Rethinking the Role of Religion in Counterinsurgency

Insurgent violence in the name of religion dominates our headlines. This summer, Boko Haram advanced rapidly across northeastern Nigeria in pursuit of its announced goal to create an Islamic state in the region. ISIS enjoyed similar success when it combined threats against Western involvement in the Middle East with the gruesome beheading of journalists and aid workers. More recently, the threat of domestic terrorism inspired by foreign guerrillas has surfaced in Ottawa and just last week, a horrific attack on worshippers in a Jerusalem synagogue resulted in the city’s deadliest mass killing in years.

Events like these leave us asking: What is it about religion that inspires such violence? Far less frequently do we consider the intense shock and outrage they provoke. Many of us, however, including government and military officials, exhibit a particularly fervent reaction to religious violence. Why? And, how might this influence the policies we advocate for and adopt in response?


Who Fights Matters

Despite the frequency and consequences of religious conflicts today, surprisingly little research explores the cultural, organizational, and cognitive biases that influence military planners’ reactions. Too often analysts assume states have fixed interests and will respond in a uniform way to any type of non-state challenger. When the role of religion is considered, attention overwhelmingly focuses on how it shapes rebel behavior.

Yet, research by social movement scholars over the past decade persuasively argues that the identity of dissenters can substantially affect the type and extent of force applied by the state, although their focus has been primarily on domestic police, not military forces. Christian Davenport, Sarah Soule, and David A. Armstrong, for instance, show in a recent study the impact of demonstrators’ race on police response. Examining U.S. protests between 1960 and 1990, they find that African-American protestors were more likely to attract a police presence than other groups and, once present, police were more likely to make arrests and use force and violence, especially before 1970.

Policymakers frequently emphasize the need for overwhelming force against insurgents perceived to be motivated by religion.

Terror at the Name of God

Building on this body of literature, my own research considers how the religious identity of insurgents can arouse a similar reaction in COIN planning and operations. While focusing on British security forces during the early postwar period, I find evidence that decision makers construe religious opposition movements as particularly violent and uncompromising. Across a diverse set of cases, however, one can find a tendency to prioritize coercive tactics over population-centric methods. For example, policymakers frequently emphasize the need for overwhelming force against insurgents perceived to be motivated by religion. Appeals within the U.S. foreign policy community that suggested “out-terrorizing” Islamist insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan stand out as one notable instance. The call by Nigeria’s President Goodluck last May to wage a “total” war against Boko Haram another. Netanyahu’s promise of a harsh response to this week’s synagogue attack a third.

Similar views also manifest on the battlefield, although they are more difficult to document. David Morris, for instance, records in his controversial article on the Iraq War, The Big Suck, that “To hear the marines describe it, Ramadi is the Chernobyl of the insurgency, a place where the basic proteins of guerrilla warfare have been irradiated by technology and radical Islam, producing seemingly endless cells of wide-eyed gunslingers, bomb gurus, and aspiring martyrs. Globalization wrought with guns and God. A place devoid of mercy, a place where any talk of winning hearts and minds would be met with a laugh.” A 19th-century British observer of the Russian conquest of the Caucasus adopts a remarkably similar tone. Trying to dissuade those at home from aiding the rebels, he warned that Moscow faced guerillas intent on creating a new Empire in the region, one “based on the principles of Mahomedan fanaticism and domination.”

Finally, even a cursory review of insurgencies over the past half-century reveals that episodes of disproportionate force by counterinsurgents fighting religious guerrillas are far from the exception. For instance, following an uprising by members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hafez al-Assad ordered a scorched earth campaign against the city of Hama. The massacre has since been described as one of “the single deadliest acts by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East.” The Sino-Tibetan insurgency wars inspired a bloody response by the state, with approximately 85,000 deaths and Lhasa’s three main monasteries damaged nearly beyond repair. The Russian bombardment of Grozny during the Second Chechen War, in turn, was so devastating that the United Nations declared Grozny the most destroyed city on earth in 2003.

Lest one think that such violence is restricted to authoritarian regimes, democratic governments have inflicted equally intense levels of devastation. The Indian army, for instance, employed six tanks and approximately 80 high-explosive shells in its assault of the Golden Temple in Amritsar during the 1980s. Similar episodes of disproportionate force characterized battles during the Iraq War, such as when U.S. Marines in April 2004 launched Hellfire missiles and two 500-pound bombs to subdue 30 to 40 insurgents firing from the Abdul Aziz al-Samarrai mosque in Fallujah.


Misplaced faith

For over a decade now, scholars and policymakers have kept their focus squarely on how religion shapes non-state actors’ behavior. This has led to widely cited findings that suggest religious conflicts last longer, involve more casualties, and remain more difficult to resolve than other types of conflict. Yet, the jury remains out on whether these purported effects are a consequence of religion motivating rebels or the response provoked in counterinsurgent forces. The above-mentioned examples, of course, do not demonstrate a pervasive or systematic bias in state response. However, they do suggest the value of further study. Looking at only one side of the battlefield misses the many ways religion influences contemporary warfare.

