Non-state Conflict Actors

Coordinator: Øystein H. Rolandsen

​The state is not a necessary factor in a conflict. Parties to a conflict are often non-state actors. Furthermore, the political violence that emerges in a conflict often comes from groups that do not represent the state. Non-state actors vary from ethnic groups, local militia, armed groups, criminal groups, and often operate across national borders. However, violence from these groups has received less attention in peace and conflict literature.

​This research group looks at various research questions, such as:

  • Which non-state groups engage in political violence?
  • How do non-state conflicts affect the national level?
  • What type of violence do we see at the non-state level?
  • How do these groups mobilize?
  • What distinguishes political violence from criminal violence?
  • What makes some groups use violence to achieve their political goals, and others not?
  • How do non-state actors build up a military force, and how do they acquire and maintain funding for this?

Within this research group, we have researchers with various methodological backgrounds, both qualitative and quantitative. The topic of non-state conflict actors is suitable for both types of enquiry. Currently, several datasets exit that are ideal for studying non-state actors, both on macro and micro levels (survey data). There is also a strong focus within the group on specific cases, countries, and regions, which give unique insight. The various methodological approaches give the researchers within the group the benefit of more interesting and varied discussions.​


Recent publications

Marsh, Nicholas (2017) Angola, in Alusala, Nelson; & Mothepa Shadung, eds, Arms brokering in Southern Africa. Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies (1–8).
Marsh, Nicholas (2017) Mozambique, in Alusala, Nelson; & Mothepa Shadung, eds, Arms brokering in Southern Africa. Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies.
Marsh, Nicholas (2017) Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Alusala, Nelson; & Mothepa Shadung, eds, Arms brokering in Southern Africa. Pretoria: Institute For Security Studies (14–24).
Marsh, Nicholas (2017) Brothers Came Back with Weapons: The Effects of Arms Proliferation from Libya, PRISM 6(4): 79–96.

Peer-reviewed Journal Article

Marsh, Nicholas (2017) Brothers Came Back with Weapons: The Effects of Arms Proliferation from Libya, PRISM 6(4): 79–96.
Høigilt, Jacob (2017) Å balansere på en knivsegg: Mot sosialt sammenbrudd blant unge palestinere i Øst-Jerusalem [Balancing on a knife edge: Towards social breakdown among young Palestinians in East Jerusalem], Babylon - nordisk tidsskrift for Midtøstenstudier 15(1): 50–59.
Gates, Scott & Sukanya Podder (2015) Social Media, Recruitment, Allegiance, and the Islamic State, Perspectives on Terrorism 9(4): 107–116.
Rolandsen, Øystein H.; Tove Heggli Sagmo & Fanny Nicolaisen (2015) South Sudan – Uganda Relations: The Cost of Peace, Conflict Trends 2015(4): 33–40.
Høigilt, Jacob (2015) Fatah from Below: The Clash of Generations in Palestine, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 43(4): 456–471.
Cohen, Dara Kay & Ragnhild Nordås (2015) Do States Delegate Shameful Violence to Militias? Patterns of Sexual Violence in Recent Armed Conflicts, Journal of Conflict Resolution 59(5): 877–898.
Høigilt, Jacob (2015) Nonviolent mobilization between a rock and a hard place: Popular resistance and double repression in the West Bank, Journal of Peace Research 52(5): 636–648.
Rolandsen, Øystein H. (2015) Another civil war in South Sudan: the failure of Guerrilla Government?, Journal of Eastern African Studies 9(1): 163–174.
Breidlid, Ingrid Marie & Michael J. Arensen (2014) Demystifying the White Army: Nuer Armed Civilians' Involvement in the South Sudanese Crisis, Conflict Trends(3): 32–39.
Anderson, David M. & Øystein H. Rolandsen (2014) Violence as Politics in Eastern Africa, 1940–1990: Legacy, Agency, Contingency, Journal of Eastern African Studies 8(4): 539–557.
Rolandsen, Øystein H. & Cherry Leonardi (2014) Discourses of violence in the transition from colonialism to independence in southern Sudan, 1955–1960, Journal of Eastern African Studies 8(4): 609–625.
Holtermann, Helge (2014) Relative Capacity and the Spread of Rebellion: Insights from Nepal, Journal of Conflict Resolution 60(3): 501–529.
Holtermann, Helge (2014) How Can Weak Insurgent Groups Grow? Insights From Nepal, Terrorism and Political Violence 28(2): 316–337.
Cunningham, David; Kristian Skrede Gleditsch & Idean Salehyan (2013) Non-state actors in civil wars: A new dataset, Conflict Management and Peace Science 30(5): 516–531.
Cunningham, Kathleen Gallagher (2013) Actor Fragmentation and Civil War Bargaining: How Internal Divisions Generate Civil Conflict, American Journal of Political Science 57(3): 659–672.
Harpviken, Kristian Berg (2012) The Transnationalization of the Taliban, International Area Studies Review 15(3): 203–229.
Rustad, Siri Aas & Helga Malmin Binningsbø (2012) A Price Worth Fighting For? Natural Resources and Conflict Recurrence, Journal of Peace Research 49(4): 531–546.
Carling, Jørgen; Marta Bivand Erdal & Cindy Horst (2012) How does Conflict in Migrants’ Country of Origin Affect Remittance-Sending? Financial Priorities and Transnational Obligations Among Somalis and Pakistanis in Norway, International Migration Review 46(2): 283–309.
Rolandsen, Øystein H. & Ingrid Marie Breidlid (2012) A Critical Analysis of Cultural Explanations for the Violence in Jonglei State, South Sudan, Conflict Trends(1): 49–56.
Marsh, Nicholas (2007) Conflict Specific Capital: The Role of Weapons Acquisition in Civil War, International Studies Perspectives 8(1): 54–72.
Harpviken, Kristian Berg (1997) Transcending Traditionalism: The Emergence of Non-state Military Formations in Afghanistan, Journal of Peace Research 34(3): 271–287.


