The recent expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) into Mosul, Tikrit, Tal Afar, and other areas of Iraq has been accompanied by reports of gruesome violence and serves as a stark reminder of the ongoing relevance of terrorism as a tactic. But it also raises a conceptual question: Is ISIS best described as a terrorist group?
If so, it would seem to be an outlier by conventional descriptions of terrorist groups." Bruce Hoffman, perhaps the foremost scholar of terrorism, has noted that terrorists "do not function in the open as armed units, generally do not attempt to seize or hold territory, deliberately avoid engaging enemy military forces in combat, are constrained both numerically and logistically from undertaking concerted mass political mobilization efforts, and exercise no direct control or governance over a populace at either the local or the national level."
The above puzzle raises an even broader question: When does an organization merit the term “terrorist group”? The answer might seem obvious at first: terrorist groups are groups that carry out acts of terrorism. However, what if a group specializes in forms of political violence other than terrorism and only uses terrorism sporadically? This applies not only to groups often referred to as rebel organizations, but also to entities such as al-Qaeda that are widely regarded as terrorist organizations. In a recent article in Foreign Policy, al-Qaeda specialist J.M. Berger noted that al-Qaeda is more akin to a "wide-ranging fighting movement” involved in numerous insurgencies. To that end, it raises funds while mobilizing local, regional, and foreign fighters in a variety of theaters. The movement continues to carry out horrific acts of terrorism, but that effort is "no longer the main line of business."
Berger's point is well taken. From Africa, across the Middle East, and all the way to South Asia, al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and other jihadi groups are busy waging insurgencies aimed mostly at overthrowing local regimes. Without a doubt, their self-described jihad features classic terrorist activities: acts of extra-normal violence against civilians or noncombatants in the service of political ends, designed to create fear and thereby influence a broader audience. Jihadi groups, however, regularly carry out guerrilla operations as well. Guerrilla tactics typically emphasize extended campaigns of assassination, sabotage, and hit-and-run attacks carried out by small and highly mobile paramilitary units. Importantly, they primarily target their enemy's armed forces, police, or support units, as well as general government and economic targets. In other words, in recent years, al-Qaeda Central and its affiliates have not focused exclusively on terrorism, but have instead relied on a combination of tactics that fall squarely within the predominant understanding of both terrorism and guerrilla tactics.
This raises several issues. First, if more notorious and violent groups such as ISIS or al-Qaeda and its associates utilize terrorism as part of a broader array of tactics, then most other "terrorist groups" almost certainly do the same. J.M. Berger's assessment of al-Qaeda as a "wide-ranging fighting movement" should therefore apply to most jihadi or non-jihadi "terrorist groups" writ large. If that is the case, however, then the label "insurgent organization" would constitute a more technically accurate description of the nature of these groups. The U.S. Army/U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual describes insurgency 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.” Theorists of insurgency have long argued that insurgents typically rely on several modes of warfare at once. Although theoretically these modes of warfare do not have to include acts of terrorism—insurgents can rely, for example, on a combination of conventional and guerrilla strategies—they almost always do. Ariel Merari, for instance, observed that "whenever possible, insurgents use concurrently a variety of strategies of struggle. Terrorism, which is the easiest form of insurgency, is practically always one of these modes."
Viewing terrorist groups as insurgent groups should not be seen as an attempt to play down the fact that these groups frequently commit acts of indiscriminate violence. It does, however, help place these acts in a broader context of a more complex reality. Even the most violent groups, using the most despicable tactics, are likely to spend most of their time doing something other than killing civilians—fighting regular troops while subverting their enemies by means of propaganda and other political means.
As the late terrorism scholar Paul Wilkinson noted that "it is possible to engage in acts of terrorism without mounting a full-scale insurgency." Yet, self-standing campaigns of terrorism that are detached from broader conflicts are becoming increasingly rare, and have always been the exception. According to Wilkinson, acts of terrorism have historically been used as "part of a wider repertoire of struggle." Recent research on the interplay between terrorism and civil wars—the dominant type of warfare during the 20th and 21st century—confirms the ongoing relevance of Wilkinson's assessment. According to data assembled and analyzed by Michael Findley and Joseph K. Young, most incidents of terrorism "take place in the geographic regions where civil war is occurring and during the ongoing war." Civil wars are typically coded, among other things, as wars between at least two parties, one of which is the government. The conduct of civil wars is therefore, by definition, marked by insurgency and counterinsurgency, again suggesting a close interrelationship between terrorism and insurgencies. The prevalence of terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other theaters ravaged by civil war and insurgency provides empirical support for this link.
The use of the "terrorist group" label to describe groups that use this tactic as part of a broader spectrum of tactics can assist efforts to address the problem of terrorism. However, the use of this label must not obscure a far more nuanced reality that acknowledges a number of important caveats: First, terrorist groups use, almost without exception, terrorism in conjunction with other tactics, notably guerrilla warfare. Second, terrorist groups are becoming more sophisticated political actors, at times even striving to win over hearts and minds of local populations. Third, terrorism is rarely a self-standing phenomenon. Instead, most terrorism occurs in the context of broader armed conflict, typically an insurgency and/or a civil war.
These conclusions beg for closer intellectual interactions between three rather insular fields of study: terrorism, insurgency, and civil wars. Closer correspondence between these fields can help shed more light onto the political aspects of the campaigns in which terrorism occurs. Recognizing that “terrorist” violence, brutal and wanton as it is, cannot be divorced from these groups' additional activities can assist in the formulations of better policies. Such policies should combine political and military components to address what is in essence a politico-military threat. Finally, viewing terrorism as a phenomenon closely related to insurgencies and civil wars will allow analysts to pool the insights and best practices from fields that have thus far been treated separately. The study of terrorism, insurgency, and civil wars do not only suffer from a disconnect as far as the analysis of their causes are concerned; analyses of how these different phenomena might end are similarly compartmentalized. Insights from the study of the termination of civil wars and insurgencies, for example, are likely to inform future studies of the decline and demise of groups heavily reliant on terrorism, and vice versa.