Research

peer-reviewed Publications

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Benjamin Acosta, Reyko Huang, and Daniel Silverman, "Introducing ROLE: A Database of Rebel Leader Attributes in Armed Conflict," Journal of Peace Research (Forthcoming)

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Existing literature on civil wars relies predominantly on state- and organization-level variables to understand conflict dynamics and outcomes. In this article, we propose that rebel leaders’ personal backgrounds and experiences are also key to explaining the behavior of the organizations they lead. Just as scholars have long highlighted the importance of state leaders’ biographical characteristics in interstate war and diplomacy, we argue that the attributes of rebel leaders affect their organizations’ decisions and actions in civil war. To substantiate our claims, we introduce the Rebel Organization Leaders (ROLE) Database, which contains a wide range of biographical information on all top rebel leaders in civil wars ongoing between 1980 and 2011. We first describe the contents of the database and present a number of novel descriptive findings about rebel leaders. To illustrate its utility, we then examine the influence of rebel leaders’ attributes on their organizations’ use of terrorism in civil war. Ultimately, our work encourages—and enables—a new research agenda that goes beyond rebel organizations and campaigns as units of analysis and brings individual leaders more fully into modern conflict and peace studies.

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What drives foreign state support for rebel organizations? While scholars have examined the geopolitical and organizational factors that fuel foreign support, the role of rebel leaders in this process remains under-studied. In this article, we propose that rebel leaders’ personal backgrounds shapes their ability to obtain foreign support during conflict. In particular, we argue that rebel leaders with significant prior international experiences – including study abroad, work abroad, military training abroad, and exile – are at an advantage in securing wartime external support for their organizations. These experiences provide opportunities for would-be rebel leaders to interact with a multitude of foreign individuals who may later enter politics or otherwise gain prominence in their respective societies, allowing them to build interpersonal social networks across borders. Such networks offer key points of contact when rebel leaders later seek foreign backing. We test this theory using data from the new Rebel Organization Leaders (ROLE) database, finding robust support for our argument as well as the broader role of rebel leader attributes in explaining external support. Our results underscore the value of incorporating individual leaders and their social networks more squarely into the study of modern war.

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In seeking to overthrow, reform, or separate from an existing political system, both violent and nonviolent resistance organizations emerge. A common finding shows that democracies face violent resistance more often than autocracies. Studied less remains the pattern of organizations using nonviolence in efforts to topple autocratic regimes. What explains these trends in conjunction with one another? I put forth a theory contending that exclusionary politics frames the organizational use of violence and nonviolence in resistance campaigns. To test hypotheses, I analyze an original dataset of 536 resistance organizations (1940-2014). I complement the large-n tests by reviewing resistance organizations that formed amid Lebanon’s Civil War (1975-1990) and Cedar Revolution (2005) using field methods, qualitative contextualization, and process tracing. The results reveal that the relationship between the target political system and the degree of inclusion of a resistance organization’s constituent identity group helps explain the adoption of violent strategies.

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In recent years, scholars of various forms of conflict involving revolutionary and militant organizations (such as terrorism, civil war, and nonviolent contestation) recognized that arbitrary organizational categories and typologies often leave large-n studies incomplete and biased. In moving away from nominal categorical boundaries that produce such selection biases and looking to a more generalized conception of resistance organizations, I constructed an original dataset that aims to bridge the gap between conflict literatures. Transcending traditional classifications, the Revolutionary and Militant Organizations dataset (REVMOD) consists of over 500 resistance organizations operative sometime between the years 1940 and 2014 and includes a diverse array of types of resistance organizations—many of which utilize a multitude of tactics, operate in various conflict contexts, and/or confront numerous target types. The dataset documents organizational attributes, allies, and adversaries at annual intervals (organization-years), making reliable time-series analyses possible. Tracking variables like organizational outcome-goal type and degree of achievement, political capacity, leader/s, constituent identity group, violence and demonstration levels, size, organization aliases, and several others, REVMOD breaks new ground in the collection of information on resistance organizations and can spur countless studies. A preliminary data analysis demonstrates that differences in organizational political capacity explain variation in resistance outcomes generally and in particular contexts like civil war, terrorism, and nonviolent revolutions. REVMOD provides a unique opportunity to develop a new research paradigm for resistance studies that employs large-n empirical analyses to uncover generalities between different forms of political contention in the contemporary era, as well as to better understand why and how distinct resistance processes may produce specific outcomes.

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Suicide attacks continue to plague a multitude of conflict zones. However, the scholarly literature on the phenomenon has yet to produce a theory that explains why militant organizations at different stages of development, facing dissimilar enemies, and situated in unique conflict environments adopt suicide attacks. Moreover, the suicide-attack phenomenon now presents an intriguing puzzle. While most militant organizations fail to achieve their core political ends or ‘outcome goals,’ organizations that employ suicide attacks are even less likely to succeed. Still, organizations have adopted suicide attacks at increasing rates. Given their ineffectiveness in precipitating outcome-goal success, why do organizations continue to adopt suicide attacks? Like all organizations, militant organizations share two common aims: (1) to survive and (2) to achieve outcome goals. As martyrdom operations often fulfill the ideological or cultural expectations of certain identity groups, representative organizations may adopt suicide attacks to expand constituent support or enhance status within a particular political landscape. Further, organizations can conduct suicide attacks to signal ideological solidarity with fellow militant organizations. This article analyzes an original large-n dataset of militant organizations alongside an original database of over 5,000 suicide attacks, as well as evaluates numerous case examples. The results demonstrate that militant organizations across regions and over time have adopted suicide attacks in order to gain supporters, promote organizational longevity, and boost or preserve status.

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