Rolandsen, Øystein H. & M. W. Daly (2016) A History of South Sudan: From Slavery to Independence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cunningham, Kathleen Gallagher (2014) Inside the Politics of Self-Determination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gates, Scott & Kaushik Roy (2014) Unconventional Warfare in South Asia, Shadow Warriors and Counterinsurgency. Farnham: Ashgate.
Cederman, Lars-Erik; Kristian Skrede Gleditsch & Halvard Buhaug (2013) Inequality, Grievances, and Civil War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Cambridge Studies in Contentious Politics.

Book Chapter

Marsh, Nicholas (2017) Angola, in Alusala, Nelson; & Mothepa Shadung, eds, Arms brokering in Southern Africa. Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies (1–8).
Marsh, Nicholas (2017) Mozambique, in Alusala, Nelson; & Mothepa Shadung, eds, Arms brokering in Southern Africa. Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies.
Marsh, Nicholas (2017) Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Alusala, Nelson; & Mothepa Shadung, eds, Arms brokering in Southern Africa. Pretoria: Institute For Security Studies (14–24).
Demetriou, Olga & Maria Hadjipavlou (2016) Engendering the Post-Liberal Peace in Cyprus: UNSC Resolution 1325 as a Tool, in Richmond, Oliver P.; & Sandra Pogodda, eds, Post-Liberal Peace Transitions: Between Peace Formation and State Formation. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (83–104).
Bjorvatn, Kjetil & Jacob Høigilt (2016) Youth and the Arab Revolutions, in Selvik, Kjetil; & Bjørn Olav Utvik, eds, Oil States in the New Middle East: Uprisings and stability. London: Routledge (39–56).
Harpviken, Kristian Berg (2015) Heart or Periphery? Afghanistan's Complex Neighbourhood Relations, in Gates, Scott; & Kaushik Roy, eds, War and State-Building In Afghanistan: Historical and Modern Perspectives. London: Bloomsbury (245–279).
Harpviken, Kristian Berg (2012) Warlordism: Three Biographies From Southeastern Afghanistan, in Suhrke, Astri; & Mats Berdal, eds, The Peace In Between: Post-War Violence and Peacebuilding. London: Routledge (173–191).
Kreutz, Joakim ; Manuela Torre & Nicholas Marsh (2011) Regaining State Control: Arms and Violence in Post-conflict Countries, in Greene , Owen ; & Nicholas Marsh, eds, Small Arms, Crime and Conflict Global Governance and the Threat of Armed Violence. London: Routledge (64–76).
Greene , Owen & Nicholas Marsh (2011) Armed Violence within Societies, in Greene , Owen ; & Nicholas Marsh, eds, Small Arms, Crime and Conflict Global Governance and the Threat of Armed Violence. London and New York : Routledge (79–104).
Borchgrevink, Kaja & Kristian Berg Harpviken (2010) Afghanistan: Civil Society Between Modernity and Tradition, in Thania Paffenholz , ed., Civil Society and Peacebuilding: a Critical Assessment. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner (235–257).
Harpviken, Kristian Berg(1998) The Hazara of Aghanistan: The Thorny Path Towards Political Unity, 1978-1992, in Atabaki, Touraj; & O'Kane, John, eds, Post-Soviet Central Asia. : I. B. Tauris(177–198).

