The world’s constantly changing security landscape requires us to rethink conflict analysis and understand why armed groups are involved in both armed conflict and organized crime. As stated by the UN Secretary-General, the growth of well-armed non-state armed groups, some of which operate across borders with shifting alliances and no clear political goals, has made it more difficult to negotiate an end to conflict.  The pathways to peace often depend on finding or creating unity of purpose and political will, at the local, national and international levels. 

Have you ever wondered what are the current key trends that influence armed groups analysis? Here are five. 

Proliferation of armed groups: A quarter to a third of all armed conflicts have more than nine armed groups and with proliferation of armed groups comes increased complexity to understand alliances and changing structures. 

Protracted conflicts:  Conflicts change and morph over time and multiple conflicts operate over different timescales forcing us to think long-term. Armed groups also change over time in both the nature and the spaces they operate in. 

The third trend we see is Urbanization: There has been increased urbanization of conflict in the past decade. Addressing the Security Council in 2022, Secretary-General António Guterres stressed that 50 million people currently face the dire consequences of urban warfare.  When explosive weapons are used in cities, 90 per cent of those affected are civilians. The impact of conflict on communities and urban environments is changing. Questions such as how you distinguish between combatants and civilians in urban environments are complex. 

Another trend is Criminality: Illicit economic activities and criminality in the context of insurgency are on the rise. United Nations University (UNU) has noted the impact of organized crime on conflict dynamics is profound. There is robust evidence to support the contention that conflicts in which a major rebel or terrorist group has access to funds from contraband tend to last significantly longer than those that do not. Understanding the relationship and how armed groups make use of the changing supply chains to further their cause is key to armed groups analysis. If any analysis is to have an impact, the focus must be on the communities at the lower levels of the illicit supply chains given that they are vulnerable to both state action and the abuse of power by violent non-state groups. We must understand that multiple forms of transnational organized crime are interconnected with each other in the illicit supply chain network. We must focus on the power structures. Powerful brokers connect the different links of illicit supply chains, facilitating the illicit economy even after peace agreements have been concluded.  

Last but not least is the current social media landscape: social media has transformed many aspects of armed groups, who have increased ability to use social media for many purposes such as recruiting and funding.  Where social media plays a significant role, how it is used and how it impacts will depend on the context. Even different armed groups within the same context will use social media in different ways. 

There are various dilemmas that govern UN engagement with armed groups. UN officials must carefully analyse with who, whether and how to interact. Humanitarian action is distinct from political, security, or military actions  and objectives. We can best understand the dilemmas around the following issues : 

Security: How to guarantee the security of affected people, humanitarian personnel, and all interlocutors who interact with the armed groups 

Consent:  How to ensure consent of all parties and avoid perceptions of favourable treatments of one group over the other 

Legitimization: How to ensure that engagement is not misused or seen as ‘legitimization’ attempts by armed groups 

Political support: Given that humanitarian action is distinct from political/security/military actors and objectives, how to get political support/leverage for humanitarian action without overstepping the lines 

Impact and approach: What is the potential impact of other UN actors and processes on humanitarian action (and vice versa). How do we best balance a collective approach among humanitarian actors where actions of one may impact another 

Legal boundaries: What are the 'deterrence’ effects of some legislation, and prohibition of interaction with armed groups in some domestic legislation 

These are just some questions that the upcoming online learning programme, Analysing and Engaging Armed Groups, aims to discuss. If you are interested in learning more, make sure to sign up for the next edition.