Choosing the Right Strategy: (Counter)Insurgency and (Counter)Terrorism as Competing Paradigms

Choosing the Right Strategy: (Counter)Insurgency and (Counter)Terrorism as Competing Paradigms

“Distinguishing between terrorism and insurgency is becoming increasingly challenging for policy-makers and military planners. Terrorist organisations cannot be disrupted through counter-insurgency techniques and insurgencies are extremely resilient to counter-terrorism strategies. Counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, although similar in certain respects, identify divergent assumptions and modalities for dealing with terrorism and insurgency.”

by Roberto Colombo

Distinguishing between terrorism and insurgency presents significant challenges that policy-makers and military officials need to face. Often, these threats are so interwoven that policy-makers, unable to separate the two, confront them by implementing similar strategies. However, confusion leads to counterproductive outcomes and, instead of containing and reducing threats, misguided measures have the potential to exacerbate the impact of political violence. Terrorism and insurgency are two distinct models of violent conflict. Therefore, they must not be confronted with one-size-fits-all approaches[1]. Consequently, understanding the difference between counter-terrorism (CT) and counter-insurgency (COIN) is a precondition for effectively engaging and disrupting terrorist organisations and insurgency movements, and this understanding is underpinned by the idea that ‘counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency are [neither] mutually exclusive’ nor interchangeable[2].

The United States Department of Defence (DoD) in 2014 defined terrorism as ‘the unlawful use of violence or threat of violence, often motivated by religious, political, or other ideological beliefs, to instil fear and coerce governments or societies in pursuit of goals that are usually political’[3]. Although terrorism is a long-lasting feature of political violence, counter-terrorism as a stand-alone strategy was developed during the 1970s and gained substantial importance in the post-9/11 era[4][5]. Before the 1970s, the majority of Western military analysts considered the phenomenon of terrorism mainly as one of the many tactics deployed by insurgency movements, therefore, countermeasures against terrorism were incorporated in COIN strategies. Military planners started to consider terrorism and insurgency as two separate threats when terrorist groups throughout the 70s composed of alienated individuals, such as the Italian Red Brigades and the German Red Army Faction, engaged in a season of attacks without achievable aims or trying to obtain popular support[6]. Hence, CT emerged as a strategy specifically designed to isolate and disrupt terrorist organisations that, deprived of the population’s support, could be promptly detected and neutralised. The DoD defines CT as ‘activities and operations taken to neutralize terrorists, their organizations, and networks in order to render them incapable of using violence to instil fear and coerce governments or societies to achieve their goals’[7].

Unlike the majority of terrorist organisations, insurgent groups consider it paramount to gain legitimacy from the greater population by championing deeper issues and grievances within society. Insurgencies, as defined by COIN scholar David Kilcullen, are ‘organised, protracted politico-military struggles designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government, occupying power, or other political authority while increasing insurgent control’[8]. In other words, insurgencies are long-term conflicts that the insurgent party wages with the intention of overthrowing the government to take its place. The Vietcong’s uprising in South Vietnam against the central government in Saigon (1954-1976) and the Taliban’s attempts to overthrow the Afghan Government and obtain its power throughout the last 18 years are famous examples of protracted insurgencies. Because insurgents rely on their links with the local population for securing their survival and advancing their cause, governments that implement counter-terrorism strategies to engage insurgency movements are unlikely to emerge victorious. Consequently, strategies that rely on military operations designed to capture and kill insurgents without addressing the root causes of the insurgency are often counterproductive. This is because insurgents benefit from being deeply interconnected with local communities and, when the government launches large-scale operations, they can rely on the protection from the local population to melt away and ‘go quiet’[9]. It is thus not rare for governments to implement countermeasures that, without causing significant damages to the insurgents, generate civilian casualties, alienate local communities, and indirectly legitimise the insurgents in the eyes of the population. A clear example is given by Russia’s framing of the nationalist rebellion in Chechnya during the 1990s as a terrorist uprising. Moscow’s failure to understand that insurgency, and not terrorism, was the defining character of the two Chechen Wars led to the implementation of counter-terrorism strategies that turned a contained rebellion into a widespread jihadi insurgency. Russia’s brutal hunt for the alleged “terrorists” in Chechnya caused the death of innocent civilians, alienated local communities and created the perfect breeding ground for radicalisation and protracted violence in the region[10]. Therefore, successful COIN efforts, instead of only seeking to kill insurgents and disrupt their networks, are mainly directed at severing the link between insurgents and local communities (population-centric approaches). This is defined by Kilcullen as ‘a competition with the insurgent for the right and ability to win hearts, minds, and acquiescence of the population’[11].