Edited Volume

Gates, Scott; & Kaushik Roy, eds, (2014) War and State-Building in Afghanistan: Historical and Modern Perspectives. London: Bloomsbury Academic. Bloomsbury Studies in Military History.
Pérouse de Montclos, Marc-Antoine (ed.) (2014) Boko Haram: Islamism, politics, security and the state in Nigeria. Leiden: African Studies Centre. West African Politics and Society Series.
Greene , Owen ; & Nicholas Marsh, eds, (2011) Small Arms, Crime and Conflict: Global Governance and the Threat of Armed Violence. London: Routledge. Routledge Studies in Peace and Conflict.

Non-refereed Journal Article

Kindersley, Nicki & Øystein H. Rolandsen (2016) Prospects for Peace and the UN Regional Protection Force in South Sudan, African Affairs (Virtual Issue: Making Sense of South Sudan). DOI: 10.1093/afraf/adw067: 1–12.
Harpviken, Kristian Berg (2010) Troubled Regions and Failing States: Introduction, Comparative Social Research 27: 1–23.

Popular Article

Stanton, Jessica; Ragnhild Nordås & Dara Kay Cohen (2015) Governments don’t outsource atrocities to militias. Here’s what really happens., Washington Post - Monkey Cage, 22 December.

Conference Paper

Rolandsen, Øystein H. & Nicki Kindersley (2016) They are not forbidden from using violence: State Responses to the Anyanya Insurgency in Torit, 1955–1972, presented at 35th Sudan Studies Association Conference , Long Island University, Brooklyn, New York, 28 May 2016.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2015) Actors, agendas and legal categories in post-war Colombia. Armed Non State Actors and Access to Health in Armed Conflict, presented at Armed Non State Actors and Access to Health in Armed Conflict, Oslo, 12.02.2015.
Høigilt, Jacob (2014) Fatah from below: The clash of generations in Palestine, presented at World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies, Ankara, 21 August.
Nordås, Ragnhild & Dara Kay Cohen (2012) Why Do Militias Attack Civilians? Violence by African Militias in Recent Armed Conflicts, presented at Conference on Paramilitaries, Militias and Civil Defense Forces in Civil Wars, Yale University, October 19–20.

PRIO Policy Brief

Cohen, Dara Kay & Ragnhild Nordås (2012) Sexual Violence in African Conflicts, 1989–2009: What the data show, CSCW Policy Brief, 2. Oslo: CSCW.

PRIO Paper

Breidlid, Ingrid Marie & Michael J. Arensen (2014) "Anyone who can carry a gun can go": The role of the White Army in the current conflict in South Sudan, PRIO Paper. Oslo: PRIO.
Rolandsen, Øystein H. & Ingrid Marie Breidlid (2013) What is Youth Violence in Jonglei?, PRIO Paper. Oslo: PRIO.
Harpviken, Kristian Berg (2010) Understanding Warlordism: Three Biographies from Southeastern Afghanistan, PRIO Paper. Oslo: PRIO.

Report - Other

Pérouse de Montclos, Marc-Antoine (2014) Nigeria’s Interminable Insurgency? Addressing the Boko Haram Crisis, Chatham House Research Paper. London: Chatham House.

Report - External Series

Høigilt, Jacob (2014) Why is there no third intifada? An analysis of youth activism in the West Bank, NEWME Reports, 5. Oslo: The University of Oslo.
Harpviken, Kristian Berg; & Kjell Erling Kjellman (2004) Beyond Blueprints: Civil Society and Peacebuilding, Concept Paper commissioned by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD). .

