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Summer Essay Campaign #19: “Choose Wisely – Terrorist versus Insurgent”

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

By Christina Bartzokis, Yale University NROTC

In 1964, in the midst of the Supreme Court case Jacobellis v. Ohio, Justice Potter Stewart offered this description of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Eleven years later, Gerald Seymour wrote in his novel Harry’s Game, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” In the years following, both phrases have been offered as platitudes to reassure analysts, policy makers, and the public alike that a clear definition of the word “terrorism” need not be extracted from the shifting historical and contemporary web of ambiguous violence: such a definition has been deemed either unnecessary or impossible by many. Consequently, terrorism has been conflated with a wide range of violent behavior, especially insurgencies. The word has become a propaganda tool, describing any kind of violence the user deems objectionable. Additionally, the accurate classification of conflicts as terrorism or insurgency is a precursor to developing an effective and corresponding response: counterterrorism (CT) or counterinsurgency (COIN).

To establish clear factors differentiating terrorists from insurgents, this essay will analyze the subsets of terrorist and insurgent strategies that are most frequently amalgamated. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of insurgency, or insurgent, is “the action of rising against authority.” Thus, the only type of terrorism that will be addressed in this essay is violence with the ultimate goal of harming a state (as opposed to violence directed primarily against citizens, either by their fellow citizens, or by a state). Similarly, although many types of uprisings could be categorized as insurgencies (coup d’états and riots, for example), this essay will specifically discuss guerilla warfare, as it is the type of insurgency most frequently presented as interchangeable with terrorism.

Despite the inability of experts to form a consensus on the definition of terrorism, most definitions include three factors: violent attacks that indiscriminately target non-combatants, political goals, and the intent to spread fear. However, these criteria are insufficient to distinguish terrorism from other forms of violent conflict. Both guerilla warfare and conventional warfare frequently result in civilian casualties, and sometimes include deliberate attacks against civilians. Similarly, almost all combatant groups seek political results. Finally, all conflicts spread fear. It is clear, then, that the definition of terrorism must be more specific, otherwise it is nothing more than a word that can be applied to almost any armed conflict. In order to differentiate terrorism from guerilla warfare, two factors must be analyzed: tactics and strategic goals.[i]

Both guerrillas and terrorists operate in irregular warfare situations, against a more powerful adversary, and accordingly share some tactical patterns. For example, both attempt to maximize their mobility by striking their enemy as quickly as possible. However, guerillas adopt what are essentially paramilitary tactics, while terrorists reject those norms in pursuit of a less structured combat environment. Guerilla armies try to establish control of territory, which they subsequently use as a training ground for new recruits and a base for logistical coordination. Terrorists, on the other hand, do not attempt to hold territory according to geographical demarcation lines. Instead, they immerse themselves in the civilian population; tellingly, although many guerilla groups adopt specific uniforms, terrorist groups almost never do. The organizational nature of both groups also differs along military / non-military distinction. Guerilla forces generally have a more complex hierarchy, and are considerably larger. They operate in platoon or company sized units, or even in battalions or brigades. Terrorist groups have a more horizontal structure. Although they typically have defined leadership, below the upper echelon they are subdivided into small, semi-autonomous cells. They also carry out attacks in smaller formations, starting with a single person suicide bomber. Crucially, civilian casualties can be a consequence of both insurgent and terrorist actions. Guerilla armies, like conventional armies, sometimes choose to ignore international laws of engagement and target civilians. Terrorists, however, discard these laws entirely: they do not distinguish between combatants and noncombatants at all.

As their tactics suggest, guerilla campaigns seek traditional military victories, by wearing down its opponent’s armies, destroying its economic infrastructure, or controlling its territory. By contrast, terrorist groups prioritize psychological influence above all other objectives. Some terrorist organizations hope to use their psychological influence to transition into a guerilla force, while others see psychological influence as the primary means of achieving victory. Those with the former goal use attacks to A.) gain support by striking symbolic targets and thus legitimize their potential power and objectives, B.) intimidate the population into supporting them as opposed to the government, or C.) provoke the government into a crackdown that could turn the public to the terrorists’ side. They are looking to broaden their support base, eventually gaining enough manpower to transform into a traditional guerilla force. Manpower and public support has proven crucial to the success of historical guerilla campaigns. Terrorist groups who seek to use their psychological influence to gain victory without transforming into an insurgency generally believe one of two things. Right wing and fascist terrorists often seek to demonstrate governmental incompetence by preventing the government from protecting its population. Subsequently, they believe the population will demand a stronger, fascist regime. Other groups believe they can force the government to capitulate by their demands through continued violence. If their political objective is not to overthrow the government entirely, cost-benefit analysis may eventually lead the government to decide change is preferable to continued violence. To be clear, guerilla groups can also value psychological influence, but it is always secondary to their primary goal of military victory.

