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Defining Terrorism and Insurgency: Beyond Morality

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Defining Terrorism and Insurgency: Beyond Morality


Nicolas Johnston




‘Terrorism’ and ‘insurgency’ describe inherently divergent methods of political violence. Although the label itself ought not to infer any analytical proscriptions, the misidentification of a threat can drastically undermine policy intended to counter it. That is, while both ‘terrorism’ and ‘insurgency’ fall under the banner of ‘asymmetric warfare’ and indeed often use the same methods to achieve their goals, the strategies required to mitigate the risks they respectively pose and to ultimately address their underlying causalities are very distinct. Identifying and responding to a particular actor based on one’s moral attitude to the methods it uses is misguided and often self-defeating.


Kilcullen interestingly notes that the two terms were considered almost synonymous until the late 20th century (Kilcullen, 2005, 603-4). The principal British counter-insurgency manual in Malaya in the 1950s, for example, was entitled ‘The Conduct of Anti-Terrorist Operations in Malaya’ (Kilcullen, 2005, 604 – emphasis added). While both forms of political violence demonstrate similar applications of the principles of asymmetric warfare (see Betts, 2002, 458-460), a demonstrable divergence between their respective substance and objectives has emerged in the modern era. An effective understanding of the distinction between the two groups is required in order to develop appropriate strategies to address the threats they pose.


This paper seeks to revisit the fundamental definitions of terrorism and insurgency to identify their functional particularities. It then outlines how these particularities translate into different focuses in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations and how misidentification produces fatally flawed strategy. It finally explores the case of al-Qaeda and how its misidentification as a terrorist actor undermined strategy intended to counter its presence in Afghanistan.


Defining Terrorism


Most authors consider terrorism as the intentional striking of fear, anxiety and intimidation into a target population to achieve a political objective (Schmid and Jongman, 2017, 1-2; Wilkinson et al, 2003, 21; Kilcullen, 2005, 603). NATO, additionally, defines terrorism as "the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence against individuals or property in an attempt to coerce or intimidate governments or societies to achieve political, religious or ideological objectives” (AAP-06 NATO Glossary of Terms and Definitions, Edition 2014).


Schanzer argues that such a broad conceptual framework logically applies to such a diverse range of phenomena as to be counterproductive. These phenomena include jihadist groups, organised crime networks, hate criminality and even institutionalised violence against women (Schanzer, 2017, 39-42). Other authors have also identified a state’s monopoly on violence as an implicitly terroristic threat, although with a much larger scope and different causal variables than the focus of this paper (Kiras, 2007, 202). Concurrently, however, ‘terrorism’ has evolved into a highly politicised term applied to any methods that seem to defy (particularly Western) public morality. It retains the post-colonial stigma of being an ‘ungentlemanly’ way of war, with the implication that an actor thus identified is either irrational, illegitimate or simply ‘beyond the pale’ (Kilcullen, 2005, 604). This has lent the ‘terrorist’ label to abuse, able to be selectively deployed to define particular political enemies and to validate public outrage against them. However, in becoming such a powerful means of controlling discourse, ‘terrorism’ has largely come to define perceptions of, and attitudes towards, the methods an actor uses, often considered in isolation from that same actor’s political objectives, capacity and ultimate intent.


It is important, therefore, to distinguish between terrorist tactics and terrorist groups, for not every group that uses terrorist tactics is fundamentally a terrorist group, nor will they likely be vulnerable to the same counter-measures (Boyle, 2010, 335). Indeed, it is suggested that an agent’s political objectives, capacities and ultimate intent will more adequately define a ‘terrorist’ group and determine effective targets for extant counter-terror strategies.


Because their political objectives generally do not align with the interests of the public, terrorist agents commonly exist as ‘disembodied groups’ on the fringe of society (Kilcullen, 2005, 604-605). These political objectives may, for example, range from revenge against a perceived personal slight (eg. Timothy McVeigh) to attempting to usher in Armageddon (eg. Aum Shinrikyo). While still devoted to their cause, this marginalisation precludes terrorist agents from acquiring the resources and manpower necessary to pursue tangible political change (if they so intend) through sustained asymmetric conflict against a governing authority (see, for example, Hoffman, 2006, 16). It also prevents such groups from growing to a size which is both functionally resilient to counter-terrorism efforts (for example, targeted killings and arrests) and able to deploy conventional military measures effectively. They must, therefore, resort to low-cost, high-impact ‘savage’ tactics to achieve an effect beyond what it would otherwise be incapable of in a conventional sense, including ‘suicide bomb[ing], carjack[ing], kidnapp[ing] and assassin[ations]’ (Scheuer, 2004, 217-218). One might therefore suggest that terrorism is indeed a ‘weapon of the weak’ as such agents have no other options between ‘surrender and savagery’ (Schanzer, 2017, 46; Betts, 2002, 455-456).


