The Factors of the Success of Insurgency Groups: Analysis of Examples

July 17, 2023
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The motivation behind insurgency groups often stems from experiencing harsh mistreatment, lack of social necessities, repression, discrimination, and violence from the ruling party. These experiences fuel their desire to retaliate against the legitimate government or authoritative power in place. When violence from the perceived oppressor causes civilian casualties, others may feel a sense of responsibility to join the insurgency for retribution or to protect their community.

Throughout history, there have been various examples of successful insurgent groups toppling governments. This paper delves into the factors that contributed to their success in achieving their objectives, while also examining the reasons behind the failures of certain insurgent groups. It's important to distinguish between insurgency and terrorism, as they employ different tactics, target selections, and desired end goals. Insurgency refers to "an active revolt or uprising against a government that is less than an organized revolution and is not recognized as belligerency," as per the Merriam Webster online dictionary. On the other hand, terrorism is "the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion."

Argument and Counterargument

Insurgencies differ significantly from terrorism as they selectively use violence against individuals or groups that do not align politically with the insurgents' objectives or the ruling government. Insurgent groups primarily target the standing government, its supporters, and collaborators within local communities, states, and tribal governments. In response, the government, too, selectively targets the insurgent groups and their supporters. The government's initial response may appear "terroristic" in focus, but with intelligence collection and political and military mobilization, they can counter the threat effectively.

Numerous factors contribute to the success of insurgencies. This paper will touch upon some of them to support the argument for why certain groups have been effective in their rebellions. Successful insurgencies often receive assistance from state actors that share common objectives with the insurgents or have a common adversary with the ruling government. These supportive state actors provide the insurgent groups with safe havens, smuggling routes, military-grade weapons, operational and tactical training, and funding to aid their cause. However, such assistance usually comes with an underlying goal of gaining influence over the post-conflict government formed by the insurgency group.

The organizational structure of insurgent groups plays a crucial role in determining their prospects for success. More unified and close-knit networks with higher levels of command and control in their military and fighting forces enhance the probability of victory. Research conducted by reputable online journal Taylor and Francis indicates that smaller, more isolated components within an armed insurgent force have a higher probability of success. The centrality of the network plays a pivotal role in the risk of conflict recurrence and success in conducting operations and managing public perception to achieve their goals.

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According to Mao Tse-tung, an insurgency is intended to create public support for the rebellion movement and enable the establishment of a real armed force that can ultimately defeat the legitimate government. Mao's model on insurgency consists of three stages: political preparation, limited attacks, and conventional war. Insurgents have historically displayed extreme acts of aggression, violence, and often a zero-sum political agenda. Interestingly, insurgencies after the Cold War demonstrated the ability to manage a post-conflict state effectively, as discussed in researcher Terrance Lyons' article on JSTOR.

Example 1: Insurgency During the American Revolution

In 1774, Americans from the thirteen colonies initiated an organized insurgency against Great Britain, aiming for freedom and independence from an oppressive governing state. Before resorting to violence, the colonies decided to boycott British goods. Eventually, these leaders played a pivotal role in driving the revolution and creating insurgency groups to resist Great Britain's rule, monarchy, treatment, and taxing policies.

The insurgency during the American Revolution was triggered by the colonies' quest for independence after the imposition of the Stamp Act. The act was a political action by Britain's Parliament to tax the colonies without providing them with proper representation. The colonists, feeling unfairly treated, began rioting and protesting, resulting in an uprising against the authoritative governing body of Great Britain. The American insurgents waged an arduous seven-year war against Great Britain in pursuit of freedom and independence. Despite being smaller in number and resources, the insurgent groups managed to defeat the powerful nation with the assistance of allies France and Spain.

Great Britain's strategy to suppress the insurgency in America was straightforward, assuming their superior force and loyal colonists would ensure quick victory with minimal bloodshed of British soldiers. However, this assumption proved fatal, as the American insurgents, with the support of the majority of the population, gained freedom of movement and reduced credible human intelligence sources.

Example 2: Israeli Counterinsurgency Against the UK in Palestine

Drawing from my background, I have chosen this unique case study to support my thesis. It sheds light on the war of liberation/independence and specific targets attacking only the enemy, without intentionally harming the civilian population. The case study involves two combatants, the United Kingdom, and Israeli insurgents from three independent groups that eventually merged into one large insurgent group to fight against British forces. Over eight decades later, the conflict for ownership of Palestine, now referred to as the Gaza Strip, remains unresolved between the Palestinians and Israelis.

In 1923, the United Kingdom established Palestine as the national home of the Israeli (Jewish) community. Subsequent failed attempts by the Israelis to establish Palestine as their national home led to bloodshed, civilian casualties, infrastructure damage, terrorism, and calls of inhumane treatment.

In 1944, three Israeli insurgent groups rose in Palestine, executing a revolt against the British mandate due to their perceived lack of protection for Israeli Jewish interests. The groups included the Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi, each with its own ideology and views. In June 1946, the United Resistance Movement insurgency group, formed by the merging of Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi, conducted a series of violent attacks against British security forces in Palestine. Despite Britain's efforts to suppress the insurgency through Operation Agatha, the insurgents continued their attacks, and by September 1947, the British decided to withdraw from Palestine.


In conclusion, history has shown that when a state actor faces an insurgency, the larger and more organized force does not always secure victory. The success of insurgencies often hinges on factors such as third-party support, the backing of the population, and the organizational structure of the insurgent group. Even without having all these factors in their favor, the mere existence of an insurgent group indicates a lack of reliable human intelligence for the legitimate government, leading to disorganization and a momentum that drives the insurgency until their desired end state is achieved.


  1. Nagl, J. A. (2005). Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. University of Chicago Press.
  2. Galula, D. (2006). Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. Praeger Security International.
  3. Kilcullen, D. (2010). Counterinsurgency. Oxford University Press.
  4. Marighella, C. (2011). Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
  5. Boot, M. (2013). Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present. Liveright Publishing.
  6. Johnson, R. (2018). Maoist Insurgency since the Cold War. Routledge.
  7. Beckett, I. F. W. (2003). Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies: Guerrillas and Their Opponents since 1750. Routledge.
  8. Singh, A. (2017). Guerrilla Warfare: From the American Revolution to Iraq and Beyond. Sterling.
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