Restitution or Retribution? Detainee Payments and Insurgent Violence

65 Pages Posted: 22 Jun 2020 Last revised: 27 Jan 2022

Date Written: January 26, 2022


Counterinsurgents frequently rely on mass arrests to impede rebel operations, but in so doing, risk detaining innocent civilians. Wrongful detention can backfire, fueling insurgent violence by alienating detainees and their kin. Can counterinsurgents mitigate wrongful detention through targeted compensation? I study this question using project-level data on US payments to individuals deemed innocent and released from Coalition custody in Iraq between 2004 and 2008. Leveraging plausibly exogenous variation in the allocation of detainee release payments, I document a robust, negative association between counterinsurgent compensation for wrongful detention and insurgent violence. The violence-reducing effects of detainee release payments were greatest in mixed and Sunni areas; for the types of insurgent attacks most prone to civilian informing; and when detainee release was complemented by other population-centric reforms to detention. These results suggest that post-harm mitigation helps shift civilian perceptions, inducing civilians to share more information with counterinsurgent forces.

Keywords: Counterinsurgency; Insurgency; Detention; Wrongful Detention; Post-Harm Mitigation

JEL Classification: F51, F52, H56

Suggested Citation

Blair, Christopher, Restitution or Retribution? Detainee Payments and Insurgent Violence (January 26, 2022). Available at SSRN: or

Christopher Blair (Contact Author)

Princeton University ( email )

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