Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Terrorism is not a tactic, and insurgency is not a strategy.

Let me first explain what I mean by these terms. ‘Tactics’ are situationally embedded forms of instrumental action. To put it more simply, a tactic is a manoeuvre. It is performed in space and in time, involving interactions between actors and their environments (including such things as ‘enemy actors’). ‘Hit and run’, ‘flanking’, ‘sweep the leg’, ‘aim for the heart’, ‘retreat when the enemy is strong’—these are all tactics, because they refer to specific movements that one can engage in.

Strategy, on the other hand, refers to forms of action disembedded from spatial, temporal, or otherwise situational structures of interaction. To put it more simply, a strategy is a kind of interaction that can take many concrete forms, depending on where and when it is employed. ‘Propagandising’, ‘provoking’, ‘deceiving’, ‘outbidding’—these are all strategies, because they are (to quote a famous definition), ways of taking the material means available to us and using them to achieve a given end.

The above definitions of tactics and strategy may be my own, in that I am phrasing them in ways that dovetail well with how I view society, how I view action, and other such Big Matters of Social Ontology. They are not, however, idiosyncratic, and look a lot like the definitions used by other strategic theorists or scholars of war and conflict.

It is pretty easy to see how terrorism is not a tactic, based on the above definition. As has been well demonstrated [1], what we might call ‘terrorism’ can be used in the service of a wide-ranging number of overarching strategies, but itself tends to follow a certain framework [2]: the use of violence before an audience to alienate people from their familiar sources of security, provoke from them a response (be it submission, retaliation, or something else), and gather legitimacy for a particular agenda based on that response. This does not describe any particular set of manoeuvres. You can do this by bombing a restaurant, shooting up a train-station, hijacking an aircraft, or even just threatening to break someone’s legs. The possibilities are endless! What it does describe is a form of interaction whereby concrete resources or behaviours can be used to achieve certain ends. In other words, it describes strategy.

Insurgency is much harder to define. There are some good candidates out there. The UK’s field manual on countering insurgency defines it as follows: ‘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’s own manual, FM 3-24 defines it similarly as ‘[An] organized, protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government, occupying power, or other political authority while increasing insurgent control’. The CIA’s Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency defines it as an attempt ‘[to control] the resources of a country through the use of irregular military forces and illegal political organizations… to weaken government control and legitimacy while increasing insurgent control and legitimacy [and] to control a particular area.’ These definition help give us a sense of what we’re talking about (and countering), but they also show a certain confusion.

The confusion in these definitions is that they seem to switch between describing a specific constellation of strategies (‘subversion, propaganda, terrorism…’) and describing a mode of warfare (‘organised, violent subversion [of an] established authority’). This may require some elaboration. Insurgencies are civil wars, involving an internal, rebellious challenge to an ‘established authority’—usually a state—in an attempt to topple and replace it with something else, or at least alter its form significantly. Defined thusly, the term does not refer to a strategy, but simply to a state of affairs, to an episode of conflict between a government and a challenger. Insurgencies can form around revolutionary aspirations (‘change everything!’) or nationalist ones (‘give us autonomy’), because war itself can be waged for all sorts of ends. Yet the definitions I just quoted go on to identify specific strategies with insurgency, which I think is a mistake.

It is true that insurgencies all seem to involve some similar strategies of subversion. But this does not make insurgency a strategy itself. Rather, it tells us something about the context to most insurgency: namely, that they are struggles against the modern state. The modern state rests upon a set of social conditions that should be familiar to anyone who’s taken a political science course or three: claims to a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence, effective governance, and the general willingness of bureaucrats to keep performing their institutional duties. If you wanted to subvert the state, what strategies would you employ? Hopefully, the answer should be fairly evident: undermine the state’s claimed monopology on legitimate violence, inhibit the state’s ability to govern, and dissuade (through coercion, propagandising, or baser forms of enticement) its functionaries from doing their jobs.

Yet this need not always be the case. An insurgency against something other than a state may involve different strategies, because the bases of other kinds of authority may differ from those of the state. Moreover, a simple survey of the history of insurgency against states itself shows an enormous variety of strategies. On the one hand, we have Mao, whose first major act upon arriving in the mountains of the Jinggangshan, at the head of a ragtag band of revolutionaries, was to declare a new Soviet state based out of five local villages. For Mao, insurgency involves the long-term, labour intensive construction of a counter-state within the territory of the enemy, to be used as a base for building mass support and establishing the kind of population that is ideologically and institutionally ready to accept a new regime. For Mao, insurgency ends in a final ‘conventional’ phase in which armies mass and take all major cities. On the other hand, we have someone like Carlos Marighella, whose ‘urban guerrilla warfare’ involves no attempt to build a base, no massing of armies, and is mainly devoted to provoking the state into hamfistedly alienating its own constituents through excessive counter-terrorism. Or, say, Che Guevara’s Foco theory, according to which all the revolution needs is some inspiring acts of violence to serve as focal points for popular uprising—a similar idea to the notion of ‘Propaganda of the Deed’, which underlay 19th century anarchist terrorism.

So what explains these confusions, these mistaken identifications of terrorism with tactics and insurgency with strategy? In both cases, the problem is the reification or naturalisation of certain historical moments. Well, in the case of the former, the problem may just be a poor understanding of terrorism and its history, without any need to throw in big theoretical concepts. But, especially in the latter, the problem arises when we look at the particular way a kind of situation plays out and say, ‘that’s the only way it could be’. It’s as if we defined ‘war’ as ‘a conflict between uniformed, formally constituted military forces’—surely the problems with that should be apparent? I’m not going to complain about this kind of thing when it shows up in military field manuals, since these are pieces of practical instruction designed to facilitate military success. But if we’re seeking to understand insurgency and terrorism more broadly, without merely seeking to counter them, we should show a bit more conceptual clarity and sophistication.

[1] Kydd, Andrew H., and Barbara F. Walter. 2006. “The Strategies of Terrorism.” International Security 31 (1): 49–79.

[2] Neumann, Peter, and M. L. R. Smith (2005). “Strategic Terrorism: The Framework and Its Fallacies.” Journal of Strategic Studies 28 (4): 571–595.


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