The previous analysis can be distilled into two clear-cut definitions. Terrorism is a campaign of violence or threats of violence primarily perpetrated against non-combatants, intended to gain psychological influence over a larger audience to achieve political objectives. Terrorism is carried out by sub-state or sub-national groups. Insurgency, specifically guerilla warfare, is a campaign of violence or sabotage primarily directed against military targets with strategic value with the ultimate goal of defeating the state’s military, destroying its economic infrastructure, or controlling its territory. Insurgencies are carried out by sub-state paramilitary groups.

A clear differentiation between terrorist and insurgent violence is necessary primarily because it enables policy makers to identify the appropriate strategic response to a conflict. Counterterrorism (CT) and counterinsurgency (COIN), like the problems they were created to address, are sometimes used interchangeably by political and academic figures. However, they are fundamentally different practices designed to combat very different threats. Thus, an accurate assessment of a conflict as terrorist or insurgent violence is a prerequisite to responding to that conflict effectively.

Counterterrorism is officially defined as “political or military actions or measures intended to combat, prevent, or deter terrorism.” However, it has evolved into a distinct mode of warfare, combining air power, special forces, and intelligence analysis. The CT strategy prioritizes targeting and eliminating enemy operatives with kinetic strikes. In contrast, COIN prioritizes separating the population from the terrorists. Its contemporary iteration, population-centric COIN, is a competition between insurgent and counterinsurgent forces for the loyalty of the population.[ii] To succeed in this competition, COIN doctrine subordinates the goal of killing all insurgents to the primary goal of protecting the population.

As defined previously, insurgent movements have much larger support bases than terrorist movements do. COIN theory argues that insurgent support bases can be separated into three groups: a small group of people irrevocably loyal to the insurgents, a small group of people irrevocably opposed to the insurgents, and a much larger, central group of people who ally themselves with whomever is able to provide a stable and secure environment.    In order to effectively combat insurgencies, COIN campaigns aim to recapture the support of the central group for the state. They minimize collateral damage when targeting insurgent leaders, thus avoiding delegitimizing counterinsurgent forces as protectors.[iii] COIN also deprioritizes the elimination of low-ranking insurgents, as many of these individuals may be inextricably connected to the civilian population, and may have been coerced into joining the insurgency. Subsequently, COIN forces address the concerns of the civilian population in the territory that they now control. By improving local economies and infrastructure, COIN forces will hopefully bolster the population’s confidence in their government, and provide a distinct, superior alternative to the insurgent shadow structures.

Conversely, terrorists lack the broad support base necessary to launch an insurgent campaign. Therefore, CT operations can use lethal force against terrorist operatives beyond the highest echelon of the organization and still avoid popular backlash. Of course, CT strikes should still minimize civilian casualties: many terrorist groups try to provoke the state or counterterrorist forces into committing acts of brutality against the civilian population in order to gain support. CT campaigns also do not require state-building or territorial control, because unlike insurgencies, terrorist networks do not replace the pre-existing state governments.[iv]

Without clear recognition of the distinct challenges presented by insurgent and terrorist groups, it is impossible to effectively combat either problem. Counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies are tailored to address separate threats. The incorrect implementation of CT to combat an insurgency, or vice versa, could negatively impact the development of the conflict[v]. The old ambivalent responses to definitions must be dismissed, and replaced with a real effort by both policy makers and academics to reach a consensus on specific and separate definitions of both terrorism and guerilla warfare. Only then will military policy be able to adequately address divergent sub-national threats.

[i] Merari, Ariel, “Terrorism as a Strategy of Insurgency.” In The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda, edited by Gerard Chaliand and Arnaud Blin (Berkeley, CA: UC Press, 2007), 12-51.

[ii] Roxborough, Ian. “Learning and Diffusing the Lessons of Counterinsurgency: The US Military from Vietnam to Iraq.” Sociological Focus.  Available here:

[iii] Kaplan, Fred. The Insurgents (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 166-204.

[iv] Boyle, Michael J., “Do Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency Go Together?” International Affairs.  Available here:

[v] Roggio, Bill. “Counterterrorism at the Expense of Counterinsurgency Will Doom Afghanistan and Pakistan.” The Long War Journal.  Available here: