The Taliban claims to adhere to a strict interpretation of Islamic law, but that didn’t stop them from learning to love the poppy. The Islamic State developed an unforgiving set of laws to govern its caliphate, even as it engaged in widespread smuggling of antiquities and the synthetic drug Captagon. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the farc) were once puritanically anti-drugs but turned wholeheartedly to supporting the cocaine economy following their Eighth Party Congress in 1982. This isn’t necessarily surprising. Despite initial protestations, militant groups often engage in criminal operations—drugs, trafficking, and smuggling—to fund their activities.
But crime is not their primary calling—they also seek to govern. These groups may be evil but they can also be rational, calculating, and sometimes surprisingly effective, outperforming existing governments. Yet this fundamental point is often lost on policymakers.
People everywhere want to feel like the people in charge are consistent in applying that law. They will, quite often, even prefer a malicious and cruel system over one that is inconsistent or arbitrary. What matters is what “works”, and quite often what works seems overly violent and atrocious to those of us who are more used to governments responding to our needs. I’ve written about this before in the context of urban violence in America; people in marginalized urban communities don’t trust the police because they don’t think that the police will deliver justice and so they will protect violent people within their communities because that feels like a more consistent form of justice.