Why Arming Rebel Factions Is a Bad Idea

Why Arming Rebel Factions Is a Bad Idea


Is it a good idea to actively arm rebel factions within a nation? Since its independence, the United States has been involved directly and indirectly in arms trades with other nations, like Britain in WW2 or Saudi Arabia currently. Some politicians like Barrack Obama and other government officials agree that support for “allied” rebels is important to ensure our national security or to support our cause. Though not directly stated, numerous outcomes have proven it not to be effective to supply rebel faction with arms; Not only arming other nations but directly arming rebel factions within nations or indirectly arming organized crime groups, such as cartels. The discussion analyzes why the United States supplies weapons to rebels and organized crime members.

This study aims to assess the outcomes and implications of supplying weapons to these populations. Specifically, this study will be critically analyzing the repercussions and aftermath of supplying weapons to factions and what these groups of people do with the weapons when in custody and after disposal, including the United States motive within the arms deals, such as possible tracking of weapons movements. Also, the purpose of this study is to compare and contrast the views of these groups we are supplying with arms in order to understand if the United States is supplying them with proper ethical considerations. More importantly, the purpose of this research is to analyze how these arms deals negatively affect the United States and how it affects international security. Some numerous cases and articles support each side. As an overview, this paper will discuss brief summaries on several examples relating to each side. The pros and cons of each will be assessed, concluding with my personal beliefs based on critically analyzing the information reviewed.

Middle East

The US has supported numerous rebel factions in the Middle East in the past few decades. From Syria to Libya to Afghanistan, the US continuously arms rebels which have resulted in problems within the aftermath. One correlation of issues within the aftermath includes the rebel factions no longer maintaining loyalty to the US. Studies have shown rebels no longer maintaining ties with the US immediately following being armed. An article mentioned, “Another part is the mistaken belief that accountability mechanisms were unnecessary, that wealth itself would attract and maintain allegiances. This confidence on the part of patrons that money could buy loyalty is long-standing but defies historical experience: proxy organizations are assumed to be loyal to their funders. In this case, insurgents paid lip and ideological service to sponsors, but once the cash was received, they were unconstrained” (Baylouny & Mullins, 2017, p. 4). According to some sources, as rebels gain momentum, they simultaneously position themselves to be attractive to patrons by altering their ideologies and competing against other recipients in the process (Baylouny & Mullins, 2017). Personalization of sponsorship adds a new conflict. “Some opposition groups geared their actions toward specific individuals who provided significant resources, playing on the donors’ desire for social prominence. Others pledged loyalty to certain versions of religion or allied in line with their sponsors” (Baylouny & Mullins, 2017, P. 2). Opposition rebel groups start splitting into smaller groups comprised of ideological issues and regional issues which in turn causes competition complicating attempts to resolve the region’s problems resulting in violence.

Another problem might be that the group’s long-term goals might not exactly be shared with what the US expects, to put it in light terms. Arming these factions’ gives strengths to jihadists of the region. So we have to ask ourselves what terrorists really want and how do they go about it. Not to call them all terrorists but you have to take into account the lack of accountability of the guns, who they are actually going to and where they are going.

Maybe the individual isn’t classified as terrorist, but they might hand over their weapon over to one either by force or due to shared views at the time.

An arms monitoring group that analyzed weapons found on the battlefield said Arms provided by the United States and Saudi Arabia to Syrian opposition groups frequently ended up in the hands of Islamic State. These findings are a stark reminder of the contradictions inherent in supplying weapons into armed conflicts in which multiple competing and overlapping non-state armed groups operate (Aboulenein & Graff, 2017).

The outcome usually ends in the US giving guns to terrorists.

 A Professor at Northeastern University, Max Abrahms, uses his presentation of the seven puzzling tendencies of terrorist organizations to contrast terrorist’s behaviour with the strategic method in his article called “What Terrorists Really Want: Terrorists Motives and Counterterrorism Strategies” (Abrahms, 2008). Abrahms’ definition of the strategic method is as stated

In classical economic theory, rational agents (1) possess stable and consistent preferences; (2) compare the costs and benefits of all available options; and (3) select the optimal option, that is, the one that maximizes output.7 Modern decision theory recognizes that decision makers face cognitive and informational constraints. Rational actor models therefore typically relax each assumption such that the rational agent must only (1) possess relatively stable and consistent goals; (2) weigh the expected costs and benefits of the most obvious options; and (3) select the option with the optimal expected utility.8 the strategic model is explicitly predicated on this trio of assumptions (Abrahms, 2008).

