Sociology Index

Guerrilla Warfare vs. Terrorism

The term “guerrilla warfare” is neutral and has a more positive connotation. The term “terrorism,” has a more negative connotation. Harkabi describes as “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 warfare combatants become regular military forces until victory is attained and one party is defeated. Guerrilla warfare is unconventional and asymmetrical.

It has elements of Conspiracy and Insurgency. Guerrilla warfare can also be called competition between opponents of unequal strength. It is very difficult to define both guerrilla warfare and terrorism. The term terrorism is used interchangeably with other terms, like guerrilla warfare and also insurgency.

Guerrilla warfare can be termed irregular warfare in which a small group of combatants, armed civilians, and irregulars, use tactics used by regular military like ambushes and hit-and-run, to fight a larger military. Sociology of Terrorism covers the subject areas of Guerrilla Warfare and Terrorism.

Paul Wilkinson distinguishes between guerrilla warfare and terrorism 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.

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 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.”