As the actions of tiny armed cells continue to dominate headlines, Oxford researcher Brian McQuinn talks about his extraordinary research among armed militia during the Libyan uprising.

My time among the militants

By Jayne Nelson

OT: How did you become interested in the study of how militants bond into groups?

I had worked for the United Nations and former US President Jimmy Carter at the Carter Centre, so I’d been involved in a number of peace talks over the years. One of the things that became very clear was that the international community often conceptualises armed groups as political parties with guns — but in actual fact, in many situations, they are actually quasi-states. They have judicial systems; they control large swathes of territory. And we didn’t have a good understanding of how they worked, internally. One of the reasons I came back to do my DPhil was to take five years to really study, in as much detail as possible, the internal workings of armed groups.

OT: Which trouble spots around the world have you visited with your work?

It’s ranged from Bosnia-Herzegovina — where I was involved in inter-religious dialogue work at the community level — to Rwanda, working with the International Rescue Committee on a conflict resolution programme in the country, and also helping to establish the Unity and Reconciliation Commission that was set up after the genocide. And I lived in Misrata, Libya, during the war in 2011. At the time Misrata was a garrison town, as Gaddafi forces still surrounded the city, with the Mediterranean being the fourth side. There were 236 separate fighting organisations just in Misrata, so I studied how they changed throughout the second half of the war and afterwards. In the end, five of them became larger than a thousand and the vast majority, about 186, never got bigger than 200.

OT: Why did you go to Misrata? Wasn’t it dangerous?

Living in Misrata and doing ethnography with the armed groups was necessary to create data for experiences that just hadn’t really been done before. It looks like this is the first ethnography of the inception of armed groups. I was initially going to Benghazi, but my boat stopped at Misrata first, and because it was a garrison town pretty much everyone in their late teens/mid-20s was a fighter. From a research perspective it was an extraordinary opportunity. The port had been hit by Grad rockets the night before and there were fires still burning, but that changed very quickly as the Misratan forces pushed the government forces out of rocket range. I would not have stayed if I did not have a lot of former colleagues — UN and NGO people — in the city, so I had reliable evacuation  routes.

My time among the militants

OT: What did the fighters think of you studying them?

Often history books record the lives and decisions of senior commanders and higher levels of leaders, and the experiences of the fighters just disappears into history. So a big part of my project was to document their life stories. Many shared theirs, partly because they realised a lot of them would be dead — and a number of people that I interviewed were subsequently killed. The other reason was that they wanted the outside world, the international world, to know what was happening.

OT: You wrote an article for The Conversation about how the Libyan war is far more complex than the way it’s portrayed in the Western media as, largely, a struggle between two groups (Islamists and anti-Islamists). Do you think the fighters are disappointed with the way the world’s media talks about them?

I think that they are shattered. For them, it’s heartbreaking to have risked so much, to have had friends who have been sacrificed and killed, to see what is happening now. They were fighting for democracy and to remove Gaddafi and the fear associated with living under his control — which often is under-appreciated, I think; the level of terror that people lived under with Gaddafi was intense. So for them, it was a way of taking back their country from Gaddafi and they were fighting explicitly for democracy. Many of them were fearful of Islamists in the increasing role they were playing. A lot of them are shattered and disillusioned.

My time among the militants

OT: How can your research change this view?

Part of it has been writing policy in order to get some of that analysis out there. We did something in the Washington Post, which is one of the most highly-read blogs on the Middle-east. I also wrote a number of things for the Small Arms Survey when I first got back in 2012. Academic research often shows up years after the fact, when it’s actually published, and so the policy relevance at that point, especially in situations that are changing as quickly as Libya, is often significantly diminished. With this type of academic research, it behooves us to ensure that we are translating this into policy analysis, and not simply writing things in academic journals that most policy people don’t even have time to read, or even have access to as they’re behind firewalls.

OT: Do you think your findings will possibly go towards helping to find a conflict resolution?

The short answer to that is that I think it will. One of the things that has come out of the research is looking at certain patterns of how armed groups develop cohesion, how they’re structured. Being able to understand the internal workings of a group from the outside based on some very simple indicators — the type of induction process they have, the number of ideological arguments they’re producing, even their daily schedules — give you a pretty good sense of the internal structures of groups. This becomes important in negotiations and in DDR: the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of fighters after a war.

OT: And that would work outside of Libya, too, presumably?

Exactly. This was a lot of the follow-up research that we were doing as part of my post-doc, which is still moving forward –seeing how this works in other places. The better we understand the workings of armed groups, the better we understand how to engage them.

My time among the militants

OT: Tell us a bit about your book, The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath.

I’m hoping to turn my thesis into a book, too, but this book [which is co-authored by Peter Cole, who was a Senior Analyst on Libya with the International Crisis Group] was one that came from Peter and I, in our discussions at the end of the war, realising that there wasn’t a book that brought together practitioners who were actually on the ground during the war. It’s a collection of some extraordinary research and writers, and brings together senior UN diplomats — in this case, Ian Martin, who was in charge of the UN during that time period — and journalists who specialise in the Islamist groups that existed before the war, and went to a number of their annual meetings and studied how they were evolving. It’s a really fine-grained account.

OT: Do you ever find yourself depressed by the situation in Libya, or does your academic detachment kick in?

As a researcher who has done so much research, academic detachment is a bit of a fallacy. Having spent so much time with the fighters, feeling the euphoria and the hope that existed during the war, with these ideas of democracy and of being able to have an impact on the world around them. . . . To see what’s happening now is really difficult. I still talk to a lot of the people I met there and they’re still living under these circumstances. It’s hard not to feel this in a very personal way. We each have to decide how it is that we want to have an impact on the world, and we each have our own theory of change for how it is we go about doing that.

Brian McQuinn (St Cross, 2009) is a post-doctoral associate at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, as well as advisor on the sociology of non-state armed groups at the International Committee of the Red Cross. You can purchase The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath here.

All images © Brian McQuinn.


By David Hutchinson

Excellent "evidence-based" -as one used to say- information. In this case Ghadaffi "started it" with his fear-inspiring repression? And how difficult to get out into a "peace" and normal life. Certainly countries which are not Libya can do nothing. This has a negative impact of people smuggling into Europe. I ma interested as I live in Colombia which is struggling to get to "post-conflict" and what to do with ex-guerrilla fighters, many of them children.

By Matthew Sleap

This socio-cultural understanding may be applied to defence engagement in the coming months.