26 DECEMBER 2011 - Guest Writer Treston Wheat
There are many similarities among the different types of sub-state violence, which has led some to erroneously equate all of them. Fundamental differences exist between an insurgency and terrorism and other forms of violence. When people try to equate sub-state violence no matter its source, they strip their analysis of any meaning. This is ultimately like saying that premeditated murder is the same act as vehicular homicide and that these are the same as self-defense. It denudes any actual thought concerning the nature of force by saying they are identical. Although insurgency and terrorism are both politically motivated violence, they have different strategic choices and organizational structures that demonstrate how they are different political phenomena.
The most fundamental difference between insurgency and terrorism can be found in the definitions of the words. The definition of terrorism is politically motivated violence or the threat of violence against non-combatants by sub-state actors ; the definition of insurgency, on the other hand, is a “struggle between a nonruling group and the ruling authorities in which the nonruling group uses political resources and violence” and is a “protracted political-military activity” that uses irregular military forces. Long term objectives can appear similar between insurgents and terrorists, like al-Qaeda and the Taliban wanting Shariah law implemented in states. Yet, it is the second-tier and short term objectives of insurgents and terrorists that separate them. One must separate the teleological objectives from the immediate objectives of organizations. Terrorism’s objectives are, according to Louise Richardson, revenge, renown, and reaction. Take for instance the suicide bombings in London in 2005; the four attackers did not believe theirs actions would lead to the establishment of the Caliphate. Rather, they wanted to seek revenge for Britain’s action in the Middle East and the country’s support for the war there. Terrorists measure the success of their attacks by how much attention it receives. In addition, they received the renown they wanted. The terrorists sidelined the G-8 summit and became famous across the world. Although they did not achieve the reaction they wanted, i.e. retaliation to increase hatred of the West, a reaction was part of their immediate objectives. Finally, terrorists plan for their attacks to “have far-reaching psychological effects beyond the immediate victim(s) or object of the terrorist attack.” Terrorism wants to spread terror amongst the population. The terrorist’s objective is therefore more about scaring civil society and making themselves known.
Insurgents differ from terrorists by their own immediate objectives, which are military by nature rather than media or revenge prone. An insurgent’s tactics will look to wear the enemy down through constant attacks against the regular forces while acquiring weapons and support from the disenfranchised population. Eventually, the insurgency tries to establish its own regular forces and fight the opposing government on equal footing. Furthermore, the insurgency wishes to give public services to the public while diminishing the government’s ability to do so. Hezbollah does this consistently by offering access to water and schooling in Lebanon when the government is not able to do so. Also, insurgents want to mitigate international support for the opposition by increasing their legitimacy in the eyes of other states. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority have gained international support and even acquired representation in international organizations like the UN. Yet, they try to undermine Israel by constantly pointing towards supposed human rights abuses and other maladies. Insurgents’ immediate goals are specific military aims while terrorists try to create attention with their acts for political causes.
Strategic choices and targets by insurgents and terrorists also demonstrate how they differ from each other. The terrorist by definition attacks non-combatants; the insurgent attacks combatants. Some forms of violence have legitimacy and some have illegitimacy. The target of force determines whether or not the act is right, legitimate, or wrong, illegitimate. A quick survey of terrorist attacks shows that their ultimate targets are non-combatants rather than those that fight on the battlefield. Al-Qaeda chose to target the World Trade Centers as a way to assault people for specifically being American, not because they were soldiers on the battlefield. Hamas suicide bombers go on buses full of Israeli civilians to attack the population rather than going after members of the IDF. Aum Shinrikyo pumped sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway to hurt ordinary Japanese instead of attacking the military. The Red Brigade in Europe kidnapped and killed specific members of the government, not soldiers in the Italian military. In each of these cases the terrorist organization’s target was a non-combatant to draw attention to their cause because they were symbolic of their problem with the current order.
