Why the Press Calls Jihadists “Insurgents”

Patrick Belton, commenting of Christopher Hitchens’ frenetic writing schedule, points us to a Slate piece from last Monday that I’d missed.

Why does the New York Times insist on calling jihadists “insurgents”?

When the New York Times scratches its head, get ready for total baldness as you tear out your hair. A doozy classic led the “Week in Review” section on Sunday. Portentously headed “The Mystery of the Insurgency,” the article rubbed its eyes at the sheer lunacy and sadism of the Iraqi car bombers and random murderers. At a time when new mass graves are being filled, and old ones are still being dug up, writer James Bennet practically pleaded with the authors of both to come up with an intelligible (or defensible?) reason for his paper to go on calling them “insurgents.”

I don’t think the New York Times ever referred to those who devastated its hometown’s downtown as “insurgents.” But it does employ this title every day for the gang headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. With pedantic exactitude, and unless anyone should miss the point, this man has named his organization “al-Qaida in Mesopotamia” and sought (and apparently received) Osama Bin Laden’s permission for the franchise. Did al-Qaida show “interest in winning hearts and minds … in building international legitimacy … in articulating a governing program or even a unified ideology,” or any of the other things plaintively mentioned as lacking by Mr. Bennet?

The answer, if we remember our ABC, is yes and no, with yes at least to the third part of the question. The Bin Ladenists did have a sort of “governing program,” expressed in part by their Taliban allies and patrons. This in turn reflected a “unified ideology.” It can be quite easily summarized: the return of the Ottoman Empire under a caliphate and a return to the desert religious purity of the seventh century (not quite the same things, but that’s not our fault). In the meantime, anyway, war to the end against Jews, Hindus, Christians, unbelievers, and Shiites. None of the “experts” quoted in the article appeared to have remembered these essentials of the al-Qaida program, but had they done so, they might not be so astounded at the promiscuous way in which the Iraqi gangsters pump out toxic anti-Semitism, slaughter Nepalese and other Asian guest-workers on video and gloat over the death of Hindus, burn out and blow up the Iraqi Christian minority, kidnap any Westerner who catches their eye, and regularly inflict massacres and bombings on Shiite mosques, funerals, and assemblies.


Ah, but why would the “secular” former Baathists join in such theocratic mayhem? Let me see if I can guess. Leaving aside the formation of another well-named group—the Fedayeen Saddam—to perform state-sponsored jihad before the intervention, how did the Baath Party actually rule? Yes, it’s coming back to me. By putting every Iraqi citizen in daily fear of his or her life, by random and capricious torture and murder, and by cynical divide-and-rule among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. Does this remind you of anything?

Why, yes, it does.

This isn’t purely an issue of media bias or even moral equivalency gone amuck, however. There actually is an insurgency in Iraq. There’s no doubt that non-jihadists and non-Baathists have taken up arms against foreign troops whom they perceive as occupiers. But the lion’s share of the murder and mayhem wreaked by the “insurgency” is from the former regime loyalists and, increasingly, the foreign jihadists, especially al-Zarqawi’s faction. Given that all three elements are killing Americans and undermining our effort to transition to an independent Iraqi democracy, the desire to give their largely uncoordinated efforts a single name is understandable. It is, however, misleading.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Media, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. praktike says:

    Interestingly, it’s the same term used by President Bush and the American military.

  2. Lt bell says:

    perhaps james joyner is dismayed when people
    do not choose to recognize the administrations
    propaganda as the truth-
    would iraq be a little more peaceful if the americans were to leave????
    would the world be a far better place without george bush?????