Review: From freedom fighters to jihadists: human resources of non state armed groups
Review for International Affairs
This review originally appeared in International Affairs, Volume 97, Issue 1.
Vera Mironova, From Freedom Fighters to Jihadists: Human Resources of Non State Armed Groups, From Freedom Fighters to Jihadists (Oxford University Press), 20 June 2019 US$ 120, £71.00 (hardcover)
Mironova’s first book, From Freedom Fighters to Jihadists, is a significant contribution to international relations scholarship, particularly in the areas of rebel governance and terrorist financing. The book is based on ethnographic research in Syria: the author conducted over 600 interviews with members of the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat-al-Nusra, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The author uses a labour market theory to explore the complexities of the management of non-state armed groups, focusing on human and financial resources and leadership and management, concluding that ineffective management of one or more of these areas can lead to the downfall of rebel groups. This theoretical approach, as well as the primary source material, make this book required reading for anyone interested in rebel governance, terrorist financing, or the conflict in Syria.
The monograph has ten core chapters that deal with the labour market issues of running a successful non-state armed group. These chapters cover the motivation of fighters to join particular groups and what motivates them to stay or leave particular groups. The management of rebel groups is dealt with in detail, as are the differences between handling local and foreign fighters. This includes interesting comparisons between local and foreign fighters relating to language and cultural barriers, as well as their expectations about how they should be treated and compensated within a rebel group. Two chapters are dedicated to issues of ideology, with a special emphasis on ultra-radical recruits in ISIS. While the management of financial resources is a recurring theme throughout the book, there is also a dedicated chapter on funding the fight. Mironova also dedicates a chapter each to the challenges of finding competent rebel group leaders and to the policy implications of the research.
Mironova’s research makes contributions to the rebel governance literature by providing insights drawn from interviews with hundreds of fighters and leaders. For instance, in interviews with the author, fighters outlined their motivations for joining the fight which included financial incentives, escaping from the law in their home countries, as a test of faith, or simply out of a desire to fight provide first-hand accounts of the motivations for joining rebel groups. These interviews also provide unique insight into the challenges of managing corruption within these groups, providing specific examples and methods that fighters used to abscond with group resources. The book also makes a significant contribution to the terrorist financing literature. Insights are scattered throughout the book in terms of rebel groups’ search for funds, how they use those funds (including salaries and incentives for fighters), as well as the storage (often in cash) and management of funds (including the aforementioned issue of corruption). Mironova also pushes the boundaries of traditional understanding of terrorist and rebel group financing, arguing that some donors are in fact investors in rebel groups, with expected returns on their investments. These interviews and the insights they offer provides rich primary source material, a much-needed contribution to fields of study that are often based on secondary sources.
While this book makes contributions to these fields, the author makes limited use of the literature from them. In order to gain as much insight as possible from this book, readers will need to be familiar with the rebel governance, civil war, and terrorist financing literature. Mironova also does not fully integrate this book within this existing literature, which means that readers will have to do that work to properly situate it within relevant fields. Likewise, the policy implications are largely limited to how to best exploit and support rebel groups. Savvy readers will immediately recognize that many more policy options can be mined from this research, particularly when reflecting upon the extant literature.
Despite these minor limitations, this monograph makes a significant contribution to our understanding of rebel governance, terrorist financing, civil wars, and international relations more broadly. It is required reading for anyone in these fields seeking to understand the internal operations of rebel groups, and particularly for those seeking to shape civil war outcomes and develop policy responses.