What makes people join insurgencies?

An insurgency is an organized revolt that is aimed at overthrowing, and showing distaste towards a government, but is less than an organized revolution. Members of these insurgencies are dedicated to committing acts of terror against populations. Whether it be destroying villages, attacking citizens, and threatening other governments, insurgencies are composed of people with one mindset. Now that we have a working understanding of what an insurgency is, we can move on the broader picture of the reasons as to why people join them in first place.

As discussed in previous classes, grievances are factors that make people unhappy. Grievances are more closely associated with civil wars within a country. You have people that are unhappy due to be stricken by poverty, being repressed by their government, and being discriminated against. Although all of factors are prime ingredients for a civil war, grievances are also closely linked to why people join insurgencies. According to The Atlantic, “This consensus is also reflected in much liberal-left commentary about terrorism, especially of the jihadist variant. For example, in some quarters of the “radical” left it is asserted that the roots of jihadist terrorism lie not in Islam but in the myriad historical crimes and injustices of Western, and specifically U.S.-driven, imperialism—most notably, in the post-9/11 era, the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Jihadist violence, from this perspective, is an inevitable reaction fueled by Muslim anger and vengeance; and Westernized jihadists, far from rejecting the civilized norms and ideals proclaimed by the West, are in fact alienated from a West that excludes, demeans, and harasses Muslims.” Some sort of resentment is left with these people from all of the wrongdoings that were committed in previous situations such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Psychological factors also play a major part on why people join insurgencies. Emotions of fear and anger take over an individual and affect their actions and thought processes, motivating them to act a certain way and engage with other individuals that share this mutual feeling and cultural values. On the Politicalviolenceataglance.org, Thomas Zeitzoff states that, “Rational incentives and motives are important, but so are psychological motives. Emotions are powerful tools. Fear and anger have the ability to rally individuals to a cause despite the risk. Brutal tactics can engender fear and be used to intimidate rival groups or challengers. Sacred values have the capacity to motivate people to make large sacrifices on behalf of their group.”

ISIS is a primary example of a modern day insurgency. It’s amount of integrants range from 10,000 to 40,000, and are mainly composed of people from middle eastern countries, as well as a few foreigners. But grievances, nor hatred, or fear are the only motivations of these people for joining, but the feeling of become a part of something “special”, as well people seeking redemption. The following is from the International Business Times, where John Horgan, a psychologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts speaks on ISIS and a video message featuring a westerner named Andre Poulin, that joined the Islamic State. “Very often we see radicals decide they want to become a terrorist turn away at the last minute, but [Poulin’s] message hit the nail on the head, which is to say there is a road for everyone. It makes radicalization and recruitment much easier,” Horgan said. “It is an equal opportunity organization. It has everything from the sadistic psychopath to the humanitarian to the idealistic driven.” As far as foreign fighters are concerned, Horgan said, they are driven to join ISIS by the need to “belong to something special.” “They want to find something meaningful for their life,” he said. “Some are thrill seeking, some are seeking redemption.”






4 thoughts on “What makes people join insurgencies?

  1. I wouldn’t define insurgencies as members dedicated to committing acts of terror against populations, whether it be destroying villages and attacking citizens because that would be a terrorist. An insurgent’s goal is a violent attempt to have control of a government not to attack villagers. If they do then the villagers will give information to counter-insurgents .The community shares info if the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. “Successful guerrilla operations involve the people. It is the quality of their resistance to the enemy and support for the guerrillas which in the end will be the decisive factor”, states Berman of the article, Can Hearts and Minds Be Bought? The Economics of Counter Insurgency in Iraq. Rebels usually seek to persuade the population to refrain from sharing info by restraining their violence to levels the community will tolerate. Also, what makes people want to join terrorism is a whole bunch of different Factors. Some may have been forced and others have volunteered. It depends on the circumstances and incentives given.


  2. This is a very interesting post. I think that there is a thin line between an insurgency and outright terrorism… probably a line that is often crossed in certain situations but the distinction is definitely there. Questioning why people join insurgencies and why they join terrorist groups I think may reveal similarities between the two, though I think the root natures of the two are somewhat different. I think ultimately it is important to identify the distinctions. A goal I think would be to eliminate terrorism as a whole, although I do not know if that is possible at this point in time. That has to be taught as a negative ideology early on. However I do not think that insurgencies can be eliminated, as nations and peoples and, wants and desires, grievances, everything is always evolving and changing. But I do believe that understanding why people join insurgencies, and terrorist groups, would be beneficial in minimizing and even preventing future violence.


  3. Probably, grievances exist everywhere even though in the perfect place where all of people who live in there are rich, having a perfect security etc… Then insurgencies and also terrorist will exist. The reason of joining may similar, on the other hand, the way of representing their resentment is totally different; in case of terrorist groups is unacceptable. We cannot judge joining people but should blame on the terrorist groups that allure people with incentive and motivation.


  4. Insurgencies and the desire to overthrow governments/institutions have been around since the beginning of organized societies. The some needs change, others have stayed the same. Ether way the desire for power and the need for their voice to be heard seems to the the most common reasons why people forego the established rule of law in favor of their own and the eventual anarchy that follows.


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