In 2019, TCF published a study of “hybrid actors,” a term for armed groups that simultaneously opposed and joined forces with the state. The concept of hybrid actors helped explain the ambiguity of armed groups that were neither fully part of the state, nor categorically opposed to it. A deep and historical exploration of militia violence in turbulent states like Iraq suggests that even neat categories like “the state” and “armed groups” do not fully or accurately capture the violent competition for power.

Thanassis Cambanis: You very inspiringly broached the idea of hybridity a few years ago as a useful way of exploring the way some groups seek and wield power through various modalities—within the state and at other times in opposition to it; through arms and at other times through civic organizing; and so on. That thinking really drove Hybrid Actors: Armed Groups and State Fragmentation in the Middle East, which we co-authored along with four other colleagues.

A few years ago, hybridity offered a way to challenge simplistic binaries that sought to describe armed groups as state or nonstate actors. Why can’t some groups be both? Now, in some sense by winning that argument, the concept has also reached the limit of its usefulness. Powerful actors are all ecumenical, in some sense, about how they seek power, and will utilize many avenues at once: violence, state power, coercion, co-optation, institution-building, opacity, centralized hierarchies, and leaderless opposition. For example, the anonymous or little-known militants in charge of the pivotal armed groups that wield so much power in Iraq are often far more important than visible avatars of power like the prime minister, president, and speaker of parliament. In the last few years, how have you changed the concepts and typologies you use to research and describe the groups that effectively wield power in Iraq’s complex system?

Renad Mansour: Yes, the limitation that we faced when applying hybridity as a concept was in its definition of the state. The term was useful to question the types of actors that fit in the state-or-nonstate binary, but it did not do enough to question or rethink the state and nonstate arenas themselves. In a way, hybridity still defines the state and power as embedded in formal government institutions that are separated from broader society. In several countries in the Middle East, however, these institutions have limited social power. Other arenas that are not linked to the formal government—political parties, for example—are the true bearers of state power. As I wrote last year, “to overcome this predicament, the focus, then, should not be on the nature of these groups but rather on the nature of the state itself.” The main powerful armed groups can play both “formal” politics (send representatives to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government) and “informal” politics (backroom deals, off-the-table contracts). The challenge, then, is understanding what this tells us not about them, but about the type of state in which they compete.

What Is State Power?

Thanassis: So the context really informs the content. We’re trying to figure out how power works, and how violence comes into play in the competition for power. If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that in Iraq today we’ll never correctly understand the major players, and the major armed groups, unless we more correctly understand the arena over which they are competing. And in Iraq today, the matrix of power and resources isn’t embodied in some distinct, well-structured state that groups are fighting over. Instead, to borrow your terminology, power and resources lie in both formal and informal structures—inside and outside of the state—and groups that want power have to compete in multiple arenas, with a variety of tools. In such a fluid scenario, armed groups will frequently resort to violence, but violence is not their only tool. If the context changes, the groups adapt. If, for instance, a dominant force were able to impose some central control over armed groups, then the armed groups would adapt their tactics. Should we be looking for concepts that are dynamic and fluid, that help us understand the state, power, and competitors—including militias and parties—as part of a deeply intertwined organism?

Renad: There are already so many terms that seek to describe these actors—nonstate, sub-state, para-state, hybrid, to name a few. Maybe instead of coining new terms or concepts, we should first use the phenomenon to test and better understand current concepts. So, what does the emergence or presence of armed groups linked to the government in Iraq tell us about the state? Why are they excluded from the concept of the state even though they have representation in all branches of formal government? We see that, in fact, much of the policy world has a rigid definition of the state—based on Westphalian or neo-Weberian constructs emerging from European history. This interpretation means that many armed groups in the region do not neatly fit. So, before we give them new names, why not critique the construct itself? What is a state in the Middle East? And what is state power?

New York police officers with high-powered rifles patrol in Times Square on December 7, 2015, in New York City. Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Thanassis: You’re right—we probably don’t need new terms or concepts. We need to be more creative and elastic about how we try to apprehend the reality that’s in front of us. Personally, I find it helpful to think comparatively and historically about violence, and the forces that use violence inside and outside the state. You ask what state power is, and what a state in the Middle East is. I believe that there are specific, historically contingent particularities that characterize the Middle East right now. But I also believe that violence, militias, states, and state power are not fundamentally different in different regions of the world, although all of these concepts can take very different forms in different national and regional contexts.

I find it clarifying to approach your question by reminding myself of the limited, but revelatory, parallels between the case of Iraq and the case of the United States. In the United States, there are lots of armed groups that operate only marginally under the umbrella of the state—think of police departments, some of which are the bureaucratic descendants of private slave patrols, and most of which fall under the murky jurisdiction of a municipal or city government. I’m not saying that the New York Police Department—with more than 35,000 uniformed officers, 20,000 support staff, and an annual budget of more than $10 billion—is an exact analogue of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). But conceptually, it is a similar type of institution, with a comparable relationship to the state.

“I’m not saying that the New York Police Department, with its 35,000 officers, is an exact analogue of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units. But conceptually, it is a similar type of institution, with a comparable relationship to the state.”

Such comparisons are useful, in my view, because they remind us that ambiguous intersections of militia and state power are not aberrant. And over time, when complex organic relationships among different armed groups become normalized, they can stop being seen as manifestations of a failing state, and can rather be seen as the organic forms that state violence has taken in a particular context.

All that to say: you’re right!

Context Matters Most

Renad: Yes, I agree with you. The historical transformation of these armed actors provides us with interesting comparatives, and I’m not sure we do enough of that. There’s a form of essentialism that often creeps into the policy debate on armed groups in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), especially if they use Islam as one of their ideological frameworks (often along with either anti-imperialism or anti-Americanism). As you say, though, these groups are not accountable to a formal government structure, but they also did not invent the game.

So, I guess what we’re saying is that the context in which these groups operate becomes as important (if not more?) as studying the groups themselves. To take your example, it’s not that the old police department is like the PMU, but rather that the state in the United States at that time may have resembled parts of what we see in the state in Iraq today. The lack of accountability allows such groups to operate both inside and outside formal government mechanisms, and to blur the lines between security, economics, politics, and society more generally.

Thanassis: When we started talking a year ago with researchers who focus on violent fringe groups in the United States, I wondered how much conceptual overlap we’d find. Analytically, in the MENA region we’re often talking about armed groups that are almost indistinguishable in capacity from an official state military, operating in weak fragmented states. In contrast, in the United States the militias that supported the January 6 attack on the Capitol have marginal military capacity, and they’re operating in the context of an incredibly powerful centralized nation-state. But one common thread that you’re pulling on here is that we gain analytical insight by thinking about the entire ecosystem of power, and that we should focus on the bedrock conditions—which in most instances means looking at the practices and boundary conditions created by the state.

This dialogue is part of “Transnational Trends in Citizenship: Authoritarianism and the Emerging Global Culture of Resistance,” a TCF project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Foundations.