Skip to main content

by Haviland Smith

The Bush Administration has conflated and confused the meanings of terrorism and insurgency, this essay maintains; but in dealing with these phenomena definitions are crucial, because definitions dictate the strategy and tactics that are used to defeat them, and measures that may be effective against one are likely to be futile or worse against the other. Specifically, the author believes, military action is rarely successful against terrorism, which is best dealt with through law enforcement methods. – Ed.

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.

This has not simply been a case of intellectual carelessness.  It has been a conscious effort to label any group that threatened any status quo of which they approved as a “terrorist organization,” without any thought to the origins of or reasons for the struggle being waged.  Thus, in a moment of warm and fuzzy presidential friendship with Vladimir Putin, with American concurrence, the Chechen rebels officially became terrorists rather than insurrectionists trying to break free from centuries of Russian oppression.  As terrorists, they were far less acceptable outside Russia.

If a group of dissident Egyptians, tired of their repressive government, decided to try to overthrow the Mubarak regime, how would we label them?  How would we label indigenous dissidents trying to overthrow any “friendly,” but not necessarily democratic governments?  Saudi Arabia and Morocco come to mind.  It’s not a stretch to say that they would immediately be labeled terrorists.  How would we label a group of Iranians who committed terrorist acts?  Of course, given how we feel about the Mullahs, they would be freedom fighters, never terrorists!

The moral here is that it has not been advantageous to become involved in any insurrection or national liberation movement against any country that is friendly to the United States.  In doing so, you will be branded a terrorist, and that brings with it certain moral, emotional, and legal consequences.

However, in strictly internal American terms, if the purpose of this mislabeling is to create enemies for the perpetual “long war” envisioned by the Bush Administration, then moving organizations from the morally ambiguous “national liberation” or “insurrection” column to the “terrorist” column serves your interests.

No one loves a terrorist.  Terrorists have attacked us, they threaten us today, and the anxiety thus created in the U.S. population has kept us on edge and more inclined to tolerate the civil indignities rained on us by the Bush Administration in support of the “long war.”

Contrasting Definitions and Responses
The U.S. Code defines international terrorism as:

…violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or any state…. (and that)….appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping and occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum. [18 U.S.C. § 2331(1)]

Terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as:

…the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives. (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85)

The Department of Defense defines insurgency as “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict.”   That definition makes no pejorative judgments, it simply reports.

Clearly, these definitions evoke contrasting emotional responses.  Everyone is against terrorists, but the morality is not quite as clear when it comes to insurgents (freedom fighters).  It goes back to the old saw that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

Even in our own history, under the above definition the Minutemen who rose against the British at Concord could be labeled as terrorists.

Classification Matters
Isn’t this all simply splitting hairs?  After all, who really cares whether you call a trouble-making killer a terrorist or an insurgent?  Actually, it is objectively important to carefully differentiate between terrorism and insurgency because, once classified into either group, a dissident movement will be given a level of treatment either formally or by general international consensus from which it will be difficult for it to extricate itself.

Historically, it has been easier to deal with terrorism than insurgencies.  When terrorist movements are left to run their course, they tend to last around a dozen years. The good news about them is that, unlike insurgencies, which seldom lose, terrorism rarely seems to win. Terrorism, properly and intelligently confronted, is a short-term, dramatically violent irritant and not much more.  It is certainly unworthy of having war declared against it.

A recent Rand Corporation study examined 648 terrorist groups that existed between 1968 and 2006.  During that period, 398 of those groups have ceased to exist.  Forty-three percent (171) of those that ended were absorbed into the political systems of the countries in which they operated, while forty percent (159) were defeated by police activities.  It is most significant to note that only seven percent (28) of those groups were defeated by military action.

By its nature, terrorism cannot depend on support from the local population.  If their general populations are actively opposed to them, they are faced with the difficult task of operating entirely underground.  Recently Al Qaida in Iraq has been losing support from mainstream Muslims because they have indiscriminately killed civilians in defiance of the teachings of the Koran.  They are now being targeted and killed by Iraqis.

