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Centre for the Study of Armed Groups

From the war in Syria to Myanmar's borderlands, armed groups play a key role in the vast majority of contemporary conflicts and humanitarian emergencies. Between 1950 and 2010, the average number of active armed groups involved in a given civil war nearly doubled, and we've seen the challenges posed by armed groups fragmenting and multiplying in Libya, Syria, Central African Republic, Iraq and elsewhere.

Today's armed groups are rarely bound by clearly demarcated frontlines or traditional distinctions between war and peace. Levels of violence in Mexico, not considered 'at war', surpass those at the height of conflict in Iraq. What we commonly refer to as 'armed groups' tend to defy formal categorisation, such as criminal, terrorist, gang, militia etc. The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated how criminal groups in 'non-war' contexts from South Africa to Mexico have capitalised on the crisis to exert control over territory and populations - much like the Taliban and other insurgent groups. From Congo to Afghanistan, we have also seen third-party governments leverage their influence with armed groups to gain an economic foothold. At the same time, extremist and armed groups are also increasingly presenting challenges to security in the US and Europe.

Dominant ways of seeing conflict and armed groups fail to capture the lived reality of insecurity, leading to flawed and failed policy approaches to providing aid, protecting civilians, resolving conflict, and safeguarding security. Part of the problem lies in the lack of innovative empirical data on armed groups and the death of rigorous comparative work. Another factor has been that much policy research focuses on 'terrorism' or 'radicalisation', which has been problematic and at times, counter productive.

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Civilian-armed group relations

The relationship between civilians and armed groups is often thought of in terms of coercion, resistance, victimisation, and violence. Yet these dynamics are often far more complex. The Centre’s work explores how armed groups seek to influence and control civilian populations – and how civilian negotiate life under armed group control.

Armed groups and the economy

While armed groups are often associated with illicit economies, extortion and other extra-legal revenue generation, we actually know surprisingly little about what influences armed group economic activity – and precisely what impact armed groups have on the economy. The Centre’s current work focuses on armed group taxation, and armed groups’ broader economic role.

Engaging with armed groups

Talking with armed groups is an essential part of reducing violence, delivering aid, and ending conflict. The Centre delivers innovative and practical insights on engagement with armed groups for a range of objectives, from aid access to human rights advocacy and political mediation. As part of Interpeace’s Principles for Peace initiative, the Centre is leading dialogue on how to better engage armed groups in peacebuilding.

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