The framing of violent extremist groups in opposition to the state is especially subject to normative bias. For donors, the actions of such groups are often understood to ‘exploit’ the failures of the state rather than to fill a gap; or to undermine a state instead of presenting an alternative to a receptive constituency. Depending on the referee and his/her values, Al Shabaab either exploited the limited presence and legitimacy of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) or it filled a much-needed gap by providing services in areas that the TFG did not reach. It could be argued that, for many living in Somalia, the actions of Al Shabaab do not work to delegitimise the state, as the state is largely irrelevant to them. Similarly, the ‘narco-terrorist’ label imposed on FARC in Colombia has obscured its role as an alternate provider of social welfare in a context where the state is relatively weak (see Brittain, 2010; Maher, 2012; Leech, 2011). Brittain argues that FARC filled the void left by the state by helping to build roads and provide electricity, law enforcement, judges and other public services. Mampilly’s (2011) research on the rebel groups’ ability to achieve legitimacy in eastern DRC, Sudan and Sri Lanka supports the findings on the relationship between service delivery and legitimacy. Mampilly’s research suggests that, where states have a strong record of providing public services to citizens, rebel groups also need to also provide strong services to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the populations under their control. However, when the state has been historically weak and predatory, armed actors can gain relative legitimacy with only minimal provisions of security and protection.
There are other ways in which the legitimacy of states interact with non-state actors’ legitimacy-building strategies. Mwangi (2012) indicates that Al Shabaab worked to undermine the fragile legitimacy of TFG by drawing on nationalist and xenophobic narratives to imply that working with foreign forces was bad for Somalia. Again, depending on the referee and his/her values, Al Shabaab’s rhetoric could equally be interpreted as promoting unity among Somalians by emphasising a national entity in opposition to foreign forces. In Sri Lanka, Biziouras (2012) describes how the Tamil Tigers, in order to justify their rejection of compromise with the Sinhalese, needed to delegitimise the (predominantly) Sinhalese state in the eyes of Tamils. They thus conducted a brazen attack on an army convoy which incited indiscriminate attacks on Tamils coordinated by the state. According to Biziouras, the retaliatory actions by the state increased the perceived legitimacy of the Tamil Tigers. From another perspective, the attack by the Tamil Tigers on the army convoy, which represented a predominantly Sinhalese government, was justified as the government was no longer a legitimate authority. The resulting response by the government only confirmed their position of illegitimacy.
An alternative way to phrase this question is to ask whether state violence increases the legitimacy of violent extremist groups. In the early 1960s, in Northern Ireland, the peaceful protest movement led by John Hume was arguably more legitimate among the Catholic community than the Provisional IRA. However the violent action of the British state against citizens at a football match in Omagh increased the legitimacy of the violent protest movement represented by the Provisional IRA. Similarly, research carried out by CRISE indicates that the marginalisation of groups by a state can lead to the emergence of extremist groups (Stewart & Brown, 2010).
- Biziouras, N. (2012). The formation, institutionalization and consolidation of the LTTE: Religious practices, intra-Tamil divisions and a violent nationalist ideology. Politics, Religion & Ideology, 13(4), 547–59. See document online
- Brittain, J. J. (2010). Revolutionary social change in Colombia: The origin and direction of the FARC-EP. Norwich: Pluto Press.
- Leech, G (2011). The FARC: The longest insurgency. London: Zed Books.
- Maher, D. (2012). [Review of the book The FARC: the longest insurgency, by Garry Leech]. Critical Studies on Terrorism, 5(1), 149-152. See document online
- Mampilly, Z. C. (2011). Rebel rulers: Insurgent governance and civilian life during war. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Mwangi, O. G. (2012). State collapse, Al-Shabaab, Islamism, and legitimacy in Somalia. Politics, Religion & Ideology, 13(4), 513–27. See document online
- Stewart, F., & Brown, G. (2010). Fragile states (CRISE Working Paper No. 51). CRISE. See document online