There’s a new trend in civil wars. After declining in the 1990s, the number of active civil wars has significantly increased since 2003. Over the past 13 years, large-scale civil wars have broken out in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Pakistan, Rwanda, Somalia, Sri Lanka, South Sudan, Chad, Mali, the Central African Republic and Ukraine. Meanwhile, countries like Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon may be on the cusp of their own civil wars.
In a new article, “The New New Civil Wars,” I argue that this increase is partly the result of the new and evolving information and communication (ICT) environment. We now live in a Web 2.0 world of social networking and cloud computing — where citizens and elites operate in an interactive Internet environment. Anyone with a smartphone can easily produce and disseminate material from almost anywhere on the globe.
How will this affect civil wars? Here are five trends to watch:
1) Information technology is likely to make it easier for citizens to organize protests. Especially in highly repressive societies, information technology is likely to benefit individual citizens more than political elites. Dictators and autocrats will find it difficult to control the information their citizens receive. They will also have more difficulty preventing individuals from coordinating protests and organizing grass roots activity. The result could be a boon for popular demonstrations and rebellion.
2) The Internet could lead to more rebel groups and longer civil wars. Typically, rebel groups relied on a base of local support and financing to make mobilization possible. Internet media campaigns now make it easier for rebel entrepreneurs, especially those with limited local backing, to solicit the soldiers and financing necessary to start a war. The result is likely to be a greater number of rebel groups fighting in any given war.
The evidence seems to support this trend: The average number of rebel groups fighting in civil wars has increased over time. In 1950 the average number or rebel groups in a given civil war was eight; in 2010 it was 14.
The Internet also allows these groups to diversify their sources of income. This means rebel groups will be less dependent on a single source of income or a single patron. If they lose access to one source of income (i.e., coca) or one patron (i.e., Iran), they still have access to many other potential backers. The result is likely to be longer civil wars.
3) The Internet is global, and so are rebel campaigns. The new information environment also means that rebel groups are likely to frame their objectives in global terms, something we have observed with the proliferation of Salafi-Jihadist groups in the Middle East.
This is true for two reasons. First, the Internet allows warring factions to draw on worldwide resources, which then encourages them to promote more ambitious aims (such as the creation of a global caliphate). Second, the Internet is likely to disproportionately reward groups with transnational rather than local objectives. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda, for instance, rely on a wider Internet audience to solicit both revenue and recruits. Thus, the new information environment has shifted the advantage from homegrown groups with local bases of support to transnational groups with global networks and connections.
4) Civil wars in the Internet age are more likely to spread. Research has already found that civil wars produce a contagion effect. Once one civil war breaks out, it increases the risk that civil war breaks out in neighboring countries.
With the Internet, ideas and ideology are likely to spread more rapidly and more widely in two ways. The first is through the direct dissemination of online information. The second is through the recruitment of foreign soldiers. ISIS and al-Qaeda, for example, use Internet propaganda to recruit foreign fighters from around the world. These fighters then receive indoctrination and training, and eventually return to their home countries to create new networks.
5) The Internet may lead to more abuse of local citizens in civil wars. In the past, the conventional wisdom held that the support of local populations was crucial for rebel groups to survive. But in the new information environment, groups may get their backing from outsiders. This would tend to eliminate restraints on abuse of local citizens.
Indeed, studies have found that rebel groups that rely on the local population for support or financing are less likely to commit human rights violations. Conversely, rebel groups that receive significant material support from external patrons are more likely to use violence toward civilians. In effect, the Internet may be freeing rebel groups to engage in human rights abuses.
What’s behind the latest wave of civil wars?
This new ICT environment may help explain why so many civil wars have broken out in Muslim majority states since 2003 — and why they have been fought by multiple Islamist groups whose goals extend throughout the Muslim world.
Citizens in Muslim majority countries, especially those with significant populations excluded from power, were perfectly positioned to take advantage of the new ICT environment to challenge their governments. Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Chad, Nigeria, Pakistan and Mali were among the most authoritarian, information-poor countries in the world. The new online networks in these countries created an opening for individuals to organize, for rebel groups to link to other groups, and for human capital and war financing to begin to flow.
Combatants in Muslim countries were also quick to figure out how to exploit ICT to their advantage. They discovered that appealing to the large Sunni population around the world as well as Gulf oil states allowed them to utilize the Internet to bring in more money and recruits than had previously been possible. The Internet became a tool to tap into the global nature of both the Sunni population and Persian Gulf financing.
This does not mean that other groups in other regions of the world will not learn how to exploit the advantages of ICT. Groups with a large number of international kin (especially wealthy kin) could pursue similar strategies. Web 2.0 has changed the costs and benefits of fighting civil wars, and other groups are likely to learn these lessons soon.
Barbara F. Walter is a professor of political science at the School of Global Policy & Strategy at the University of California, San Diego. She is co-founder of the blog Political Violence @ a Glance.