Anatomy of an Insurgency: A look at #BlackLivesMatter

Recent escalations against various urban police forces by the BlackLivesMatter movement, in conjunction with members of militant “black liberation” organizations, has renewed my dormant interest in the nature, structure, and anatomy of insurgency movements. So what defines an insurgency? Are insurgencies & insurgent organizations similar, or do they vary in a material way? Luckily, the US military has been studying this question for a long time, and we can draw some insights from the way they view and categorize insurgencies.

It should be fairly obvious that no two insurgencies are identical, and no insurgency is unique in all aspects. Insurgencies tend to share some combination of tactics, objectives, and strategy. They also all tend to pass through similar stages of development during their existence. These similarities allow us to construct a framework for evaluating insurgencies, and for comparing and contrasting between insurgency movements. So let’s look at a few definitions to set the stage.


Insurgency – a lengthy socio-political military struggle directed toward subverting or displacing the legitimacy of a government or occupying power and completely or partially controlling the resources of a territory through the use of irregular political tactics, irregular military force, and alternative political organizations.

One commonality seen in most insurgent groups is an objective of “liberating” control of a population, and often, a territory and its resources. While many insurgent organizations utilize terror tactics, they generally differ from modern terror organizations in that the goals of insurgencies are usually a much more straightforward political goal. Long term objectives can appear similar between insurgents and terrorists, yet it is the mid-term and short term objectives of insurgents and terrorists that separate them. Terrorism’s objectives are, according to Louise Richardson, “revenge, renown, and reaction.” The objectives of insurgencies are more strategic in nature. An insurgent’s tactics will look to wear the enemy down through sporadic, persistent attacks against the regular occupying forces.

Guerrilla warfare – a form of warfare in which small, lightly armed groups use mobile tactics against a stronger opponent. Guerrillas employ small-scale attacks, such as ambushes and raids, to harass their enemy rather than to win a decisive victory in battle.

Due to our recent excursions in the Middle East, we can easily understand guerrilla warfare by examining the violence seen in Iraqi and Afghan skirmishes between US military and the local native insurgents.

Common Insurgency Characteristics

Insurgent organizations generally seek to:

  • Undermine the ability of the system seen by the insurgency as an “occupying government” to provide the general population security and services. An insurgency group may attempt to supplant the occupying force by providing alternative services, or simply by portraying the occupying government as impotent.
  • Obtain the active or passive support of the majority of population, either through true support or by intimidation & fear.
  • Bait the occupying government into overreacting and committing abuses that drive the general population toward the insurgents and solidifies the loyalty of insurgent supporters. In South Africa, dissidents were successful in provoking the police into a violent overreaction – a critical “Phase 1” of the “People’s War” strategy.
  • Undermine international support for the occupying government and, if possible, gain international recognition or assistance for the insurgency.

Insurgency is primarily a political competition for legitimacy, and it is usually the violent aspects of the insurgency actions that alerts both the local population and external observers to the insurgency organization’s existence. The distinction between civilians and combatants is blurred in insurgency, often resulting in proportionally higher civilian casualties than suffered in conventional conflicts. This is usually because the general civilian population is used as cover for the insurgency. Since occupying governments are generally far more technologically and logistically advanced, insurgency organizations often utilize the legalistic limitations placed upon most organized militaries, such as the Geneva Convention, against them by blending in with the general occupied population. In examining BlackLivesMatter, one should recognize that the “military” in this scenario is the Police force.

Insurgency Typologies

The two most common ways of categorizing insurgencies are to plot their overall 1) insurgency goals and 2) organizational structure & political or military emphasis. These categories are archetypes; most insurgencies exhibit characteristics of multiple types, or their strategy & tactics evolve throughout their life cycle. However, it is useful to examine which category, if any, a movement falls into to better understand the movement as a whole.

