Frenemies: Why Rival Insurgents Work Together

April 19, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: InsurgencyColombiaSyriaISISJabhat Al-Nusra

Frenemies: Why Rival Insurgents Work Together

From Syria to Colombia, no bedfellow is too strange.

In late 2013 and early 2014, the Islamic Front fought ISIS in some areas and made peace or aligned with it in other regions, including Aleppo. Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham would fight with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, only to then make peace with it and turn their attention against ISIS (if only at the local lower levels).

Throughout the war in Syria, there have been military strategies described as “operations rooms” (ghurfat amaliyat). These are basically coalitions to grab territory, made up of different militant groups which might have different financial backers or different ideologies. Yet this military concept cannot explain why some actors would ally themselves with others in certain regions, yet fight the same groups in other parts of the country. It is important to note that this is not caused by chaotic or irrational feature of nonstate armed groups. but rather part of a very logical dimension of power and authority.

Colombia has witnessed not only stable, tactical alliances between guerrillas that had been rivals and competitors with regard to the insurrectional model (such as Cuban foquismo, the accumulation of resources to besiege urban centers, and so on), but also between antagonists at the highest grade of hostility: paramilitaries and guerrillas.

Starting in 1982, the guerrillas known as the FARC began a process of expansion. When it began, FARC wanted to create more fronts across Colombian territory—akin to an army, able to operate more effectively according to the ecology, environment and context in which each front was situated. But this process had an unexpected effect for the central command: one of decentralization, as functions and autonomy started to shift from the core to the periphery.

In 2005, the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) were fighting in the region of Arauca, while cooperating in most other regions of Colombia. The FARC and the ELN had been united in the Simón Bolívar Guerrilla Coordinating Board to coordinate actions in their armed struggle, until the board dissolved around 1991. However, there were many cases of alliance between both groups, especially in the peace dialogues of Caracas and Tlaxcala.

In an interview I had on April 11 with Colonel Michel Martínez Poinsenet (retired) of the National Army of Colombia’s intelligence branch, he explained that conflicts existed between the leaders of each bloc or front of the FARC/ELN and their command centers. While the FARC command center would sanction a front leader for things like stealing or enriching themselves beyond the “norm,” it tended to ignore leaders who made tactical alliances with other groups whose goals or policies did not coincide.

If at any given stage, for example, the FARC command center did not have a policy of collaboration or animosity towards the ELN, but certain front leaders decided to collaborate or compete with them in certain regions where they operated because local conditions necessitated those dynamics, then this would be ignored—or at least tolerated. Furthermore, that decentralization that took place post-1982 made some front leaders so strong that it created a power struggle between core and periphery.

This is why the peace process in Colombia will not end well. Just as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) saw many fronts decide not to surrender their weapons and demobilize, the same will happen with the FARC. When this happens, those groups which do not abide by the peace process will shift from rural warfare to the urban centers.

Dynamics of “coopetition” also extend to enemies of the highest grade, like paramilitaries and the FARC. The AUC and the FARC were considered natural enemies (and in a sense they were, as the paramilitaries were created to fight the guerrillas) yet in certain stages of the conflict they had reached agreements of cooperation in regards to drug trafficking, such as in Putumayo. This dynamic is very important, as it shows that even “natural enemies” can cooperate in one way or another.


Most analysts argue that it was during the AUC demobilization process with the government that alliances arose between the FARC and AUC groups that were not adhering to these talks. Many of these alliances were stable in Cúcuta, while others were volatile in Bajo Cauca or the Pacific.

Nevertheless, it is important to highlight that research by the prominent journalist María Teresa Ronderos demonstrates otherwise. Through journalistic accounts, based on the testimonies of demobilized fighters and others close to Fidel Castaño, she reveals alliances between the FARC and the AUC that took place prior to the AUC's demobilization.


In her book Guerras Recicladas, Ronderos describes how Fidel Castaño, trying to evade losses caused by the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), searched for channels of communication with the leaders of FARC’s Fifth Front, which played a part in Uraba. He then proposed territorial and military treaties with them, in order to inflict damages on the EPL.

Testimony from ex-paramilitary fighter Elkin Casarrubia Posada, who formed part of the AUC, declared that Fidel Castaño promised the commander of FARC’s Fifth Front money, weapons and some territorial control in exchange for respect for the paramilitaries and their zones. This would be corroborated by Danis Sierra, a demobilized FARC guerrilla who in a court hearing declared that there were direct relations between his commander and Castaño.

A stable alliance was almost signed between Castaño’s front of paramilitaries and the FARC, but Fidel Castaño was assassinated in 1994. It was rumored that he was assassinated on the orders of his brother Carlos Castaño Gil, who did not believe Fidel had a role in the political and revolutionary project of the paramilitaries.

A few years later, investigations by the attorney general's office discussed in an article on March 6, 2004, in the prominent Colombian journal El Tiempo, highlighted that a FARC front in Caquetá and another front of the AUC were giving up their ideological differences and their historical animosity. That branch of the FARC would help in the cultivation of cocaine, while the AUC front would market it and send it abroad.

An article on January 30, 2007, in El Tiempo highlighted how Carlos Castaño of the AUC had told the bishop of Montería, Colombia, that those responsible for assassinating a Catholic leader in 2002 had been an alliance between AUC paramilitaries and FARC guerrillas with coincidental interests in that region, and against the Catholic leader.

There are other similar cases, such as when one of the leaders of the Medellín Cartel, José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, declared war against FARC; in other regions, the Medellín Cartel under the orders of Pablo Escobar negotiated with the FARC.

The EPL, another guerrilla group, also saw collaboration and competition with the FARC. The EPL was born from the fragmentation of the Colombian Communist Party. It first competed against the FARC and then made peace, dividing territories among them. Yet with the demobilization of a part of the EPL and its accession into the AUC, there followed particular wars against the FARC.

In general, groups might compete for recruits or through propaganda, while sharing weapons or training centers. Other groups might compete in drug production but cooperate in sharing drug trafficking routes.

Hezbollah and Al Qaeda, while mortal enemies now, exemplified what organizational theory labels “coopetition” perfectly in the late 1980s and early 1990s, conducting a propaganda war for ideological supremacy while collaborating in training suicide bombers.

In his important article “Ethnic Defection in Civil War,” Stathis Kalyvas explains how the field of IR has tended to incorrectly describe ethnic groups as unitary actors. As I have briefly shown, it is also futile to describe nonstate armed groups as unitary actors. More serious research is required to address the fact that groups can both work together and fight each other, both in space and in time. Without this, policies designed to combat them will be partially blind.

Carlo Jose Vicente Caro has an M.S in Security Studies and an M.A in Islamic Studies from Columbia University. He researches US Foreign Policy and Terrorism.

Image: Flickr/ Policía Nacional de los colombianos.