Two fingers and a fist
The recognition of armed non-state actors is a deeply ambivalent process. | Photo: Francis Alÿs, Children Game #14: Stone, Paper and Scissors, 2013. © F. Alÿs

The Tricky Politics of Recognizing Armed Non-State Actors

The new volume “Armed non-state actors and the politics of recognition” by editors Anna Geis, Maéva Clément, and Hanna Pfeifer discusses armed non-state actors and their strategic pursuit of being recognized as political actors. It includes methodological considerations as well as case studies from China, Ireland, Lebanon, Nigeria and, Sudan among others. The contributions study the strategic choices that state leaders, citizens, international organizations, and others make in granting such recognition, denying it, or recognizing on their own terms.

Should policy-makers recognize (armed) non-state actors to transform conflict? This question has been addressed by various scholars over the last two decades, and they have done so from different angles. Elisabeth King and Cyrus Samii have recently showed that the recognition of ethnic differences, understood as the “explicit reference to ethnic identities in constitutions, peace agreements, or legislation”, has positive effects to reduce violence in post-conflict societies and the inclusiveness of their political systems. They also shed new light on when and why governments opt for ethnic recognition – pointing to leaders’ perceived risks and benefits in taking such a decision.

Similar considerations are found in academic and policy debates over whether to engage with armed non-state actors and “negotiate with terrorists”. In our recently published edited volume, we bring together analyses of armed non-state actors (ANSAs) in various settings of armed conflicts around the world. We understand them as recognition-seekers who try to gain recognition for a certain political cause, an identity, and/or as representatives of a social, political, and/or ethnic group. Such recognition claims are addressed to significant others. The latter, recognition-granters, may be states and their governments, international organizations, but also other non-state actors, parts of the domestic population, or transnational communities. At first glance, it might seem that not all ANSAs strive for recognition. But the case studies in our volume show that even those actors who claim not to be seeking recognition, such as the organization Islamic State, eventually do look for some form of recognition by some significant other.

Relationship Between Recognition and Identity

The reason behind this is the constitutive relationship between recognition and identity. An identity claim needs to be recognized in order to become socially relevant. Conversely, as actors can only be recognized for some quality or claim they have, granting recognition will either solidify their claimed identity or reshape their identity performatively. In what could be called “recognition games”, recognition-seekers may face a situation in which the addressed other actor does not recognize all of their claims. In such cases, they may choose to address an alternative recognition-granter, as was the case with the Kurdistan workers’ party in Turkey, the PKK, after the end of the Cold War.

This, however, will change the way in which they articulate their identity and recognition claims. In other cases, non-state actors who perceive that they are met with mis-recognition (i.e., recognized for something for which they did not seek recognition or ascribed an identity that diverges from their self-perception) may articulate their identity and claims more forcefully. For instance, the Chinese government denies Uyghurs to openly show and practice their Muslim identity, e.g., in the form of wearing veils (women) and long beards (men) or giving certain Muslim names to their children. For “overly religious (…) behaviour”, it also sends them to so-called re-education camps, and parts of the Uyghur community have now been labelled terrorists. These instances of mis-recognition, conversely, led parts of the Uyghurs to turn to Wahhabi ideology.

Labelling as Form of Conflict Transformation

The practice of labelling ANSAs is a pervasive form of mis-recognition. The case studies in our volume show that calling a group “terrorist” renders non-violent forms of interaction virtually impossible. Thus, potential recognition-granters who aim to transform a conflict necessarily engage in re-labelling. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are a case in point. The Colombian government started talks with the FARC in 2012, which led to a ceasefire and eventual peace deal four years later. In early 2016, then-president Santos approached the US administration with the request to remove the FARC from its terrorism list. Labelling and, more broadly, mis-recognition are obstacles to conflict transformation and it takes deliberate initiatives towards reformulating the terms of the recognition game to open up the space for transformative engagement. And yet, labels such as “terrorists” and “extremists” are extremely sticky.

We found that mis-recognition is very harmful for conflict transformation. But we also cannot simply draw the reverse conclusion that recognition is a miracle cure in dealing with ANSAs. While King and Samii generally “find promise in recognition” when it comes to politically salient ethnic identities, they also point to paradoxical effects. Building on the case studies in our volume, we argue that recognition is a deeply and structurally ambivalent phenomenon.