[Photo source: Flickr Commons.]


Jason Klocek is a doctoral candidate in the Travers Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He holds an M.A. in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served with the U.S. Peace Corps in Turkmenistan. His research focuses on religious violence, counterinsurgency, and transitional justice.


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number (1423286). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.”



  1. Neil 24 November, 2014 at 20:52 Reply

    This is academic BS. It talks in circles and never really says anything useful, but I think I get the true intent with this line ” The above-mentioned examples, of course, do not demonstrate a pervasive or systematic bias in state response. However, they do suggest the value of further study.”

    • Jack 25 November, 2014 at 14:01 Reply

      Neil, glad to read your incisive analysis. Tell us more about YOUR theory about the role of religion in counterinsurgency. I bet it’s awesome.

  2. BenK 25 November, 2014 at 16:12 Reply

    I suggest that the analysis would be advanced by properly defining religion as any system of beliefs addressing meaning and purpose.

    If this definition is applied, then many struggles appear characterized as a conflict between two religions. Communism and secularism are simply two additional religions, even if the adherents to each simultaneously embrace the traditional forms of one or more ceremonial systems. The conflict can be symmetric or asymmetric.

    There are, however, conflicts in which the battle is between people who share a religion. In these, it may be easier to understand the other, to reconcile, to compromise.

  3. Bip 25 November, 2014 at 16:18 Reply

    I don’t think the comment requires that the guy making the comment has a better theory. It is the author’s apparent area of expertise, and we all came here to read it. I agree, the author made no real point, except to say “someone” needed to do more research. Does this comment mean I’m an idiot for not having a theory on the matter?

  4. david Flynn 25 November, 2014 at 16:36 Reply

    Religion has been a taboo topic for our political and military leaders for more than the past 15 years in spite of the fact we have been fighting enemies who are fueled ideologically by islamic extremism. We have missed opportunities to study the enemies beliefs and leverage the islamic host nations to counter the extremist narrative. We are fighting 18 year old Taliban insurgents who were 4 in 2001. Many of them are spun up by extremist views that we’ve not spent any effort to counter. Further study is absolutely needed followed up with an action plan.

    • CAS 26 November, 2014 at 05:58 Reply

      Religion’s role in war, especially insurgency and counterinsurgency, is certainly worthy of more research. Psychology, sociology, theology, and history are all important aspects to religion, and understanding the “why” someone fights may be more important than understanding the “how.”

  5. Jason Klocek 26 November, 2014 at 17:47 Reply

    Reply from the Author:

    Thank you to those who have read the above post. As the discussed research is an ongoing project, I welcome all constructive feedback. In reply to the initial set of comments, which seem to concentrate on three main themes, a few thoughts:

    1. Why read this post?
    A couple of comments suggest that drawing attention to an understudied and important research question is not of sufficient value to justify the post. They argue that I should have also provided a clear argument and systematic evidence. I agree that all three are important components of a research project, but perhaps not a single
    post (especially one that is under 1000 words). I look forward to sharing more about my project in this and other outlets as it develops. This will include the analysis of archival research currently being conducted in the United Kingdom, Cyprus, and Israel.

    2. How should we define religion?
    If, as I suggest, decision makers respond to religious insurgents differently than other types of irregular forces, we need to understand how those actors construe religion. Scholars and analysts often impose their own definitions, which can sometimes be helpful. However,
    this can also bias results in significant ways (see Jonathan Z. Smith, William Cavanaugh and others).

    3. Where to go next?
    A couple posts agree that the role of religion in COIN operations deserves further study. They suggest (a) an interdisciplinary approach to (b) more fully understand how religion motivates insurgents. I fully support the first proposition. However, on the second, I would repeat one of the main claims in my post: attention to how religion motivates insurgents cannot be our only focus. We must also consider our response.

    • Chris Miller 27 November, 2014 at 00:28 Reply

      Thanks for this, Jason. It is perfectly valid to raise a point for discussion without assuming that you have all of the answers. Not all material must be an Opinion piece. This was an exploration of a certain aspect of a topic that certainly does call for more research. The questions you ask and the points you raise are valid and worthy of further debate.

  6. Pat Smith 7 December, 2014 at 22:51 Reply

    I saved your piece for later and now it is later; the quick reaction I had to it and to the comments may involve more kinetic concepts from a tactical targeting aspect which involves the concept of counterforce vs. countervalue considerations. The countervalue decision making may involve more religious aspects such as if you take out the Vatican, we take out Mecca. I concur with your observation that little emphasis has been strategically placed on religion in COIN although Petraeus and Cos. made some efforts for the cultural identification with Iraqi tribal affiliation during the mid 2000s. For federal workers, too close a look at religion hit(s) the “Islamaphobia” roadblocks and still does. The recent Hillary being empathetic comments are another angle on this, but do not broach the politically incorrect position of whether the 6th Pillar of Islam is truly external jihad. Good luck on your research.

    Pat Smith, Fletcher MALD, UC Berkeley BA, Navy SpecOps/SWO, IC Analyst, Peace Corps Rural Development, Mali 1977-80.

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