How are some rebel leaders able to sustain violent collective action but others not? Most theories focus on leaders' use of selective incentives and efforts to lower their transaction costs and raise those of the government. We argue that a leader's ability to arouse emotions of anger, humiliation, and fear is also critical. Foreign leaders and former exiles typically lack the legitimacy and understanding of local politics necessary to incite such emotions. We test this argument in three case studies in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. In this period, the Sadrist Trend sustained violent collective action and gained lasting political power, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq failed to maintain its influence, and al-Qaeda in Iraq first gained and then lost its ability to mobilize violence.
How was Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist Trend, able to sustain collective violence and thereby become a key political player in Iraq between 2003 and 2011, while the leaders of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) failed to maintain the influence they had? More generally, how do leaders overcome the collective action challenge? Sustaining collective political violence is exceedingly difficult: while violent groups produce public goods for their sympathizers, active participants risk punitive retaliation. If “rationality requires inaction,” what sustains violent civilian mobilization?
Predicting which individuals will emerge as key local leaders is crucial whether the United States and its allies aim to defend a government against an insurgency or to abet rebels in overthrowing dictators. During conflicts in Afghanistan (2001–14), Iraq (2003–11), Libya (2011), and Syria (2011–present), the United States backed exiled leaders who proved incapable of building local support and overlooked homegrown leaders who adeptly sustained violent collective action and gained political influence. These mistakes contributed to the radicalization of social movements and empowerment of anti-US forces.
Academics and policymakers share a blind spot: in explaining collective violence, they focus on rationalist solutions to the “rebel's dilemma” and disregard leaders' discursive emotional appeals. Yet emotions such as anger, humiliation, and fear are key to sustaining violent collective action. “I'm angry! I'm angry at this filthy life!” a Falluja resident said of the US-led occupation of Iraq. Others in the city shared his sentiment: “We don't accept humiliation and we don't accept colonialism.” Within a year of the invasion, Falluja became the epicenter of the Sunni Arab resistance and Iraq was convulsed by violence. The need to explore psychological motivators of collective violence is urgent. The US military and policymakers have recently acknowledged this as they seek to defeat actors such as the Islamic State (IS) by trying to understand the “psychological, emotional and cultural power” such groups use in “drawing people to them in droves.”
Scholars have identified three possible solutions to the collective action problem. First, realists argue that a hegemon can provide public goods directly or motivate contributions through positive inducements or coercion. Second, neoliberal institutionalists contend that rebel leaders strive to lower their transaction costs and raise those of their adversaries. These mechanisms help explain mobilization of collective violence, but not the conditions that sustain it.
We focus on the third, constructivist pathway that has received little attention: leaders' use of discourse to evoke strong psychological commitments to identity groups. Adding insights from social psychology, we make several contributions to existing scholarship. First, we draw on experiments that emphasize the role of emotions in overcoming rational inhibitions to collective action. Second, we focus on why only some leaders are able to generate effective mobilizational appeals. Third, we examine negative cases—leaders who tried but failed to sustain violent collective action. We argue that leaders who maintain legitimacy among the local population, connections to indigenous social or religious networks, and a keen understanding of potential supporters' collective identity and memory are more effective in mobilizing followers than their counterparts who lack one or more of these qualities. Fourth, we examine how specific messages and relations between the message and the messenger sustain violent collective action. We argue that frames that evoke powerful emotions—anger, humiliation, fear, shared experiences of suffering or injustice, and a desire for honor through self-sacrifice—influence behavior. Fifth and last, we explore a novel unit of analysis: a violent social movement (VSM), which is distinct from a terrorist group and a nonviolent social movement. We do not discount structural factors, as discursive emotional appeals alone have only a limited, transient capacity to produce violent collective action. It is the interaction of structural conditions, the messenger, and the message that enables only some leaders to sustain violent collective action.
The article proceeds as follows. We first outline the structural, rationalist, and discursive emotional dimensions of violent mobilization and explore how Muqtada al-Sadr was able to sustain collective violence even after structural conditions had become inauspicious. We argue that al-Sadr succeeded in sustaining collective violence because his family background and decision to remain in Iraq during Saddam Hussein's rule bolstered his legitimacy and enabled him to frame messages that incited Iraqi Shias. Al-Sadr both deftly exploited the precarious security and socioeconomic conditions and demonstrated tactical agility by turning to political resistance and burnishing his religious credentials during military setbacks in 2004 and 2008. As a result, he became a powerful political leader capable of influencing national elections, organizing mass rallies, and fomenting violence.
We compare al-Sadr to the leaders of the ISCI and AQI, who by conventional measures appeared more likely than al-Sadr to galvanize followers but failed to sustain large-scale support or violent collective action. ISCI leaders had neither local legitimacy nor a compelling message because they had lived in exile for decades. AQI's messages initially resonated with Iraq's Sunni Arabs, but its foreign leaders' cultural insensitivity to local tribes and its excessive violence against Shia and Sunni civilians alienated Iraqis. These factors led to the VSM's near collapse before it reemerged under homegrown leaders as the IS in the context of the Syrian civil war in 2013.
Our argument is supported by both cross-case comparisons and comparisons within cases over time. Our findings indicate that US policymakers, in formulating policies toward states undergoing violent transitions, should pay close attention to homegrown leaders and avoid backing former exiles who lack the legitimacy, local networks, and knowledge of domestic politics necessary to win popular support for democratic change.