[74] Zelin, 2018, p.2; Quek and Alkaff, 2019.

[75] This theme of the provision of means as a key component of rebellion against authority is explored by Audrey Kurth Cronin, Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[76] I explore Hizbollah as an irregular warfare case study in a presentation recorded for the Australian Army Research Centre (accessed 15 November 2020).

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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