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Interviews with Killers: Six Types of Combatants and Their Motivations for Joining Deadly Groups


Author: Barrett, Robert

Date of Publication: 2011

Publication: Studies in Conflict & Terrorism

Purpose of the study

Key questions 

What are the views and testimonies of members, or former members, of violent organizations

Design of the study


Empirical field study – face-to-face interviews with members or ex-members of armed groups

Number of participants

In 2008, over the course of six months, sixty-nine semi-structured interviews were conducted with members, leaders, witnesses, and victims.


In central Nigeria’s Toto Local Government Authority (LGA).

Type of participant

Members, leaders, perpetrators, witnesses, and victims of the (Toto) conflict in Nigeria – focusing on two citizen-based armed groups (the Egbura and Bassa).


The article explores the views and testimonies of:

  • Members, or former members, of violent organizations 
  • Witnesses and victims
  • Different types of combatants and potential implications for policy and counter-recruitment efforts. 

Key Findings 

Findings were considered in two thematic areas:

The first was general conflict dynamics, characterized as the conflict activities prior to and during the conflict, the level of organization and combatant-group structure, financing and supply-lines, and the role of external parties, such as security forces. 

The second theme included findings pertaining to the Interviews with Killers 753 combatants themselves, such as what type of individual joined the conflict and at what point in the conflict they joined, why they said they joined and what others said of their joining, what their actions were in the conflict, who or what most influenced them to join as well as what methods, and what forms of intervention—if any—might have dissuaded them from joining.

Also, it was noted that while the primary focus of this article is on the combatant types that emerged from the interviews, interviewee statements of the conflict in general provide significant insight into the environment in which the volunteerism, recruitment, and indoctrination existed.

The article outlines combatant-specific findings, with the identification of six combatant types, and discusses the significance of different combatant types.

Key Recommendations 

Enhancing intervention practice through the use of combatant types – looks at the potential utility for the use of combatant types (or typologies) is in counter-recruitment and other preventive measures. Findings suggest that different combatant types are likely to respond differently to various intervention technologies, a conclusion that is supported by the professed attitudes toward third-party intervention by each type.

The interviews provide an opportunity to understand conflict from the perspective of combatants—what they experience as they transition from nonviolence to violence. These themes may be of most use within counterinsurgency (COIN), counterterrorism, and countering violent extremism (CVE) operations, where intelligence and deterrence strategies may depend on an interventionist’s understanding of the vulnerable population.

Understanding which types are present may provide insight into why some intervention efforts may be failing, or are likely to fail, while others are succeeding. 

The use of combatant types provides a more sophisticated approach to planning and implementing intervention or counter-recruitment efforts in multicultural or intercultural environments. 

Reviewer Notes

The timing (i.e. 10 years ago), and location (Nigeria) make the generalisability of the findings from this research limited. However, for those interested in the conflict in Nigeria, this article provides a good understanding to the context, history and people in this area.

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