Forthcoming Article: Cows, Charcoal, and Cocaine: al-Shabaab’s Criminal Activities in the Horn of Africa
Qualitative fieldwork trip conducted in January/February 2018, in partnership with the University of Oxford's Refugee Studies Centre, holding interviews with al-Shabaab militants, criminals, and law enforcement.
Abstract: Contrary to historical terrorism scholarship, terrorist groups can strategically diversify into a variety of criminal activities without losing their core ideology or support among the civilian population. This pattern is demonstrated by the evolutionary arc of al-Shabaab, which grew from a small subset of Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union to the most violent political actor in the Horn of Africa, able to conduct terrorist attacks as far afield as Kenya, Djibouti, and Ethiopia. Al-Shabaab has been highly successful in creating a narrative of truth and justice provision while simultaneously exploiting the Somali population and engaging in criminal activity. For the group, criminal activity and crime networks serve two primary purposes: as a funding mechanism and as an avenue for recruitment. Using ethnographic fieldwork and process tracing, I find that the group’s criminal activities throughout the Horn of Africa have made the group significantly more resilient to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency campaigns, extending both its lifespan and operational capability.
Forthcoming article: Empires of Blood and Fire: How Cocaine Altered the Trajectories of Colombia’s FARC and M19
Interview research in May/June 2018, engaging with with M-19 militants, FARC insurgents, and government officials.
Abstract: Colombia is home to one of the longest running civil conflicts in the world, a melting pot of competing interests, historical grievances, immense illicit wealth, and a broad spectrum of actors. A significant body of work exists on the interaction of these elements, ranging from the efficacy of counterterrorism operations to responding to collective trauma. However, a gap remains on how violent nonstate political actors engage with criminal activity; existing research suggests that criminal diversification simply erodes the ideological commitments of insurgent groups, transforming them from challengers of the political system to gangs. This argument overlooks how agency on the part of the terrorist group reduces ideological attrition, and how intentional diversification may in fact lead to a more protracted struggle. Using new ethnographic fieldwork, key informant interviews, and process tracing, I use the contrasting case studies of Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP) and Movimiento 19 de Abril (M19) to explore how intentional and structured criminal diversification extends the lifespan of a guerrilla organization. I find that the policy window created by the rise of Colombia’s cocaine cartels in the 1980s led to FARC’s intentional decision to ally with criminal networks because they viewed cocaine as a lesser threat to the people of Colombia than the existing government. In contrast, M19 took the opposing view, demobilizing and entering the political system, assimilating to the degree that a former M19 leader challenged for the presidency in 2018. The diverging paths of these two very similar groups can be directly linked to their strategic choice to engage, or not, with criminal activity, and provides valuable insights for future counterinsurgency policymaking.