Rebels without Borders: Transnational Insurgencies in World Politics by Idean Salehyan

By: MAJ David Munyua, Uganda People's Defence Force

Rebels without Borders: Transnational Insurgencies in World Politics

by Idean Salehyan

Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2009 ISBN-13-978-0801477546 US$19.95 216 pages

As a young boy growing up in the conflict-prone region of East and Central Africa, in 1979 my family and I had to flee civil war in our country, Uganda, to seek refuge in the Sudan. We then had to flee back to Uganda in 1987 because of yet another civil war. Idean Salehyan's book, Rebels without Borders: Transnational Insurgencies in World Politics, which grew out of his doctoral dissertation, thus comes as a validation of my personal observation that most civil wars have at least some element of interstate conflict. Salehyan argues that civil wars and international disputes are not easily separable because they tend to be mutually reinforcing. This theory of transnational rebellion (TNR), as presented in Rebels without Borders, is a knowledgeable addition to the literature and enhances our understanding of both interactions between bordering states and the role of nonstate actors in these relations. For purposes of discussion, the book can be divided broadly into three parts.

The first part (Chapters 1, 2, and 3) systematically presents the theory of TNR.
It begins with a critical review of the existing literature, which Salehyan tests and evaluates against his own extensive scholarship with the use of rich conflict data sets. The scientific paradigm that the author presents in this study is a valuable tool that he has used in previous work to augment knowledge in the disciplines of conflict studies, international relations, and political science.

One of Salehyan's primary arguments, which he supports with strong empirical evidence, is that when two unstable neighboring states are rivals, civil conflict is likely to develop in either state. This is because each rival state tends to provide sanctuary to insurgent groups that arise against the competitor's government. States, on their own, are unlikely to risk deploying their military and political forces beyond their sovereign territory for fear of breaking international law and thus attracting unnecessary condemnation. Insurgencies can thus be tacitly encouraged by rival governments as proxies to destabilize their neighbor. Salehyan, therefore, proposes that the best way to deal with TNR is for the affected states to cooperate and eliminate the insurgents from their respective territories, or else to work together toward a political settlement of the disputes between the state and the nonstate actors.

Salehyan also argues that states that are neighbored by weak states are more likely to have internal rebellions emerge because weak states typically lack control over all of their territory. TNRs are able to take advantage of a state's weaknesses to establish sanctuaries where they can organize, train, and launch attacks on the home state. Salehyan's quantitative analysis thus confirms earlier studies that claim that civil conflicts tend to be geographically clustered.1

Another statistically significant finding is that refugees who have fled to neighboring states tend to help prolong civil conflict in their home state, especially if they are located near the home country's border or if the host state fails, intentionally or through incapacity, to police the refugee camps. This is because such conditions offer a friendly environment for insurgents to establish sanctuaries from which they can sustain their rebellion. The refugee camp becomes an extraterritorial base and a strategic asset to the TNR, and often plays a primary role in determining the longevity of the insurgency. Salehyan points out that when the refugee-hosting state is friendly to the home state, a TNR will find it hard to operate from the hosting state and the rebellion is likely to end. At the least, it will not cause interstate conflict.

The author's analysis also finds a strong relationship between the existence of ethnic groups whose territory is divided by an international border and the likelihood of internal rebellion. Because these ethnic groups have access to their neighbors across the border, a local insurgent group can easily find support and set up bases across the border from where it will operate. Unless the neighboring state is friendly to the home state, Salehyan postulates that ethnic groups located along borders are more likely to rebel and cause regional instability than those that live away from the frontier.

The second part of the book (Chapter 4) presents two long case studies, one of which focuses on the Contra War in Nicaragua (c. 1979–1989) and the other on the Rwandan Civil War of 1994, which brought the Rwandan Patriotic Front to power. Salehyan uses these case studies to further support his theoretical arguments and illustrate the relationship dynamics between states and nonstate actors during armed conflicts.

