[Candyce Kelshall] The Institutional Nature of Violent Transnational Social Movements

The functional and institutional nature of hybrid terrorist groups reveals one of the key ways in which we can understand the changing dynamic of current state threats. The closest analogy which may help us understand the success of these violent groups is that of functional state regionalism. These violent social groups form arguably for the same purpose- a retreat from globalisation and cultural/ideological respite. They are a social construct designed to help states define and safeguard identity. Using regionalism theory may help to understand the nature of these violent social movements. Arguably, state centric theory cannot account for their behaviour as they transcend statism by their cross border viability and apparent immunity from conventional state response. Successful regional blocks operate on the basis of a high degree of functionality. The functions needed in maintaining a multi -regional block are the same functions needed to maintain a transnational social movement, which creeps across state borders and retains ideological and physical territory bridging multiple languages, cultures, degrees of skill and environments. Successful regional blocks have a high number of institutions whose functional role cements gains and establishes region –ness so that the multiple country membership can operate as one entity, in a variety of fields addressing specific areas of need. The higher the number of institutions, the greater the likelihood that regions may spill over toward supra nationality. A supra nation is a regional group which is comprised of a number of nations, which pool their sovereignty, to become a political actor- such as the European Union. Transnational social movements mimic these considerations on an individual level with members pooling their individual sovereignty, to work together as a cohesive organisation regardless of differences and diversity of origin. This is possible because institutional processes are in place to cater for this growth and to cement gains as they cross borders. The legitimacy of the overarching governance element is created via the creation of institutions which orchestrate, oversee and monitor the gains and the cementing of the groups ideology and values.


One of the reasons suggested for success at keeping such large social movements in control, is the degree to which these groups have become institutionalised. ISIL and BOKO HARAM and Al Shabaab are organisations which have a highly developed skill in attracting members from diverse backgrounds (as many as 100 different countries in the case of ISIL.) The fact that they retain their interest and loyalty has less to do with the religious impetus and more to do with the structure and processes which keeps their allegiance, and allows them a disclosive space in which to function, despite their degree of belief and skill level. Not all recruits are fighters. They do not even speak the same language.

It is possible that Institutionalism is therefore the key to the remarkable success and spread of transnational social group violence. Social groups use social media and global polity-the spread of ideas which global populations endorse and agree with. This global polity of shared ideas and values, is in turn harnessed by these groups establishing institutions, designed to further develop a sense of identity. In the Westphalian system we would refer to it as national identity, but in this new world of transnational group design, it might better be referred to as counter nationality. Al-Shabab has endured by its use of institutions. It has a SHURA which acts as an overseer to actual Ministries which functions like a Cabinet; Hisbah units which conduct community policing functions and a revenue and taxation function (Zakawat). It has an intelligence function (Amniyat) and a hybrid military group whose role falls between conventional and asymmetric warfare planning and coordination. (Jabhad). The members of these groups are often viewed as minor functionaries and not the ’big fish’ however, it is argued that these minor functionaries are in fact the centre of the organisation. These technocrats and administrative functionaries maintain the structure and functioning of the groups. They enable the ‘groupness’ and functionality which perpetuates the growth and lethality of these organisations.


ISIL has spread over vast territory, with a population of over 8 million people, living under its stewardship. It acquires territory on the basis of military conquest followed by institutionally delivered, cohesive governance. Its governance function is divided between administration and service provision. Once control is established by a small governance and military team, a greater number of civilians get involved in service provision to cater to the needs of the population. The greater the number working on infrastructural projects, the higher the degree of cohesion of the whole. Its PR arm cements the ideology and vision for each region. Its finance and treasury function, administers its finances from banking, oil production, oil sales and taxation. After its success in Mosul and Tikrit it reportedly has access to administering up to 1.5 billion US in assets. It also has functional heads and departments which oversee social services, education, humanitarian aid, waste disposal, electricity and utility supply. Fighters and families are reportedly paid salaries. There is even a consumer protection office. These functions are overseen by a board of Governors for each region.

This pattern of systemic institutionalisation is the very heart and strength of these violent transnational groups. This structure keeps the movement armed, fed, watered and growing. It might be considered that this institutional structure is also their weakness. Like the EU, the bureaucracy and institutional nature of the organisation which binds the states is also the weakness, against which states like the UK resist.

The functionaries and technocrats who keep violent transnational social movements cohesive and functioning, as they spread their reach, are not minor players but should be the real focus of degradation attempts on the part of the West. They are the beating heart of the groups and without the ability to cohesively function and provide the services needed to keep its captive population happy, the likelihood of an insurgency from within grows stronger. Arguably this is the only effective way to deal with organisations of this nature. Let them implode from within.

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Originally published at www.bisconia.com on April 20, 2015.