TCS Daily

What's an Insurgent? What's a Terrorist?

By Steven L. Taylor - July 1, 2004 12:00 AM

As a student of Latin American politics, the word "insurgency" brings to mind myriad images and groups, from the iconic Ché Guevara and his beret to numerous Marxist guerrilla groups that operated in the region during the Cold War. Setting aside the wrong-headedness of their ideology for a moment, and acknowledging that in many cases extreme and unjustifiable violence was committed in the name of those ideas, I can't help but note the difference between those "insurgents" and what we are seeing operating in Iraq.

The difference is quite stark: even the most violent of Marxist guerrillas in Latin America were at least ostensibly fighting for utopian dreams of social justice. They fought against the oligarchy, they fought for the peasant and the urban laborer and their goals were to create a society in which all could live in peace and equality. At least on paper they sought victory to improve the lives of their fellow citizens.

Now, I will wholly grant that these were dreams of the most fanciful type. However, one could at least see a romantic struggle (as many on Left in United States did see) in these fights. And there were even cases where one could at least understand why the militants in question took up arms against regimes that were far from perfect, and in many cases openly tyrannical.

So while it is ultimately true that the fight to establish socialist utopia was both misguided and likely to result in new tyrannies (e.g., the Castro regime), there was at least a positive goal in the minds of those who fought. They might have killed to achieve their goals, but the killing itself was never the goal.

Contrast that to the black-hooded thugs who decapitated Nicolas Berg and Kim Sun-Il, or to the faceless villains who explode car bombs on the crowded streets of Baghdad with no concern for the death caused to civilians. At least the guerrilla wars of the past mostly (although by no means exclusively) took their fights directly to the state and the military, not to families shopping at the local market.

However, who are the targets and what is the goal of this current batch of "insurgents" in Iraq, and elsewhere in the jihadist movement? First, they target primarily civilians, not the state. Second, their goal is not earthly utopia, but rather a perverse view of the afterlife, which results in a very ugly reality for those unfortunate to be caught in their crosshairs. And last, but not least, they appear not to be driven by romantic ideological views, but twisted theology and a cult of death.

What are these terrorists fight for? Iraqi freedom? That exists and could flourish save for the mad attacks of terrorists. Do they simply seek the removal of the United States as an occupier? Then why are they killing Iraqis?

Indeed, as James Joyner has recently noted, the application of the term "insurgents" to these individuals is suspect. Citing Bard O'Neill's book Insurgency & Terrorism, Joyner points to this definition of "insurgency":

"A struggle between a nonruling group and the ruling authorities in which the nonruling group consciously uses political resources (e.g., organizational expertise, propaganda, and demonstrations) and violence to destroy, reformulate, or sustain the basis of legitimacy of one or more aspects of politics (p. 13)."

Under this definition, it is difficult to define al-Zarqawi's group, or any like it, as anything other than terrorists. Indeed, "terrorist" would be the polite term, with thug and serial murders being more accurate. For one thing, how can a new basis of legitimacy be created by indiscriminant killings of Iraqi civilians and of contractors working to rebuild the infrastructure of the country?

The classic understanding of an insurgency is a situation in which some subset of the overall population seeks to overthrow the existing government due to a severe disagreement that makes other means of settling political disputes untenable. However, the terrorist operating in Iraq are seeking chaos, not revolution, and as such they seek not a better life for Iraqis, or even Muslims writ large. Rather their only earthly goal appears to be death for anyone with whom they do not agree. It is this fact that makes our conflict with these types of groups a war, whether we like it or not.

In comparing the utopian dreams of Marxist rebels to the cult of death that men like al-Zarqawi seem to revel in, I would prefer any day to live in Castro's Cuba than in the dystopia that the jihadists would bring. While hardly the kind of choice I would ever want to make in real life, it is starkly chilling, however, to note the obvious conclusions that one would reach if one were ever confronted with such a decision.

As such I would like to see terms like "militants," "guerrillas" and "insurgents" taken from the mouths of the press and replaced with the appropriate vocabulary. There is nothing here to romanticize, nothing to extol, and no cause to seek neutral language. The appropriate labels therefore ought to be employed.

Steven L. Taylor, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Troy University. He writes daily on politics at


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