Islamists and Nationalists: Rebel Motivation and Counterinsurgency in Russia's North Caucasus

[joint work with Monica Duffy Toft]

Abstract: How does religion shape the nature of insurgency? Do Islamist insur-gents fight differently from those with secular aims, like national self-determination? Do they select different types of targets, use different military strategies, respond to different types of incentives? Scholarly attention to the role of religion in civil and interstate war has increased in recent years, but there re-mains little empirical assessment of whether and how religious motivations might influence insurgent strategy and tactics. This paper starts to fill this gap by offering a disaggregated analysis of Islamist and nationalist violence in Russia's North Caucasus. Using a new incident-level dataset, we find that nationalist and Islamist violence share many of the same causes, with several important excep-tions: Islamist violence closely tracks the religious calendar, more closely follows international trends, is more geographically dispersed, and is less responsive to coercive pressure than violence by secular groups. Whereas selective Russian counterinsurgency tactics have outperformed indiscriminate force in eliciting compliance from nationalist rebels, this relationship has not held for Islamists. We also find that religiously-motivated violence accounts for only a minority of the unrest in the Caucasus, and conclude that Russia's reliance on indiscriminate tactics – in part driven by the assumption that most of its enemies are irreconcil-able jihadists – is making it more difficult to pacify the region.

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