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June 8, 2009 / Tom Hill

Suicide Bombers, ‘Love IEDs’ and the Privatisation of Civil War Violence

r_suicide_bomber1I heard something striking on BBC Radio 4 recently in a report on the violence in Pakistan: a group in the Pakistani Taliban that held a cadre of young, carefully prepared, would-be suicide bombers, accepted payment from a family to send one of these suicide bombers against an individual with whom the family was involved in a private dispute. The suicide bomber himself, it was assumed by the report, would have thought that he was being sent on a holy mission that was part of the wider struggle. But he wasn’t – he was effectively the bullet in a contract killing. It was suggested that this was not the only time particular Pakistani Taliban had used suicide bombers in this way.

While this story seems extraordinary, it is actually very common for actors involved in private, local level disputes to exploit the opportunities and means of violence that civil wars provide. Stathis Kalyvas, in his monumental The Logic of Violence in Civil Wars explains at length the recurrence of this phenomenon in civil wars the world over. There are countless reports of long existing village rivalries and disputes forming the basis for extensive ‘malicious denunciations’ (as Kalyvas calls them), with neighbours being falsely identified as spies or collaborators with the enemy of the local force or incumbent authority. Rather than individuals being necessarily politicised by the civil war’s political cleavage, as is often the perception of civil war violence, Kalyvas argues that violence in civil wars is instead often produced through the civil war’s macro politics being privatised and harnessed for individual interests. These interests are often themselves little or nothing to do with the civil war, with the violence being the extension of everyday neighbourly disputes but in a transformed opportunity structure, where the means of violence can be easily accessed.

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While not a case of contract killing or malicious denunciation, a similar example of the violent opportunity structure of civil wars being seized upon for otherwise traditionally non-violent personal disputes has emerged from Iraq: the ‘Love IED’. There have been several cases reported of young, ex-insurgent Iraqi men being roses_are_red_1_-_ww_denslow_-_project_gutenberg_etext_18546jilted by their lover or refused marriage by their lover’s father. Rather than writing forlorn poetry or running to Gretna Green, the response of some has been to plant an IED (which they are either skilled at making or have ready access to) to take out the offending party in revenge for the humiliation of being jilted (though, presumably, the IEDs haven’t been accompanied by love notes like the one here). Shocking, but read a few chapters in Kalyvas and you’ll find this kind of thing just isn’t at all unusual.

It is not just because such acts could clearly be labelled ‘criminal’ that I’ve posted this here. The supposed dichotomy between crime and conflict is in some ways one between the private and the political. Crime is for private financial gain, political conflict is for macro, political and so ideological goals – so the thinking can often go. But the suggestion in the above is that the private and the political interact to produce even some of the most serious incidents of violence. Indeed, in a war, for anything to occur that is organised (a requisite for the existence of war in almost all its definitions) there must be this interaction. And this isn’t just one for academic discussion – it’s a field issue that practitioners no doubt have to pin down as well.

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4 Comments

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  1. kiers / Jun 9 2009 08:10

    grreat. what’s next…..LOVE IED SONGS??? on the americann top 40?

    Baby you hurt me so,…
    u know i don’t wanna go….
    but if you tell me to….
    I gonna blow u
    UP.
    ……… 2010 GRAMMY AWARD WINNER. it makes those chicks really swoon.

  2. Chris Glavin / Jun 10 2009 19:44

    I wonder how far this dynamic is attributable to US-caused civilian casualties in Iraq, and particularly Afghanistan. After the Northern Alliance had toppled the Taliban from power I remember reading an article detailing how US forward observers had been manipulated by locals through false human intelligence to direct US air strikes against rival villages and clans, resulting in civilian casualties.

    Considering the more recent BBC Radio 4 report and the notorious unreliability of human intelligence within the AfPak theater of operations, it would be interesting to see how many civilian casualties caused by the US could be attributed to such criminal elements supplying false intelligence to US commanders. Given that US commanders for the theater have already acknowledged they lack the comprehensive intelligence necessary to distinguish moderate Taliban elements from their more extremist brethren, it would serve to reason they also would lack the kind of intelligence necessary to differentiate between “real” human intelligence and criminally supplied “false” human intelligence.

    Since perceptions of the occupational forces are such a critical factor in the successful prosecution of any counter-insurgency strategy, it would seem that tackling this dynamic of criminality within Afghanistan to prevent further civilian casualties at the hands of US air power would be a major effort. It will be very interesting to see how Gen. McCrystal, with his experience in JSOC, would prosecute this effort with more fervor than his predecessor.

  3. Tom Hill / Jun 10 2009 21:27

    Hi Chris,
    I wouldn’t necessarily think of the false tip off designed to mislead an American airstrike as simply ‘criminal’. Seems like a highly devious political move designed to have an impact on the national, regional and even world stage.
    But what would be intriguing from a purely academic perspective is if informants provided tip-offs on a location (which is, say, actually a wedding party), but not just because of the political utility of causing such a PR upset for ISAF – but also because there was some personal or long-standing family rivalry with the hosts of the wedding.

    The examples Kalyvas gives from previous cases are astonishing, but very common. Local actors are provided with access to extraordinary powers to inflict harm on their rivals as a result of the desires of incumbents and insurgents to use local actors to access information on the identity of enemies. The trend is that in even previously peaceful communities those opportunities are seized, and with gusto.

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