Is the Taliban a Terrorist Group?

Taliban fighters in Herat in 2001. Via wikimedia.

Guest post by Brian J. Phillips

Taliban fighters in Herat in 2001. Via wikimedia.
Taliban fighters in Herat in 2001. Via wikimedia.

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.

  1. I would suggest that the various groups lumped into the category “terrorist” are better viewed in terms of a continuum of those who use violence to contest the authority of the state, with an increasing frequency and geographic breath of operations, to those who effectively replace the state over some territory. It’s reasonable to think of points along that continuum as representing distinct actors or phases in a group’s evolution; terrorist, insurgent, quasi/de facto state. Transition points become important here. If we accept that groups are defined by their actions – when we say terrorist that is what me mean – then we have to take note of how the scope and character of an actor’s activities change as well as how they affect all people they have contact with. It is after all possible to provide social services and basic governance to one community while pursuing violent attacks on another. I’m not sure that we should start any analysis by privileging any one community’s experience.

    1. . I agree that there needs to be a more definitive rule of thumb upon which the entire global community will be able to understand who is and who is not considered to be a terrorist group. It becomes confusing and then we find ourselves stereotyping and categorizing people whose actions have not warranted them being associated with extremist groups

  2. How can I place  my comment or thought on the blog.I am a student of IR and want to be contributing. Thanks,Jefferson

  3. Brian,

    Please allow for a correction in what is an otherwise great blog post. You are citing an article that I have co-authored with Ronit Berger and Polina Beliakova ( saying that we suggest to “scrap the word terrorism.” We actually do not. We are suggesting that official labeling of these groups as terrorists can have advantages, and therefore we do not call for the abandonment of the tile. What we do argue is that analysis and researchers should think of these groups as insurgencies because it more accurately reflects the full extent of these groups’s activities, among other reasons. In other words: keep calling them terrorists, but examine them as insurgents (hence the title of our article, “Say Terrorist, Think Insurgent.”).

    Here’s the relevant section from the article:
    “Our finding that acts of terrorism constitute only a portion of these groups’ overall activities suggests that the common usage of the term “terrorist groups” to describe these actors is, technically speaking, only partially accurate. Such imprecise labeling could even lead to counterproductive policy choices if, by fixating on only one activity in these actors’ repertoire, counterterrorism scholars and practitioners de-emphasize or ignore other critical activities of these groups.

    While other labels, especially the concept of “insurgent group,” offer a technically more accurate description of these groups’ activities, this article stops short of calling for the abandonment of the term terrorist groups, for three reasons. First, the authors accept the notion that, once a militant group decides to engage in indiscriminate violence against civilians for political ends, it crosses a certain moral threshold that sets it apart from other groups.[5] Secondly, “naming and shaming” such groups for their brutal and indiscriminate acts of violence can serve the important goal of undermining their ability to obtain popular support. Third, the use of the terrorism moniker to describe these groups can abet the curtailing of financial and material support they receive, and therefore help undermine their capacity to inflict harm.

    That said, we believe that concepts drawn from insurgency and counterinsurgency (COIN) theory, and from the study of civil wars, can make significant contributions to the scholarly analysis of terrorism and the groups that utilize this tactic.[6] Closer correspondence and cross-fertilization between terrorism studies, the study of insurgency and counter-insurgency, as well as the literature on civil wars can offer a more lucid and dispassionate conceptualization of these groups; of the full range of their activities; and of the broader context in which they tend to operate. Such an approach, in turn, can improve policies to address the threat posed by these violent non-state actors.

  4. I think the most obvious question that has been over looked is what is terrorism? Was the Irgun a terrorist organization, is using Drones a terrorist act? If you agree with the insurgents they are freedom fighters, If you disagree with them they are terrorists.

    I suspect that it is rarely valuable to declare any group a terrorist organization. People rarely engage in violent conflict without grievances. And the conflict won’t end until the grievance is resolved, or the liquidation of the aggrieved people as a group.

  5. Such a refreshing read. I live in Pakistan and am constantly frustrated by our blunt terminology, which has evolved from characterizing all violence as terrorism to “violence extremism.” But not all violence is motivated by ideology and a lot of it is political, including insurgency.

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