Tribes, tribalism, and security

Being from Africa, I grew up understanding the importance of tribes in traditional African society;  how they offered a social cohesiveness and security, a sort of über-family bond that transcended even national loyalty.  I saw that play out during war and peace, in politics, business and social relations.  When I served as a prison chaplain in the USA, I found prison gangs could best be understood if I treated them as the equivalent of tribes.  They exhibited many similar behaviors, albeit more violently and more criminally than most tribes in Africa would have been allowed to get away with.

I’ve never understood why many in the West don’t study tribal culture more carefully, and take it into account when dealing with other countries.  Because they don’t, they leave themselves open to failure and even disaster.  However, it seems that the lesson is becoming more clear to at least some observers.  Strategy Page has an interesting article on the subject.

Most Westerners don’t understand how important tribal politics is to the persistent mayhem in so many parts of the world. Not every group of armed men wearing uniforms and carrying modern weapons belong to what is generally considered organized “security forces”. No, a large number of these gunmen are irregulars and members of some tribal or clan group, usually described as a “militia” or “self-defense force”. What creates and controls these men, who account for most of the death and destruction attributed to military conflict, answers to tribal or clan leaders, not governments recognized by the United Nations. These tribes are not represented at the UN nor do they have ambassadors or embassies.

Because of this “tribal politics” is something most Westerns just can’t take seriously, or even get their heads around. Consider that in the main combat zones of the war on terror (including Arab states in general, South and Southeast Asia and Africa), tribal politics cannot be ignored. Yet in many parts of the world, where the tribal forces predominate, it is because the tribal organizations are the ones people trust the most. The national governments are often seen, accurately, as a bunch of larcenous strangers who are only interested in stealing from you, or worse. For most of these countries the national government (and their lackeys running provincial and country governments) have never done anything positive for most of its citizens. While the introduction of mass media (radio and TV) has created the illusion of nationhood, when you get right down to it, people look to their tribal leaders (usually synonymous with the “tribal elders”) for help. This should not be surprising, as the tribes are based on long tradition, and family connections. Given a choice, who are you going to trust; a second cousin you’ve never seen before, or a government bureaucrat you’ve never seen before? Those most dependent on tribal leadership tend to be the less educated, and more religious.

Much of the current Islamic radicalism and terrorism has its origins in tribalism, a curse that has largely disappeared in the West. A few thousand years ago nearly everyone lived in a tribal (a collection of families and clans related by blood) culture. But since then, the tribal social relationships have faded, superseded by kingdoms and then nations. But there are still several large tribes left in Eurasia and they are at the center of much of the unrest on the planet these days.

. . .

The persistence of tribalism can be seen in many of the current hotspots. Libya continues to be torn apart by tribalism and Egypt still has problems with it in the Sinai. The Syrian civil war may be over in late 2017 but the Assad government inherited a devastated country dominated by tribal militias that remained loyal to the Assads or are willing to become loyal again. There is a similar situation in Iraq and Arabia, well Arabia was always and still is dominated by tribalism. This is still the case in parts of the Philippines, India, Burma and Indonesia. Most areas troubled by tribal violence usually have local political groups that incorporate factions from several tribes. But the tribal loyalty gets in the way of national unity. Even when tribalism loses it power the regions of a country tend to be dominated by ethnic groups that can break away and form local militias to defend themselves. This was common after most communist governments in Europe lost power between 1989 and 1991. This included the dissolution of the Soviet Union into 14 nations. Many of those new states still suffer tribe based violence.

. . .

The most persistent “wars” are usually in areas where tribal or clan organizations are dominant. Each new generation brings with it new recruits for tribal militias who are willing to continue battles that have been going on for many generations. These ancient feuds are often ignored or underestimated when peacekeepers or some other pacification force arrives and discovers that there is no quick solution to problems that regenerate with each new generation.

There’s more at the linkHighly recommended reading, if you want to understand what’s at the root of many modern conflicts.

As an illustration of how tribalism is affecting one struggle going on right now (and I mean today) in the Middle East, consider another Strategy Page report.

December 26, 2017: In Egypt fifteen Islamic terrorists were executed by hanging. The fifteen belonged to ISIL and had been convicted of taking part in a 2013 attack in Sinai that left nine soldiers dead. More Islamic terrorists will probably be executed in the aftermath of the recent (November 24th) ISIL attack on a Sufi mosque in Sinai that left 311 dead. ISIL had demanded that the tribe the victims belonged to cease cooperating with the security forces and attacked the Mosque to demonstrate how serious ISIL threats were. Whoever ordered this attack ignored how tribal politics works in Sinai. The tribe now had a blood feud with the attackers and the tribe was backed up by the Sinai Tribal Union, which represents the 24 Bedouin tribes of Sinai. Normally the tribes are hostile to the government but in this case they have a common enemy in ISIL, which seeks to rule the tribes even more harshly than the Egyptian government does.

