From Freedom Fighters to Jihadists

Human Resources of Non State Armed Groups

Oxford University Press

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The Syrian Civil War is the bloodiest ongoing conflict in the world, and many attempts to bring an end to the struggle have been ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. One reason this war has been so protracted is the number of armed factions involved. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, commented in 2013: “Syria is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides.”

Over 75 percent of militarized disputes since 1945 have been civil conflicts. Two-thirds of all civil wars between 1989 and 2003 included more than one rebel group fighting the government and the number of armed groups involved in civil wars is constantly increasing. Moreover, while proxy wars were still mostly waged along a frontline in the late 20th century, now foreign countries support different groups fighting for the same side – making it a more complex and essentially two-level proxy war.

Although all groups participating in civil wars are fighting to maximize their share of power, they differ in their ideologies. The ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine are all multi-faction, involving groups of different ideologies ranging from pro-democracy units to Islamists groups (such as in the Middle East) and from pro-West units to WWII-style Fascist groups (such as in Ukraine). And with few exceptions, radical groups become some of the strongest. This additional layer of complexity makes managing such conflicts especially challenging for foreign governments and international organizations. Previously, it was sufficient to choose one side of the conflict to support, but it is now equally if not more so important to determine which group will take control once the enemy is defeated.

In their efforts to resolve conflicts, foreign governments and international community have to simultaneously work on two dimensions: managing both relative powers between enemies, and the power dynamics inside the rebel bloc. On one hand, they are trying to aid the fight against the enemy, and on the other they are supporting moderate rebel groups while weakening more radical ones.

Although academics and policy-makers have accumulated a substantial body of knowledge about the interaction between groups fighting on opposite sides of the front line, the internal dynamics between different rebel factions fighting on the same side and more specifically the role ideology plays in these dynamics is less well understood, which makes choosing a group to support a dangerous guessing game.

Although virtually all ongoing conflicts have more than one group fighting on the rebel side, the confusion about such multi-factional wars is so apparent that there is no consensus on how to even approach this problem, both on the level of groups (that already have different ideologies) or on the level of individual fighters (who self-select into those groups).

In 2015, for example, the Obama administration was vetting individual fighters who wanted to join U.S.-backed rebel groups in Syria to screen out people who were likely to switch to radical groups after receiving training and weapons. At the same time, the U.S. officially blacklisted a particular group in Ukraine, which was accused of being ultra-nationalist or even neofascist, from receiving training, equipment, or any other support. So while the U.S. was trying to work with individual fighters to prevent them from joining radical armed groups in Syria, in Ukraine, the U.S. was supporting anti-Russian fighting on the group level by refusing support to a particular group, not looking at its current and potential members.

This inconsistent approach is not surprising since a group’s ideology and membership is an interdependent and complex system that is difficult to untangle. While previous research looked at this problem from military and religious points of view, my goal is to contribute to understanding how internal competition between different rebel factions works and what makes a rebel group successful by employing labor market theory. It is impossible to design effective policies without understanding the internal dynamics of the groups inside the opposition camp, which in turn is hard to do without looking at a group’s human resources. That is the case because armed groups could not be successful without qualified manpower. Groups fighting for the same goal within one rebel bloc are competing among themselves for the same potential members, and ideology plays a major role in winning new adherents.

I illustrate my theory with data based on more them 600 interviews and a focus group conducted with local and foreign members of different armed groups on frontlines, ranging from the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) to an al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, and ISIS. Most previous evidence in the insurgency violence literature is post hoc, relying on retrospective interviews, or based on an individual fighter’s online footprint. Data drawn from in person surveys and interviews on the frontlines of the ongoing conflict not only allows to gather information near real-time and avoid survivorship bias, but also sheds light on intentions of armed group members in making particular decisions. Authors yearlong embed with Iraqi Special Operations Forces during the Mosul Operation against ISIS allows to further confirm those findings.



A first-hand account of my extensive (and dangerous) fieldwork and the events that helped shape this book.


An introduction to the ideas and resources that formed the theory.

Chapter I: The Theory

An explanation of the book’s logic and structure.

Chapter II: Local Syrian Fighters

An examination of those who find themselves in the midst of war, especially in Syria; why some people leave the war zone as refugees while others choose to stay despite the dangers. Among those who stay, why some take up weapons and become fighters while others remain civilians. Finally, why some local fighters eventually stop participating and demobilize.

The information for this chapter was drawn from surveys of local fighters and civilians in three locations: two locations behind the Syrian frontlines and one in a refugee camp in Turkey.

