Throughout history, there have been a few indelible transitions of militant groups to politics –this phenomenon can be labeled “politicization.” It is surprising to discern that most militant or insurgent groups do not end because of policing or military action. According to an examination of 648 terrorist organizations that existed between 1968-2006, the primary avenue for a terror group’s demise was found to be via the political process – this was true 43% of the time. Joining the political process is one of the seven key elements identified in the decline and ending of terrorist outfits in contemporary times. Some militant groups widely labeled as terrorists by the international arena have managed to capture political legitimacy and even sovereign power. Although not all transitions are successful, history alludes to many successful ones. This brief endeavor highlights the politicization of Hamas, Hezbollah, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the African National Congress (ANC).
Hamas is one example of a successful transition from a resistance movement to a political party. It was formed from the Muslim Brotherhood (banned in Russia) in Palestine after the Palestinian Intifada in 1987. Although, initially, a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood (banned in Russia), Hamas became a separate body due to the admiration the group received during the Intifada where it fought Israel militarily. Hamas proactively pursued a Palestine free of Israeli occupation and endeavored to achieve this goal through an organized armed struggle. Since the Palestinians do not have any official armed forces, groups like Hamas have filled this vacuum. The group chiefly operates in Gaza, which is recognized by many scholars as “the world’s largest open-air prison” due to Israeli and Egyptian blockades since 2007. Hamas’ military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades is primarily equipped with rockets that have been amassed with the assistance of Iran and Syria, which it is known to fire into Israel.
Hamas has, however, not only sustained its popularity due to its armed resistance but also because of its social work – this includes providing education to anyone regardless of political affiliation and religion. Hamas’ ideology is dictated by Islam and the notion of jihad – the group’s primary aims include freeing Palestine and implementing Islamic law; returning the Palestinian refugees to Palestine; and giving the people their rights. The group is known for its efficient organization and structure.
As Hamas’ power proliferated throughout the years, the opportunity to politicize became more and more likely. Eventually, the group discerned that its struggle against Israel could also be extended to the political arena. In 2006, shocking Israel and the West, it won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections (74 out of a total of 132 seats). Today, Hamas remains one of the principal political parties in the Palestinian Authority.
Hezbollah is another militant group that has also successfully transitioned into the political theatre. Officially born in 1985, Hezbollah aimed to put an end to the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon (which lasted from 1985 to 2000). Hezbollah filled the huge vacuum left by the ineptitude of Lebanon’s government and armed forces vis-à-vis protecting the nation and its citizens against Israeli occupation. Hezbollah was eventually successful in ending the occupation in 2000. “It was the first time that Israel had yielded occupied territory through force of Arab arms alone.” This was Hezbollah’s crowning moment, and the group’s popularity in Lebanon soared. Hezbollah later harvested the adulation in Lebanon and launched itself into mainstream politics. The group is very well organized – it is run by a seven-member Shura council which oversees functional and regional committees such as ideology, finances, military affairs, social affairs etcetera. Furthermore, akin to Hamas, the group remains popular in Lebanon due to its social work network in the country. This has helped the group augment its popularity and legitimacy. The group is also known for its effective use of the media and social media. Its primary goal is similar to Hamas’ as it wants to install an Islamic republic in Lebanon and fight against Zionism –, however, the religious ideologies of both groups are different, with Hamas being a Sunni group and Hezbollah being a Shia one.
The transition of its armed resistance to politics came towards the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1989 – this was done to ensure its future in Lebanon. There has been a huge reduction in Hezbollah violence since its politicization even though it still maintains a military wing, but this is primarily to defend the civilians from Israel (Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006 and its occupation of Lebanon’s Chebaa farms validate this action). Hezbollah is one of the largest parties in Lebanon and has also governed the country in the past. In 2018’s election, Hezbollah performed the best with respect to the popular vote – it won 12 out of 128 seats in the Lebanese parliament.
The Irish Republican Army
The Irish Republican Army (IRA) also known as the Provisional Irish Republican Army was one of the most effective and devastating militant groups in the world. The group was formed in 1969 and disbanded in 2005. Its primary intent was to rid Northern Ireland from British rule and unify all of Ireland as an independent state. Attempting to achieve these ends led to decades of fighting with British security forces and pro-British paramilitary groups. Sinn Féin was the political wing of the IRA and endeavored to achieve the same ends, but politically.
As the conflict took more and more lives, both the British and the IRA realized that politics might be the best way forward. Within the organization itself, Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams, who were legitimate militant leaders, began urging for political dialogue and politicization. Although, the IRA and Sinn Féin realized that violence brought its struggle in the limelight and helped them attain popularity, it at the same time did not bring them legality. Both groups realized that engaging in this conflict violently and criminally would take away from the eventual goal. By the late 1980s, a military deadlock motivated the British and the IRA/Sinn Féin to begin talks which led to a ceasefire. After peace talks with the British, Sinn Féin formally called out the IRA to drop arms in 2005. Today Sinn Féin is the largest political party in the Northern Ireland Assembly and currently the main opposition party in the Republic of Ireland’s Assembly.
The African National Congress
The African National Congress or ANC was a South African multiracial nationalist group created in 1912 striving to unite all Africans as one people in order to defend their rights. After 50 years of maintaining a non-violent campaign, the group founded a military wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), in 1961 that targeted the government, military, and foreign businesses. Nelson Mandela was one of the co-founders of this group. The group’s frustration and desperation saw violence as a legitimate option towards its goals. The MK was involved in various terrorist attacks, including the 1983 Church Street Bombing that killed 16 civilians.
After years of fighting the South African government, the ANC experienced a second transition beginning in 1986. During this time, the government and ANC negotiated regarding the possible release of Nelson Mandela. The Apartheid ended in the early 1990s, and this signaled a change in strategy to ensure the group’s survival. The ANC became a legally recognized political party in 1990 and Mandela became South Africa’s first black president. The ANC has provided each of South Africa’s five presidents since 1994.
The aforementioned cases evidence how integral and validating the political process is for militant groups. These groups found success via their militant ways but understood that to translate this success, they eventually would need to rely upon the political process – otherwise, long-term success might just be a pipe dream. Even in recent times, politicization’s importance is noteworthy – for example, in 2016 the infamous far-left Colombian rebel group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, concluded its armed war with the Colombian government. The FARC was founded in 1966 and was highly inspired by the Cuban Revolution. The 2016 peace deal ended a 52-year-old conflict and allowed the group to restructure itself as a political group, i.e. the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force. Politicization, therefore, remains important and will most definitely lead other militant groups to transition from arms to ballots in the future.
Sarmad Ishfaq is a former research fellow for Lahore Center for Peace Research who has a Master’s degree in International Relations. He is currently working as an independent researcher and journalist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”