Blog Posts

Suicide Bombing ≠ Religious Fervor

Posted by Ragnhild Nordås on Friday, 8 April 2016

Is it just religious fanatics who blow themselves up as suicide bombers? Bernt Hagtvet, Professor of Political Science at the University of Oslo, has been active in the Norwegian media lately, stating that only religion (he focuses mostly on Islam) brings the fervor to commit suicide attacks as part of a political struggle – or “only religious totalitarian movements have capabilities to create a fanaticism strong enough to suicide.” This is not true. Firstly, there is ample evidence showing that a deterministic relationship between suicide missions and having a religious agenda or ideology is wrong. It is right that more ...

Governments Don’t Outsource Atrocities to Militias. Here’s What Really Happens

Posted by Jessica Stanton, Ragnhild Nordås & Dara Kay Cohen on Thursday, 7 January 2016

Refugees are fleeing Syria in such astonishing numbers because armed groups continue to target civilians with violence. That’s what we heard in September when the U.N. Human Rights Council discussed the most recent report of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria. The commission’s chair, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, made a plea for international action to end the conflict, pointing to gross violations of the laws of war by all the warring parties: indiscriminate bombing of civilian homes, the deliberate torture and murder of civilians, and widespread rape and sexual violence as acts of war. On Nov. 19, the U.N. General Assembly’s ...

How did the San Bernardino Killers Obtain the Guns used to Commit the 2 December Massacre?

Posted by Nic Marsh on Monday, 7 December 2015

The guns were bought in a shop. How did the 13 November Paris Killers get their Guns? How did the Paris Killers Acquire their Guns?

The Threat from ISIS is not Military

Posted by John Mueller on Wednesday, 25 November 2015

For more than a decade, alarmists have essentially argued that, because the 9/11 attackers proved to be good with box-cutters, they would soon be able to fabricate nuclear weapons. And now, after the dramatic and horrible Paris terror attacks, a similar process of alarmed exaggeration seems to be happening with ISIS. In a reactive pose that has become routine for it, the group has claimed responsibility for — or, more accurately, boorishly celebrated — the tragic venture. In fact, whatever its degree of complicity in the Paris attacks, ISIS does not deserve credit for great military prowess. Its ability to ...

How Can States and Non-State Actors Respond to Authoritarian Resurgence?

Posted by Erica Chenoweth on Monday, 20 July 2015

Two weeks ago, the Monkey Cage ran a piece by Matthew Baum and Phil Potter suggesting that the policy of “democracy-promotion” has gone out of style.[1] I think they’re right that in many circles democracy-promotion is politically passé and that, more broadly, democracy advocates are really having a tough couple of years. In the midst of pushback against democracy agendas within democracies themselves, they are also dealing with the “comeback” of authoritarianism. [2] Setting aside the debate as to whether the recent resurgence is overstated, it does appear to be the case that while democratic countries are questioning the wisdom ...

The "Resister’s Toolkit"

Posted by Erica Chenoweth on Monday, 29 June 2015

In his article in the May 2015 issue of APSR, Evgeny Finkel makes a splash by arguing that exposure to “selective repression” (such as surveillance, beatings, arrests, and torture) helps dissidents to develop a robust skill set with which to maintain enduring resistance later on. He supports this argument with data from an unlikely case—Nazi repression against three Jewish ghettos during the Holocaust—and shows how operational skills (the “resister’s toolkit”) often develop as an indirect result of past exposure to state repression. These skills then help dissidents to remain active in resistance even when the state is engaging in widespread, ...

Is Boko Haram a Roving Bandit?

Posted by Kyle Beardsley & Kristian Skrede Gleditsch on Monday, 20 April 2015

In recent months, Boko Haram has devastated a number of communities across a vast swath of Northern Nigeria, and even reaching into Chad, Cameroon and Niger. Although Boko Haram has some territorial control in the border regions near Lake Chad, its attacks do not occur in a consistent geographic area, but rather devastate communities with considerable distance between them. This mobile pattern contrasts with other, more geographically-fixed rebel groups, such as the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) fighting for the self-determination of the Ijaw people and control of the rich resources in the Niger Delta in Southern Nigeria. We ...

