Peace Science Digest

Diaspora Support for Militant Groups Contributes to a Shift Towards Nonviolence

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Petrova, M. G. (2019). What matters is who supports you: Diaspora and foreign states as external supporters and militants’ adoption of nonviolence. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 63(9), 2155-2179.

Talking Points

  • Diaspora support for militant groups is associated with a 7% increased probability that the militant group will shift towards nonviolent tactics.
  • External support for militant groups is important to consider because domestic conflicts are rarely isolated from external influence, but who provides that support can influence how militant groups act.
  • External support from the diaspora, compared to foreign governments, may be better at influencing a shift towards nonviolent tactics because of shared cultural ties.


In Northern Ireland, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) pursued an armed rebellion and independence campaign against the British, reaching its height of violence in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, violence declined into the 1990s, and the IRA relied less on violent tactics and started to incorporate more nonviolent approaches. By 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was reached, and a peace process started in Northern Ireland. This strategic shift towards nonviolence on the part of the IRA, or at least the incorporation of more nonviolent tactics, is witnessed in several other (formerly) armed resistance movements around the world—like Fatah in the Palestinian Territories, the Umma Liberation Party in Sudan, or the African National Congress in South Africa. What can explain a strategic shift towards nonviolence by militant groups?

This research focuses on external support for militant groups as a contributing factor for why they might shift towards nonviolence. Specifically, the author looks at external support (which can include financial support, arms, or technical training and capacity) from foreign governments and the diaspora. She finds that the probability of militant groups adopting nonviolence increases by 7% when diaspora support is present. Support from foreign governments, however, does not appear to influence the use of nonviolence.  

Looking at external support for militant groups is important because, as the author points out, “domestic conflict rarely remains isolated from external influence.” Who provides that support is also important because the militant group “finds itself in a binding position to its benefactor since its future actions are dependent on the supply of support.” This creates a dynamic where external supporters seek to advance their own interests in the context of an armed struggle, whether that is an interest in the continuation of violence or an interest in the cessation of hostilities. For militant groups, this support might be necessary to continue operations but also risky, as it may alienate domestic support.  

Continuing with the example from Northern Ireland, Muammar Gaddafi, former leader of Libya, was a key foreign supporter of the IRA during the height of violence in the 1970s. He was motivated to support what he saw as an anti-colonial struggle and undermine the British government, thus he saw support for the IRA as an advancement of his broad political interests. However, the Irish diaspora in the United States was a key supporter of the move towards nonviolence, advocating for a peaceful resolution to the conflict both with the U.S. government (who was a key broker in the Good Friday Agreement) and with the IRA (whose shift to nonviolent tactics was critical). The Irish diaspora had opposing interests to Gaddafi’s, wanting to see an end of hostilities in Northern Ireland.

Yet, the IRA in Northern Ireland is just one example. In order to test the association between foreign support and a shift to nonviolent tactics, the author used the Nonviolent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes (NAVCO) dataset, which contains data on 250 violent and nonviolent campaigns from 1945 to 2006, and developed a unique dataset that tested the adoption of nonviolence, measured by the use of civil resistance and/or participation in elections, against whether or not there was material support from foreign states or diaspora communities. This article shows that the IRA is not alone as a recipient of external support. Half of militant groups receive support from the diaspora and close to 60% receive support from foreign governments.

While the author found that diaspora support increased the likelihood of a shift towards nonviolence, this shift only took place in 6% of the cases observed in the dataset, meaning that it is a rare event. However, support from the diaspora was a statistically significant factor in adopting nonviolent tactics, whereas support from foreign governments did not seem to affect militant groups’ tactical decisions. The author explains that cultural ties between the diaspora and militant groups can help to explain this effect. Previous research in conflict mediation suggests that “biased” mediators are more successful in reducing conflict. Similarly, diasporas are “biased” in this context, as they may share the same cultural norms and identities as militant groups, providing them with some measure of influence as they try to move military groups towards nonviolent tactics.

Informing Practice  

The previous Special Issue of the Peace Science Digest focused on refugees and migrants. One research article summarized in that issue, under the title “Refugee Resettlement as a Form of Transnational Peacebuilding,”[1] argued that refugee resettlement is a form of peacebuilding because refugees support peacebuilding activities in their countries of origin through remittances and transfer of social capital. Further, refugees are an under-appreciated source of expertise on peacebuilding in their countries of origin because they are viewed as passive victims rather than agents of change. A similar case can be made for members of the diaspora (of which refugees are certainly a part)—they present an untapped resource of cultural knowledge and connections that can be used to transform conflict dynamics.

This insight creates new opportunities and pathways for influencing nonviolent action in conflict-affected contexts through engagement with members of the diaspora. This research identified sharing technical capacity as one option of external support for militant groups. This technical support could include training and resources on nonviolent action and the effectiveness of nonviolent action in the face of state repression. For instance, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) offers training and educational resources on nonviolent action and movement building. Providing training or working with members of the diaspora to transmit these lessons could be a valuable approach to indirectly influencing the decision-making processes of militant groups world-wide.

Yet, this approach also carries risks, as external support for militant groups could qualify as foreign support for terrorism, which could put any assisting non-profit or non-governmental organization in serious legal trouble. For these organizations or funders looking to transform conflict dynamics, working with the diaspora from a conflict-affected country without directly engaging militant groups in an armed conflict could be a smart approach to avoiding these risks and effectively advancing the message of nonviolence, as members of the diaspora can better package this knowledge within existing cultural norms and expectations. Further, this approach helps to shift the narratives around those who flee or are forced to flee from conflict—rather than victims, they are powerful actors capable of influencing key conflict parties and encouraging peaceful outcomes in their countries of origin.

Continued Reading

Nordien, J. (2017, March 20). Diaspora building peace. African Diaspora Policy Centre. Retrieved October 23, 2019, from

Hayward, S. (2008, February 1). Engaging the Darfur diaspora for peace. United States Institute for Peace. Retrieved October 23, 2019, from

Benson, J., et al. (2016, June 16). Somali diaspora investment survey report & discussion brief. Shuraako. Retrieved October 23, 2019, from


Diasporas for Peace:

Nonviolent Action, USIP:

[1] Peace Science Digest. (2019, August). Refugee resettlement as a form of transnational peacebuilding. Retrieved October 23, 2019, from:

Keywords: diaspora, nonviolence, militant groups, external support

The following analysis appears in Volume 4, Issue 5 of the Peace Science Digest.