The Legitimacy Politics of Armed Groups

Berlin Demo


Armed groups such as the Taliban, al-Shabaab or IS are central actors in contemporary wars, blamed for massive violence against civilians as well as for the disintegration of states. Not infrequently, these groups are characterized as criminals or terrorists for whom it does not matter whether their goals and actions are perceived as legitimate or not. However, there is ample evidence that armed groups seek legitimacy in international politics, where they also generate recognition effects. The project assumes that armed groups engage in international "legitimacy politics" aimed at being recognized as legitimate political actors. The aim of the project is to develop mechanisms of legitimacy politics of armed groups and to test them in empirical case studies. In doing so, the project starts from the following guiding question: How do armed groups legitimize themselves and through which social mechanisms do they achieve recognition effects in international politics?

The project is divided into three phases: In a first conceptual phase, a theoretical frame of reference will be established, with the help of which plausible mechanisms of legitimacy politics will be developed and specified with regard to their historical contextual conditions. We distinguish three world historical periods: decolonization, the Cold War, and humanitarian intervention. In a second theory-driven phase, these mechanisms will be empirically tested in process analyses based on four cases (Western Sahara, Syria, Afghanistan, Uganda). In a third phase, an expanded sample will be developed in order to further define the scope of the explanation on the basis of a larger number of cases and to account for regional and temporal variance in legitimacy politics.

In theoretical terms, the project promises to contribute to the political sociology of armed groups as actors in international politics. In terms of empirical output, it provides insights into legitimizing ideas and forms of action of non-state armed groups. Methodologically, the project takes up impulses from the recent methodological discussion in the social sciences with its focus on mechanisms and process analyses. It also promises to make a contribution in terms of peace policy, because insights into armed groups' striving for legitimacy will allow international actors to respond to the political claims of these groups in a more targeted manner.


Project team

Ahmed Elsayed, Stephan Hensell, Klaus Schlichte


Project publications

Elsayed, Ahmed, 2023: From the Mountains to the Élysée: The Precarious International Legitimacy of the Syrian Kurdish YPG and PYD. In: The Middle East Journal 77 (1), 53-77.

Hensell, Stephan; Schlichte, Klaus, 2021: The Historical Mapping of Armed Groups' Recognition, in: Geis, Anna/Clément, Maéva/Pfeifer, Hanna (Hg.), Armed Non-state Actors and the Politics of Recognition, Manchester: Manchester University Press, S. 30 - 46.