Terrorism and Insurgency, are they One and the Same?

  • By Octavian Manea

There are overlaps, even between jihadists and nationalists as both emerged from a sense of the necessity of violence to produce political change.

In the final part of the Olympia Summer Academy interviews Richard English, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Internationalisation and Engagement at Queen’s University Belfast, talks to Defence Matters about the differences between terrorism and insurgency and explains that "Hamas, the IRA, al-Qaida and other groups have at times been able to deploy violence which might be seen as insurgent or civil war violence.  That does not mean that that violence is not terroristic". In this context he also talk about ISIS and further explains why "there are overlaps, even between jihadists and nationalists". 

This is what he says:

How should we understand the relationship between terrorism and insurgency? Arguably most of the case studies in your book have an insurgent component-Hamas, AQ, PIRA and ETA.

The definitional relationship between terrorism and other forms of violence is inevitably complex.   My own approach, set out initially in my 2009 book Terrorism: How to Respond but adhered to in my 2016 book Does Terrorism Work? is to opt for a wide-angled definition of terrorism, which includes violence carried out by small groups operating at lower than insurgency, guerrilla war etc level, but which also allows for recognition of much deliberately terrorising political violence practices by states. So we need to recognise what a wide category terrorism really is, and then subdivide within that category.  Hamas, the IRA, al-Qaida and other groups have at times been able to deploy violence which might be seen as insurgent or civil war violence.  That does not mean that that violence is not terroristic. But the book Does Terrorism Work? mainly focuses on the smaller-scale activities usually seen as terrorism.

COIN is closely related to CT and, while the scale of operations can be very different, some of the principles involved (the primacy of high-grade intelligence; the need to adopt a long-term approach; the need to address root causes where possible) overlap.

How do you see the relationship between terrorism and nationalism but also between terrorism and religion? The roots of the many terrorist organisations, the narratives they are trying to project are deeply embedded in either nationalist resistance (PIRA and ETA) or a religious worldview like (AQ).

Much significant terrorism arises from nationalist politics. The PLO, Hamas, Irgun, the IRA, ETA, the Chechen rebels, EOKA, and so on through much of history.  And much of that involves religion, certainly in Israel/Palestine, but also in other cases often enough.  I've argued elsewhere (Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Ireland - 2006) that the essence of nationalism lies in a powerful interweaving of the politics of national community, struggle, and power.  Attachment to strong community identity (territory, people, descent, culture, history, ethics, exclusivism), but also a community in struggle, and often in struggle to attain and hold national power.  Much of that can involve religion (culture, history, exclusivism) and the struggle can often be one which nationalists see as necessarily involving terrorism.

Why did PIRA and ETA fail in achieving their strategic objectives? 

I've set this out in great detail in my book Does Terrorism Work?  In essence, for ETA, three things - there was a disjunction between the absolutist demands and politics they sought and the more complex and often diluted politics and attitudes of the actual Basque people; their own violence proved repellant and counter-productive to many; and there seemed better peaceful ways of achieving change.  For the IRA, no amount of pressure on London through violence would change the essential reality that the main opposition to a united Ireland lay in Ireland, especially Northern Ireland, itself and that bombs were not going make British withdrawal therefore feasible.

In both PIRA and the ETA cases they eventually lost the popularity/appeal within their target audiences because the central state changed its approach by providing alternative political paths that satisfied some deep core political grievances that made them popular in the first place. Armed resistance was reconverted in electoral politics. Neutralising through politics the realities that made PIRA and ETA possible seems to be one way. Is this a lesson that should be kept in mind in the fight against ISIS?

Yes: producing effective, consensual, high-functioning states and political regions would undermine ISIS more than most things will do.

In the 1990s, we had a major debate about the nature of the "new wars" that were triggered with the ending of the Cold War. From a historical approach do we really have a "new terrorism"?

I think much that is supposedly new (the religious dimension, the international aspect) only seems new to people who know little of prior terrorisms.

How does a "historical approach" help us understand terrorism, its trends and patterns?

It avoids the solipsism of the present, alerts us to echoes of past experience which enrich our reading of current events, points towards a need for engagement with wide ranges of source, and especially first-hand source. And it emphasises the particularity and uniqueness of each context.

You emphasise that terrorism is about forcing political change. But can we distinguish between radical/revolutionary and limited political change?

Each group has different goals and that must be respected. But there are overlaps, even between jihadists and nationalists.  Both emerged from a sense of the necessity of violence to produce political change, and both had strong roots in the perceived illegitimacy of existing political regimes (the Spanish state for ETA, but the Saudi and other supposedly apostate Muslim regimes for al-Qaida).

Can the PIRA cause be resurrected by Brexit?

I don't think the conditions exist for a renewal of large-scale Irish republican violence. Too many northern nationalists now feel comfortable with the existing political arrangements in Northern Ireland.


Richard English was Wardlaw Professor of Politics in the School of International Relations, and Director of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV), at the University of St Andrews between 2011 and 2016. He is the author of the award-winning studies Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA (2003) and Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Ireland (2006). His most recent book, Does Terrorism Work? A History, was published in 2016 by Oxford University Press.