In his findings, he challenges the idea that terrorists are rational thinkers and contradict the fundamentals of the strategic model. This leaves them somewhat at an unpredictable status, with US weapons in hand.

In the late 2000s, the US knowingly authorized the shipment of arms to Qatar who then shipped them to Libyan rebels in opposition with the Qadaffi regime, in hopes of toppling his government. After the fall of Qadaffi, the US’s plan backfired when some of the weapons started getting into the hands of the wrong rebels factions Such as ISIS. In spring 2011, the White House began getting reports that weapons were going to Islamic groups that appeared “more antidemocratic, more hard-line, closer to an extreme version of Islam” than the main rebel alliance in Libya” (Anderson, 2015).

Giving weapons to groups with unknown motives has shown to be a failure in this instance. Weapons ended up getting in the hands of jihadists whose motives are politically succession and will use any means necessary to achieve it.

Thus terrorism, if it to have any meaning, is a political, not a sadistic, act. In the paradigm case a weak non-state group, unable to resist a state’s military or to change its policy directly, terrorizes the civilian population of that state in the hope it will demand a change in foreign or domestic policy (Richman, 2016).

Another example, in the 1980s under Operation Cyclone the US armed Afghani rebels were in opposition of Soviet presence. At the time the US and the Soviet Union were engaged in a cold war that had started in the 1950s. To the US, aligning with anti-Soviet rebels in the region seemed like a good idea to avoid direct armed conflict. Though the similar short-term goal is turning into the same long-term goals has proven contradictory. World War 2 would show a perfect example of that. Not to say the US shouldn’t have helped the Russians against the Germans, but we definitely took a side risking the stability of future international security. In correlation we took a risk arming these rebels in Afghanistan, not knowing the outcome.

It turns out the aid money and weapons the US was syphoning to the rebels ended up in the hands of Pakistani backed Hekmatyar who has been criticized for killing

Civilian populations, including shelling Kabul with American-supplied weapons, causing 2,000 casualties. “Hekmatyar was said to be friendly with Osama bin Laden, founder of al-Qaeda, who was running an operation for assisting “Afghan Arab” volunteers fighting in Afghanistan, called Maktab al-Khadamat (Bradsher, 1999, p. 85).

Again, a case of US arms getting into the wrong hands. In more recent news, rebel groups in Syria that oppose the Assad regime have been handed weapons by the US for protection purposes. These people have been victim to chemical attacks, though the Assad regimes still deny it, the US still believes sufficient evidence contradicts that denial.

The first thing to ask after reviewing the last few examples is where will these weapons go if the US’s long-term goals and the rebel factions goals are different if they succeed. Evidence already states that weapons are already going to jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda. After the US aided Syrian rebels with training, arms, and supplies, they gave at least a quarter of their weapons cache to Al-Qaeda affiliates shortly after receiving them (Richardson, 2015). The pressure put onto these rebel groups along with shared long-term goals makes it easy for Al-Qaeda to absorb other extremists groups into their ranks.

But Syria’s armed opposition is also changing as a result of internal pressures. Al Qaeda’s Syrian representatives — rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) in July 2016 and then renamed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) after subsuming several other groups in January — have been relentless, and patient, in pursuing their long-term objective: a merger of all armed Syrian opposition groups under its broad transnational Islamic umbrella. Al Qaeda has commonly called this goal a “uniting of the ranks (Lister, 2017).

There may be an upside to think about when discussing arming rebel factions. The group might be in desperate need of aid and protection or to relieve the United States of too much direct conflict. So arming a rebel faction in order to give them a means of protection against another oppressor could seem plausible. The latest example to reference is the Peshmerga forces. Though the United States hasn’t run into many problems yet there are still things to be concerned about like are their long-term goals in line with ours or will they stay loyal to the United States view of stability in the region or will they hand the weapons over to jihadist groups.