Insurgency Goals

The US insurgency framework breaks down insurgency goals into 5 broad categories:

  • Revolutionary insurgencies seek to replace the existing political order with an entirely different system, often entailing transformation of the economic and social structures.
  • Reformist insurgencies do not aim to change the existing political order but, instead, seek to compel the government to alter its policies or undertake political, economic, or social reforms.
  • Separatist insurgencies seek independence for a specific region. In some cases, the region in question spans existing national boundaries.
  • Resistance insurgencies seek to compel an occupying power to withdraw from a given territory.
  • Commercialist insurgencies are motivated by the acquisition of wealth or material resources; political power is simply a tool for seizing and controlling access to the wealth.

Insurgency Organization Structure & Strategy

They further break down organizational structure & strategy into 4 primary categories:

  • Politically organized insurgencies develop a complex political structure before or at the same time they begin undertaking military operations against the government. These groups stress consolidating control of territory through the use of shadow governments rather than through military power. The military component of politically organized insurgencies is subordinate to the political structure.
  • Militarily organized insurgencies emphasize military action against the government over political mobilization of the population. The insurgents calculate that military success and the resulting weakening of the government will cause the population to rally to the insurgents’ cause. Militarily organized insurgencies begin with small, weak, ill-defined political structures, often dominated by military leaders.
  • Traditionally organized insurgencies draw on preexisting tribal, clan, ethnic, or religious affiliations. Established social hierarchies—a system of chiefs and subchiefs, for example—often substitute for political and military structures in traditionally organized insurgencies.
  • Urban-cellular insurgencies develop and are centered in urban areas. These insurgencies lack hierarchical political and military leadership structures, instead organizing around small, semi-autonomous cells. Urban-cellular insurgencies generally rely more heavily on terrorism than do other types of insurgency. Their cellular structure and reliance on terrorism can limit their ability to mobilize popular support.

A matrix approach to these categories is advised, as each insurgency can generally be aligned to a single major position:


In addition to identifying the typology of an insurgency, there are usually pre-existing conditions that set the stage for the insurgency to gain legitimacy amongst the population.

Anatomy Of An Insurgency

Pre-Existing Conditions

Amongst those who begin to organize an insurgency movement, historical, societal, political, and economic conditions are usually synthesized into a semi-coherent worldview that is then adopted by sympathetic persons who then begin to rally to the movement.

  • Government policies seen as oppressive or disadvantageous to the group
  • Polarized, winner-take-all political systems
  • Societal components, such as demographic bulges, a mythos of victimization, or a warrior culture
  • Security apparatus of the government seen as corrupt or inept
  • Economic crisis or extended periods of poor economic conditions
  • A “window of vulnerability”, such as assassinations, disasters, or major political elections
  • Inhospitable or complex terrain, which can include jungles, forests, mountains, and increasingly, dense urban environments
  • Historical grievances with the government


All insurgencies rally around some number of grievances that the population has against the government. The creation of a compelling narrative in order to gain loyal supporters and to attain legitimacy amongst power brokers for funding & resources.

  • Grievance propaganda is disseminated via websites, sympathetic media outlets, flyers, and manifestos
  • Media articles & opinion pieces on the group & issue can sway large numbers of neutral observers
  • Espousal of grievance by legitimate political, business, or social organizations
  • Demonstrations or protests in which the grievance is publicly aired

Group Identity

Insurgencies cultivate a group identity that establishes stark, divisive reactions between government supporters and insurgency supporters. Identity can focus on ethnicity, tribe, religion, region, politics, or any number of deeply held beliefs.

Insurgents exploit group identity by:

  • Creating propaganda about a unique history for a subgroup that sets it apart as unique in the nation
  • Emphasis on cultural, religious, or ethnic symbols that set the group apart from the rest of the existing government’s population.
  • Use of language that casts the government in the role of occupier, foreigner, exploiter, or puppet of external interests

Support Of Population & Of Government Leadership

Insurgencies live and die by the support of the civilian population. Insurgencies rely on local supporters for resources & intelligence, and without this support, the ability of the insurgents to carry on their activities is extinguished. Additionally, the government leadership’s willingness to acknowledge the budding insurgency is critical in granting legitimacy to lukewarm supporters and the general public.