Contrast this with the insurgent that attacks the soldier on the battlefield and goes after military targets. The insurgency in Cuba that put Fidel Castro into power and Mao Zedong’s campaign against the Japanese give examples as to how these are military operations against regular forces. The point of an insurgency is to eventually gain enough strength to have a regular army strong enough to conquer the ruling authority’s regular army. This is why insurgencies use guerilla warfare and enact a protracted war. They must maintain enough time to gain the strength to fight the government. Batista’s government failed before Castro could create a standing army, but Castro attacked military strongholds and soldiers. Some might point out that insurgents generally only deal with the military, both domestic and foreign, and that is why they do not target civilians. The primary difference is that insurgents’ primary target are combatants as part of their overall strategic initiative. They cannot gain recruits if they continually assault the population they supposedly want to protect from the ruling authority. As mentioned before, one of the immediate objectives is to gain support and membership from the local population. In contrast, a terrorist has an audience and tries to bring attention to their cause and can indiscriminately attack the population. These two forms of violence have different targets because of their different objectives. Insurgents want to take control of the area and control the population; the terrorist wants revenge, renown, and a reaction to her action.
One of the difficulties with this analysis is that people have to determine the difference between a combatant and a non-combatant. The quintessential difference is that a combatant operates on the battlefield with an established uniform and weapon according to international standards. An example that seems to blur the line between combatant and non-combatant is Nidal Malik Hassan who attacked soldiers at Fort Hood. He must be considered a terrorist because the soldiers he attacked were not on the battlefield. Also, his immediate objectives follow that of a terrorist rather than an insurgent. Hassan supposedly believed that the “War on Terror” was a war against Islam and believed Muslims should not be in the military. His motivations appeared to follow revenge for America’s actions in the Middle East. He was not trying to gain followers to fight the military on equal ground. This case shows it is possible to determine whether violence is by an insurgent or a terrorist based on their targets and objectives.
Besides the targets and objectives of an organization, the organizational structure differentiates terrorists and insurgents. Terrorists operate either in cells or as individuals. There are a plethora of examples of individuals acting as “lone wolfs:” Eric Rudolph, Scott Roeder, Timothy McVeigh, Anders Behring Breivik, et al. More often, though, terrorists operate in cells. This is a more modern phenomenon, where in the past terrorists had a hierarchical structure. Terrorist organizations now employ “leaderless networks.” The Earth Liberation Front employed this strategy where they had several cells throughout the country that had no “chain of command” and are merely connected by their radical environmentalism. In comparison, an insurgent organization mirrors itself to a military. Mao Zedong envisioned a clear hierarchy and military structure. He believed that an insurgency need military commanders, political commissioners, officers, headquarters, chief of staffs, and divisions based on areas. There is a clear military structure, but the insurgent differs from a regular army by having mobile forces that can move agilely across the country and attack points of weakness. Terrorists operate in cells and as individuals; insurgents have to operate as a paramilitary organization with specific people in command so that they can achieve success.
Because of the difference between terrorism and insurgency the response by governments, counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, have to be different. Although Bard O’Neill writes that all forms of sub-state violence are types of insurgency, even he explicates the need for divergent responses to dissimilar forms of violence. What he named conspiratorial and urban-warfare is synonymous to terrorism. The proper response for this kind of violence is intelligence gathering and police work rather than military operations. He offers the examples of Northern Ireland and Italy where terrorism decreased after the governments increased disciplined police forces. However, military force is not out of the question. Special operations against terrorists residing in other countries can help eliminate the organizations, as Israel has done several times. When a country engages an insurgency, the state must necessarily use alternate tactics. America could not have just used intelligence and police forces to bring down the Taliban government and fight the subsequent insurgency that occurred. The US had to send thousands of troops along with NATO to successfully fight off the Taliban led insurgents. Because of the varying nature of sub-state violence, understanding that terrorism and insurgency differ allows for governments to develop proper strategy to combat them.
Analysts need to differentiate between insurgents and terrorism because proper analysis leads to successful counterattacks. If one assumes that an insurgent is a terrorist, then they may try to arrest the offender rather than stop what will become a protracted conflict. If one assumes that a terrorist is an insurgent, then they may use military operations where simple intelligence gathering and police work would suffice. However, if one accurately assesses the situation, then the government can develop and implement an appropriate strategy for eliminating the sub-state actor. Governments that fail to understand the difference will implement incorrect tactics and fail to neutralize the threats to their country.