Military Action vs. Law Enforcement
Where military action may be effective in counter-insurgency operations over time, it will never be as effective in counterterrorist operations. The effectiveness of the military approach against terrorists depends entirely on the accuracy of one’s intelligence and weapons.  If the intelligence is bad, the target may turn out to be a grammar school.  If the target, however perfectly identified, is in an urban area and the missile isn’t accurate, the result may be the same.  The fact is that collateral damage is an integral and unavoidable part of military activity.

Terrorism is a criminal matter best dealt with using law enforcement methods.  In Iraq, Al Qaida has been heavily involved in fomenting violence between various sects and ethnic groups.  In that latter role, and unlike insurgencies, it works against the local population and thus cannot look to locals for any sort of support.  The reality of that sort of terrorism, whether directed against the local population, the local government, or a foreign occupier, is that it is a movement that lacks local support.  That makes dealing with terrorism significantly more straightforward than dealing with insurgencies and explains why terrorist movements are considerably shorter-lived and less successful than insurgencies.

On the other hand, insurgencies, by their nature, have fairly widespread support from their local populations, largely because they are normally fighting against a generally disliked or even hated ruler or occupier.  They tend to endure and succeed because of that support, and depriving them of it is a key element in defeating them.  The best way to approach an insurgency is to work to fragment, diminish, and weaken the movement’s base of support by alienating it from the local population.

We have successfully done this with Sunni tribes in Iraq’s Anbar province, supporting them in their desire to work with U.S. forces to control Al Qaida (who have been fomenting civil strife by killing Iraqis through ethnic- and sectarian-targeted operations).  This “Awakening” program has served us extremely well, at least in the short run, having put heavy pressure on Al Qaida and having removed the Sunni tribes (insurgents) in question from the body of Iraqis who have been devoted to killing American troops.

It should be said parenthetically here that in the long run, the results may not be so unequivocally favorable.  These tribes can, at any time, turn against us again, or join forces with other Sunni forces in any civil battle against the Shia.

Afghanistan and Pakistan
The issue in Afghanistan and Pakistan is extremely complicated because we are dealing with an insurgency (the Taliban) that for practical and historical reasons has allied itself with a terrorist organization (al Qaida) with which it has at least one common goal – a desire to force Western troops, particularly American, out of the area.  As long as we realize that there are two separate problems involved, we will be on the right track.  The basis of our policy should be to try to entice tribes that are now aligned with the Taliban out of that relationship and to do everything we can to turn the Taliban against Al Qaida.    As long as what we do is consistent with those two goals, we will have a chance.

That said, a similar effort in Afghanistan to entice Pashtun tribes away from the Taliban should be an integral part of our efforts to move the Afghan insurgency in a direction more favorable to us.  By splitting them off, we will accomplish far more than military activity will do for us.

Rulers and occupiers tend to protect themselves against insurgents under such conditions with a military response.  This approach is greatly complicated by the fact that insurgents have no uniforms, barracks, or bases.  They live and work in and around the rest of the civilian population, whether in Pakistan, Lebanon, Afghanistan, or Iraq.  Under attack, there is bound to be unintended collateral damage, which is likely to be seen by the local population as collective punishment and equally likely to encourage more indigenous support of the insurgency. We see this on a regular basis in, for example, the rocketing of a wedding party in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Iraq.  These realities help make insurgency a difficult enemy to vanquish.

These differences in local population attitudes toward terrorism, as opposed to insurgencies, are key to the development of effective countermeasures, as they strongly underline the variance in levels of local support for such movements.  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.

If they cannot or do not discriminate between terror and insurgency, as America has in the past generally failed to do in Iraq and Afghanistan, governments simply focus their military might on the assumed enemy positions and pull the trigger.  That approach creates more problems than in solves.So, it matters a great deal what you call these movements.  The label you give them will determine the nature and extent of international support you gain for your program and will, if it is to be successful, dictate the strategy and tactics you use against your enemy.End.

Haviland Smith

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief. A graduate of Dartmouth, he served three years in the Army Security Agency, spent two years in Russian regional studies at London University, and then joined the CIA. He served in Prague, Berlin, Langley, Beirut, Tehran, and Washington. During those 25 years, he worked primarily in Soviet and East European operations. He was also chief of the counterterrorism staff and executive assistant to Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Frank Carlucci. Since his retirement in 1980, he has lived in Vermont.

Comments are closed.