“Tragic Prelude” (depicting John Brown) by John Steuart Curry. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Summer Essay Campaign #10: “Insurgent or Terrorist?”

To Answer Question #1: “What is the difference between a terrorist and an insurgent?”

By First Lieutenant Neel Vahil

It is imperative that military and civilian leaders understand the fault lines that exist between terrorists and insurgents. Insurgencies have become a type of sub-state warfare that has acquired substantial nuance over the last two centuries. They have alternatively been romanticized and vilified. Terrorism has seared far reaching psychological effects in minds of all those affected and has contributed to significant policy modification and even war mobilization.  Just as important as the difference between terrorist and insurgent, however, is the historical context from which this modern demarcation derives. In “Invisible Armies,” Max Boot examines the evolution of insurgencies as well as what he deems “the closely related growth of terrorism.”[i] What quickly becomes obvious is that, while the dissimilarities between the two may occasionally be muddied, doctrinal definitions that highlight the differences in organizational structure, motives, tactics, and targets are useful for any great power in devising an appropriate strategic and operational response. For the United States, it is vital to understand this distinction not only doctrinally and philosophically, but also historically because the new age of American military operations will showcase an amalgam of insurgencies and terrorism, frequently on the same battlefield. We as military leaders must be able to navigate and exploit the chaos and cultural patchwork at all levels of war.

Whether known as low-intensity conflict, small wars, or asymmetric warfare, these types of skirmishes have been taking place throughout history. Although the modern battlefield may reveal a connection between terrorism and insurgency due to the complexities caused by advanced weaponry, globalization, complicated ideological and political allegiances, and a 24-hour news cycle, the differences that do exist help us develop specific strategies and methodologies to combat them. Doctrinally, insurgencies are categorized as a variation of sub-state conflict in which two groups are vying for power. Immediate objectives are generally military in nature and there is no purposeful intent to target non-combatants. In fact, it is beneficial for insurgents to achieve the support of the civil society and as a consequence public services are usually not suspended. Hezbollah, for example, offers access to water and schooling. Few better characterized the foundations of a successful insurgency than Mao Zedong.  The 44 year old guerilla leader details his strategy to defeat the Japanese occupation in “On Guerilla Warfare.” According to Zedong, the most salient features of an insurgency are the development of a national strategy in which civilian considerations were just as important as military force.[ii] Generally, insurgent groups will also have some type of hierarchical organization. The Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA), the insurgent force opposing the Commonwealth armed forces during the Malayan Emergency, had an organized military hierarchy that included field commanders, officers, and even a headquarters element.   Accordingly, insurgencies are comprised of organized combatants who aim to accomplish political objectives through largely conventional military tasks, techniques, and procedures. Defeating such a revolutionary movement would require the marshalling of significant resources, Non-Governmental assistance, and troops along with a supportive public opinion.

Terrorist activities and movements have expanded and benefitted from the advent of modern technology and the increasing interconnectedness of the globe. Former State Department official Matthew Hoh has characterized terrorism as an ideological cloud, claiming that a recruiter could be sitting in a café thousands of miles away from a conflict zone and enlists followers willing to die for a political cause.[iii] Doctrinally, terrorism is far less organized and, in some cases, even leaderless.[iv] The robust and comprehensive news cycle has enabled these actors to be particularly effective at propagating fear and rendering civil society psychologically scarred. Unlike insurgents, terrorists, by definition, attack indiscriminately. They will kill or maim regardless of whether they are combatants or non-combatants. The actual attacks, however, are largely symbolic, intended to be reactionary or a vessel through which these cells or individuals seek revenge. Whether it is the 2005 bombing in the London tube system or the September 11th attacks on the United States, these atrocious assaults were meant to be an attack on western culture and way of life rather than to achieve military gains in order to realize revolutionary goals. The Red Brigade in Europe, Timothy McVeigh, and Nadal Hasan were all terrorists attacking non-combatants to send a message to a government. Based on the doctrinal definition, counterterrorism can be conducted by executing pinpoint surgical strikes on particular targets, such as the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by special operations forces in 2006. This strategy can bore a hole in a terrorist cell and, at least temporarily, remove the ideological and philosophical source of a terrorist movement.

Terrorists can join an insurgency and terrorist tactics, techniques, and procedures can certainly be employed in revolutionary movements, but while the modern battlefield is more complex than a straightforward distinction between terrorist and insurgent, it is important for us to recognize the difference. Knowing how these different entities operate informs our strategies and helps us develop appropriate response plans. Engaging in a protracted counterinsurgency campaign eliminates the possibility of discretion and necessitates the deployment of large numbers of troops and resources along with sufficient popular support on the home front. Alternatively, a terrorist threat can be combated through clandestine and targeted special operations strikes. The national security reality, however, is that the fault lines aren’t always so clear. As was the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the distinction between terrorist and insurgent is blurred or when both entities exist in the same operational environment, we have to combine tactics and strategies from counterterrorism and counterinsurgency doctrine. Instances like the Granai airstrike in which countless Afghan women and children were killed in southern Afghanistan underscore the importance of understanding the situations in which counterterrorist tactics should be carefully balanced with counterinsurgency practices. The key requirement, whether the battle is against an insurgency, terrorist cell, or an amalgam of both is—as Mao Zedong emphasized—a clearly defined and communicated national strategy in which the broad methodology and overarching purpose and significance is understood by the public on the home front. Absent this, the counterinsurgency approach will not have longevity and the counterterrorism approach will not be properly understood in the context of American national security.

[i] See Max Boot “Invisible Armies”

[ii] Mao Zedong “On Guerrilla Warfare”

[iii] See Matthew Hoh resignation letter: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/hp/ssi/wpc/ResignationLetter.pdf?sid=ST2009102603447

[iv] Treston Wheat “The Difference Between Terrorists and Insurgents”: http://www.worldreportnews.com/us-foreign-policy/the-difference-between-terrorists-and-insurgents


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