Say Terrorist, Think Insurgent: Labeling and Analyzing Contemporary Terrorist Actors

Assaf Moghadam, Ronit Berger, Polina Beliakova


Terrorist groups are commonly understood to be groups that carry out acts of terrorism, and their actions viewed as terrorist campaigns. Yet, recent events are a reminder that the activities of even the most violent terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda or the Islamic State extend beyond the use of terrorist tactics. These actors usually employ classic guerrilla tactics as well, and their overall strategy combines both violent and political means.  Furthermore, these acts of political violence do not merely constitute isolated campaigns of terrorism, but are usually part of a broader conflict such as an insurgency or civil war.  The purpose of the present article is twofold. The first is to offer some empirical evidence in support of our claim that most major contemporary terrorist groups also employ other, non-terrorist, modes of warfare, notably guerrilla tactics. In the second part, we offer our reflections of these findings for theory and policy. Our main recommendation is for governments to adopt an approach that separates the official labeling of these groups from the analysis of their origins, conduct, and threat potential. While official policy statements might continue to label actors involved in terrorism as terrorist groups, we argue that the policy analysis informing these governments' pronouncements and decisions should adopt greater nuance by regarding most of these actors as insurgent groups. Such an approach can help policy analysts adopt and employ a broader array of intellectual tools to understand the complex nature of the threat posed by these groups, and arrive at more adequate, comprehensive, and longer-term solutions to the problems they pose.

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Perspectives on Terrorism is  a journal of the Terrorism Research Initiative and the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies

ISSN  2334-3745 (Online)

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