Rebel capability and strategic violence against civilians

Reed Wood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

257 Scopus citations


This article explores the strategic motivations for insurgent violence against civilians. It argues that violence is a function of insurgent capacity and views violence and security as selective benefits that insurgents manipulate to encourage support. Weak insurgent groups facing collective action problems have an incentive to target civilians because they lack the capacity to provide sufficient benefits to entice loyalty. By contrast, stronger rebels can more easily offer a mix of selective incentives and selective repression to compel support. This relationship is conditioned by the counterinsurgency strategies employed by the government. Indiscriminate regime violence can effectively reduce the level of selective incentives necessary for insurgents to recruit support, thus reducing their reliance on violence as a mobilization tool. However, this relationship only holds when rebels are sufficiently capable of credibly providing security and other incentives to civilian supporters. These hypotheses are tested using data on one-sided violence from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program. The statistical analysis supports the hypothesis that comparatively capable insurgents kill fewer civilians than their weaker counterparts. The results also suggest a complex interaction between insurgent capability and government strategies in shaping insurgent violence. While weaker insurgents sharply escalate violence in the face of indiscriminate regime counterinsurgency tactics, stronger groups employ comparatively less violence against civilians as regime violence escalates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)601-614
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Peace Research
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 5 2010


  • civil war
  • civilian victimization
  • insurgency
  • violence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Safety Research
  • Political Science and International Relations


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