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Distinguishing Terrorism From Guerrilla Warfare
By Allen Finn March 10, 2004

An underdog group of self- proclaimed freedom fighters launches a surprise attack against a more powerful or more numerous enemy. An example of terrorism or tactical guerrilla warfare?

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines a guerrilla fighter as “a person taking part in an irregular war waged by small bands operating independently, often against a stronger, more organized force, with surprise attacks,” whereas terrorism is “the systematic employment of violence and intimidation to coerce a government or community ... into acceding to specific political demands.”

The history of guerrilla warfare as an effective tactic for defeating larger enemies dates back most prominently to the Roman Empire, as pillaging and banditry by barbarians ate away at frontier resources. There were many reasons for the decline of Roman power across its broad sphere of power, guerrilla attrition being only one factor, but the acts of barbarians, such as the Germanic and English warriors after 43 A.D., halted the Roman expansion and occupation in certain regions.

Another notable case of the origins of guerrilla tactics is the Old Testament example of the Maccabees, a story of Jewish freedom fighters not told in their own holy book, the Torah. In the second century B.C., the Maccabees defeated their Greek and Syrian oppressors and retook Jerusalem by deliberately resorting to guerrilla actions to compensate for their relatively small number of fighters. This 13-year struggle led to an important part of the Jewish tradition; after re-consecrating the temple in Jerusalem, the Maccabees witnessed a miracle that kept their oil lamp lit for eight days, far longer than the fuel should have allowed. Thus the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah arose.

Leo Tolstoy, in his tour de force War and Peace, discussed guerrilla tactics from his experiences in Chechnya and the accounts of 1812. “One of the most tangible and advantageous departures from the so-called rules of warfare is the action of scattered groups against a body of men obliged to operate in a dense mass,” he wrote. “This sort of independent action is always seen in wars that assume a national character.”

Mao Zedong, in his 1937 treatise “On Guerilla Warfare”, defined guerrilla attacks as ones in which small bands struck their enemy by surprise, inflicted a maximum amount of damage in the shortest possible time and retreated in a fast and well-planned fashion so as to repeat such strikes.

In many ways, guerrilla warfare has not changed too much since the days of the Old Testament and the Roman Empire. In contemporary Chechnya, attacks that generally fit Mao’s description of guerrilla warfare have been waged often by Chechen rebels against the Russian military. However, observing the modern Chechen conflict as a whole, both within and beyond the territory itself, one may find difficulty in distinguishing clearly between guerrilla warfare and acts of terrorism. The line which distinguishes the two concepts may become blurred.

At times, Chechen groups have resorted to both guerrilla actions against the occupying Russian state and acts of indiscriminate terrorism against the civilians of non-Chechen Russia. In an example of the first case, an explosives-laden truck killed 40 people at a government building in northern Chechnya in May of 2003. In an example of the second, Chechen terrorists took hundreds of hostages at a packed Moscow theatre in October of 2002. Around 130 hostages from seven different countries were killed, as were 41 terrorists.

Attacks such as the hostage massacre in Moscow or the destruction of the World Trade Center are direct acts of terrorism. These acts are not meant to reduce the military force of an enemy, but rather to cause fear among civilians and promote the ideology behind the attack. However, attacks such as the damaging of the Pentagon by hijacking a civilian airline and the bombing of the Russian government complex in Chechnya meld acts of war with acts of terrorism because they combine terrorism with the conduct of guerrilla warfare.

Turning back to Mao Zedong, one may see a major difference between what may be referred to as ‘guerrillaism,’ and textbook terrorism or guerrilla warfare. Guerrillaism combines the essence of guerrilla warfare and terrorism because it involves both quick grassroots violent attacks and a broader and coercive political and military agenda.

Mao stipulated that guerrilla fighters had “no reason to consider guerrilla warfare separately from national policy.” This eschews the concept that physical attacks are meant as an extension beyond national defense. Also, one of the main components in a guerrilla strike is a quick retreat and repetition of the strike—a terrorist or guerrillaist strike is incompatible with this. Often a terrorist and guerrillaist will be willing to sacrifice his or her life if it will directly damage the enemy.

Guerrillaism is a new breed of wartime terrorism that operates under the guise of an ancient and effective technique of war. It assumes neither Tolstoy’s “nation character” nor Mao’s “national policy.” At any rate, the line that distinguishes traditional guerrilla warfare and acts of terrorism is increasingly blurred. Ultimately, the word one chooses to describe an event has more to do with one’s own political views than with anything else.

—With files from the Associated Press and www.marxists.org

Copyright © 2004 by Allen Finn

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