This is not to suggest, however, that terrorist agents are incapable of causing catastrophic damage. The Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh in 1995, for example, killed 168 people and caused $625 million of damage, while the 1995 Tokyo Subway attack by Aum Shinrikyo, saw the domestic deployment of a weapon of mass destruction in an active urban area, miraculously killing only 17 people. However, it is noteworthy that terrorist agents are incapable of capitalising on the chaos they cause to assert an alternate political agenda, leading Scheuer to label such agents a ‘lethal nuisance’ rather than a security threat (Scheuer, 2004, 216). It is, furthermore, unlikely that a fringe terrorist agent will develop political traction or resilience over time without reforming its objectives and goals to align them with prevailing popular aspirations (see Nachbar, 2012, 28-29).


It may therefore be more productive to understand the ultimate objective of terror groups as pursuing the weakening of a governing authority. A group may achieve outsized results in this regard by either provoking governmental acquiescence or overreaction by inflicting severe losses and damage (Duyvesten and Fumerton, 2017, 34). A terrorist group may also be understood as attempting to simply disturb the status quo, for example the social contract between citizen and state, and summoning conditions of ‘liminality’ - circumstances of extraordinary social upheaval in which ‘identities are fractured and markers of certainty dissolve’ (Wydra, 2015, 96). Terrorism, in this sense, is necessarily intended as a violent challenge to established structures of authority and ways of thinking.


Effective counter-terror strategies therefore seek to attrite and dismantle ‘terrorist’ threats through law-enforcement tactics and procedures, including arrests, assassinations and sanctions (Scheuer, 2004, 246). It is noteworthy that such procedures presuppose a victory metric in which depriving a group of fighters and resources will remove the inherent threat that it poses. This presumption inherently relies on the extant marginalisation of a ‘terrorist’ agent from society and the fact that groups identified in this way are popularly perceived as irrational actors pursuing indiscriminate violence against the wishes of the public. ‘Active defence’ – ‘whittling down the ranks of potential perpetrators by killing and capturing [their] members’ (Betts, 2002, 464) – is a preferable counter-terrorist measure to overreaching retaliatory measures which potentially fulfil a terrorist actor’s intentions (see, for example, Agamben, 2008, 23). A secondary requirement in this regard is the development of community resilience to the turbulent periods of liminality that terror attacks inspire. Resilience ought to therefore minimise the collateral effects of terrorist attacks – the ‘far-reaching psychological effects beyond the immediate victims…of the [attack]’ (Hoffman, 2006, 40) – such that the payoffs of terror attacks are less extreme and, therefore, less attractive to marginal actors.


Defining Insurgency


In contrast, insurgency seeks to integrate asymmetric warfare into a strategy of tangible political opposition. The US Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual defines insurgency as “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict” (Nagl, 2009, 2; Department of the Army, 2014). The ultimate goal of insurgencies is to develop in size and capacities whilst degrading the opposing government to such a point where they may engage and defeat them in conventional combat (Schanzer, 2017, 43). Insurgent actors are similar to terrorist actors in that they are necessarily outmatched by the conventional capacities of the governing authority. They are, however, distinguished by their intent to align their political objectives with the public interest in order to develop popular support and build new forms of legitimacy in order to challenge this authority (Bernsten, 2008, 38; O’Neill, 2005, 13). The political objectives of insurgents therefore often include such outcomes as political independence, self-determination or secession.


Because of insurgent actors’ inherent drive to generate public support and legitimate governance, Betts describes conflict between insurgents and counterinsurgents (understood as ‘governing authority’) as ‘tripartite’ – polar political alignments fighting to gain the support of the ‘attentistes’ or ‘those in the middle’ (Betts, 2002, 460). Within this conflict, insurgents will use whatever methods are most effective in progressing their claim to legitimate governance (O’Neill, 2005, 23), including ‘subversion, political activity, insurrection, armed conflict [and even] terrorism’ (Kilcullen, 2005, 603-604). During the ‘pre-conventional’ stage, for example, insurgent actors seek to attrite government resources, discredit its authority, and provoke overly draconian counteroffensive operations (Betts, 2002, 459, 465; Reinheart, 2010, 41). Ultimately, external physical and moral support from a populace is a prerequisite for success (Kiras, 2007, 188).


