The Line that Separates Terrorism from Insurgency

counter insurgenciesSometimes it seems the distinction between counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency gets blurred. After all, if the war on terror is global, what’s the difference if it’s being fought over here or, over there? Indeed, the main issue distinguishing these efforts is where the enemy is operating. In terrorism, they are working within your environment. With insurgents, you are fighting them in theirs.

Timelines for withdrawal aside, the Petraeus COIN doctrine spells out neatly the strategies to win a battle that go well beyond firepower to political, diplomatic, psychological, economic and social concerns – a war of hearts, minds and pockets. Alas, with few exceptions, most counter insurgencies fail. Absent brutal broad strokes that decimate a population beyond the insurgents themselves (the U.S. versus native Americans, or vs. the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century), insurgency is a real challenge to counter. How many such campaigns can you count that have succeeded?

Although some would put them under the same wide umbrella, terrorism and insurgency are fundamentally different. While both terrorize, operationally they deal with different considerations and even immediate objectives. Here are a couple of ways they differ:

  • To commit a successful terrorist attack usually takes 1-5 years to plan; to commit a successful insurgent attack could take only hours to plan, even less.
  • Insurgents usually operate in larger, sectarian or tribal groups; terrorists – even if they belong to a large terrorist operation – their operational units are small.
  • Depending on their capabilities, insurgents use military guerilla tactics; terrorists maneuver more like an intelligence operative does: infiltration, recruitment, using covers, etc.

In modern times, and especially against democratic regimes like the U.S. and the West, insurgents find terrorism an attractive means of obtaining their political objectives. The Madrid train bombings in 2004 are a good example of how a terrorist attack succeeded in removing a country from its territory. That would not have occurred if a Spanish soldier(s) had been assassinated in Iraq.

In counter-terrorism, the adversary is the odd man out. In counter-insurgency, it is the target (soldier) that deviates from the norm. In some geographic locations, activities swing between counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. When the military protects its own bases in Afghanistan, it is conducting counter-terrorism. But when that military moves to the streets of Kabul, it is engaging in counter-insurgency. Of course, on the periphery of the base and the outskirts of Kabul, what is being countered is less clear.

1 Comment

  1. general rtd andre beukes south african police on August 17, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    Sir Madam
    Your comments re terrorism /insurgency are confusing and beg some reply.
    Terrorism and insurgency have to be defined and put in law; in the US and all other civilised and stable democracies. Please , we do not have any West v East scenario since 1989 with the change in the USSR.
    “West” can now be shelved.
    Any topic that is “blurred” should be discussed and put into clear definitions; also not rocket science.
    Terrorism is a broad concept including many basic criminal deeds. Murder, assault,assasinations, injuries, damage to property,sabotage, etc , are crimes. The police must address these crimes via investigations, forensics and obtaining evidence and having witnessess to testify in courts of law.
    Terrorists are also insurgents when they infiltrate a country to commit a terror deed ar act.
    The war on terror is purely the choice of words; it does not imply any conventional war like WW1 or WW 2.
    Such wars had reference to thousands of soldiers and air forces and navies doing battle over vast areas.
    We should not “blur” issues on purpose. Policing or Law enforcement are ignored in toto . I have a real problem with this approach and procedure.
    The sooner the focus on the military and the Petraeus COIN doctrine for example shifts to the correct option to activate and employ police members to address terorism and insurgency with the local police, obviously with UN/international logisticaland other support, this threat posed by a few hundred or maybe few thousand terrorists and insurgents cannot be solved even if have hundreds of thousands of military staff in Iraq or Afghanistan; this is a change in mind-set;stop using the word “war” ; people , normal people are anti-war; they are frightened of “war”, they do not want to get involved in any “war”.
    Your reference to a terrorist attack taking 1-5 years;insurgent attacks taking a few hours; larger insurgents groups and small terrorist units; and the third statement re socalled “militar guerilla tactics” and “intelligence operative” actions are, to say the least, very confusing and actually incomprehensible.What basis or stats are used to arrive at such statements?
    Apart from being confused, I am actually very worried about the reckless and costly exercises in the Iraq,Afghanistan and Iran area by US UK coalition forces trying to neutralise a smal, faceless section of these communities via the military. It will never succeed , it has to be policed, plain and simple.
    Until this message is accepted and implimented, more soldiers and citizens of those countries are going to die or maimed or injured! The world must now wake up
    and change the basic approach in practice ,on the ground, at grassroots level.
    Clever doctrines and theories and scenarios supporting the military as senior or only stakeholder or roleplayer are doomed.
    With 30 years practical police counter terrorism /counter insurgency coal-face experience I should know.
    Thank you for your time.
    Lt-gen Andre Beukes (South African Police) rtd

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