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Oil, Terrorism, and Insurgency in the Middle East and North Africa

Oil, Terrorism, and Insurgency in the Middle East and North Africa

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This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Dreher, A., & Kreibaum, M. (2016). Weapons of choice The effect of natural resources on terror and insurgencies. Journal of Peace Research, 0022343316634418.

Talking Points

  • When groups are included in political participation they are more likely to choose nonviolence over violence when voicing their grievances.
  • Political and economic discrimination leads to a greater chance of terrorism.
  • Natural resources are an essential factor in the mobilization for civil war.


Natural resources can be an important factor in contributing to violence. Our Special Issue on Resources & Conflict highlights some major arguments. In many countries, an abundance of natural resources is often a disadvantage to local populations who do not directly benefit from the resource revenue, leading to high unemployment rates, mass migration, and distrust or resentment of the government.  A common term for this phenomenon is “resource curse”. This research examines how access to oil can influence a non-state ethnopolitical group’s choice between violent and nonviolent action. The authors theorize that groups will weigh the risks and benefits of political action based on their goals, the strength of the state, and their regional autonomy.

The authors investigate how the availability of oil in a region determines whether groups choose to pursue their social or political goals using nonviolent means, resort to terrorism, or start insurgencies. Previous studies have shown oil-rich states face a higher risk of civil war and an increased chance of foreign interference during a civil war.[1] The authors also state that the influence of oil reserves on violence is largely dependent on group characteristics and the state’s reaction or willingness to negotiate with a conflicting political group seeking change.

This study uses data from 118 non-state ethnopolitical groups from 13 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, ranging from 1980-2004. The following hypotheses were developed:

  • Terrorism and insurgencies will increase with oil revenues.
  • This violence is mitigated when common citizens benefit from the distribution of wealth from oil revenue.
    •  Participation in power reduces the extent of terrorism.
  • Resource related terrorist violence increases with discrimination.
    • Resource related violent insurgencies increase with discrimination.
    • Terrorism is driven more by political factors, insurgencies by economic factors.
  • Oil strengthens the motivation to violently strive for secession when limited autonomy already exists.
  • Resource abundance and economic discrimination have a larger impact on terrorist activities than on civil war.
  • The stronger a state is relative to dissenting groups, the higher the probability that they will turn to terrorism.

Results showed that ethnopolitical groups in oil-rich regions are more likely to resort to insurgencies rather than using nonviolent means or terrorism. This is especially true where groups already hold a certain amount or political autonomy or are supported by an outside government. When the presence of oil is compared to both options of violence – insurgency and terrorism – the former is more likely to occur, leading to a higher chance of civil war. When groups already participate in power, they are more likely to choose nonviolence over violence. When groups already have regional autonomy in combination with oil reserves, terrorism is less likely, but the probability of violent conflict increases due to financial incentives. Economic discrimination increases the probability for terrorism twofold, but is not related to insurgencies.  Insurgency, but not terrorism, is more likely in the presence of oil reserves when groups are backed by foreign states.

Overall, the findings show that the presence of oil leads to an increase in insurgencies but not terrorism. Insurgencies also are a mobilizing factor for civil war. Political and economic discrimination leads to a greater chance of terrorism, but is not related to the presence of oil resources. Greed is more important than grievance as a motive for ethnopolitical groups to turn to civil wars in oil-rich regions of their own ethnic groups.

Contemporary Relevance

Warfare has changed and is not limited to states. Approximately 90% of all wars in the post-Cold War period were intrastate wars, that is they took place within nations. The current global landscape of political violence is made up of so-called ‘new wars’ – a concept described by Mary Kaldor – where war, organized crime, large-scale human rights violations and global networks that fuel war become blurry. This study needs to be placed into this context, given the violent conflicts in the Middle East and the presence of oil in the region. As the authors suggest in their conclusion, countries affected by terrorism should provide regional autonomy, whereas countries affected by insurgencies should share political power. The role of external states in escalating violence when supporting political groups where oil is present also needs to be challenged.

Practical Implications

Economic opportunities and inclusive political systems are considered key structural war prevention measures in the peace science community. The study shows that when states include ethnopolitical groups in political participation and avoid economic discrimination, the countries are less likely to experience terrorism and more likely to face nonviolent means when grievances are aired. So-called ethnic conflict is not so much about the ethnic differences, but about how exclusion and denial of opportunities from one ethnic group to another lead to armed conflict. Deep/structural prevention aims at creating inclusive and participatory governance mechanisms for all ethnicities. That means addressing the root causes to transform the context conducive to terrorism and insurgencies.

Continued Reading

Peace Science Digest Special Issue: Resources and Conflict.

Why Groups Use Terrorism: A Reassessment of the Conventional Wisdom by Max Abrahms. (

David Cortright on PeaceVoiceTV: The Causes of War and the Conditions of Peace (

Keywords: civil war, insurgency, oil, resource curse, terrorism


[1] See Peace Science Digest analysis “Fueling Conflict: The Link Between Oil and Foreign Military Intervention in Civil Wars”

The following analysis is from Volume 1, Issue 5 of the Peace Science Digest.

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