Individuals who leave the conflict zone (refugees) are making a rational choice by applying a cost-benefit analysis. They rationally assume that, in the event of war, there is less danger and more opportunities outside of the area.

Those people who prefer to stay do not perform a cost-benefit calculation in quite the same way. Although they understand the risks involved, some do not leave only because they want to protect their family and property. Others are interested in the goals of the rebellion and want to support it.

Among them, some are ready to cross the line and take the risky step of active fighting and others are not. They reason their inexperience in combat would cost them their life and add little to the war effort, so they take on non-fighting-related roles such as cooking, cleaning and spying.

Chapter III: Choosing a Group to Fight With

An overview of how prospective fighters choose a group to join and why (and when) some choose to switch groups. This will include a comparison of how, between 2011 and 2014, the human resource policies of groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra appealed to prospective and established fighters while the Free Syrian Army’s policies gradually lost popularity with fighters as the war progressed.

In addition to drawing on survey research, this chapter is based on interviews with group leaders and a focus group conducted with members of different armed groups.

While the decision to take up arms is based on a person’s individual grievances, the decision to join a particular group is made rationally by comparing different groups fighting for the same goal based on their organizational qualities.

Individual benefits for fighters are divided into immediate benefits and insurance. Although such things as salary and aid in kind are important, there also are long-term problems a fighter relies on a group to solve. Such problems include medical care for wounded, postmortem arrangements for deceased fighters, and support for their families. Since there are no official insurance guarantees (and little power to enforce any in a war-torn country even if there were), fighters have to rely on a group’s reputation in this matter.

Groups able to become successful organization win the competition for prospective fighters and make the fighters they recruit more effective. In case of Syrian civil was such groups were Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, that draw fighters away from less well organized moderate Free Syrian Army.

Chapter IV: Managing Manpower

A look at the negative externalities that stem from a group’s popularity and how Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS tried to overcome these challenges with the help of radical ideology.

This chapter is based on interviews with group leaders and a focus group in Turkey consisting of members of different armed groups, as well as a survey of fighters in Syria.

Jockeying to become the most popular group among is a double-edged sword for a group’s human resources wing. On one hand, the winner could swell its ranks and have first choice of the best fighters among an increasing number of applicants. But on the other hand, the leading group also has to ensure the influx does not decrease the overall quality of its labor force—a good organization with good benefits attracts more than just dedicated fighters.

Armed groups that want to have only the most dedicated fighters must have reliable ways to filter applicants, ways that would allow for constant and uninterrupted control of members. For this, armed groups rely on additional unproductive costs they impose on fighters for membership in the group. Similar to the economic club model theory of religious groups and sects developed by Iannaccone (1994), and later applied by Berman (2009) to religious sects and terrorist groups. To ensure they get only the most trustworthy and loyal prospective fighters, the most organized and successful groups not only screen prospective fighters, but to also add a cost to membership. They do so by presenting prospective fighters with a condition: adherence to a strict set of requirements that have no direct effect on fighting.

Groups need to at least try to explain the rationale behind those restrictions to their members. Ideology, and in case of a Syrian Civil war Islamist ideology—comes in handy for that purpose. For example, members of Islamist groups have to wear traditional clothes, pray five times a day and not smoke- all explained by a groups interpretation of Islam.

Chapter V: Foreign Fighters in Syria

An introduction to the foreigners, some of whom went to Syria and took up arms and those who stayed home and supported the group by other means. This is followed by discussions on how foreign fighters chose a particular group to fight with and also those who quit and left Syria and their motivation for doing so.

This chapter is based on semi-structured, in-depth interviews with current and former foreign fighters, their family members, and supporters of groups like ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and smaller semi-independent ethnic groups (affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra). These interviews were conducted—either in person or through different messaging applications—in Syria, Turkey, Ukraine, and Russia.

For foreigners with an interest in a civil war, their choice is not whether to leave or fight as it is with locals, but whether to go or not. While there are people who come with a positive perspective—going to the foreign battlefield—,there are foreigners who went with a negative perspective—getting away from something back in their home country.

While some foreigners decide to take a risk and go to the frontline, other supporters do not. Instead, like local civilians, they actively help armed groups, albeit from outside with media outreach, collecting money, buying and sending equipment and helping potential fighters move to the battlefield.

The logic employed by foreign fighters in choosing a group to fight with is similar to that of local fighters. On the other side, compared to local fighters, foreigners experience more difficulties in process of choosing a group to fight with, and their path is less straightforward. Foreigners usually do not have many options of groups that would take them, and their movement between groups is also more restricted. Many foreign fighters are not familiar with the country and do not have a wide network of contacts and, in many cases, do not even speak local language.

