When Terrorists Govern: Protecting Civilians in Conflicts with State-Building Armed Groups
Harvard National Security Journal (Vol. 9, January 2018)
46 Pages Posted: 8 Oct 2017 Last revised: 25 Oct 2018
Date Written: January 29, 2018
Many existing U.S. counter-terrorism policies, including those governing targeting and detention, rely on an empirical assumption that terrorist groups are primarily military organizations. This assumption may be appropriate for the case of al-Qaeda, but it fails to describe terrorist groups that engage not only in warfare but also in governance and state-building such as the Islamic State, a self-declared “caliphate” that—at the height of its expansion in 2014—claimed sovereignty over an estimated 34,000 square miles and 10 million civilians. This Article identifies a category of “state-building” terrorist groups that can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) the presence of a non-military wing analogous to a civilian bureaucracy that provides services, including food, electricity, and healthcare to the governed population; (2) dual-use institutions that simultaneously perform military and civilian functions; and (3) a degree of coercive control over civilians that creates observational equivalence between victims and supporters of the group. As a result of these characteristics, existing targeting frameworks that were designed for primarily military groups such as al-Qaeda tend to penalize civilians when applied to state-building terrorist groups that govern people and territory. The argument is supported with archival Islamic State documents, social media data generated by users in or near Islamic State-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq, interviews with former Islamic State combatants and civilian employees, and original data on the targeting of 11 different zakāt offices on 19 different occasions. These zakāt offices, which are located in densely populated urban areas and simultaneously collect taxes (a war-sustaining activity) and distribute cash assistance and food to civilians (a humanitarian activity), illustrate the costs of targeting dual-use institutions that perform both military and civilian functions. The Article concludes with targeting recommendations that take into consideration the structural vulnerability of civilians living in areas controlled and governed by terrorist groups while still allowing governments to prosecute civilians who aid such groups under domestic material support laws.
Keywords: International Law, International Humanitarian Law
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