The study of civil war and rebellion has been characterised for many decades by the extraordinary amount of scholarly material produced by mainstream political scientists. Despite the arguably lack of nuance, many political scientists have abused from quantitative and statistic tools that kept their studies excessively concerned with causation and variation. Until recently, as Arjona (2011, p.1) suggests, the literature on civil war has tended to approach macro-level phenomena such as conflict onset (Collier and Hoeffler 2004), duration or termination (Fearon 2004). And even the growing scholarly work on micro-level dynamics of conflict has mainly analysed the patterns of combatant recruitment (Humphreys and Weinstein 2008) or variation among rebels’ military tactics (Fearon and Laitin 2003).

In this regard, Kalyvas’ seminal work The Logic of Violence in Civil War (2006) is worth considering. In it, Kalyvas develops a comprehensive review of literature on civil war, theorises through a ‘rational choice model’ in which instances violence is exerted during a civil conflict and presents novel data on the Greek insurgency during the Second World War. Despite its enormous relevance and influence, the theorisation of war and violence as a ‘rational strategy of authority’ does not enhance our knowledge of ‘the forms of social transformation during conflict’ (Bakonyi and Stuvøy 2005, p.363). As Malesevic (2010, p.75) suggests, social action in wartime is always ‘richer, more complex and messier’ than the Kalyvas formula suggests: rebels’ decisions are not always articulated through strategic rational choices, but also through symbolic (Malthaner 2011) or ideological (Malesevic 2006) frameworks.

However, Kalyvas (2003, p.487) is certainly right in suggesting that ‘war tends to fragment geographical space’. While a city lives under the control of the incumbent’s army, a rebel militia controls a town up the hill and the one in the valley lives in the crossfire (Arjona 2014, p.7). In this regard, a civil war scenario is characterised by a competition between the incumbent and one or many rebel groups that try to impose their political and social project. Such scenario is what Charles Tilly theorises as a ‘revolutionary situation’ (Tilly 1978, Ch.7), characterised by the breaking of the previously single government and the consequent descent into a ‘multiple sovereignty’ or ‘multi polity’ situation. And clearly, Tilly is right in asserting that what identifies the onset of such state of affairs is the essential pillar of sovereignty: claim making.


Taking a Foucauldian stance, sovereignty does not lie within any particular location but becomes a dynamic element nourished by truth claims (Rouse 2005). The multiplicity of sovereignty claims highlights the ‘relationship between knowledge, order and authority’ (Williams 200 , p.29) amid the epistemological uncertainty of a civil war scenario. Commonly misunderstood, Hobbes argued that the state of nature following the disruption of the Leviathan is not characterised by the absence of government but by the existence of plural governance. The former assumption, as Mampilly (2007, p.l5) suggests, has ‘limited our understanding of politics in conflict zones (…) and of how rebels govern the territory’.

Moreover, the state-centric tendency within mainstream political science becomes highly problematic when we want to approach the existence of multiple political formations in a context of civil war, essentially if our focus of study is a postcolonial space. When the notion of sovereignty is presented as adjacent to the phenomenon of the modern state, it denies ‘alternative possibilities because it fixes our understanding within statist communities and [conceives] mere contingency outside them’ (Walker 1990, p.14).

Thus, when sovereignty is presented as a ‘security-spatial nexus’, the different political imaginations that can be performed ‘become obscured in favour of an ideal-type territorial state’ (Agnew 1994, pp.63-64). As a result, the conceptual frameworks often used to analyse the existence of multiple political authorities in wartime mimic the ‘state formation template’. Hence, such entities are mainly regarded as ‘parastates’, ‘primitive or protostates’ (Moselle and Polack 2001, p.14), ‘states- within-states’ (Spears 2004), ‘shadow states’ (Reno 2000) or, as Clunan (2010, p.4) denounces, even ‘ungoverned spaces associated with state failure or fragility’ such as tribal Waziristan, clan-based governments in Somalia or the FARC insurgency.

Rather interestingly, the eruption of an alternative political and social order in a frontierland (as the Islamic State itself) complicates the equation even further. Sovereignties, thus, not only appear to be competing but overlapping. As Thorup (2010, p.64) suggests, the state centric logic is ‘tested, challenged, resisted and ignored’ in the frontierland, a space that becomes the ‘memory of the state’s own past but also the primal statist image of disorder’. Thus, alternative political and social orders in the postcolonial world very often disrupt territorial states as the essential loci of identity and establish themselves as transnational entities, both in the material sense and in the realms of culture, identity and symbolism. According to Williams (2010, p.44), borders become particularly relevant when ‘they involve contiguous spaces juxtaposing different forms and levels of governance’ and develop they own character and dynamics.

Font: Der Spiegel

Font: Der Spiegel

Hence, I believe that the state formation analogy is deeply problematic when addressing political and social entities that are generated outside and in opposition to the incumbent’s authority. The state-centric approach mistakenly tends to identify as anarchical what are political orders outside the umbrella of the state, and when it accounts for the existence of such entities, tends to project them along the path of progressive state formation.

And as Baylouny (2010, p.136) suggests, the Middle East is abundant in areas unregulated by the state; areas in which authority is not ancient, longstanding or doomed to become a state, but exercised by ‘self-made leaders’ that enforce it through governance and legitimacy.

The postcolonial world has indeed experienced many instances of such social spaces: malleable entities that become ruled by non-state actors as a consequence of war. In fact, instead of assuming that war enhances the capacity of states to control societies through their institutions, I would rather highlight the capacity of war to ‘turn the structure and roles of the state into highly contested issues of public debate’ (Heydemann 2000, pp.17-18). War transforms the seemingly solid pillars of the state into transparent objects of enquiry.

Paying more attention to different forms of rebel governance may enhance our knowledge on key concepts of civil war studies such as the fragmentation of national sovereignties, the relationship between rebel rulers and the production of alternative authorities and, of course, the phenomenon of governance in wartime itself. By framing rebel socio-political order outside the nation-state template, we will be able to develop a more nuanced framework in which phenomena such as the Islamic State could be inscribed and understood.

[The Islamic State] is not a disease, it is a symptom. (…) However, there are grounds for optimism. While the strength and appeal of ISIS should not be underestimated, its rise has triggered a unique debate in the region (Hassan 2014).