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The Tip of the Spear: Rebel Leader Attributes in Civil Wars

Sat, September 1, 8:00 to 9:30am, Marriott, St. Botolph


Existing conflict scholarship overwhelmingly examines states’ structural features as well as rebel groups’ organizational characteristics to explain conflict dynamics and outcomes. We propose that individual rebel leaders’ personal attributes help explain the behavior of the organizations they lead. Just as IR scholarship has long highlighted the importance of state leaders’ biographical attributes in explaining state conduct in war and diplomacy, so we build on existing studies in political science and psychology to suggest that characteristics of rebel leaders affect their conduct and effectiveness in civil wars. In particular, we test hypotheses linking rebel leaders’ age and education to their capacity to mobilize support and their likelihood of achieving rebel victory. We test our hypotheses using original data from the Resistance Organization Leaders (ROLE) Dataset, which contains a range of biographical information on all rebel leaders in civil wars between 1980 and 2011. Beyond exploring the effects of leader age and education – two key variables in the study of contentious politics but often neglected by scholars of civil wars – our study urges a new research agenda that goes beyond rebel organizations as units of analysis to examine the importance of leadership characteristics in conflict studies.