Chapter VI: Managing Foreign Fighters

A focus on the problems associated with recruiting foreigners and how armed groups managed them. In a comparison of Jabhat al-Nusra’s (and affiliates) and ISIS’s human resources policies, this chapter delves into how al-Nusra managed to get the most benefit from having foreign fighters while ISIS had many problems.

This research is based on qualitative interviews with a focus group of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (and its affiliates) foreign fighters in Syria, Turkey and Iraq; former fighters currently in hiding in Ukraine and Russia and their family members; and local group members fighting alongside of foreigners. One interview was conducted with a member of Amni, the most secret and dangerous element of ISIS: their internal security.

Foreign fighters are an asset and could confer significant advantages for an armed group, but mismanaged, they could also become a major liability and eventually destroy it.

On one side, they 1) possess knowledge and skills often not available among the general population; 2) are often wealthier than their local brothers-in-arms and more successful fundraisers, soliciting funds from wealthy individuals in their home countries; 3) are more dedicated to their goals than local fighters; and 3) when foreign fighters take part in the fight, it reassured the local population and potential members of an armed group the validity of their cause.

On the other side foreign fighters came from many different countries, and, most often, do not speak a common language making cooperation and coordination hard. This also leads to foreign fighters segregating by language and place of origin.

In addition, foreign fighters often join the conflict with different motives than those of local fighters. These discrepancies could cause major political and strategic disagreements between local and foreign fighters.

In Syria, while ISIS tried hard to mix and integrate its foreign fighters but failed and largely lost control of them, al-Nusra was able to maintain it though an alliance of semi-independent ethnical armed groups fighting under its leadership.

Chapter VII: Managing Ideology

A portrayal of the delicate balance between groups using ideology as a screening mechanism and preventing it from affecting military and political strategies.

This chapter is based on qualitative interviews with several foreign ISIS members of an ultra-radical sect, one that was almost entirely purged from ISIS for their extreme ideological views. The author was in close contact with members of this sect for almost a year, visiting them in safe houses in Eastern Europe and talking to them daily through secured online messaging systems.

Because ideology is a strong weapon, it could work against the group itself. A group that portrays itself as ideological could seem attractive to recruits more interested in ideology itself than in the actual goal of the group. When that happens, the ideology is no longer an advantage for the armed group, but a danger. If the group is not able to screen those recruits out they would not only waste a group’s resources (drawing a paycheck but not interested in fighting), but their presence could lead to internal conflicts. While in the group, they would soon get disappointed and realize it was not what they expected. From there, it is only a matter of time until they act on that disappointment against the group leadership.

Chapter VIII: Funding Human Resources

A look at why some Syrian armed groups had problems with funding their business model while others did not, what those problems were, and how those funding problems affected group human resources.

This section draws from interviews conducted with the leadership of several Syrian armed groups as well as other influential group members responsible for financial-policy decision-making.

In contrast to regular state armies, rebel armed groups do not have a budget assigned to them every year. Instead, it is a leader’s responsibility to find money for the group. They must strategically choose and secure different funding sources at different periods of time.

Some leaders develop a portfolio of funding with enough resources to not only run day-to-day operations, but also to fund long-term projects such as medical care and social security benefits for their fighters. Other leaders take their groups down completely different economic path of a short-term planning that in a protracted war, such as the one in Syria, leads to a lack of financial resources and inevitable bankruptcy and other groups absorbing its fighters.

Chapter IX: Group Leadership

An analysis of how the roots of successful human resource policies are qualified leaders to develop and execute them and why some groups managed to levy qualified leadership while others did not. In particular this chapter will examine the qualifications of top and mid-level leadership of armed groups, how they are chosen, and what makes them effective.

Evidences for this chapter are based on qualitative interviews with leaders and other members of armed groups in Syria and Turkey.

Human Resources policies are developed and implemented by a group’s leadership, making leaders a crucial factor in a successful armed group.

At the very beginning of a civil war, the main problem of choosing leaderships is the pool of potential leaders they have to choose from. This candidate pool, in general, is small and weak. First, it is uncommon to find someone with experience actually running a rebel group; and second, virtually everyone’s main goal is to satisfy their grievance and desire for revenge, and so they prefer to take part in physically inflicting cost and damage on the enemy rather than indirectly in a managerial role.

Later in the course of the war, the problem of a weak pool becomes less crucial as individuals gain experience in fighting and running an armed group. But choosing the best candidate, increases in importance. Since valuable resources are now employed, corruption and nepotism become a common problem some groups are unable to solve.

Chapter X: Conclusion and Policy Implications

A practical application of the book’s theory for governments and other international policy makers.