In the book's last part (Chapter 5), Salehyan summarizes and evaluates the findings of his empirical analyses. When rebels have the ability to mobilize outside the target state, he notes, armed conflict is more likely to erupt. Furthermore, rebels who can freely cross borders have a better chance of escaping state repression and therefore, of sustaining a stronger insurgency, because state boundaries inhibit government authorities from projecting their power across the borders. Salehyan also acknowledges other factors that play significant roles in the dynamics of the interaction between states and nonstate actors, such as bargaining. While such factors cannot be measured quantitatively, they play a significant role in the resolution of conflicts of all kinds. Nevertheless, he recommends that to effectively resolve both internal and cross-border armed conflicts, the international community should focus on dealing with the problem of safe havens for TNRs.

Salehyan suggests a number of interesting topics for further research. For instance: How does the support from members of their community who live abroad or from external well-wishers influence rebel groups' mobilization against the target state? How do these groups of insurgents differ from the TNRs that gain strength from establishing extraterritorial sanctuaries? In instances where the hosting state exerts control over the activities of the TNR, how is the armed conflict likely to play out? Salehyan provides strong evidence that poorly policed refugee camps facilitate the operations of TNRs. What happens in a situation in which refugees are spread among the populace instead of being congregated in camps?

The strength of Rebels without Borders lies in its first part, in which the author lays out his research and theories on how and why TNRs become entrenched. The methodical presentation of the material, its empirical testing, and the strong support the author gives each argument with illustrative case studies makes this book a worthwhile addition to the literature on insurgency. I found it to be both well written and well referenced, and I think it should prove useful to students and scholars who seek a deeper understanding of global irregular conflicts.

Salehyan could have added value to Rebels without Borders, however, if he had explored some of the literature on why and when rebels make the strategic decision to go transnational. For instance, what theories of mobilization do insurgents and opposition elements use to embark on their actions against the state? 2 By adding this dimension to his discussion, he could have brought on board a wider audience of sociology and political science students and also made the book more self-contained, especially for readers who have limited background knowledge in theories of social movements.

Furthermore, Salehyan's finding that ethnic tribes living along borders are
more likely to resort to rebellion than those that are located farther away from the borders needs to be taken with some caution. Another similar study by James Fearon and David Laitin shows that ethnicity, or any other form of demographic diversity, has no significant influence on the onset of most civil wars.
3 Further studies on ethnicity may be warranted to clear up this grey area.

I have personally experienced a situation in which rebellion in one state escalated into armed civil conflict in a neighboring state. Salehyan's findings are therefore not totally new to me, at least in practice, but he must be credited for conducting empirical tests on this assertion and thus coming up with the TNR theory. It seems to me, however, that the relationship between Sudan and its southern neighbor, Uganda, would not only illustrate the TNR theory much better than the Nicaraguan war does, but also would point out the exceptions to the model. The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) was Sudan's most prominent insurgent group, while Uganda had (and still has) the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) as one of its many insurgent groups. The LRA found sanctuary in the Sudan for years, but the SPLA, although it had sympathizers in the Ugandan government, did not have sanctuaries in Uganda. This is an exception to the theory of TNRs, and an exploration of it would help deepen Sulehyan's analysis.4

Despite these limitations, Rebels without Borders overall is a good book for students of conflict studies, such as military leaders, strategic decision makers, and dons of conflict studies and political science. Graduate students who wish to see an example of a well-written and methodically presented project report may also find this book useful.

About the Author(s):
Reviewed by MAJ David Munyua is a Marine officer in the Uganda People's Defence Force.

This is a work of the US federal government and not subject to copyright protection in the United States. Foreign copyrights may apply.

  1. Halvard Buhaug and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, "Contagion or Confusion? Why Conflicts Cluster in Space," International Studies Quarterly 52 (2008): 215–33; Idean Salehyan and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, "Refugees and the Spread of Civil War," International Organization 60 (Spring 2006): 335–66: 
  2. For a discussion of these ideas, see Mark I. Lichbach, "Rethinking Rationality and Rebellion: Theories of Collective Action and Problems of Collective Dissent," Rationality and Society 6, no. 1 (1 January 1994): 8–39: 
  3. See James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin, "Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War," American Political Science Review 97, no. 1 (February 2003): 75–90: 
  4. See Christopher Day, "The Fates of Rebels: Insurgencies in Uganda," Comparative Politics 43, no. 4 (July 2011): 439–58. 
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