August 7, 2008
Terrorist, Guerrilla, Freedom Fighter: What’s the Difference?
Do terrorists see themselves as terrorists?
No. The French revolutionaries who coined the term "terrorist" in the 1790s thought it had positive connotations, but today, it’s hard to find anyone who wants to be known as a terrorist. Instead, individuals and organizations branded as terrorists tend to prefer calling themselves "freedom fighters," "urban guerrillas," or "holy warriors," among other things. For instance, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal), the mastermind of numerous terrorist attacks in the 1970s and 1980s, described himself in 1994 as a revolutionary and "above all a family man." In seeking to be fair, media organizations sometimes shy away from using "terrorist" and "terrorism" in news reports since all parties involved do not accept the same terms—hence, the old saw that "one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter."
Can terrorism be clearly defined?
Even though most people think they can recognize terrorism when they see it, experts have had difficulty coming up with an ironclad definition. The State Department defines terrorism as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience." In another useful attempt to produce a definition, Paul Pillar, a former deputy chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, argues that there are four key elements of terrorism:
• It is premeditated—planned in advance, rather than an impulsive act of rage.
• It is designed to change the existing political order. It is not merely criminal, like the violence that groups such as the mafia use to get money.
• It is aimed at civilians—not at military targets or combat-ready troops.
• It is carried out by subnational groups—not by the army of a country.
What is the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter?
It’s tough to say, according to experts—largely because they are overlapping categories. Terrorism is a tactic, and "freedom fighting" describes a motivation, so a person or group could be engaged in both at the same time. Experts say whether one calls a particular group "terrorists" or "freedom fighters" often largely depends on whether one thinks the group’s ends justify its violent means—which, in turn, depends on one’s politics. For example, Palestinian suicide bombers are described as terrorists in Israel and the United States, but many Arabs and Muslims and some Europeans view their attacks as a legitimate part of the struggle for Palestinian national liberation.
What is the difference between a terrorist and a guerrilla?
Here again, it’s hard to draw a clear line, experts say. Like terrorists, guerrillas are politically motivated, violent groups that aren’t organized like conventional armies. But unlike terrorists, guerrillas tend to organize in larger groups, seize and hold territory, and send openly armed units to attack opposing military forces.
Another key distinction is terrorists’ deliberate targeting of civilians. Guerrillas typically focus their unconventional warfare on military or government targets. Still, some guerrilla groups use tactics such as kidnapping, assassination, and bombing to frighten civilians as part of their campaigns to overthrow governments or seek power—although guerrillas often use such terrorist tactics early in a rebellion and then move on to other tactics.
Can a group be both guerrilla and terrorist?
Yes, experts say. Some groups could be considered both guerrilla and terrorist, depending on which targets they’re attacking. For instance, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah won significant Western sympathy for its attacks on Israeli troops occupying a self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon, but Hezbollah associates also garnered widespread Western condemnation for their suicide bombings, kidnappings, and hijackings. Colombia’s rebel FARC and ELN movements are known both for guerrilla attacks on government targets and for terrorist operations aimed at civilians, such as bombings, assassinations, and kidnappings.
Can states be terrorists?
Again, it’s a question of definition. The State Department and many leading experts define terrorists as members of subnational groups, not government leaders or states—thereby placing even such dedicated abusers of human rights as Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia beyond the bounds of the epithet "terrorist." These experts often define Milosevic-style atrocities as human rights abuses or war crimes. But some terrorism scholars do include violence perpetrated by governments in their definitions of terrorism, if these assaults involve state violence intentionally aimed at civilians and designed to instill fear or influence public opinion. Also, states can sponsor terrorism by providing sanctuary; weapons; training; or logistical, financial, or diplomatic support to terrorist groups. The State Department lists seven countries as state sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Libya, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria.