Terrorist or Insurgent?

Where have all the terrorists gone? Seems like the longer the Global War on Terror continues, the less the western media refer to the other side as terrorists, preferring substitutes such as militants, insurgents, and bombers. This chapter delves into the metamorphosis.

Summary (The Terrorist as a Modern Monster)

This chapter will focus on the controversial debate over what the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” actually mean. What is meant, for instance, when the media or officials tell us we’re threatened by terrorists? Adding to the confusion, other words seem to be used almost interchangeably with terrorist or terror root words. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on, words, such as “insurgent” and “extremist”, are increasingly replacing “terrorists” in the lexicon of Western officials and news media.

But is a terrorist and an insurgent different? If so, how are they different? How about suicide bomber, or militant? These words are also frequently used in reports that have to do with terrorism-like events. Is there a clear consensus on what they mean or exactly to whom they’re referring? To understand the terrorist monster, isn’t it necessary to first understand the words that describe him?

The previous post established that terrorists and pedophiles fit the definition put forth in the first post for modern monsters. Since the goal of this site is to synthesize modern folktales out of all the information and confusion swirling around out there, it’ll also be necessary to try to learn more about who terrorists really are. This will be the subject of a subsequent chapter . What are their stories? What are the forces that have wrought them? Why are they monsters?

Unlike much of the contemporary analysis about terrorists, foreign policy and politics will not be the primary focus of this investigation (though it will most assuredly come up in one form or another). We”ll be more concerned with learning about the role (i.e., the public conception) that has been defined for terrorists and who some of the terrorists are on an individual level.

But first, a word or two about…well…a few words.

United States Definition of Terrorism

According to the U.S. Department of State 1)Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, “Patterns of Global Terrorism”, U.S. Department of State’s Country Reports on Terrorism, April 30th, 2001,
http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/crt/2000/2419.htm (accessed October 6, 2009
), the definition of terrorism contained in Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d) is:

  • “The term ‘terrorism’ means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.
  • The term ‘international terrorism’ means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country.
  • The term ‘terrorist group’ means any group practicing, or that has significant subgroups that practice, international terrorism.”

The obvious question raised in the State Department’s terrorism definition has to do with what one calls violent activities perpetrated by a national (as opposed to subnational) group? The implication seems to be that if a nation-state’s soldiers (i.e., national group) do it, it is not terrorism. No matter how violent. Or how political. Or however noncombatant the targets may be. (Seems like great legal cover if you happen to be affiliated with a national group.)

While we’re touching on it, we may as well ask about state-sponsored terrorism. If a nation-state is by definition national, how could politically motivated violence it supports or perpetrates be described as terrorist? U.S. officials, reporters, and other observers have debated this apparent contradiction in terms at great length. A gray area and source of confusion for many, state-sponsored terrorism has been, in fact, the official U.S. story that ties the Axis of Evil (i.e., nation states that include Iran, Iraq, and North Korea) and terrorists together. The allegation is, of course, that these countries support terrorist activities that are intentionally directed at the U.S. or her interests.

A Slight and Airy Discourse: Insurgent or Terrorist?

It’s also interesting to note that as the war in Iraq has dragged on, many of the terrorists that the U.S. troops were sent to fight have gradually evolved into “insurgents”. In the years since 9/11, the use of the words insurgent and insurgency have increased significantly in news articles published in The New York Times.

At the same time, as Table 2 below indicates, the use of words, such as terror and terrorism have markedly decreased. Yet there is more death and practically the same amount of fear. Somehow we went from a war with terrorists to a multiple wars with insurgents. Why the distinction? Is there really a good basis for this? It is sadly apparent this many years after the 9/11 tragedy that fear, killing, and hunting are just as much in vogue today as they were back then.

[table id=2 /]

Perhaps the reason for the The Times’ distinguishing between terrorist and insurgent, as Dostoevsky once pointed out, is when you organize killing on a large enough scale you automatically get promoted to a more respectable status. Shall we believe that suicide bombings and road-side attacks, violence that not too long ago earned one a terrorist pedigree, have now become so widespread throughout Iraq and Afghanistan that it just makes more sense to refer to the perpetrators as insurgents? Or is it possible that they were insurgents all along and we incorrectly labeled them terrorists? Yet another—more middle-of-the-road—explanation is that terrorists and insurgents can intermingle with one another, plan and carry-out attacks, and yet keep their separate identities. This seems to be the idea that most mainstream politicians are going with nowadays. Yet being called an insurgent at least sounds better than being called a terrorist.

