Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Terrorism is not a tactic.

This is going to be brief, and entirely unlike the usual format my posts here tend to take – that is, a sort of longer, exploratory essay usually dealing with ethics in some way. Oh and I have no clue about the picture, but it’s silly and I like it.

I’ve been trying to get a better grasp of North American, and particularly US-based, political science scholarship on civil wars, insurgencies, and terrorism, mostly for a project creating a simulation of loyalty shifts during civil wars. Most of my prior reading has been of scholarship that takes a very qualitative, historical, anthropological, and discursive approach to studying these things. I’ve encountered some fantastic pieces of work since I’ve begun this project – such as Stathis Kalyvas’ amazing book on the logic of violence in civil war – but I’ve also noticed a trend, particularly in quantitative or computational research: concepts like terrorism, insurgency, and guerrilla warfare are often defined and arrayed  – coded, to use the lingo – as scalar variants of the same thing.

My withered little King’s-War-Studies-trained heart contracts in anguish and moral despair! My history instructors of degrees past loom in my mind bearing disappointed faces. They have sads. All the sads!

I think that defining terrorism, guerrilla warfare, and insurgency as manifestations of the same thing at three different levels of magnitude deprives these words of most of their depth, richness, and analytical usefulness. Furthermore, while definitions serve particular purposes, and if your model needs a scale of violence and you like the sound of ‘insurgency’ better than ‘nurgleflurf’ as a term for one category on that scale there’s no objective reason why you shouldn’t use it, ignoring the wider and more complex connotations that the words often have and the nuanced relationships between their concepts can confuse or misinform readers.

Here are my definitions.

‘Insurgency’ describes an episode of political contention. An insurgency is a conflict between an incumbent, such as a government, and a contender: the insurgent. The insurgent uses a wide array of methods to subvert, overcome, and ultimately usurp the incumbent’s power. Maybe this is to secede and form a new break-away ethnic state, as occurred in Sri Lanka? Maybe this is to bring about a socialist revolution, as occurred in China? Maybe this is to defeat the socialist revolution, as occurred in Nicaragua? The point is, ‘insurgency’ in no way refers to one particular set of actions or methods. It refers to the relationship between two competing actors and their aspirations.

Military seem to get this. For example, the latest field manual on counterinsurgency produced by the United Kingdom defines insurgency as ‘An organised, violent subversion used to effect or prevent political control, as a challenge to established authority…[using] a mixture of subversion, propaganda, terrorism and armed force to achieve their objectives[.]’ The US military and the CIA use similar definitions. I have some academic writings on this, which are in preparation for an actual reviewed article and which are therefore top-secret – because I’m so afraid of being scooped – and while I find that these practitioner definitions tend to focus a bit overmuch on a certain incarnation of insurgency, I think they’re generally pretty sound.

‘Terrorism’ is a strategy of insurgency. It is a way to connect means to ends. It is not a tactic, as some people suggest. Suicide bombing is a tactic. Spree shooting is a tactic. Laying IEDs or mines is a tactic. Sharpshooting is a tactic. Terrorism is a way to use these kinds of tactics. In particular, it is a way to use violent tactics in order to generate fear within a target audience, thereby influencing their political behaviour along certain lines. This is a very general definition, and covers a huge amount, so why not check out a more refined version complete with citations in an article that I wrote?

Guerrilla warfare‘ generally describes a method of fighting where small bands of fighters launch surprise attacks at weak enemy locations, then retreat before they can be shattered by superior force in a counterattack. It is a method of harassment and attrition. It’s not a strategy, really. It’s more of an umbrella-term for a set of tactics, and guerrilla warfare can be employed in the pursuit of any number of strategies, including terrorism, as it surely requires little imagination to see.

Future peers and colleagues (who surely now find me a smart-a[r]ssed nudnik): I know you like to make models. I too used to play with lego. I’m even doing it now (modeling, that is). I know you like to arrange variables into scales and plot stuff on them. It’s parsimonious and you can do some pretty matrices or graphs.  Who doesn’t like those? But please lets try to retain the power of our terms to categorise stuff that is connected to other stuff in complex, multi-leveled, and non-dichotomous ways.

Rant over. Thanks for your patience.


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