Small Wars Journal

Terrorism Shouldn't be Confused with Insurgency

Defining Terrorism It Shouldn't be Confused with Insurgency

By Haviland Smith at American Diplomacy

During the presidency of George W. Bush, everything possible has been done to obfuscate and conflate the true meanings of the terms terrorism and insurgency. Preferring the former, largely because of its emotional post-9/11 impact on the American psyche, Bush spokespeople and the president himself consistently have used the terms insurrection and terrorism interchangeably, indiscriminately, and inaccurately...

Much more at American Diplomacy.


I largely agree with RCJ on the role of governance in causing insurgency, though in the field there are many many complications and variations to be encountered. Where I get nervous is when he starts talking about "striking at the roots", especially when we're talking about an outside power striking at what they see as the roots of someone else's problem. Striking out at other people's governments, or trying to change the way they govern, is something to be approached with a great deal of caution, and often something we should not do at all. There's huge potential for unintended consequences there, many of them not good ones at all.

We must also be very hesitant about assuming that anyone striking at government is striking on behalf of a populace, or striking out for good or better governance. 'Tis not always the case, by any means.

Like most models, the Jones model is a useful tool, but it is not universally applicable and it is not the last word. A useful tool is a good thing to have, but if we embrace that tool as the sole and only explanation for all insurgency-related problems, we're likely someday to find it stuffed ungently in a place where no tool should ever go. The same is true of every tool in our kit.

Ken White (not verified)

Sat, 04/30/2011 - 8:42pm

<b>Bill M.:</b><blockquote>"We continue to delude ourselves with extremely liberal and impractical ideas, when we all know what the uncomfortable answer is."</blockquote>Yep. All those folks Bob think are attacking leaves are really folks carrying little well intentioned pavers for the road down to the River Styx...<br><br>

<b>Robert C. Jones:</b><blockquote>"That hard fact does not change government's role in this whole mess, no matter how uncomfortable that makes people."</blockquote>You've got a point on the poor governance. I agreed with that a couple of years ago. You're also, as Bill and I as well as others keep mentioning for the same length of time, allowing the other actors who would object to most <i>any</i> governance to escape your attention. A part solution is what we have now -- we do not need to trade that for another that still provides only a partial response.

I do not believe your insistent but singular approach makes other uncomfortable, not at all. Singular approaches to problem solving generally make others simply wonder what is missing and why. That's curiousity, not discomfort.

You preach simplication. As is true of many things, that can be overdone. The World is a bit more complex than that.

Bob's World

Sat, 04/30/2011 - 7:06pm


I totally agree that efforts to bribe populaces (one's own or those of others) to "like" you through development overseas or various entitlement programs at home is a complete waste of money. Currently the Saudis are attempting to buy their way out of their generations of poor governance with their own people, and it will not work. Their insurgency will erupt. It is a question of when, not if.

But no, I will not stop blaming government until governments stop blaming everyone and everything else.

Besides, in truth, I never do "blame" government. What I do is simply point out are the far too many cases of where government has blamed someone or something else, the true source of causation tracks back to them. Governments don't like that hard fact. They prefer to pursue high cost, high risk, low pay off COAs that seek to fix things that are not broken, or defeat groups that are much more symptoms of larger problems than the problem itself.

Certainly all manner of wingnuts, whackjobs, and evil, self-serving, power-hungry individuals are out there actively pursuing their own agendas. This will always be the case. But when governments allow conditions of insurgency to grow within the populaces they govern it enables and empowers these guys to co-opt the legitimate discontent of the many to serve the selfish desires of the few. That hard fact does not change government's role in this whole mess, no matter how uncomfortable that makes people.

As Thoreau said "we must ignore the thousands striking at the leaves of the problem and join the few who are striking at the roots."

I believe I am striking at the roots, and will continue to strike. Small adjustments are certainly necessary, but do not expect me to climb up into the leaves to join the masses any time soon.




Please, enough of always blaming governments for individuals behavior. That is a view point that only applies in limited cases. The homegrown Islamists who attempt attacks on our homeland do not represent "popular" discontent" anymore than the homegrown leftist terrorists did throughout the 60s and 70s. You're not going to stop attacks by changing the government, unless the government capitulates, and then you will have a popular uprising against the government. You keep making apologies for those who turn to violence, and it is the same apology, its our government that is causing all the terrrorist attacks. What exactly does our government need to change? Why do you think this will stop terrorist attacks? Islamists want us to implement shari'a law. White extremist groups want a segregated society. Anarchists want no government. Reds want a communist government. The list is endless and while this may come as a surprise to some our government does pretty much represent the majority of the country, so those who threaten it threaten the majority and the answer is not to change our government.

Of course some foreign policy issues like invading Iraq, etc. are obviously problematic and will have blow back for years to come.

Getting back to the article, I think we need to relook our professional lexicon completely for irregular warfare (to include the definition off IW). Terrorism has a legal definition, but in practical purposes it is a tactic employed by State and non-state actors for a variety purposes. You can't wage war against a tactic, so under the last administration we already failed from a strategic view in approaching the war as a war on terrorism. That is like waging a war against robberies.