An insurgent is one who, according to Merriam-Webster, participates in a revolt or rises up against an established authority. An insurgent, then, seems to be traveling down the path toward rebel. And rebel is frighteningly close to freedom fighter. But that’s so 1980’s. Almost reminiscent of Sandinistas and communists.

According to the definition above, however, it eventually became impossible to consider Sandinistas terrorists or insurgents because the people they worked for were democratically elected to national office in 1984. Is it possible that one can be called a terrorist one day and legit the next? The possibility of the reverse is, of course, well established.

The important question in all this is who shall the world appoint as arbiter of violence? As you read this post, ask yourselves who should wield the authority to decide between which acts of violence should be allowed and which shouldn’t.

A war on this or war on that implies an element of legitimacy; while acts of terror imply the opposite. Hitler, for instance, was very adept at telling the world how all he was trying to do was protect Germans from vicious neighbors, such as the Poles. Or the Czechs. As respectable as the Polish or Czech defenses may have been in the 1930s, could any knowledgeable observer at the time have ever really believed that the 1,000-year Reich was in any great danger from these small, relatively weak countries? The idea is almost as laughable as the one involving the contemporary state of Israel being existentially threatened by the afflicted, subnational Palestinians.

Both of the examples in the paragraph above illustrate how individuals or nations seek to justify their own violence. Bombs or guns were necessary to defend ourselves and drive back the monstrous threat. Essentially the same argument that the U.S. has used to justify its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (to name a couple of recent ones). This raises the question about what those who are being called terrorists are saying to justify their violence?

It’s an important question to bear in mind as we seek to learn more about who the terrorist monster is and why he seeks to terrify us. The implication that is communicated when you define someone as a monster is that you do not need to ask who they are or what motivates them. They are a butcher, evil-doer, etc. Furthermore, the point these terms make is that we do not need to explore their identities further. As a monster, the word terrorist signifies that a person or thing is an evil force that must be killed or dealt with. End of story.

The following statement from a reader of the Houston Chronicle 2)Jim Newkirk, “Terms of dispute: ‘insurgents’ vs. ‘terrorists’; Houston Chronicle, July 29th, 2005,
http://blogs.chron.com/aboutchron/archives/2005/07/terms_of_disput.html (accessed October 16, 2009
) sums up this sentiment:

“Shame on the Chronicle writers and editors for the continuous, deceitful portrayal of the Islamic Terrorists as, “insurgents”, “rebels” or as simple “terrorists.” Your articles are a disgrace to professional journalism. Although in using the above terms you tell partial facts, you intentionally skew the truth and mislead the readership into believing that these Islamic butchers are nothing more then a small group of oppressed “religious people” who are upset about this or that…”

The Houston Chronicle went on in the same article to explain the difference between insurgents and terrorists:

“An insurgent isn’t necessarily a terrorist. A terrorist isn’t always an insurgent. An insurgent seeks to foment rebellion against the powers that be. They can do so without resorting to terrorism. A terrorist, however seeks to create terror as a weapon.”

Is this word play or a bright line rule? What if an insurgent does use terror to foment rebellion? Does he then become a terrorist? Is a person who uses terror as a weapon, no matter the goal, always a terrorist?

To clarify, the same article went on to state,

“The problem with Iraq is that you have both insurgents and terrorists working separately and together. When somebody assassinates a leader, that’s insurgency. When they blow up a mosque, that’s terrorism.”

What if a leader happened to be in the mosque? Does that mean that two acts of violence took place: terrorism and insurgency?

If one is going to make any sense out of the Houston Chronicle’s statements, there needs to be an acceptance that insurgents and terrorists have different goals. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of semantics and the same person could be billed as terrorist one day and an insurgent the next, depending on the methods he used. This, of course, is absurd.

