Guest post by Brian J. Phillips
The White House recently argued that the (Afghan) Taliban is not a terrorist group – it’s an “armed insurgency.” This raises interesting questions.
Is the Taliban a terrorist group? How would we know? As with most questions one might ask an academic, the short answer is “it depends.”
Some experts who have compiled lists of terrorist actors specify that terrorist groups are organizations that significantly or primarily use terrorism. By this standard, the Taliban might be better described as a guerrilla or insurgent group. It often uses non-terrorist tactics such as engaging military forces on the field of battle.
A challenge with this criterion is that one needs to know how much terror a group uses, compared with guerrilla or other tactics. An advantage is that it excludes groups that only rarely use terrorism, because perhaps such a group is not what we think of as a terrorist group.
Some analysts seek to explicitly distinguish terrorist groups from guerrilla outfits, arguing that guerrilla groups usually control territory. The territorial nature of the actor matters more than its actions. (A special section of International Studies Review looked into this in detail.) This line of thinking builds on research arguing that terrorist groups are fundamentally clandestine organizations, small and weak.
According to this logic, because the Taliban controls territory, it makes sense to think of it as a guerrilla or insurgent group – not a terrorist group.
In my own research, I’ve found it helpful to use a broader definition in some contexts, characterizing terrorist groups as subnational political organizations that use terrorism. By my definition, the Taliban is clearly a terrorist group.
This admittedly expansive definition offers the simplicity of classifying any politically motivated group that uses terrorism as a terrorist group. If it uses terrorism, it’s a terrorist group. This is probably an intuitive understanding for many people, as is suggested by the controversy in some circles over the White House’s Taliban comments. It’s also the definition used implicitly or explicitly in other research.
For researchers, a broad definition can be helpful at least as a starting point. In quantitative analysis, for example, scholars can make a first-cut sample with such a definition, and then analyze relevant sub-samples.
There are also arguments to scrap the phrase “terrorist group” altogether. Many organizations use both terrorism and guerrilla warfare, so perhaps it is better to call them all insurgents.
In that case, the Taliban is not a terrorist group. Neither is the Islamic State or al Qaeda.
This approach might not be popular with those that think of terrorism and terrorist as important concepts. However, it offers an advantage of setting aside particular tactics – and the often value-laden term of “terrorist” – and potentially brings together researchers of terrorism and civil conflict to study overlapping phenomena.
Overall, experts have not reached a consensus about what constitutes a terrorist group. Policymakers might not be happy about this. And cable news channels don’t want to hear “it depends on your research question.”
But scholars are working on it. And at least we’re seeing increased use of explicit definitions, and serious debate about which definitions make the most sense.
Correction (2/5/15): The post refers to an article by saying its authors want to “scrap” the term terrorist group. This is incorrect, and I apologize for the mischaracterization. The article to which I was referring, described by Assaf Moghadam (one of the authors) in the comments section, instead suggests that it is helpful to use the insurgency framework to analyze terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. The authors state that the term “terrorist group” is technically only partially accurate for many such groups, but they also argue that the term has value and should not be abandoned.
Brian J. Phillips is a professor at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) in Mexico City. His research focuses on the causes and consequences of sub-national political violence.