In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section International Support For Nonstate Armed Groups

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Termination of International Support for NAGs

International Relations International Support For Nonstate Armed Groups
Belgin San-Akca
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0185


The international arena has been plagued by violence involving nonstate armed groups (NAGs) at an increasing pace in the post–Cold War era. NAGs refer to organizations that primarily use violence to pursue political objectives against states they choose as targets. Those objectives include territorial autonomy, secession, toppling an existing leadership or government, and regime change. NAGs do not have formal affiliation with states, that is, they are not under the formal command structure of a state’s army. Pro-government militias do not qualify as NAGs in this sense, since they have organic ties with governments and state security apparatus, such as the police force, gendarmerie, and army. NAGs use various tools to pursue their goals, such as terrorism and guerrilla warfare. The most recent and commonly known examples include the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and Euskadi ta Astasaguna (ETA), the Basque separatist group in Spain. They are referred to as militants, rebels, insurgents, terrorists, and guerrillas depending on the context of study. Yet labeling them in terms of the primary means used, namely violence, allows generalization across these types without entering into a futile discussion about whether to call them terrorists or freedom fighters. The research on international support of NAGs is still in its infancy. Researchers have just started disaggregating internal strife into warring factions, thus making it possible to study states and armed rebel groups as autonomous actors shaping and being shaped by the international environment. Since NAGs have been studied by a diverse group of scholars in political science under various substantive themes, such as revolution, insurgency, terrorism, civil war, and ethnic strife, no unified body of research examining the international support of NAGs exists. A newly emerging body of research builds on approaches and methods from various fields of study, such as comparative politics, civil war, terrorism, and international relations. The sources cited in this article aim to capture this diversity by organizing them under meaningful categories. The review begins with presenting a general overview of the evolution of the study of international support for NAGs. Then the topic is examined under five main themes: Approaches to Framing “International Support for NAGs”, Causes And Sources Of International Support For Nags, Context of International Support for NAGs, Consequences of International Support for NAGs, and Termination of International Support for NAGs.

General Overview

The literature on international support for NAGs has developed under a diverse array of study fields spreading across the fields of International Relations and Comparative Politics. The early debate about international support revolved around proxy wars during the Cold War period. Barnet 1968 presents a summary of cases in which the United States took the lead in toppling regimes friendly to the Soviet Union during the Cold War period. Hughes 2012 and Mumford 2013 provide a systematic account of proxy warfare in the post–World War II period, attributing an autonomous role to armed rebel groups. Within the field of International Relations, scholars focus on the interstate environment as the major force driving outside support for NAGs and the conditions under which third parties, mostly states, intervene in internal conflicts in other states. Saideman 2001 explores the power disparity between supporters and targets of ethnic insurgents to explain the decision to support ethnic rebels within the borders of other states. Saideman 1997 examines the effect of the domestic capacity of a state in relation to its ethnic constituents in its support for ethnic secessionist movements in other states. Regan 1996 takes the lead in distinguishing between intervention on the side of a government and intervention on the side of rebels when meddling in internal conflicts of other states. In the field of Comparative Politics, the scholarly focus has been on the externalities of ethnic strife and civil war. The causes of international support have been traced to the domestic capacity of NAGs’ target states and the policies pursued toward minorities. Stavenhagen 1996 examines the paths by which ethnic rebels secure international support. Most recently, scholars have tended to provide an interdisciplinary perspective on the issue of international support for NAGs. Byman, et al. 2001 provides the first empirical account based on data collected in the post–Cold War period in capturing the major trends in international support for insurgencies. San-Akca 2009 presents the first rigorous conceptualization of violent nonstate actors as nonstate armed groups (NAGs) to allow for a systematic analysis of the complex and fluid interactions of various types of armed groups with states.

  • Barnet, Richard J. Intervention and Revolution: America’s Confrontation with Insurgent Movements around the World. New York: World Publishing, 1968.

    Provides an historical account of the activities carried out by the United States in various parts of the world to instigate revolutions to topple unwanted governments. A very early account of US proxy wars abroad.

  • Byman, Daniel, Peter Chalk, Bruce Hoffman, William Rosenau, and David Brannan. Trends in Outside Support for Insurgent Movements. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2001.

    The first work comparing the changing nature of external state support for insurgencies in the post–Cold War period in comparison to the Cold War period. It presents data on state supporters as well as refugee and diaspora support for insurgencies active in the period between 1991 and 2000. The authors build a scale to identify whether the level of support is high by specifying various forms of support, such as safe havens, arms, diplomatic backing, and direct military aid.

  • Hughes, Geraint. My Enemy’s Enemy: Proxy Warfare in International Politics. Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 2012.

    Hughes provides an overarching account of why certain insurgents, rebels, terrorists, or criminal organizations are selected as proxies by states and what the consequences are of these choices by states for international community.

  • Mumford, Andrew. Proxy Warfare. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2013.

    A modern treatment of proxy warfare in world politics. Offers a systematic account of why war by proxy is appealing and what the consequences are for global security.

  • Regan, Patrick M. “Conditions of Successful Third-Party Intervention in Intrastate Conflicts.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 40.2 (1996): 336–359.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022002796040002006

    Pioneering work in the study of external intervention in internal conflict in which the author breaks intervention down into intervening on the side of the government or the opposition. Finds out that outside intervention is equally likely to be on either side of a conflict. The most successful interventions are either military ones on the side of the government or economic ones on the side of the opposition (given that the opposing side is an ethnic group).

  • Saideman, Stephen M. “Explaining the International Relations of Secessionist Conflicts: Vulnerability vs. Ethnic Ties.” International Organization 51.4 (1997): 721–753.

    DOI: 10.1162/002081897550500

    The work on which Saideman 2001 is built. Tests the effect of the domestic power capacity and ethnic constituents within a supporter state on its support of secessionist movements abroad.

  • Saideman, Stephen M. The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy, and International Conflict. New York: Colombia University Press, 2001.

    A pioneering work in applying mainstream theories of international relations, such as realism, to the study of foreign policy behavior of states toward ethnic conflicts occurring within the borders of other states. Specifies how power disparity between target and supporter states and transnational ethnic ties matter in explaining international support for secessionist ethnic movements. Uses both case-study analysis and quantitative methods.

  • San-Akca, Belgin. “Supporting Non-state Armed Groups (NAGs): A Resort to Illegality?” Journal of Strategic Studies 32.4 (2009): 589–613.

    DOI: 10.1080/01402390902987012

    Pioneering work using the concept of NAGs in a systematic manner with the objective to examine the conditions under which states choose various rebels and insurgents as partners in handling foreign policy issues. Treats support for NAGs as a foreign policy instrument, among many others, that states resort to occasionally Develops and tests a theory of state support based on domestic mobilization and the extractive capacity of states.

  • Stavenhagen, Rodolfo. “International Dimensions of Ethnic Conflict.” In Ethnic Conflicts and the Nation-State. By Rodolfo Stavenhagen, 203–226. New York: St. Martin’s, 1996.

    An earlier work identifying various channels through which ethnic rebels secure international support, such as transnational ethnic kin, humanitarian aid, and superpower rivalry. Uses extensive case-study analysis of many enduring ethnic conflicts, such as the Kurdish conflict in Turkey, the Eritrean conflict in Ethiopia, and the Lebanese civil war.

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