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Eye for an Eye: The Dynamics of Blood Revenge in Civil War

Over the past fifty years, about two-thirds of all civil wars have occurred in countries where customary traditions of honor and retaliation regulate social life. Firmly embedded in the fabric of local societies, the customary code of blood revenge—the practice of avenging an insult by retaliating against the initial culprit or his close kinsmen—has survived and, at times, thrived amid the chaos of warfare.

Evidence of its enduring presence emerges from the accounts of dozens of irregular conflicts, ranging from the insurgent battlegrounds of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the war-torn countries of Syria and Iraq, from the guerrilla-affected region of Western Boyacá in Colombia to the territories contested by Maoist rebels in central India, from the Sudanese civil war to the ethnic conflict in Kosovo, down to the terrorism-hit territories of southern Philippines and Corsica.

In our article recently published in Security Studies, we draw upon extensive evidence to investigate the ways in which blood revenge shapes the dynamics of irregular conflicts. We argue that blood revenge offers a local solution to the collective action problem faced by belligerents in civil wars.

According to the conventional view of this dilemma, joining an armed rebellion is subject to a free-rider problem; that is, individuals who expose themselves to life-threatening risks do so in pursuit of rewards—such as regime change—that, if achieved, others would enjoy, even if they contributed little to the cause.

This undermines their incentives to join a rebellion and expose themselves to serious risks in the first place. But in areas where blood revenge endures, the imperative of defending individual and collective honor makes a refusal to mobilize harder to imagine, with enormous repercussions for war efforts. Specifically, we show that blood revenge helps overcome the collective action problem and influences irregular conflicts in at least four ways, namely by shaping the patterns of violent mobilization, target selection, recruitment, and disengagement.

Violent Mobilization

Irregular conflicts are notoriously festered by episodes of murder, rape, abuses, and insults to honor. All these crimes are triggers for blood revenge and, accordingly, call for a retaliatory response. In such circumstances, avengers are compelled to seek membership in armed units, despite their ideological or political attitudes toward the conflict, to exact blood revenge against individuals serving in the ranks of an opposed faction.

During the anti-Islamic State campaign of 2014–2021, for example, scores of apolitical Iraqi tribesmen joined the ranks of progovernment factions to avenge their relatives killed by jihadist militants. For many of these fighters, the risk of encountering death in combat was a stark reality; nonetheless, the nonmaterial reward of restoring their familial honor frequently offset the costs of high-risk mobilization.

At times, the obligation to exact blood revenge can lead to the collective mobilization of multiple kinsmen invested in the pursuit of retaliation. Honor is a family affair, after all, and thus demands collective action when an avenger fails to retaliate, or when exacting vengeance is too complex for an individual to accomplish alone. During the civil war in South Sudan, ethnic massacres have often driven multiple kinsmen to collectively join armed bands in order to maximize their chances of succeeding in a blood revenge murder.

In mid-December 2013, when South Sudanese soldiers massacred about six hundred Nuer civilians in the capital city of Juba, countless tribesmen mobilized into a militia known as the White Army to avenge their fallen relatives. In this way, blood revenge triggers the high-risk mobilization of multiple kinsmen-turned-avengers, thereby dragging entire families into cycles of tit-for-tat retributive killings amid the ongoing hostilities.

Target Selection

In most societies where blood revenge endures, avengers seek to target either the direct culprit or a close kinsman. Nonetheless, in the chaos of warfare, identifying the culprits—let alone targeting them—is often unfeasible. In these circumstances, avengers may decide to expand the pool of targets, which can grow to include anyone tied to the preferred, yet unreachable victim.

This aspect of blood revenge poses substantial threats to soldiers and civilian personnel stationed in garrisons where a potential culprit is believed to be located. Unable to target the identified culprit, avengers may be compelled to target any other serviceman located in the same garrison.

A famous case involved a unit of US soldiers deployed near the Iraqi town of Yusufiyah in 2006. In retaliation for the rape and murder of a local girl by an American soldier, a group of local insurgents abducted and killed two of his comrades, stating their intention to do the same with other members of the unit to appease the girl’s relatives.

When identifying the culprit is unfeasible, avengers may widen the pool of targets to include any fighter serving in the same faction. The loosening of the selectivity criterion significantly increases the risks faced by soldiers deployed in theaters of irregular warfare.

At times, the growth of the pool of viable targets can put entire (sub)ethnic and (sub)religious communities at risk of retaliatory killings. When targeting members of an armed group is unfeasible, avengers may opt for targeting unarmed civilians instead—a process that can exacerbate sectarian and ethnic strife during a civil war. Consider the case of US drone strikes in Yemen.

For the relatives of individuals killed in these strikes, identifying the pilot is impossible, and it is almost as difficult to target US soldiers stationed in highly fortified bases. Avengers may therefore seek to exact vengeance against any American citizen, regardless of whether this target wears a uniform or not. Blood revenge thus constitutes a crucial yet underappreciated driver of civilian victimization and target selection in civil wars and insurgencies.

Recruitment and (Denied) Disengagement

Given the risks associated with participation in armed conflicts, belligerents habitually struggle to recruit and retain an effective fighting force. To overcome this problem, armed actors frequently resort to “selective incentives”—private economic rewards distributed only to those individuals willing to fight and kill under the group’s banners.

Nonetheless, these groups can often be flooded with opportunistic joiners, so much so that defections and mutiny can become endemic. These issues are less prominent when armed groups recruit avengers, whose penchant for vengeance motivates their high-risk mobilization, regardless of whether material rewards are available.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban has excelled in recruiting tribesmen seeking vengeance for their relatives killed in drone strikes and clashes with coalition forces—a skill that was acknowledged by General Stanley McChrystal in his famous speech on “counterinsurgency mathematics.”

In civil wars, belligerents may also deploy blood revenge against the relatives of enemy fighters to force their defection. In this way, blood revenge provides an effective mechanism for coercive recruitment, one that can swell a group’s ranks by drawing on its opponents’ fighting force.

During the Second Russian-Chechen War, pro-Russian Chechen units exploited the logic of blood revenge with considerable success, forcing hundreds of insurgents to defect and join local indigenous progovernment militias, or kadyrovtsy, to shield their families from the threat of retaliatory raids.

Blood revenge can also be turned into a counter-defection mechanism. In Somalia, al-Shabaab is known for exacting blood revenge against the relatives of defected militants to discourage other mutinies. In this way, both insurgents and progovernment militias can obtain and retain a pool of highly motivated fighters, who are compelled to fight despite a lack of ideological affinity with the group’s own cause and the absence of other selective incentives.

Once recruited, avengers embroiled in blood feuds are often prevented from demobilizing, as doing so condemns the fighters, along with their relatives, by rendering them vulnerable targets of blood revenge attacks.

In Chechnya, members of kadyrovtsy units who sought to disengage lost state protection and, accordingly, sentenced their kinsmen to becoming easy prey for avengers-turned-insurgents. For many of these progovernment fighters, fighting “until the very end” was thus a much more common epilogue to their armed militancy than demobilization.

Emil Aslan is a professor of security studies at the Institute of Political Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague.

David S. Siroky is a professor of politics in the Department of Government at the University of Essex.

Roberto Colombo is a doctoral researcher in Central and East European Studies at the University of Glasgow.

Source: Modern War Institute

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