Frenemies: Why Rival Insurgents Work Together

From Syria to Colombia, no bedfellow is too strange.

A problem in the literature of the relationships between nonstate armed groups is that cooperation and competition among them are usually treated as distinct phenomena that follow different logics. Studies usually offer separate explanations of why cooperation or competition occur in particular cases, and there are hardly any theoretical frameworks (apart from BJ Phillips’) that can explain why both cooperation and competition would occur between two nonstate armed groups.

Most studies separate and focus on either competition or cooperation—such as Hanne Fjelde and Desirée Nilsson, Navin Bapat and Kanisha D. Bond, Ely Karmon, Assaf Moghadam, or Fotini Christia—while ignoring the overlap between them.

As a result, huge questions remain concerning the behavior of nonstate armed groups and their interactions. Moreover, if the purpose of scholarly research is to develop competent counterterrorist and insurgency policies, then ignoring the other side of the coin in considering groups’ behavior will undoubtedly result in failed policies.

My research tries to understand that intriguing yet common phenomenon of “coopetition.” Indeed, scholars have ignored that groups can simultaneously collaborate and compete. If this phenomenon exists, it means that cooperation and competition are not mutually exclusive, and that they may have the same causal mechanism and logic. I have borrowed the term coopetition from organizational theory to describe the phenomenon in the behavior of nonstate armed groups.

Interestingly enough, simultaneous cooperation and competition is not restricted to militant groups. This has been observed in firm-level behavior as well as in nation-states. International relations and organizational theory can also help explain relationships among nonstate armed groups, and portray them as more unstable and dynamic than they are usually described.

Both frameworks explain how situations and contexts might change, causing competitors to perceive each other as collaborators, or collaborators to perceive each other as competitors. This can help explain how groups develop different power centers and individuals with diverging interests.

The issue of competing objectives coexisting is explored in the literature of international relations, especially during the Second World War. Jeffrey W. Legro has explored the question of why nations during those times cooperated, even if they tried to destroy one another. Legro emphasizes the organizational structures of national militaries, including how their beliefs and customs in waging war delimited the use of force.

More recently, the journalist Seymour Hersh has documented how the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff indirectly shared intelligence with the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In brief, the senior echelons of the military disagreed with the policy of President Barack Obama's and his State Department toward Assad, and were willing to undermine it.

In firm-level behavior, rules and boundaries exist as to when and where firms collaborate and compete. Nonstate armed groups also create formal arrangements among themselves, but increasingly lack explicit enforcement of guidelines and mandates. This increases the probability that a group will change from collaborator to competitor, or from competitor to collaborator.

Groups exist in an anarchic environment, and their decentralized structure increases ambiguity in the delimitation of their relationships. While certain external institutions can shift them to cooperate or to compete, such as the drug market, their internal features have a very strong hand in delimiting their relationships.

Militant groups, like firms, are composed of individuals who will always have different interests, and may push the groups in different directions. In 2014, the leadership of Syria’s Islamic Front issued a statement in support of anti-ISIS rebels in Atareb, but without declaring war against ISIS. Thus, it hoped to remain neutral toward the rival Islamist group. However parts of the Aleppo-based Tawhid brigade (a member of the Islamic Front) fought against ISIS, even if the leadership did not agree that doing so was one of its goals.

Around 2014, Jabhat al-Nusra showed evidence of suspected clashes in its internal structure and leadership. There were disputes when Maysar al-Juburi, a founding member of the group, was pushed out of his position. As reported by Aron Lund, after his expulsion Saleh al-Hamawi declared that Nusra's Shura Council, tasked with policy and supervision, was superficial and unstable. Moreover, Nusra’s branches in Qalamoun and northern Syria have been split from each other, as reflected in the decentralization of its chain of command.