Hezbollah, ISIS and the Taliban when uttered, rightfully provoke thought of terrorism and violence. Some might remember the Buenos Aires truck bombing, few will forget ISIS’ beheadings, and others will know of the Taliban’s attack on US army bases. What is clear is these groups have extreme ideologies, and a quick look through the media would suggest they are hellbent on killing and violence with no concern for human life. However, their extremism is far more complex than that. All these groups spend hours, resources and money on building hospitals, court rooms and providing welfare handouts. This article will highlight these policies of extremist groups in their attempt to solidify their territorial populations and legitimacy.
Hezbollah, a paramilitary organisation based in Lebanon, has been reported to have built hospitals which treat over 400,000 patients a year. This is not uncommon for armed groups, the LTTE (aka the Tamil Tigers) in Sri Lanka established a network of traveling ‘barefoot doctors’ as well as building medical facilities alongside another armed group, POLISARIO. Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who funded themselves through kidnap and ransom and illegal mining, established mobile clinics including dental surgeries in rural areas of Columbia.
This emphasis on healthcare in no way exonerates armed groups from their violence, but it does demonstrate that their ideologies run deeper than simply committing atrocities, but there is a clear attempt to consolidate control, and rule over a compliant population. This aligns with the writings of Che Guevara, who said in the third stage of development, an armed group would build hospitals in areas under stable control. This ideology is clear in the actions of the Taliban who are on record for saying they saw ‘more benefit in securing access to medical aid for their social base than preventing it’ and that provision of medical services was a means of gaining ‘able and legitimate government’. The Taliban even asked MSF (an international medical organisation) for help regarding civilian health and particularly maternity care.
Healthcare is one of the few area’s legitimate states and revolutionary armed groups have been seen to work together. The LTTE who fought against the Sri Lankan government for independence, ran hospitals and clinics that were staffed and funded by government programs. Hezbollah too, who have developed a healthcare system ‘equivalent to that of a state’ largely did so from Iranian funding. As well as MSF, international groups like the Red Cross have worked with armed groups to provide training in first aid and healthcare provision to some of the most violent terrorist groups on the planet.
In the West, ISIS is the most famous terrorist organisation. The Media often depicts them as ideological extremists who want to impose their own world view on humanity. Whilst this is not necessarily incorrect, to suggest acts of terrorism is the only method by which they impose their world view is wrong. ISIS is now the most successful armed group at providing healthcare, now providing for six-million people in their areas of control. While there is often ulterior motives, political reasons, and international pressure, the provision of healthcare by armed groups, often with the support of legitimate states, adds an important nuance to understanding the true aims of armed groups globally.
The provision of public services by armed groups is far more multifaceted than simply building medical facilities. Groups such as Boko Haram who famously abducted 200 schoolgirls, created welfare handouts in the form of financial compensation, but also provided food and shelter to those most in need. Again, a set of policies covering both finance, shelter and food is not uncommon in the worlds most deadly armed groups. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria who are a dominant Kurdish opposition force in the region have a wide range of social programs. These include fuel, gas and flour handouts to families affected by the Syrian war, as well as monetary aid.
Thus, we see that armed groups have a greater incentive than terrorism alone. Attacks coupled with strong welfare policies to ensure that wars are won abroad, and populations are supported at home. The irony of war crimes with one hand and welfare with the other is no clearer than with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leon. The group used an estimated 11,000 child soldiers in the years they were active. Simultaneously the group set up the ‘G-5 unit’ whose solely responsibility was the welfare of its civilians and even moved food supplies from the front lines to civilians under their control.
There are also examples of armed groups providing public services indirectly to its civilians. Ansar a-Sharia in Libya not only provided welfare support to families but engaged in road cleaning and repair in civilian areas. Hezbollah similarly used manpower and finical resources to construct a telephone network in Lebanon that is used by civilians. Again, demonstrating the complexity of these groups, and the methods they employ to further their goals.
The drug factions in Rio Diginero is probably the most interesting case, because unlike groups previously mentioned, they do not have a religious or political goal. Yet they too have distributed food and other social programs in areas of the city they control.
Some of the groups mentioned have committed atrocities, others are engaged in wars of independence, and some are merely fighting for survival. But what links these groups is they all have a goal of sorts, and they have aims and desires. They all perceive war, acts of terrorism and war crimes as the best way to achieve their goals – at least this is what a quick glance at the news will tell you. And whilst this is not untrue, it is also clear that armed groups use social programs, welfare handouts, funding for health programs, infrastructure programs and public services to further their causes and achieve their goals.