Words Mean Things: Insurgency

Roger L. Simon is irritated:

I think the use of the term “insurgents” by the media inaccurate and propagandistic in its essence. As far as I know… and correct me if I’m wrong… there has not been one single of these people being anything but fascists, either of the Baathist or Islamist variety. Calling them “insurgents” then cloaks them in the romantic veneer of “freedom fighters.”

Will Collier agrees, noting

Reminds me of the 1970’s and ’80’s, when right-wing thugs were invariably described as “death squads” by the press, while left-wing or Islamic thugs were always “militants” or “rebels” or (in Iran) “students.”

Even Paul Wolfowitz cringes at the word:

By the way, it’s not insurgency. An insurgency implies something that rose up afterwards. This is the same enemy that butchered Iraqis for 35 years, that fought us up until the fall of Baghdad and continues to fight afterwards. It was led by Saddam Hussein up until his capture in December. It’s been led, in part, by his No. 2 or 3, Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, since then. It’s been led by Zarqawi, who was a terrorist working for bin Laden in Afghanistan, who fled to Iraq in 2002. It’s not an insurgency, in the sense of an uprising. It is a continuation of the war by people who never quit.

Phil Carter doesn’t really care what we call the uprising, so long as we defeat it.

National War College professor Bard O’Neill, in his book Insurgency & Terrorism, defines the term thusly:

A struggle between a nonruling group and the ruling authorities in which the nonruling group consciously uses political resources (e.g., organizational expertise, propaganda, and demonstrations) and violence to destroy, reformulate, or sustain the basis of legitimacy of one or more aspects of politics (p. 13).

Dictionary.com simply defines it as

The action or an instance of rebellion; an insurrection.

Rather clearly, we’re fighting an insurgency in Iraq.

Connotatively, “insurgency” is a rather value-neutral term, unlike, say “terrorist.” It doesn’t confer legitimacy on those seeking to overthrow a government to call them insurgents. One can be a facist or Ba’athist and still be an insurgent. And, even if it was comprised entirely of former regime loyalists (which it isn’t, by a long shot) it would still be an insurgency, since it’s out of power and fighting to achieve control of the instruments of state.

Further, terminology isn’t necessarily mutually exclusive. These particular insurgencts are using guerilla warfare and terrorism as part of their campaign. And whether they consider themselves “freedom fighters” is really irrelevant in the labels applied. Terrorism is terrorism, regardless of the merits of one’s goals.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, 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. McGehee says:

    My objection to calling these terrorists “insurgents” is that it does imply that they are indigenous to the scene of the fighting. From what I understand this is largely not the case in Iraq anymore.

  2. Perry The Cynic says:

    Actually, my problem with the word “insurgent” is that it connotes, to me, something organically grown from within the polity of a place. In that sense, disgruntled former Baathists can indeed form an insurgency, but foreign jihadis cannot. By recent accounts, the jihadis are increasingly subsuming the Baathist reactionaries, so that one could say that the insurgency that has been going on for the last year or so is dying down, leaving the field to foreign-sponsored aggressors. (Foreign not in the sense of “foreign country,” but of “not indigenous.”)

    I consider Saudi, Syrian, or Tchechen jihadis to be aggressors (against Iraq as well as the U.S.), and certainly as neither a “rebellion” nor an “insurrection.” Neither, apparently, do most native Iraqis, these days.

    — perry

  3. dc says:

    So some of you don’t want to call those we are fighting in Iraq ‘insurgents’.

    I suppose, for you, since Iraq is now ‘soveriegn’ we no longer ‘occupy’ it? Tell that to our soldiers and their families.

  4. Dave says:

    I dunno, dc. Do we still ‘occupy’ South Korea?

  5. Attila Girl says:

    Lukasiak always adds so much to the discussion.