Importantly, while an insurgent actor may use terrorist tactics, as they often do (Kilcullen, 2005, 603-604; Kilcullen, 2010, 184), this should not be understood to imply that those actors are terrorist in nature. That is, although terrorist methods may have temporary utility towards insurgent ends, for example to attrite government resources and discredit its authority, as well as provoke overly draconian counteroffensive operations (Betts, 2002, 459, 465), their sustained use naturally undermines public support for such actors in the long run (see Kiras, 2007, 191-192).Therefore, while terrorist actors necessarily seek to inflict a number of decentralised attacks on a society, insurgents, in contrast seek to ultimately field ‘[a trained] army…and many hundreds of competent paramilitary trainers’, and require popular support to do so (Scheuer, 2004, 218). In this way, insurgencies may be understood to pose a much more substantial threat to national security than terrorists ever might (Scheuer, 2004, 216).


Developing popular support and perceptions of legitimacy among the ‘attentistes’ is essential for an insurgent group to accrue the manpower and resources necessary to develop and expand to the point where they might engage a governing authority in conventional conflict (Schanzer, 2017, 39; Kiras, 2007, 189-190). Popular support also affords insurgent actors a degree of resiliency to government efforts to disrupt their operations, such as through capture and kill missions (because the public will likely shelter and hide popular insurgents, for example) (Scheuer, 2002, 27, 78). Thus, while insurgencies naturally enjoy a degree of popular support (owing to the very nature of their political objectives), they also, therewith, possess an inherent level of self-sustaining resources and manpower that distinguishes them from their terrorist counterparts. An important outcome is that the dimensions of insurgent conflict are such that time inherently favours the non-government forces - that is ‘if [insurgent groups] can stay in the field indefinitely, they win’ (Kiras, 2007, 190; Betts, 2002, 460).


Insurgencies will naturally find traction in areas with enduring political tensions which might be co-opted to support an insurgency’s claim to government. While the particular group championing local grievances might change, that grievance is largely intractable unless effectively addressed through political measures (Schanzer, 2017, 48). That an insurgency is simply championing these grievances can be reason enough that they will be able to attract members and resources at such a rate that their growth will exceed any casualties that counterstrategies are able to inflict (see Scheuer, 2002, 218-222). The Islamic State, for example, fashioned itself as the protector of Iraqi Sunni Muslims against the use of mass terrorist violence by the regime replicating (and largely replacing) the appeal of its predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and the support it had generated, after AQI’s almost complete destruction. In doing so, it appealed to the ‘exact same set of unresolved political grievances that gave rise to AQI in the first place’ (Schanzer, 2017, 48).


Counterinsurgency involves a ‘whole-of-government’ response to address what, if pursued peacefully, would otherwise be considered legitimate political grievances (Schanzer, 2017, 46; Kilcullen, 2005, 605). Kilcullen (closely echoing Sun Tzu) notes that counterinsurgency, in contrast to counterterrorism, is, therefore, intended to “defeat the insurgent’s strategy, rather than to ‘apprehend the perpetrators’ of specific acts” (Kilcullen, 2005, 605). That is, pacifying a violent insurgent actor in isolation from the political environment neither addresses popular political sentiments towards violence, nor ensures that another insurgency will not simply rise up to take its place. Effective counterinsurgency strategy, therefore, ought to be predicated on isolating insurgents from the popular support that sustains them (Kiras, 2007, 199).


The accurate assessment of an adversary’s activities is a necessary prerequisite to the development of an appropriate and adequate response to their actions (Khalil, 2013, 420; Mackinlay, 2005, 44). When counter-terror strategies are applied against insurgent actors, an erroneous focus on ‘physically confronting and destroying [insurgent] groups is proscribed instead of trying to address the underlying political conflict’ (Schanzer, 2017, 48). This will likely lead to increased public support for the insurgent actor (for example, the state may commit abuses against suspected members of the group, the group may come to be seen as the righteous defenders of the community, etc.), and a concomitant increase in manpower and resources (Martin and Weinberg, 2016, 248). Most authors, therefore, promote the use of political engagement to address the underlying grievances which give rise to such insurgencies (see, for example, Schanzer, 2017, 48-49; Kilcullen, 2005, 606).


Others, in contrast, propose a counterinsurgency strategy of coercion, wherein a governing authority might punish an entire population for sheltering and abetting the activities of an insurgent group (see, for example, Kiras, 2007, 199-202; Betts, 2002, 464). Ultimately, counterinsurgency strategy must demonstrate to the attentistes that the insurgents in question are not viable representatives to solve their political grievances, such that they might be resolved through diplomatic process. Effective strategy to achieve this must, however, necessarily fit to the particular requirements of the environment and insurgent actor in question.