While BlackLivesMatter (BLM) and “fellow traveler” organizations like the Black Panthers, the new Black Panthers, and the Nation of Islam are technically separate organizations & movements, there exists deep ties between the groups and a significant overlap in the membership of the organizations. BlackLivesMatter is thus influenced by & will be effected by the actions of the others, inherently tying together the destinies of the organizations. The modern BLM movement has deep ties to the early Black Power movement, and even mainstream media organizations argue that these various Black Nationalist/Separatist organizations need one another. Thus, any complete evaluation of whether the BLM movement is an insurgency should include these organizations in their assessment. So, with that in mind, let’s evaluate the BLM movement against the US military insurgency framework and determine whether it could be plausibly conceived as an insurgency movement.


Insurgency Characteristic Black Lives Matter
Undermine the ability of system to provide competent security & services. Disrupt ability or portray them as incompetent. BLM strategy involves portraying the police force as corrupt, incompetent, and cruel. During their protests & riots, they have purposely disrupted government workers from being able to perform their duties.
Obtain the active or passive support of the local population, either through true support or by intimidation & fear. The BLM strategy has been to consolidate black support & sympathetic leftist Whites, to leverage elite contacts and relationships (Jack Dorsey/Deray) in order to gain mass media legitimacy, and to utilize high-level govt sympathizers and members (Obama, Lynch, Castro) to gain top-down political legitimization.
Bait the occupying government into overreacting and committing abuses that drive the general population toward the insurgents and solidifies the loyalty of insurgent supporters. BLM protests often involve manufacturing the optics of oppression at the hands of an overwhelmingly militarized and forceful security apparatus, in order to obtain the ever prized “victim” status, and thus, public sympathy.
Undermine international support for the occupying government and, if possible, gain international recognition or assistance for the insurgency. So far, this has been less of a priority for BLM. However, in the last few weeks, other countries have issued “travel advisories” for their black citizens traveling to US cities, stating that they are at high risk of being targeted by the police, thus raising the profile of issues they highlight.

It does appear that the BLM movement hits the major components of the common insurgency characteristics, lending credence to the idea that is could plausibly be classified as one. Let’s now look at the goals and organization of BLM, to determine whether they fit into an insurgency typology.


In looking at the typology of BLM, let us consider their propaganda materials, specifically, their about and guiding principles pages:

We are working to (re)build the Black liberation movement.

So here we have an immediate narrative of Black liberation from an oppressive (ostensibly White) system; what form this liberation would take, however, is not specified. It makes no reference to overthrowing an oppressive system, to separating legally from an existing space, nor does it specify what types of reforms it would take in order for the movement to be considered a “success”. It does specifically speak of “restorative justice”, but I’m left with more questions than answers after reading their rhetoric on the topic:

We are committed to collectively, lovingly and courageously working vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension all people. As we forge our path, we intentionally build and nurture a beloved community that is bonded together through a beautiful struggle that is restorative, not depleting.

What form does this freedom & justice take? Since there is no specific end goals specified on their website, we must look at their rhetoric & stated demands to determine their objectives. One such website is TheDemands, a collection of the demands from BLM organizations across the US. A quick perusal throughout that website shows that their demands are not for separation, nor for revolution of the existing governmental order, but for large-scale reformations throughout the healthcare, education, police, and governmental organization. The demands rarely satisfy the SMART goal criteria, allowing for a state of near permanent political agitation. Often, the demands are compensatory in nature, asking for reparations of various types, distribution of subsidized or free resources to the broader Black population, and for the removal of White individuals from various systems to be replaced by Blacks. It appears, to an external observer, that the movement’s demands come primarily in the form of reformist rent-seeking.

Now that we have ascertained BLM’s goals, its organizational structure is fairly simple. They are nearly exclusively an urban movement, with each chapter operating quasi-autonomously without a clear hierarchical leadership structure. This would have them fall primarily into the urban-cellular structure.