Boko Haram does not have the Fire Power of the Islamic State

Posted by Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos on Friday, 23 January 2015

Boko Haram’s influence and cruelty is still increasing. On the 3rd of January the Islamist group first attacked Baga, situated at the riverside of Lake Chad in the north of the State of Borno. They then came back several days later and demolished the entire city and its surrounding villages. The attack reportedly caused more than 2000 victims, although the numbers are not verifiable. The Nigerian army considers it as the most deadly attack since the beginning of the Islamist insurrection in 2009, so fare causing more than 13 000 causalities.  Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, specialist on Nigeria, and PRIO ...

How did the Paris Killers Acquire their Guns?

Posted by Nic Marsh on Wednesday, 14 January 2015

At present we have very little information on the guns used last week by Saïd and Chérif Kouachi to commit a massacre at the offices of the publication Charlie Hebdo; and by Amedy Coulibaly in several shootings in Paris. They were armed with Kalashnikov pattern guns, however as nearly 200 different versions of the Kalashnikov have been produced around the world since the introduction of the AK-47, at the time of writing there isn’t enough information to start working out how they obtained the guns used in the attacks.  This blog post is intended to clarify one misconception that has ...

The Taliban are an Organized Fighting Force

Posted by Kristian Berg Harpviken on Sunday, 8 June 2014

A new UN report blames the Taliban for a sharp rise in violence against civilians. The Taliban are an organized fighting force. They combine a relatively strong central command with a networked structure in which each of the various factions operate with considerable independence. Establishing control over certain territories has been a main rationale for the Taliban. While their military tactics have changed a lot, their ultimate objectives have not. For the Taliban, military capacity and the ability to control territory are key to their success. Read more about structure, tactics and aims of the militants in DW’s in-depth interview with ...

Activists, Authorities and the Problem of Telling the Difference

Posted by Christian Davenport on Thursday, 8 May 2014

Discussion about who killed Anna Mae Aquash of the American Indian Movement in the 1960s raises some interesting thoughts regarding what takes place when governments and challengers square off against one another. Underlying most research on the topic and popular understanding is the idea that governments and challengers represent different sides of a conflict – each has their own motives for engaging (i.e., ideology or goals), their own means for engaging (e.g., identified as “mobilizing structures” in the social movement literature) and their own sense of opportunity (i.e., when the time is ripe to strike). We alternatively call this “intrastate ...

Rwanda, Remembrance and Research: Or, How Rwandan Violence Taught Me to Embrace Subnational/Disaggregated Conflict Studies and Integral Conflict Research

Posted by Christian Davenport on Thursday, 17 April 2014

Fourteen years ago I began a journey to understand the political violence that took place in Rwanda during the year of 1994. Toward this end, I brought with me the skills that I had at that time: 1) an interest in media as well as government-generated data and content analysis, 2) an approach that was pooled at the nation-year, cross-sectional and time series in nature, and 3) an interest in state repression/human rights violation. All of this would change when confronted with Rwanda. Indeed, after full immersion into the case (from about 2000-2004, as well as reflection over the next ...

Female Empowerment in DR Congo

Posted by Maral Mirshahi on Tuesday, 1 April 2014

In January 2014 PRIO researchers Gudrun Østby and Ragnhild Nordås went on a two-week fieldtrip to Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu, DRC. The main purpose of the visit was to launch the new collaborative project, “Female Empowerment in Eastern DRC”, funded by the Research Council of Norway. This project is based on a partnership between PRIO and the International Centre for Advanced Research and Training (ICART), which is a collaborative initiative between researchers from the Panzi Hospital, Panzi Foundation DRC, and the Université Evangelique en Afrique in Bukavu, DRC. Read more at the blog of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian ...

Old Wine in an E-bottle (or, The Text that Mistook Itself for a Tactical Shift)

Posted by Christian Davenport on Friday, 31 January 2014

On January 24th Barbara Walter wrote a fascinating blog entry entitled “The Text that Changed the World”. It noted that the “Ukrainian government” had issued a text message to “thousands of protesters” effectively telling them that they had been busted (i.e., they were identified as participating in a protest event). While it is useful to think about the impact of this action on subsequent challenging behavior, given my interest in the end of repressive action it seemed useful to reflect for a moment as to how the text might be relevant. … Blog post by PRIO Global Fellow Christian Davenport ...