Approaches to arms control with armed non-state actors

In order to control non-state armed groups (NSAGs) arms, points of entry need to be identified. This means having a ‘theory’ or at least a concept of NSAGs that is useful for dealing with the arms issue. There are several theoretical approaches to NSAGs, but this paper will concentrate on an analytical structure that addresses them as military actors.

It will first provide a background from the arms perspective, including Physical Security and Stockpile Management (PSSM) and arms used among NSAGs and then briefly analyze some relevant NSAG characteristics. Furthermore, this paper will provide an overview of arms sources for non-state actors and consequently identify some intervention points.

The background

Many African countries have to deal with one or more NSAGs operating within their borders, mainly armed with SALW. There are, for example, Boko Haram around northern Nigeria region, Al Quaida in the Maghreb (AQUIM), and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda and the border region of South Sudan.

Three significant weapons are in use: The AK (47 pattern and AKM), the so called “Technicals” (pickup truck or four-wheel drives mounting 12.7/14.5/23mm machine guns), and Man-Portable Air Defense Systems, also known as MANPADS [1]

Generally, PSSM practices in African armed forces are poor, and in particular among NSAGs [2]. Additionally, NSAG fighters are, compared to regular armed forces, often poorly trained, resulting in a low fire-discipline, which means that ammunition is in very high demand as it is often expended with little control.

Some qualitative aspects of African NSAGS with arms control implications

Three characteristics of NSAGs can be used to identify points of entry for SALW control. Of course, these do not cover all dimensions of NSAGs, nor are they necessarily the ones political analysts would concern themselves with.  However, they suggest different entry points worth considering.

  • NSAG Objectives: Diffuse <-> Specific

Diffuse objectives imply the NSAG has little if any defined objective. The Seleka (rebels, now governing) in the Central African Republic (CAR) are an example [3].

On the other side of the spectrum, with more specific objectives, there is AQUIM (Al Quaida in the Maghreb), an Islamist group covering much of the Western Sahel, who have clear ambitions for creation of an Islamic state in the area [4].

  • NSAG Methods: Rule-bound <-> Not rule-bound

This relates to the issue of dealing with civilian and NSAG discipline in general: Does the NSAG operate on the basis of limits to its activities and use of force? The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda is notorious for not being bound by rules very much. In contrast, village militia groups, such as the Arrow Boys (South Sudan), feel very much bound by rules relating to their local ideology of community protection [5].

  • NSAG Structure: Disciplined <-> Undisciplined

This relates to the degree to which individual fighters are under the command of a central authority, follow orders or in contrast, act as individual predators. This aspect also goes to an important consideration: less disciplined forces are likely to be short of ammunition, a critical measure and entry point. Differences between the components of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in South Sudan illustrate this principle. Some elements that make up the SPLA are notorious for their indiscriminate usage of ammunition, their lack of command discipline and for operating virtually as local militias.

NSAG arms and ammunition sources

There are several sources of both arms and ammunition for NSAGs throughout Africa. Greater reliance on one or the other has to do with whether the group has specific goals, discipline and structure (in which case it might find an external patron, such as e.g. the LRA did in the Government of Sudan) [6], whether it has or controls resources for ammunition purchase, such as e.g. Charles Taylor’s forces in Liberia [7], or benefits from state collapse, such as e.g. the Azawad in Mali from state dissolution in Libya [8].

Figure 1


Intervention points

Intervention points for the international community will differ depending on several variables. The key is to identify specific intervention points relating to the specifics of the NSAG in question. It is crucial to identify the sources of materiel and whether the sources are internal or external, as the approaches would differ significantly.

Intervening on external sources

Table 1

Where weapons and ammunition reach NSAGs from external sources, there are a number of activities that can be undertaken. Most of these however require ¬pre-crisis intervention. The case of Libya illustrates how important it is to ensure the stocks in collapsed states are secured physically, perhaps by a regional organization like the African Union (AU).

Buried stocks, left over from a previous conflict, are not a major issue, largely because buried ammunition can deteriorate and such stocks are typically small.

It is crucial to assist states with NSAG problems by securing their stockpiles. There is some evidence demonstrating that some 30% of all ammunition fired by NSAGs came from government stocks [9].

Smart technology, such as electronic stockpile management, access limited arms, GPS tracking, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), and many more may assist state armed forces with reducing both battlefield and stockpile losses.

Diplomatic pressure on states that support NSAGs can be another crucial entry point. This is notably true in the case of the Horn of Africa, where states use proxy forces as a matter of course [10].

The ability of the international community to control brokers and illegal transfers has increased markedly in recent years due to both legal considerations and enforcement measure [11].

This can help ensure limiting the transfer of arms to NSAGs via brokers and the black market.

Internal factors

  • What type of NSAG are we dealing with?