Let’s assume that the Chronicle does mean that insurgents and terrorists have different intentions. Continuing the cited example, an insurgent is one who wants to overthrow the current power structure whereas a terrorist just wants to create terror. But why do terrorists want to create terror? To end the question here is to operate under the same rule as the one provided in the last post in the 9/11 Summary: terrorists are not rational beings; they are monsters who have been lurking in caves for years gorging themselves on hatred—especially hatred of those who are rich and free. These monsters are capable of harming society at large and intend to exercise their abilities.

This, of course, raises more questions than it answers. It’s pretty easy to understand why insurgents do what they do. But the idea that terrorists are acting primarily for the sake of creating terror out of hatred seems to contradict the State Department’s definition above. This definition states that terrorists are politically motivated and use violence to influence an audience.

This means if a terrorist is creating terror, then the goal of the terror must not be terror itself but the larger goal of influencing an audience for political purposes. Looked at in this light, The Houston Chronicle’s distinction seems somewhat myopic.

We therefore come back to asking why the media, in general, make a distinction between terrorist and insurgent? Perhaps the following example will offer a little more perspective:

In the fictitious town of Waza-Walla, there lives a young man named Abdul. He had six older brothers who were all killed over the years by members of either the state-run army or local police. The government happens to be financially-backed by comparatively wealthy foreign powers. Having lost much of his family this way, Abdul hates both his government and the foreigners who back it. His country has been wracked by warring ethnic factions for many years and the economy is in shambles. Abdul has no hope that he will ever be able to find a decent job or start a family.

Some men whom he never met before, recently approached Abdul and offered to help his family if he agrees to help them. It turns out that the men want him to detonate a road-side bomb. They tell Abdul that the bomb is intended for a military convoy that’ll be traveling close to his town in the near future. Abdul knows the bomb will kill or injure possibly many people, but feels a sense of empowerment to have a chance to avenge his older brothers and help his family.

Weeks later, Abdul gets his chance. He successfully detonates the bomb killing and maiming dozens of soldiers and civilians nearby, but is captured the next day.

Is Abdul a terrorist or an insurgent?

What about if the men who offered to help Abdul’s family were from the al-Qaeda terrorist organization? Or operatives sent by the Iranian government? What if the men were from the CIA? Let’s say that Abdul’s successful detonation was instrumental in helping the CIA to eventually overthrow his government? Is he a terrorist in one situation and an insurgent in the other? Does it matter whether the impulses motivating Abdul are the same in either case?

Does it matter that his target was soldiers? Or that civilians ended up being killed? Or, since the U.S. is involved, can we define this as war and the civilians as collateral damage?

Let’s leave these questions for a moment and turn to another question raised by the State Department’s definition.

Back to the terrorism definition

The other question that the official U.S. terrorism definition raises has to do with the word “political”. One of the conditions necessary in the State Department’s definition of terrorism is that the premeditated acts of violence must be politically motivated.

What exactly is meant by the use of the word politics? It’s not even necessary to turn to the dictionary. If an individual is politically motivated, it’s commonly understood that they’re concerned with how a particular government goes about its job. This may include the various policies and laws that it makes; how it treats its people; whether it applies the laws fairly; whether it communicate openly and honestly, etc.

In essence, the idea of politics points to the control of people within a region whose borders are primarily enforced through military power.

Based on these observations we can state that any violence that is inspired by concerns with how the State controls its people can be described as being politically motivated. The State Department’s definition of terrorism makes it very clear that although the violence is perpetrated against noncombatants (i.e., usually civilians), its real object is the government.

Find this hard to believe? We’ve established that it’s not violence for pecuniary gain or satisfaction of a perverse psychological impulse. If the object is not civilians yet is motivated by political considerations, then the object must be the government. What else is left? In the case of violence against American civilians within their own country, it must be, unless proven otherwise, a safe presumption that the object is the U.S. Government.

The State Department’s definition also states that the violence is “usually intended to influence an audience.” Who, then, is the audience? If it’s politically motivated, the violence will be used to influence either civilians or governments. If it is civilians, it’s likely that the violence will be used to influence them against either their government itself or against specific aspects or policies of that government. If it is the government, then the violence is probably directed at specific policies and actions. In either case, the intent is logical. It seeks to move things in a different direction.