The Ambivalence of Recognition

First, the costs of granting recognition to an ANSA may be too high with regards to human lives, human rights, and liberal values. For example, recognizing al-Shabaab as a potential partner in negotiations with the Somali government and, eventually, a legitimate political actor may have dire long-term consequences for the Somali population, especially considering the group’s position on human rights issues. A similar discussion has recently emerged in the Afghan context. The Taliban grossly violate human rights, (and as of November 2021) no government has officially recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, yet many acknowledge the necessity to engage with the Taliban in the future.

Second, the recognition of an ANSA may strongly affect other non-state actors within a violent conflict, especially competing ANSAs which are not granted similar acts of recognition. In the case of South Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) was eventually invited to the negotiation table, while all other ANSAs opposing the regime were treated as one group with one voice. While such a practice was expedient and enabled reaching a peace accord, mis-recognizing the other ANSAs as one group negated their differences – and different needs – and ultimately led to a new armed conflict.

Third, the recognition of an ANSA by third parties but not by the state with which it is in conflict can lead to conflict aggravation. In theory, the recognition of an ANSA’s legitimacy by a community of states or a mediating party would provide it with some degree of protection and force the state party to peace talks. In practice, though, this constellation is often instrumentalized by states to delegitimize an ANSA, e.g., by depicting it as an import from malevolent foreign powers.

Of course, all of this does not diminish the general importance of recognition practices in conflict transformation, and, as Samii and King argue, “recognizing different ethnic groups is good for peace”. However, when it comes to armed non-state actors in the context of asymmetric conflict, matters may be more complicated.


The text was first published on Diversity, Violence, and Recognition on 13 December 2021.

See also book launch (in German) at Peace Research Institute Frankfurt on YouTube.

Geis, Anna/Clément, Maéva/Pfeifer, Hanna (eds), (2021): Armed non-state actors and the politics of recognition, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Hanna Pfeifer

Hanna Pfeifer

Hanna Pfeifer ist Professorin für Politikwissenschaft mit dem Schwerpunkt Radikalisierungs- und Gewaltforschung in Kooperation mit der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt und Leiterin der Forschungsgruppe „Terrorismus“ an der HSFK. Sie forscht u.a. zu staatlichen und nicht-staatlichen Gewaltformen und –akteuren in der MENA-Region. / Hanna Pfeifer is Professor of Political Science with a Focus on Radicalisation and Violence Research at PRIF and Goethe University Frankfurt, as well as head of PRIF’s research group „Terrorism“. Her research interests include, inter alia, state and non-state violence and actors in the MENA region. | Twitter: @hanna_pfeifer
Maéva Clément

Maéva Clément

Lecturer in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies at the Institute of Social Sciences, Osnabrück University. Her research interests include international political theory, interdisciplinary emotion research, (armed) non-state-actors in world politics, political violence, and critical terrorism research. Her current research focuses on the interactions between armed non-state actors and diverse publics. | LinkedIn
Maéva Clément

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Anna Geis

Anna Geis

Professor of Political Science, especially International Security and Conflict Studies, at the Helmut Schmidt University Hamburg. Currently, she is fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research Duisburg from 1 October 2021 to 30 September 2022. | Foto: Stefan Berger
Anna Geis

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Hanna Pfeifer

Hanna Pfeifer ist Professorin für Politikwissenschaft mit dem Schwerpunkt Radikalisierungs- und Gewaltforschung in Kooperation mit der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt und Leiterin der Forschungsgruppe „Terrorismus“ an der HSFK. Sie forscht u.a. zu staatlichen und nicht-staatlichen Gewaltformen und –akteuren in der MENA-Region. / Hanna Pfeifer is Professor of Political Science with a Focus on Radicalisation and Violence Research at PRIF and Goethe University Frankfurt, as well as head of PRIF’s research group „Terrorism“. Her research interests include, inter alia, state and non-state violence and actors in the MENA region. | Twitter: @hanna_pfeifer

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