Case Study: al-Qaeda


Counter-‘terrorism’ measures against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan did not effectively connect desired ends with means. Although it was politically and publicly expedient in the United States to depict al-Qaeda as a terrorist group - ‘a few Muslim fanatics who hate democracy and freedom…madmen throwing bombs at liberty’ (Scheuer, 2004, 249), the analytical paradigm established by this understanding precluded assessment of the group as anything more than an isolated, yet lethal terrorist organisation with little support across the Islamic world (see, for example, Boyle, 2010, 338). Counter-terror operations were, therefore, imagined as an easy means of identifying and apprehending or engaging al-Qaeda members.


Both Scheuer and Kilcullen note that al-Qaeda’s objectives were, however, not at all marginal in the societies in which they operated, but rather spoke to deeply-held beliefs in ‘defensive jihad’ and appeals to historical memory in reclaiming the boundaries of the historical Islamic empire (Scheuer, 2002, x, 141; Kilcullen, 2005, 599-600). They were, therefore, able to draw on the well of public support they had developed in Afghanistan to weather the collapse of the Taliban regime and the ensuing storm of limited strikes and patrols. Betts notes that Western action in Afghanistan to many simply confirmed the legitimacy of al-Qaeda’s claims and likely led to the mobilisation of further recruits for the group (Betts, 2002, 457). Indeed, while the blunt force of counter-terror strategies did generate some losses, the assumed understanding of al-Qaeda as a small, isolated group meant these figures could not be assessed for ‘impact’ within an established order-of-battle for the group (Scheuer, 2004, 67).


Scheuer particularly notes the significance of the terrorism/insurgency semantic phenomenon in the US intelligence community’s analysis of the threat emanating from al-Qaeda’s ‘terrorist’ training camps. He notes that the ‘terrorist’ label suggested that such facilities were used to train suicide bombers and IED-builders for deployment in local conflicts. Instead, he notes that they were much more likely used to advance al-Qaeda’s inherently insurgent objective of training ‘the next generation of al-Qaeda’s urban warfare ‘special forces’ wing’ (Scheuer, 2002, 219-222). Such fighters pose a much larger threat to any Western nation’s national security in that they are highly-trained guerrilla warfare combatants, yet such a threat was inherently minimised by a counter-terrorism framing.


Betts therefore argues that US strategy in Afghanistan would have benefitted from better assessment of the nature of the threat al-Qaeda posed and a revised operational framing to suit. Rather than engaging in a standing political conflict in what Keegan suggests is an inherently ‘ungovernable’ country, Betts suggests that coalition efforts ought to have involved only ‘punitive’ measures – generally understood as targeted strikes from outside Afghanistan – intended to coerce the population from supporting al-Qaeda’s continued operations in the country supporters (Keegan cited in Scheuer, 2002, 172-173, 224). It is suggested that this would have better achieved the proposed end of ‘retaliation’, punishing the Taliban for sheltering bin Laden and sending a warning to other potential sponsors of al-Qaeda without fuelling the grievances which led to their rise (Betts, 2002, 464).


The misidentification of al-Qaeda as a terrorist actor undermined strategy intended to eliminate its presence in Afghanistan. The assumption that the group was politically isolated and could be easily dismantled through legal procedures was ineffective, not least because the coalition did not have intelligence to determine the group’s actual size, but because involvement within Afghanistan proper and the collapse of the Taliban regime fuelled many of the political grievances that al-Qaeda’s movement directly speaks to, both within Afghanistan and across the Islamic world. Simply understanding and defining al-Qaeda as an insurgent actor prior to the 2001 invasion would likely have shifted the entire course of that ongoing conflict.




‘Terrorism’ and ‘insurgency’ are often applied as arbitrary terms to convey moral attitudes towards acts of political violence as much as describing the strategic nature of those acts. The definitional framework proposed in this paper suggests that they describe highly distinct organisational natures and objectives. The proposed framework incorporates assessment of political objectives, group capacity and ultimate intentions to offer conceptual clarity on what distinguishes terrorism from insurgency. This distinction is important in guiding counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency efforts such that they effectively meet imagined ends with appropriate means. The case study of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan demonstrates that misidentification of a threat will lead to fatally flawed countermeasures which can have resonating political ramifications. In this case, the apolitical process of counter-terror measures gave rise and reinforced the essential claims to legitimacy that al Qaeda as an insurgent actor exercised. Assessing such a threat in isolation from political bias and pragmatism is thus essential in producing effective strategy.


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Categories: terrorism - insurgency

About the Author(s)

Nicolas Johnston is currently a postgraduate student at the Australian Defence Force Academy (UNSW Canberra). He received his BA in Political Science and International Comparative Studies from Duke University.