I also think we're over fixated on AQ, which as you correctly identified is executing a UW campaign globally. However, not all terrorists or terrorist groups fall into that category. While the nature of the AQ threat is relatively new (not terrorism, but a non-state actor executing an effective UW campaign globally), that doesn't mean our "new" approach of occupying and attempting to transform the societies where the attacks originated from is anything other than a complete waste of our resources that simply makes the problem worse. Now the underlying motivation for the counter occupation forces is us, and we're not going to address that problem by building schools, roads, etc. We continue to delude ourselves with extremely liberal and impractical ideas, when we all know what the uncomfortable answer is.

Bob's World

Sat, 04/30/2011 - 11:59am

The sitting American President was assasinated by a lone, home-grown terrorist. He adhered to an ideology that had appeal to similarly situated individuals across the West. When an Italian subscriber to this same ideology (that appealed to many who felt the current systems of governance to be biased and unjust) acted to murder his own national leader.

For 20-odd years such acts were the scourge of Western governments, living at the peak of colonialism and an industrial age that had centered great wealth in a relative handful of "robber barons."

The incoming American President, regarding the radical, violent extremism that had downed his predecessor issued a proclaimation that declared:

"When compared with the suppression of anarchy, every other question sinks into insignificance."

That was 1901, not 2001.

What is old, is new again. What is new, is old.

It all comes down to human nature and the relationship between the governed and those who govern. When government loses it's path, the populace will rise up to correct the situation in time. In America we recognize both the right and the duty of the people to serve this function.

How then, does American protect itself best from such acts of terrorism, be they from "home grown" or those who are grown elsewhere and feel compelled to bring their violence here to aid their own homegrown issues? Focus on how we govern ourselves first. I see dangerous trends in US governance, and that is not about Dems or Reps, it is both. We focus on the wrong things and do not prioritize the critical drivers of such popular discontent. Liberal entitlement programs do not address, and neither do conservative fixations on free markets with winner take all rules.

Over seas? Look to our foreign policies. We must guard against unnecessary abuses directly on these same lines, and also must be careful not to enable such abuses by governments we align ourselves with to serve our interests.

BLUF is to fix ourselves, and remain focused on keeping our own engagement on track. The rest can then be managed fairly easily.

The two presidents? McKinley and Roosevelt. Good men both, but they didn't get it either.

Robert C. Jones

I like your thinking here. Lately Ive been contemplating home grown terrorism. This will the topic of my PhD. Perhaps a little off piste for SWJ however it is terrorism propogated by non-state actors such as AQ.

Plenty of people wiser than me have looked at this issue as a new phenomenon - Sageman, Hogan etc. Im not so sure it is a phenomenon. Yes, it is challenging to understand why US, British, Australian citizens or long term residents want to commit acts of terrorism on home soil when most are far removed from the fight. Then there is the paradox of it all - living in a vibrant, open society. But then that seems to be the way we view the world that clouded our approach in Afghanistan for so long.

I think it is merely an asymmetrical response by non-state actors to our intense actions in Afghanistan to take out leaders and destroy a safe haven along with the security measures that have been put in place. That is, home grown terrorism is simply another tactic.



Bob's World

Fri, 04/29/2011 - 11:09am


If one listens to the intel guys, one might assume that to be true. But no.

In fact, what is a "terrorist organization"? What we primarily have our nationalist insurgents and insurgent organizations who have turned to Non State actors, such as AQ, who have larger regional/global goals and operations, for support. These organizations are conducting what we call "Unconventional Warfare" in US SOF doctrine. This is where one leverages the insurgent populace of some other nation to promote one's own interests there.

Does AQ employ and promote terrorism as a tactic? Absolutely. Defining someone by their tactics is a pretty poor practice, far better to define them by their purpose for action. AQ on a regional/global level; like insurgencies on a national level, is a politically purposed organization. They are illegal, and they employ terrorism true, but it is political purpose all the same, and best to focus on that to clearly understand why they act and how to best reduce their effectiveness and threat to legal political structures.

But the nationalist insurgents of a dozen nations that take support from AQ do not "work for" AQ. Just as the Muj did not work for the US; just as the Northern Alliance did not work for the US; just as the US did not work for the French. We just had shared interests for a period of time so worked together.

Arab Spring is doing more to reduce the shared interests between these nationalist insurgencies and AQ than anything the US has done in GWOT to date. We should work harder to appreciate and leverage this to our advantage. Once liberty and self-determination spread, we will find AQ no longer much welcome by these long-struggling people.



Pod (not verified)

Tue, 12/23/2008 - 3:58pm

The Author states, "In order to develop successful strategies against insurgency and terrorism, governments have to treat the two totally differently. What will succeed with terrorism is unlikely to succeed with insurgency."

Insurgencies use terrorism to further their political aims (i.e. Chinese, Algerians in 1954-62, MORO, Communist Greeks, etc). Terrorist groups often use insurgency tactics. The success of both groups lay directly with the public, whether negative,neutral, or proactive support. Thus, it is the political issues and public that must be addressed, not trying to draw a line in the sand that says "use A for B and C for D." If COIN or CT were so easy to define and defeat, governments would be more successful in defeating them. Historically, that has not been the case.

MikeF (not verified)

Tue, 12/23/2008 - 10:53am

And occupation should not be confused with counter-insurgency.

I still haven't found a good distinction between civil war and insurgency yet.