Sociology Index

Guerrilla Warfare vs. Terrorism

Books on Sociology of Terrorism, Terrorist Groups, Sociology of Terrorism

Terrorism and guerrilla warfare are alternative designations of the same phenomenon. The term “terrorism,” has a more negative connotation, whereas the term “guerrilla warfare” is neutral and has a more positive connotation.

Harkabi describes “guerrilla war” as a prolonged war of attrition, with progressively increasing violence, blurred limits, a fluid line of contact, emphasizing the human factor. In the course of the war, guerrilla combatants become regular military forces until victory is attained and one party is defeated.

Huntington argues that “guerrilla warfare is a form of warfare by which the strategically weaker side assumes the tactical offensive in selected forms, times and places. Guerrilla warfare is the weapon of the weak.”

Harkabi indicates that “guerrilla activity is best placed on a sequence, ranging from sporadic terrorist attacks not necessarily against military units, up to sustained guerrilla warfare and confrontation with military forces.”

Walter Laqueur writes: “Urban terrorism is not a new stage in guerrilla war, but differs from it in essential respects, and [that] it is also heir to a different tradition.”

According to Ehud Sprinzak: “Guerrilla war is a small war – subject to the same rules that apply to big wars, and on this it differs from terrorism.”

According to David Rapaport: “The traditional distinguishing characteristic of the terrorist was his explicit refusal to accept the conventional moral limits which defined military and guerrilla action.”

Paul Wilkinson distinguishes between terrorism and guerrilla warfare by stressing another aspect–harm to civilians:

Guerrillas may fight with small numbers and often inadequate weaponry, but they can and often do fight according to conventions of war, taking and exchanging prisoners and respecting the rights of non-combatants. Terrorists place no limits on means employed and frequently resort to widespread assassination, the waging of ‘general terror’ upon the indigenous civilian population.

The proposed definition distinguishes terrorism from guerrilla activity according to the intended target of attack. If an attack deliberately targets civilians, then that attack will be considered a terrorist attack, whereas, if it targets military or security personnel then it will be considered a guerrilla attack.