“The Taliban tax everything. They get money from the vehicles that cross the district or are going from one district to another. They collect tax on the crops of the farmers,”  – a resident of rural Faryab Province, Afghanistan in February 2019.

While we commonly associate taxes with the state, in many parts of the world it is armed groups who demand levies from truck drivers, charge annual fees to shopkeepers, and tax factories and farmers. Such practices might easily be explained as motivated by greed, or the need for revenues to fund an insurgency.

However, our recent study argues that revenue is only one of several motives that explain why armed groups tax. A desire to reinforce ideology, exercise control over populations, and build legitimacy domestically and internationally can be just as important motives for armed group taxation.

Reinforcing ideology

Even though taxation may appear technical, it is deeply political and shaped by ideology. Ideology may determine that certain goods are taxed because they are considered to be harmful, while ideology may shape the language that is used to frame taxes and as a result, taxes allow armed groups to impose and perform their ideology.

Amongst Islamist movements, for example, taxation is often framed in Islamic tenets and language, as with the Taliban or al-Shabaab. Other armed groups link taxation to their revolutionary ideology, as with the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army’s ‘revolutionary tax’ in the Philippines. In addition, armed groups use taxation to incentivise certain behaviour, in line with their ideology.

For example, Islamist groups may tax alcohol or narcotics while socialist groups may tax luxury goods and business elites.

Exercising control

Another important motive for armed group taxation is that it enables groups to exercise authority and to control local populations in different ways. From an institutional perspective, taxation generates a need for information about the population, which in turn creates a justification for building an apparatus that collects and manages this information. More practically, taxation is often closely linked to controlling the behaviour and movement of populations.

For instance, the M23 group in Congo’s North Kivu province operates checkpoints not only to collect taxes but also to control bottlenecks of both trade and the movement of people, exercising what Peer Schouten calls a ‘logistical form of power’. Beyond civilian populations, taxation often enables armed groups to exercise influence over international actors, with development and humanitarian assistance taxed by armed groups such as the Islamic State, al-Shabaab, and the Taliban.

Projecting authority, developing institutions, and building legitimacy

Perhaps counter-intuitively, taxation can also help armed groups enhance their local legitimacy. As taxation is often understood as an activity reserved for the state, mimicking this “state” practice can be a way for an armed group to legitimise its rule.

This can manifest through issuing official-looking receipts or otherwise imitating the state bureaucracy. Furthermore, taxation enables an armed group to provide public services that a population typically expects and demands of a ruling authority, creating local-level support and legitimacy. It can also require and enable armed groups to develop bureaucratic institutions to help in their tax collecting efforts, further bolstering their state-like projections.

Concerns about local-level legitimacy may also shape the nature of taxation practices of armed groups. For instance, the Kachin Independence Army in Myanmar cannot openly encourage and tax opium production, even if it could be a promising source of revenue. Instead, the group taxes what is locally accepted, including vehicles, shops, and other businesses.

A crucial form of income

It would be wrong to conclude that armed group taxation has nothing to do with revenue generation. Taxes are a crucial source of income for armed groups, and in some cases even the most important form of income.

Nonetheless, there is much more to it, with multifaceted motivations underpinning the practice and the nature of taxation that emerges. While our research highlights the diversity of armed group taxation strategies, underpinned by different drivers and motives, more research needs to be done to unpack these dynamics and to develop a more structured understanding of the taxation strategies of different types of armed groups.

The findings of such research could help policymakers engage with armed groups to mediate peace agreements, advocate for human rights, and better deliver aid into areas under armed groups’ control or influence.


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Vanessa van den Boogaard

Vanessa van den Boogaard is a Research Fellow at the ICTD and a Senior Research Associate at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. She completed her PhD thesis on informal revenue generation and statebuilding in Sierra Leone, and has ongoing research on the topic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia. Vanessa leads the ICTD’s new programme on civil society engagement in tax reform and co-leads the research programme on informal taxation.

Max Gallien

Max Gallien is a Research Fellow at the ICTD. His research specialises in the politics of informal and illegal economies, the political economy of the Middle East and North Africa and development politics. He completed his PhD at the London School of Economics. Max co-leads the informality and taxation programme with Vanessa, as well as the ICTD’s capacity building programme.

Ashley Jackson

Dr Ashley Jackson is co-Director for the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups, and author of ‘Negotiating Survival: Civilian-Insurgent Relations in Afghanistan’ (Hurst & Co., 2021).

Tanya Bandula-Irwin

Tanya Bandula-Irwin is a PhD student at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation focuses on civilian-armed group dynamics surrounding taxation, with a focus on the Philippines. She is a Fellow at the Trudeau Centre for Peace, Justice and Conflict, a Junior Fellow with the Defense and Security Foresight Group, and Vice-President of Women in International Security-Canada, Toronto.

Florian Weigand

Florian Weigand is the Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups at ODI and a Research Associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His work focuses on armed groups, illicit economies and international interventions and explores the politics and societal dynamics of conflict zones, borderlands, and other complex environments. He has conducted extensive research in South Asia and Southeast Asia and is the author of Waiting for Dignity: Legitimacy and Authority in Afghanistan (Columbia University Press, 2022) and Conflict and Transnational Crime: Borders, Bullets & Business in Southeast Asia (Edward Elgar, 2020) and the co-editor of the Routledge Handbook of Smuggling (Routledge, 2021).