First, the three dimensions of NSAGs mentioned above, Objectives, Methods, and the Degree of Discipline need to be integrated. As a rule, the more specific the objectives, the more rule-bound, and the more disciplined the NSAG, the easier it is to discuss issues such as PSSM with them.

National Governments will generally object publicly to any kind of discussions with NSAGs. This negatively affects the ability of the international community to control NSAG arms. Strengthening diplomatic channels to find a ground for discussion anyhow could be a first step in approaching the NSAG and the national government.

  • Intervening on the basis of internal factors

If possible, addressing the leadership should be the first step. Consequently, rewards in form of honest broker ship and/or political/diplomatic training can be offered. Further approaches can be the use of media exposure as a bargaining chip and to negotiate about humanitarian access and suggest rules-of-the-game on arms use.

The objective of these approaches is to ensure arms are used adhering to international humanitarian standards.


Trying to control the use and abuse of arms by NSAGs is a difficult problem because it unavoidably seems like taking sides and National and Regional governments are likely to object.

Controlling NSAG SALW in Africa requires a careful analysis of the sources of arms and ammunition, and of the type of NSAG. This kind of analysis will highlight entry points for control, of which some are external, and some internal.

Intervention on external suppliers of arms and ammunition seems somewhat easier than dealing with the NSAG directly. Among other reasons, that is because this would likely be deeply opposed by national governments.

Apart from the entry points suggested above, this paper is intended to stress the importance of donor states strengthening their policy towards Physical Security and Stockpile Management (PSSM). Weak PSSM has major implications including the threat of unplanned explosions [12] and looting. Additionally, strong PSSM practices have a positive influence on the approach to, and the perception of, the danger that arms and ammunition do constitute.


[1] For an extensive elaboration on the MANPADS issue, see BICC (2013), MANPADS – A Threat to Civilian Aviation?, Brief 47. Available at <…;

[2] King, Benjamin, McQuinn, Brian, Navas Caputo, Claudia, Tobon, Alonso (2013), ‘Ad Hoc Arsenals – PSSM Practices of Selected Non-state Actors’, Armed Actors Issue Brief, no. 2, May, Small Arms Survey Geneva.

[3] See for example: Mudge, Lewis (2013), ‘The Forgotten Crisis in the Central African Republic’, The Independent, 18 September. Available at <…; (accessed 6 November 2013).

[4] Harmon, Stephen (2010), ‘From GSPC to AQIM: The evolution of an Algerian islamist terrorist group into an Al-Qa‘ida Affiliate and its implications for the Sahara-Sahel region’, Concerned Africa Scholars Bulletin 85, pp. 12-29.

[5] Modest, Kizito Oketa (2009), Arrow Boys Hit Back at LRA, Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Available at <; (accessed 6 November 2013).

[6] Schomerus, Mareike (2007), ‘The Lord’s Resistance Army in Sudan: A History and Overview’, HSBA Working Paper, Human Security Baseline Assessment for Sudan and South Sudan (HSBA), no. 8, p. 18. Available at <…; (accessed 6 November 2013).

[7] Ross, Michael L. (2004), ‘What Do We Know about Natural Resources and Civil War?’, Journal of Peace Research, no. 41, pp. 337-356.

[8] Waal, Alex de (2013), ‘’My Fears, Alas, Were Not Unfounded’: Africa’s Responses to the Libya Conflict’, in Hehir, Aidan & Murray, Robert (eds.), Libya, The Responsibility to Protect and the Future of Humanitarian Intervention, Palgrave MacMillan, Hampshire, United Kingdom, pp. 58-82.

[9] See for example: Bevan, James (2007), ‘Conventional Ammunition Diversion’, Conventional Ammunition in Surplus, Small Arms Survey. Available at <…; (accessed 6 November 2013).

[10] See for example: Prunier, Gerard A. (2004), ‘Rebel movements and proxy warfare: Uganda, Sudan and the Congo (1986–99)’, African Affairs, 103(412), pp. 359-383.

[11] See for example: Lamb, Guy (2007), ‘Beyond ‘Shadow-Boxing’ and ‘Lip Service’. The Enforcement of Arms Embargoes in Africa’, ISS Paper 135, April. Available at <…; (accessed 7 November 2013). | Garcia, Denise (2009), ‘Arms restraint and regional international law making: The case of the Economic Community of West African States’, African Security Studies, 18(2), pp. 78-92. | Berkol, Ilhan (2007), ‘Analysis of the ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons and recommendations for the development of an Action Plan’, Note d’Analyse du GRIP, April, 1. Available at <…; (accessed 7 November 2013).

[12] See for example: Small Arms Survey 2013, ‘Unplanned Explosions at Munitions Sites’, 26 March. Available at <; (accessed 07.11.2013).