If the preceding is true, then activities that are defined as terrorism, are specifically designed to threaten or change the current governing power structure or status quo. Looked at under this light the words of President George W. Bush after the tragedy on September 11, 2001 may take on a new dimension, 3)“Bush says it is time for action”, CNN.com, November 6, 2001 Posted: 10:01 PM EST (0301 GMT),
http://archives.cnn.com/2001/US/11/06/ret.bush.coalition/index.html (accessed October 14, 2009

“You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.”

Most U.S. citizens have assumed that “us” in this statement referred to “us Americans”. But is this us as in all Americans or us the top 1% richest and most powerful Americans—those who benefit the most from the status quo power structure? Bush’s actions and policy initiatives during his eight years in office made it pretty clear which group of Americans he overwhelmingly supported.

Reconciling Terrorism, Insurgency, and Militancy

West Point, (The United States Military Academy), defines insurgency in an article 4) “Insurgents vs. Guerrillas vs. Terrorists”, The United States Military Academy’s irregular warfare message of the week,
http://www.usma.edu/dmi/iwmsgs/insurgents-vs-guerrillas-vs-terrorists.pdf (accessed October 15, 2009
) published on its web site as,

“an organized resistance movement that uses subversion, sabotage, and armed conflict to achieve its aims. Insurgencies normally seek to overthrow the existing social order and reallocate power within the country.”

It goes on to state that guerrillas are “the “overt military aspect of the insurgency.” Oftentimes the news media are referring to this definition of guerrilla when they describe “militants”, “gunmen”, or “bombers” in reports about armed conflicts. For our purposes, it doesn’t really make sense to distinguish between those who plan attacks from those who carry out attacks. The subsequent discourse will therefore not discuss guerrillas independently of insurgents. There may very well be practical reasons why West Point chooses to do this. But we’re primarily concerned with understanding the nature of insurgency and terrorism as well as their perpetrators. It is their intent and motives that are the subject of our focus.

The same West Point article goes on to differentiate between terrorists and insurgents thusly:

“…each of the five goals of an insurgency—the violent arm of a given resistance movement—centers on attacking regimes. In comparison, the goals of terrorists are not specific to governments but rather focus on broader ideological intentions. Furthermore, we see that terrorists may not even feel the need to target governments. Instead they may choose to attack societies directly in order to achieve a particular endstate. Hence, by definition terrorists are not concerned with regime change, reallocation of power, or challenging existing social orders.”

First of all, it is very difficult to follow the logical thread that takes one from terrorists possibly not feeling the need to target governments or attack societies to “hence…terrorists are not concerned with regime change, reallocation of power, or challenging existing social orders.” The preceding statements do not necessarily lead to this conclusion.

But let’s take the article’s logic at face value. If terrorists, unlike insurgents, are not driven by societal or governmental change, what are they driven by? Are we left yet again with the seething-hatred-in-cave explanation? In a matter of speaking, we are. But this article is interesting because it progresses beyond this and offers some surprising conclusions about al-Qaeda the infamous terrorist network.

The article goes on to state that “terrorists target governments (or societies) to advance ideology.” Marxist or Islamic teachings presumably exemplify this.

How far does this reasoning take us? If someone is motivated to influence a population through the use of terror, isn’t there a practical end that they’re trying to achieve other than merely promulgating their beliefs? If that really is the primary goal, does the use of terror seem like the best way to achieve this? Are terrorists simply trying to frighten everyone into believing what they believe?

One of the interesting things about the West Point article is that almost immediately after distinguishing between terrorists and insurgents it starts to explain how terrorists and insurgents can really be the same people simultaneously:

“Notwithstanding the differences between these irregular warriors, it is conceivable that a terrorist may also simultaneously be an insurgent and a guerrilla. Depending upon the ideology that the terrorist wants to advance, regime change may be a critical component of that effort. Marxist terrorists operating in capitalist or monarchial societies are good examples of ideologically-motivated terrorists who envision regime change as an integral component to their strategy.”

As we delve deeper into the article, we learn that since al-Qaeda’s strategy is focused on removing enemy regimes, this “…marks it as a global insurgency.”

Did anyone inform President George W. Bush? Is it possible after all this time that the “War on Terror” really should have been called the War on Insurgency?