The Tribal Union asked for heavy weapons so they could win battles against the heavily armed and ruthless Islamic terrorists (many of them radicalized local tribesmen). The government does not want to do that because when ISIL is no longer a threat there will be problems getting the heavy weapons (mortars, heavy machine-guns and rocket launchers) back from the tribes. The government prefers to depend on the tribes for information and other cooperation (like persuading tribesmen who provide services for all sorts of criminals to report ISIL connections). The government has also announced a $5.6 billion infrastructure (public works) project for the Sinai and the implication is that this would mean jobs and other opportunities (not all of them legal) for the locals. The tribes fear that a lot of this money will be stolen by corrupt politicians and officers. The corruption and bad government have long been the main complaint the tribes had against the government. Egypt also does not want the Tribal Union to organize a large armed force to go after ISIL. In the past the tribes, with all the feuds they have with each other, could not easily form a larger force to oppose the government and the government wants to keep it that way. The government wants to use the situation to help suppress ISIL without creating an even more dangerous tribal army able to defy the security forces.

Again, more at the link.

If you don’t understand tribalism, you don’t understand the War on Terror, and you don’t understand most conflicts in the Third World.  It’s as simple as that.



  1. Hey Peter;

    I remember a phrase I read a long time ago, "It is always 5 minutes to high noon in Africa". This is due to the layouts of the countries in Africa that cut across tribal boundaries because the countries that were created came out of the areas carved out by European influences. And the genocide that is seen is usually the stronger tribe attacking the weaker tribe in that country. Also correct me if I'm wrong outside the western based world, it is tribal or family connections that matter more than national identity. This is partially explains the Syrian mess, Assad is the head of his family and he is fighting to save his family who depend on him for survival. If he loses or gets deposed, there will be mass slaughter against his family.

  2. Well, yes.

    Now tell me: did the Bushkins understand tribalism? Did they understand the force of religious belief?

    So here we are.

  3. So much obvious reality has been ignored by our government (particularly State Dept.) for so long, that they can no longer identify reality when it hits them with a stick. That's why the current personnel purge is so important, and so necessary. Next step – clean up the State Dept. and all the military service training academies. They're a mess of commie/lib/prog indoctrination, which forces out all common sense, rationality, and the ability to recognize and react to reality.

    Oh, and we need to get rid of the idiotic law against foreign bribery. Most of the world works that way, and you can't do any business without bribing officials at almost every level.

  4. The movie Lawrence of Arabia demonstrates tribalism. At one point Lawrence avoids a tribal war by killing a murderer. Since he is not a member of any tribe, there is no need for retaliation. At the end of the movie, various tribes run different parts of the public services in Damascus: one runs the power grid, another the water system, a third the fire department. Because of tribal animosity, they don't cooperate, and everything falls apart. The British officers knew this would happen so they just wait for the Arabs to fail and then move in and take over.

  5. Tribalism is still alive and well (!) in Europe as well. Northern Ireland and Bosnia were (are?) prime examples.

  6. We're not so very far from tribalism – in some parts anyway. Consider this excerpt from Catriona (written in the 19th century, but set in mid-18th century:

    “Well,” said I, “it’s a fact ye have little of the wild Highlandman.”

    “Little?” quoth he. “Nothing, man! And yet I’m Hieland born, and when the clan pipes, who but me has to dance! The clan and the name, that goes by all.

  7. The single most horrific result of European colonialism is that the colonies were carved out with little to no regard for the tribal identities of the inhabitants. The resulting "nations" have no reason for being other than establishment by fiat and the competing tribes have no reason to cooperate and every incentive to maximize their tribe at the expense of all others.

  8. Tribes are actually very easy to deal with. The reason that they exist is because their members exist. Most people do not want to do what is required.

    Ask the tribes in Dresden, Hiroshima or Nagasaki how their tribes are doing.

    "Oh but you cannot kill them all". You don't have to. Just enough of them, catastrophically, to cause the rest and the onlookers to recoil in horror.

  9. Anonymous – That's a bit much, even coming from me. You can't just kill humans because they're human (unless you're a radical Greenie, of course). Everybody is tribal at heart. (Growing up, I thought the people from the other side of the creek were dangerously strange and foreign.) Western Civilization has expanded the concept of tribe to the Nation, with a neutral State apparatus administering equally over all, and it has worked out quite well for us. The EU's current attempt to expand it beyond that isn't working out very well, but that kind of proves the point. The nation is the tribe is the clan is the family. You have to have a basic commonality to be a cohesive group.

    Now compare this to the Arab lands, where your tribe is part of your name, and justice is arbitrarily meted out by revenge killings. 'Your tribe killed one of us, so we kill one of yours.' Payments are sometimes accepted in lieu of blood, but not always. The State Dept. still hasn't figured out that this is how things work there, and keeps trying to teach them about individual justice, courtroom process, and policing.

  10. "You can't just kill humans because they're human"

    How silly! Of course you can; if they were not human you would not bother. Any of the "reasons" we use as a context (war, genocide,…) are just rationales. We are killing because we and they are humans.

    We do not like what they are doing, we reject unconditional surrender and/or submission, and so we resist, fight and kill enough of them to back off and stop. That is the reductio; all else is the pretty bow we tie around it.

    Overwhelming, annihilating, horrific levels of force brought to bear early saves more lives than any other action.

    Perceived weakness and inaction is provocative.

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