Retribution or Reconciliation?

Retribution or Reconciliation? Attitudes Toward Islamic State Collaborators, 2017-2023


Photo by Levi Clancy on Unsplash

Listen to a conversation about this work with Professor Ellen Lust, posted in the Governance Uncovered podcast series.

Baghdad, Al Anbar, and Najaf, Iraq, 2020-2023

Civil conflicts gravely damage the state’s legitimacy. Institutions are rendered incapable of providing security; social trust among its citizenry diminishes; and non-state actors step in to fill the vacuum of power. Following conflict, the state needs to re-establish itself as the legitimate arbiter of processes aimed at bringing former rebel collaborators to justice. Unless it carefully considers subnational variation in the drivers of forgiveness and reconciliation with rebel collaborators, the state may generate new grievances among some communities, increasing the chances of rebel recidivism or the outbreak of new conflict. This project develops and tests a novel framework integrating political science theories of legitimacy with psychological theories of forgiveness, feelings of (in)justice and desire for revenge. To test this framework, we conduct in-depth interviews, hold focus groups and implement three large-scale surveys with embedded experiments among citizens and local leaders (N=4,800) in Iraq, a country that has endured a series of civil conflicts culminating in the recent confrontation with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This project employs innovative tools to identify both the subnational drivers of violent resentment towards the state and the drivers of reconciliation. It provides policymakers with the information necessary to design successful strategies for reconciliation, re-establishment of state legitimacy, and lasting peace. With Michael Bang Petersen and Kristin Fabbe. Funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond 3.2 million SEK (approx. 320,000 USD) and the Folke Bernadotte Academy for 396 000 SEK (approx. 42,000 USD) .


February 2021: Understanding and Measuring Punishment, Revenge, and Forgiveness in Post-Conflict Settings 
Participants: Top scholars from the fields of political science and psychology including Michael McCullough (University of California, San Diego), James Gibson (Washington University), Daniel Posner (University of California, Los Angeles), Everett Worthington (Virginia Commonwealth University), Alexandra Hartman (University College London), Muslih Irwani(Salahaddin University-Erbil, Iraq), Karin Dyrstad (Norwegian University of Science and Technology), Salma Mousa (Yale University), Fotini Christia (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Marsin Alshamary (Brookings Institution).

Related Presentations: 

Kristen Kao. “From Revenge to Forgiveness: Strengthening Durable Peace in Post-Conflict Societies.” Middle East Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School, October 31, 2019. AFS/General Research Seminar, Gothenburg University. 

Kristen Kao. “Retribution or Reconciliation? Attitudes Toward Rebel Collaborators in Iraq.” Middle East Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School, December 9, 2019. Hosted by Tarek Massoud. 

Kristen Kao. “From Revenge to Forgiveness: Strengthening Durable Peace in Post-Conflict Societies.” The Folke Bernadotte Academy, Stockholm, Sweden, February 6, 2020.

Kristen Kao. “Retribution or Reconciliation? Post-Conflict Attitudes Toward Enemy Collaborators.” Comparative Politics Working Group, University of California, San Diego, December 2, 2020.

Kao, Kristen. (2021). “The Limits of Legitimacy: Legal Pluralism in Iraq.” (Presenter and panel co-organizer). APSA 2021, October 2. 

Kao, Kristen (2021). “Conflict, Gender and Political Representation.” (Chair). APSA 2021, October 3. 

Kao, Kristen. (2021). “Islamist Armed Conflicts in the Middle East: between legitimacy and authority.” (Ignite speaker). The Folke Bernadotte Academy Research-Policy Dialogue, October 11.

Gothenburg, Sweden, To Punish or To Pardon, 2020-2021

Thousands of European citizens who travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State (IS) now seek repatriation and reintegration into their home communities. This project seeks to understand the conditions under which Europeans will accept the return of compatriot IS collaborators into their communities. How does variation in the social identity of an IS collaborator (e.g. gender, age) or the type of collaboration (e.g. combat, marriage to a fighter, or employment in a civilian job) affect prospects for reintegration? Can state-imposed punishments or rehabilitative measures contribute to reconciliation? Or should these transgressions result in the loss of citizenship for these Europeans, as some policymakers are promoting? Moreover, once the state decides to impose a punishment, how do injustice gaps between what a person perceives as appropriate and what the state decides affect desires for retribution and state legitimacy? 