Operation Fast and Furious

Laredo, Texas, 2005. ATF launches very controversial ‘Project Gunrunner’ which seeks to reduce cross-border drug and firearms trafficking and the high level of crime. Mexican cartels have become the leading source of gun trafficking in the southwest US according to the ATF, so they, other agencies and the Mexican government are working together to expand tracing technologies that can prevent or at least slow down the arms trafficking. What makes this such a controversial issue was the risks involved. ATF’s plan was to let the cartel’s straw purchasers buy the weapons; then agents would apprehend them at the border. Once they had the purchaser in custody, the plan was to get enough information out of them to hopefully gain new leads to make arrests important to the cause aimed to reduce arms trafficking (Krantz, 2013).  

After a local Phoenix gun store owner reported four suspicious men purchasing AK-47 rifles November 2009 ATF launches (secret) probe called Operation Fast and Furious (TUTTLE, 2016). The ultimate goal was to allow drug cartels on the Arizona Mexico border make gun purchases through local FLL’s, using “straw buyers” then allow the buyers to cross the border so the ATF can track the weapons through the ranks of the cartel and make high profile busts (Krantz, 2013). Which is against what Project Gunrunner’s plan that was to apprehend at the border, not let the guns go through the ranks. The tracking part went unsuccessful, though some speculate it was due to the possible lack of funding. A little under 2,000 weapons got into the hands of drug cartels (Krantz, 2013).

March 10, 2010, the brother of the former attorney general of Chihuahua is kidnapped and murdered. Fast and the Furious weapons are found at the scene. December 14, 2010, a shootout between lobby associates, aiming to rob illegal immigrants, and Border Patrol broke out. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry is shot and killed. Weapons recovered at the scene were traced to Fast and Furious (Krantz, 2013). The operation that was once a secret is now made public.

In March 2010, ATF recorded 958 killings in Mexico and 359 purchased guns that were traced to Operation Fast and Furious. As of July 2011, law enforcement recovered 122 weapons directly traceable to Operation fast and furious at the scene of violent crimes in Mexico (Pelofsky, 2011).

Not only did the drug cartels get their hands on the weapons but some guns were trafficked up north particularly one gun being used by one of the two lone wolf terrorist named Nadir Soafi, responsible for the shooting at the draw Mohammed contest in Texas (TUTTLE, 2016).

No important arrests, crucial to the reduction of arms trafficking into the US, were been made as a result of Fast and Furious, to reduce the weapons being trafficked into the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General, as of November 2012 only 710 of the 2,000 firearms have been recovered. The Mexican government even stated that an undisclosed number of guns found at about 170 crime scenes were linked to Fast and Furious (Oversight Government Reform, 2017)

There are still many unrecovered weapons out there in Mexico and the US along with no arrests relating to the operation leaves there to be still much potential for further death due to the Fast and Furious transaction. In the sense of tracking the ATF may have been on to something, but at what cost. In realistic terms, there should have been no reason not to apprehend the straw purchasers at the border immediately. I do conceit that it if it had worked then it would have been a way to make important high profile arrests, but would that still have done anything (Oversight Government Reform, 2017).

To go a bit off topic if you look into leader decapitation theory, Scholars like Max Abrahms claim that it rarely has beneficial outcomes, I’d cite this, but I heard it straight from his mouth. For example, the countless times the US has participated in the capturing or taking out the heads of extremist groups and having it backfire. Just to name a couple high profile cases, Osama or Monsour in Afghanistan which is still ongoing, Qadaffi in Libya which basically turned Libya into a terrorist playground and safe haven for rebel factions to fight each other (Anderson, 2015). To explain the state of Libya 5 years after the overthrow of Qadaffi Obama and Clinton created a power vacuum that empowered terrorist groups like ISIS, Ansar al-Sharia, which was involved in the Benghazi attack and others which still plagues Libya (Carney, 2015).