CT and COIN are neither mutually exclusive nor interchangeable. The two are not mutually exclusive because if properly implemented their joint action can turn out to be highly successful in tackling terrorism and insurgency. Nevertheless, the marriage between CT and COIN is profitable only when the government is facing insurgents that adopt terrorism as one of their strategies. Firstly, population-centric COIN approaches sever the link between insurgents and population. Secondly, once insurgents are alienated from the local communities and lack the protection of the greater population, they become highly vulnerable to CT strategies. This was the case in Iraq during the “Surge” of U.S. troops in 2007. The strategic approach adopted by the U.S. in Iraq can be divided into two phases. Firstly, the massive deployment of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers provided security and support to the local communities. The long-term presence of security forces at the local level prevented the insurgents from controlling key areas and shifted the population’s allegiance from the insurgents to the security forces. Once these COIN techniques were proven successful in isolating the insurgents, U.S. forces launched the second phase of the “Surge”. Special Operations Forces (SOFs) efficiently combined counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency tactics, engaging insurgents and neutralising their networks without inflicting large numbers of civilian casualties[12]. Hence, before implementing CT strategies, the government must first win the population’s support. As previously mentioned, adapting the wrong strategies in such contexts not only inhibits the government’s success, but may also spawn backlashes, inadvertently strengthen the insurgents’ grip over local communities, and protract the conflict.

CT and COIN are not interchangeable either. Terrorist organisations cannot be disrupted through COIN techniques and insurgencies are extremely resilient to CT strategies. Consequently, adopting the wrong strategy often strengthens the hostile movement. COIN strategies are mainly directed at reinforcing the government’s legitimacy and addressing the root causes of the population’s grievances while granting secondary emphasis to capturing and killing insurgents. But when it comes to confronting alienated individuals determined to spread fear among the population, COIN efforts are generally ineffective. In these circumstances governments should implement CT strategies that emphasise military and law enforcement techniques. Conversely, CT strategies adopted in insurgency scenarios alienate the population, creating the perfect breeding ground for radicalisation and political violence, indirectly strengthening the insurgency.

Policy-makers and military officials often confuse insurgency for terrorism and vice versa because the two phenomena share many commonalities. As Kilcullen states, ‘terrorism is a component in almost all insurgencies, and insurgent objectives lie behind almost all non state terrorism’[13]. Although CT and COIN are not interchangeable, in certain contexts their joint action significantly improves the government’s ability to confront insurgents that implement terrorism as a tactic. The main difference between CT and COIN is that, while the former focuses on neutralising terrorists and disrupting their networks, the latter is an approach aimed at first marginalising, rather than destroying, the insurgent movement[14].

 [1] Younyoo K., Stephen B. (2013) “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Russia: Contending Paradigms and Current Perspectives,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol 36, No. 11, p. 918.
[2] Ibid., p. 920.
[3] United States Department of Defense (2014) Joint Publication 3-26: Counterterrorism, U.S. Government Printing Office, p. I-5.
[4] Boyle, M. (2010) “Do Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency Go Together?,” International Affairs, Vol. 36, No. 2, p. 342. & Merari, A. (1993) “Terrorism as a Strategy of Insurgency,” Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 5, No. 4, p. 224-238.
[5] See Rinehart, J. (2010) “Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency,” Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 4, No. 5, p. 34-37. for a cohesive summary of the origins and evolution of counterterrorism.
[6] Kilcullen, D. (2010) Counterinsurgency: Oxford University Press, p. 186
[7] United States Department of Defense (2014) Joint Publication 3-26: Counterterrorism, U.S. Government Printing Office, p. I-5.
[8] Kilcullen, Counterinsurgency, p. 1.
[9] Kilcullen, D (2009) The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One: Oxford University Press, p. 32.
[10] Younyoo, Blank, p. 919.
[11] Kilcullen, Counterinsurgency, p. 8.
[12] Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla, p. 115-185.
[13] Kilcullen, Counterinsurgency, p. 184.
[14] Pratt, S. (2010, December 21). What is the difference between counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism?. Retrieved from E-International Relations:, p. 4.

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