This project develops a theoretical framework integrating political theories of state legitimacy with psychological theories of (in)justice, retribution, and forgiveness. To test this framework, we will run Facebook surveys in Sweden with embedded conjoint experiments. The study includes a sample of 1500 Swedish-speaking and 1000 Arabic-speaking inhabitants of Sweden in order to allow for examination of variations across older versus newer residents of Europe. In this age of international terrorism, this project provides policymakers with information to help create safe, secure, and inclusive societies, with broader implications for others accused of criminal behaviors and the legitimacy of the state. With Peter Essaiason. Funded by Lundgrens Vetenskapsfond 65,000 SEK (approx. 7,500 USD).

For the project’s survey: Click here

Mosul, Iraq, 2017-2018

What are the conditions under which civilians will accept neighbors who collaborated with an insurgent group back into their community after conflict? Does punishment of rebel collaborators facilitate post-conflict reintegration? What are the effects of the identity of a rebel collaborator (e.g. gender, age, ethnicity) and the nature of her collaboration with the insurgent group (e.g. marriage to a fighter, military service, or logistical support) on the form of punishment (e.g. imprisonment, reparations, de-radicalization programs, and community service) desired by their community members to promote forgiveness and reconciliation? We address these questions through a conjoint survey experiment conducted in the Iraqi city of Mosul, which was controlled and governed by the Islamic State (IS) for more than three years. We find that people who collaborated to greater extents or are perceived as having done so willingly will be less likely to be accepted back into the community compared to those who collaborated to lesser extents or were coerced to collaborate. The findings of this research have important implications for the stabilization and reconstruction of war-torn societies around the world. The survey was administered in Mosul in March-April 2018 by an experienced and respected Iraqi research firm (N=1,450). With Mara Revkin. Our working paper “From Revenge to Forgiveness: Strengthening Durable Peace in Post-Conflict Societies” won the 2019 Franklin L. Burdette Pi Sigma Alpha Award for the best paper presented at the American Political Science Association (APSA) annual meeting and is published in the American Journal of Political Science. Another working paper “How Does Punishment Affect Reintegration? Attitudes Toward Islamic State “Collaborators” in Iraq” is a revise and resubmit at the American Journal of Comparative Law.

Related Publications:

Kao, Kristen and Revkin, Mara. (2018). “To punish or to pardon?” The Program on Governance and Local Development Working Paper No. 17, University of Gothenburg. (full text)

Kao, Kristen and Revkin, Mara. (2019) “How the Iraqi crackdown on the Islamic State may actually increase support for the Islamic State.” Washington Post/Monkey Cage. (full article)

Kao, Kristen and Revkin, Mara. (2021). “Retribution or Reconciliation? Post-Conflict Attitudes toward Enemy Collaborators.” American Journal of Political Science. (full article)

Kao, Kristen and Revkin, Mara. In Press. “No Peace Without Punishment? Reintegrating Islamic State Collaborators in Iraq.” The American Journal of Comparative Law. (full article)

Kao, Kristen with Mara Revkin. 2021. “To Punish or To Pardon: Reintegrating Rebel Collaborators After Conflict in Iraq” Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) Podcast. (full audio)

Related Presentations:

Mara Revkin and Kristen Kao. (2021). “Retribution or Reconciliation? Post-Conflict Attitudes Toward Enemy Collaborators,” International Relations and Methods Workshop, UCLA Department of Political Science, March 8. 

Kao, Kristen. (2021). “Islamist Armed Conflicts, Networks and Negotiations.” (Discussant). Research Workshop on Resolving Islamist Armed Conflicts, The Folke Bernadotte Academy, October 10. 

Kao, Kristen. (2021). “The Limits of Legitimacy: Legal Pluralism in Iraq.” (Panelist). Research Workshop on Resolving Islamist Armed Conflicts, The Folke Bernadotte Academy, October 10.