“Groups that are bureaucratic and have popular support are the hardest to destabilize through leadership targeting, and it in these cases that counterproductive outcomes are likely” (Jordan, p. 6) In correlation when looking at Cartels, they are fairly bureaucratic. They have leadership roles and specific roles for certain individuals. So the plan of apprehending the cartel leaders will more than likely lead to other members to replace them in a short time. To get back on topic and to be realistic the US just handed 2,000 guns to criminals. Even though the intention was to reduce arms trafficking to the US, the ultimate risk was not worth outcome. Over the past three years, a total of 94 Fast and Furious weapons have been recovered (Krantz, 2013). Not even a quarter of the 2,000 weapons have been recovered (Krantz, 2013). That’s not even taking into the account the potential crimes that could potentially take place in the future.


The question of whether or not it is a good idea to arm rebels in other countries has plagued Americans for long. The state has a history of arming ‘allied’ insurgents in other countries, and the implications have been anything but good. Studies indicate that arming rebels brings more harm than good because providing wealth to a faction does not guarantee loyalty. Thus, the insurgents might put a front to get the arms, and then turn around and do the opposite. Moreover, strategies between the US and these groups are not shared adequately. Thus, the US might as well be arming the group it is fighting indirectly. One way this could happen is when an allied rebel gives the arms to a terrorist group, or after the tasks, the weapons are meant for is over; the weapons find themselves in the arms of rebels as it happened in Libya. This plan backfires almost all the time, because groups that are bureaucratic are to topple, and bureaucracy is a significant characteristic of cartels.

The US should stop supplying arms to the rebels, whether they are allies or terrorists because the weapons could quickly end up in the wrong hands. The act of merely giving out the guns ensures that there is an abundance of firearms in an area, and once the factions have the guns, they have the power, and they can do as they please with the guns. A good approach would be to starve the regions of weapons, because if there are no tools of war, then it will be harder and more expensive to have a war. Making the arms inaccessible is instrumental in fighting terror, and providing arms increase the likelihood that terrorism will prevail.


Aboulenein, A., & Graff, P. (2017, December 14). Arms supplied by U.S., Saudi ended up with Islamic State, researchers say. Retrieved from Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-arms/arms-supplied-by-u-s-saudi-ended-up-with-islamic-state-researchers-say-idUSKBN1E82EQ

Abrahms, M. (2008). What Terrorists Really Want: Terrorists Motives and Counterterrorism Strategies. MIT Press, 4-10.

Anderson, J. L. (2015, August 4). The New Yorker. Retrieved from Newyorker.com: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/isis-rises-in-libya

Baylouny, A. M., & Mullins, C. A. (2017). Cash is king: Financial sponsorship and changing priorities in the Syrian civil war. Institutional Archive of the Naval Postgraduate School, 3-19.

Bradsher, H. S. (1999). Afghan Communism and Soviet Interventions. Oxford University Press .

Carney, T. P. (2015, October 15). Washington Examiner. Retrieved from Washingtonexaminer.com: https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/as-libya-descends-into-terrorist-chaos-clinton-stands-by-her-war

Jordan, J. (n.d.). Attacking the Leader,Why Terrorist Groups Survive. 2-16.

Krantz, M. (2013). Walking firearms to gunrunners: atf’s flawed operation in a flawed. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 2-35.

Lister, C. (2017, March 15). Foreign Policy. Retrieved from Foriegnpolicy.com: https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/03/15/al-qaeda-is-swallowing-the-syrian-opposition/

Oversight Government Reform. (2017, June 7). Retrieved from oversight.house.gov: https://oversight.house.gov/release/committee-releases-fast-furious-report-obstruction-congress-department-justice/

Pelofsky, J. (2011, July 26). Reuters. Retrieved from Reuters.com: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-guns-mexico-idUSTRE76P33T20110726

Richardson, B. (2015, September 9). The Hill. Retrieved from Thehill.com: https://thehill.com/policy/defense/255055-us-trained-syrian-rebels-gave-weapons-to-al-qaeda-pentagon-admits

Richman, S. (2016, March 31). Reasons Free minds and free markets. Retrieved from Reason.com: http://reason.com/archives/2016/03/31/what-do-terrorists-want

Tuttle, I. (2016, January 22). National Review. Retrieved from Nationalreview.com: https://www.nationalreview.com/2016/01/fast-furious-obama-first-scandal/

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