“Civilian Targeting in Civil War”

by Jackson Busch

On Tuesday afternoon, Luis de la Calle delivered the latest installment of the Order, Conflict and Violence Program Speaker Series. His talk, titled “Civilian Targeting in Civil War: Shining Path in Peru, 1980-1995” focused on patterns of insurgency and civilian targeting during Peru’s bloody internal conflict.

In selecting this topic, de la Calle, who is a Junior Researcher at the Juan March Institute, sought to better understand a civil war whose brutality has confounded observers. Its nearly 70,000 victims—many of them ordinary civilians—have made it deadlier than any conflict in Peru since the onset of colonization.

De la Calle’s findings, based on an original dataset that charts civilian deaths geographically and temporally, shed some light into the strategy behind target selection by insurgent groups. Most civilian deaths occurred in areas where rebels had incomplete control—places where, in other words, some civilians remained loyal to the state and were therefore still a threat. He also found evidence for a “supporter constraint”: in areas where rebels had little control, they tended to keep civilian deaths to a minimum for fear of alienating their civilian collaborators. This did, however, become less important if insurgent groups had outside sources of funding (like cocaine production) or if government suppression angered supporters, making them more amenable to a higher civilian death toll.

On a broader level, de la Calle sought to contest the popular misconception that terrorists and insurgents kill indiscriminately. Instead, he stressed, there is evidence that they employ strategic thinking—that they, in other words, carefully weight the costs and benefits of going after civilians.

When asked about the implications of his findings for other conflicts, de la Calle emphasized the changing technological capacities of states. “It’s much more difficult for insurgents to just hide out in the jungle,” he claimed—advances in military technology have seen to that. This, he said, should push conflicts away from remote areas and into cities, forcing insurgents to exercise greater caution in targeting civilians. Governments today, he said, have another, less apparent weapon at their disposal: the label of “terrorist”. Any group branded with the term is instantly marginalized, further promoting caution in civilian targeting.

In the face of constantly shifting trends, de la Calle hopes that his research will offer a new take on the tactics of terrorist groups, enabling a better understanding of the forces behind their strategy. This understanding, after all, is crucial in the global fight against terrorism.

Jackson Busch is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at jackson.busch@yale.edu.