Therefore, the #BlackLivesMatter appears to fit the insurgency typology archetype of a reformist, urban-cellular organization.


Insurgency Anatomy

Pre-Existing Condition Black Lives Matter
Government policies seen as oppressive or disadvantageous to the group
Societal components, such as demographic bulges, a mythos of victimization, or a warrior culture
Security apparatus of the government seen as corrupt or inept
Economic crisis or extended periods of poor economic conditions
A “window of vulnerability”, such as assassinations, disasters, or major political elections
Inhospitable or complex terrain, which can include jungles, forests, mountains, and increasingly, dense urban environments
Historical grievances with the government

As we can see, BLM ticks many of the known pre-existing conditions that increase the probability of the creation of insurgent movements. It doesn’t matter whether the qualms of the insurgent organization are objectively true; what matters is the perception of the people crafting and listening to the narrative. When these factors, among others, exist, it creates a rich environment for dissidents to foment unrest amongst the people whom the insurgency sees as their target population.

BlackLivesMatter also utilizes a significant amount of media to air their claimed grievances to the public at large. It has an organized online presence that not only aids in recruitment and propaganda dissemination, but also encourages the harassment and “doxing” of opposition figures who speak out against their group in order to use economic & social violence to shut down critical voices. But BLM has moved beyond self-created and propagated memes; the movement has developed deep personal connections to members of the Cathedral elite, which has allowed them to team up with business power brokers and craft a particular message. Google, Twitter, and Facebook, among others, have all pushed pro-BLM propaganda to the masses through their massive media reach. This partnership lends significant legitimacy to the movement, because when business interests speak, politicians listen. In addition to the alliance they have formed with major business ventures, BLM frequently organizes demonstrations, and protests (which occasionally become riots) in order to air their grievances.

BlackLivesMatter has crafted a very strong group identity, casting a wide net along primarily ethnic lines. This is very important in the creation of an insurgency organization, as a strong group identity helps to cement the loyalty of supporters. Their “guiding principles” page states that:

We are unapologetically Black in our positioning. In affirming that Black Lives Matter, we need not qualify our position.

They go on to assert that their reach is not merely local, regional, or national, but indeed global:

We see ourselves as part of the global Black family

Even beyond stating that they organize ethnically, they further assert a desired “communal” societal structure as opposed to the “Western” (read: traditionally White) family structure, further evidence of attempting to separate themselves as a distinct subgroup:

We are committed to disrupting the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, and especially “our” children to the degree that mothers, parents and children are comfortable.

This is not to say that they outright reject the assistance of others. Leftist, middle-upper class urban White females and males often join in the protests and demonstrations, as their progressive ideology aligns with the goals of the movement. Nevertheless, they are seen as “allies”, not as movement members. The in-group maintains a strict distinction between themselves and out-group ally members.

Lastly, the movement has had significant success in attaining government recognition and legitimacy. Beyond mere governmental recognition, BLM often meets and works with government leaders at the highest levels, regularly meeting with President Obama, Department of Justice Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and with various federal Senators and Representatives. Whether these political figures privately consider themselves to be members or allies of BlackLivesMatter is unknown, but they appear to be, at a minimum, highly sympathetic.

The BLM movement has mostly been politically structured, but there has been a recent increase in violence and even guerrilla warfare tactics by members of these aligned groups. The rhetoric, grievances, and complaints of those who carried out these attacks were so obviously inspired by the rhetoric of BLM that it can hardly be debated at all, and the narratives of BLM and these events are necessarily intertwined. From the Ferguson and Baltimore riots, to the Gaza-style guerrilla warfare we saw recently in Dallas & Baton Rouge, violent military-style force is starting to become a regular form of expression amongst those influenced by the BLM movement.

So, could #BlackLivesMatter be legitimately viewed as an insurgency organization?

I would say the answer to that question is indisputably YES.