The West Point article also struggles with this when it raises the question:

“But what about terrorism, and the global war against it? We have all witnessed al Qaeda’s terrorist methodologies, so how can it not be a global terrorist organization? One thing that clouds this analysis is that many Islamists do not believe in the separation of church and state, but rather in the synthesis of the two. Thus, regime changes might facilitate advancement per se of a particular ideology.”

The logic is clear: If the goal is to overthrow a regime in order to put a different ideology in place, then the participants are terrorists and not insurgents.

Ponder that. Most Americans were taught in school that George Washington and the rest of the Founding Fathers fought the British Tyrant to establish a government for the people and by the people. Is this not an ideology? Were the Founding Fathers just a bunch of terrorists then?

The West Point article strives to clarify their position.

“If it [al-Qaeda] were purely a terrorist organization, its desire to advance its ideology would go much further, perhaps declaring the intention to convert the entire world to Islam and subjugate all of it beneath the Caliphate. Instead, its goals are noticeably short of that ideological endstate, and we can even see that their operations are particular to regimes as well.”

The Founding Fathers are safe then. Since their aims were confined to the 13 Colonies and didn’t extend to the entire world, they were, at worst, insurgents; not terrorists.

Does West Point really want readers to believe that all terrorists share the common desire to overthrow the power structures of the world in order to establish their ideologies? Yet as long as they confine their ambitions, they won’t be defined as terrorists?

Probably not. Immediately after offering the global intent rule as a factor that identifies terrorists, the article attempts to explain further,

“Perhaps more helpful is to see that al Qaeda’s terrorist operations are limited to tactical applications. In other words, al Qaeda uses terrorism tactically and operationally to advance its global insurgent strategy. Fear, coercion, and intimidation are intended to accomplish tactical goals like the assassination of individual members of the Saudi regime. Zarqawi’s beheadings brew fear and intimidation with the intent to fragment the coalition against him and expel enemies who are more easily bullied. As a result, one might characterize al Qaeda as global or strategic insurgency that tactically and operationally accomplishes its goals using terrorism.”

Presumably striking out at the United States on 9/11 would also be an example of using terrorism to accomplish its insurgent goals. And here, at long last, we come back around to the question that was posed at the beginning of this post:

What is the difference between terrorist and insurgent? For al-Qaeda, the group, who instigated America’s War on Terror, they seem to be really just insurgents who employ terror to achieve their very political goals. Who, then, are the terrorists fighting alongside the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan?

If al-Qaeda is not made up of terrorists, who are in the world is a terrorist?

In the final analysis, terrorist seems to be a powerful word that inspires dread and feelings of profound fear as long as it is accepted at face value. Once you think about it and start asking questions, it seems to exhibit a tendency to slip away.

Yet we must pursue this monster further—even to the far reaches. No matter how deep or dank the cave. We will drag him out and expose the wretched creature to the light of day, kicking and squirming if need be.

References   [ + ]

1. Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, “Patterns of Global Terrorism”, U.S. Department of State’s Country Reports on Terrorism, April 30th, 2001,
http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/crt/2000/2419.htm (accessed October 6, 2009
2. Jim Newkirk, “Terms of dispute: ‘insurgents’ vs. ‘terrorists’; Houston Chronicle, July 29th, 2005,
http://blogs.chron.com/aboutchron/archives/2005/07/terms_of_disput.html (accessed October 16, 2009
3. “Bush says it is time for action”, CNN.com, November 6, 2001 Posted: 10:01 PM EST (0301 GMT),
http://archives.cnn.com/2001/US/11/06/ret.bush.coalition/index.html (accessed October 14, 2009
4. “Insurgents vs. Guerrillas vs. Terrorists”, The United States Military Academy’s irregular warfare message of the week,
http://www.usma.edu/dmi/iwmsgs/insurgents-vs-guerrillas-vs-terrorists.pdf (accessed October 15, 2009

Author: Jesse Roche

An original thinker, Jesse enjoys writing, asking questions, and creating things. Greatly concerned with the deteriorating condition of public dialogue in the U.S., Jesse started ModernFolktales.com in 2006. He posts essays there in his spare time about topics linked to major forces that are impacting society and require more analysis than they typically receive in the mass media. The modern monster is a focus of some of these essays and represents a developing body of thought about its place in American society and the role it serves. Jesse is currently working on a book.

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