Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Terrorist, Militant, Insurgent

The unrest in Iraq has been front page news for months, as it should be. We have seen a series of horrific stories about bombing, beheadings and general mayhem. I have read many of these and I have noticed something interesting. Mainstream news organizations will use the terms militant and insurgent freely when talking about the violence in Iraq. They rarely use the term terrorist. This seems very strange to me and perhaps I do not understand the differences between these terms.

We should look at the definitions of these terms and figure out if the media is using them properly. Thanks to for the definitions.

\Ter"ror*ist\, n. [F. terroriste.] One who governs by terrorism or intimidation; specifically, an agent or partisan of the revolutionary tribunal during the Reign of Terror in France. --Burke.

Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.

adj : characteristic of someone who employs terrorism (especially as a political weapon); "terrorist activity"; "terrorist state" n : a radical who employs terror as a political weapon; usually organizes with other terrorists in small cells; often uses religion as a cover for terrorist activities

Source: WordNet ® 2.0, © 2003 Princeton University

\Mil"i*tant\, a. [L. militans, -antis, p. pr. of militare to be soldier: cf. F. militant. See Militate.] Engaged in warfare; fighting; combating; serving as a soldier. -- Mil\"i*tant*ly, adv.

Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.

adj 1: engaged in war; "belligerent (or warring) nations"; "a fighting war" [syn: belligerent, fighting, war-ridden, warring] 2: showing a fighting disposition without self-seeking; "highly competitive sales representative"; "militant in fighting for better wages for workers"; "his self-assertive and ubiquitous energy" [syn: competitive] n : a militant reformer [syn: activist]

Source: WordNet ® 2.0, © 2003 Princeton University

\In*sur"gent\, a. [L. insurgens, p. pr. of insurgere to rise up; pref. in- in + surgere to rise. See Surge.] Rising in opposition to civil or political authority, or against an established government; insubordinate; rebellious.

Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.

\In*sur"gent\, n. [Cf. F. insurgent.] A person who rises in revolt against civil authority or an established government; one who openly and actively resists the execution of laws; a rebel.

Syn: See Rebel.

Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.

adj : in opposition to a civil authority or government [syn: seditious, subversive] n 1: a person who takes part in an armed rebellion against the constituted authority (especially in the hope of improving conditions) [syn: insurrectionist, freedom fighter, rebel] 2: a member of an irregular armed force that fights a stronger force by sabotage and harassment [syn: guerrilla, guerilla, irregular]

Source: WordNet ® 2.0, © 2003 Princeton University

Wow! That was a lot of information. So we have the dictionary definitions, what are the more common usages of these words – what type of mental image do they inspire? This is how I define these words:

Terrorist – A person or group of people who engages in criminal activity for the purpose of terrorizing a society or community. The activities are primarily, but not limited to, murder, arson, bombings, kidnapping and high-jacking. The purpose of these crimes is to inspire a political change rather than financial gain.

Militant – Militants are guerrilla fighters or military personnel engaged in combat primarily against other military forces. They typically lack the organization of a national military. They are not typically engaged in killing of civilians as their primary targets.

Insurgent – Insurgents are very closely related to militants but they are more specifically engaged in a rebellion. These are people of the same nationality engaged in combat against their government and its representatives.

Some of my definitions match OK with the “official” ones, so how do these match with their usage in news reports?

This story is a headline on CNN today: This story actually covers several events but the main event at the top of the story relates to a car-bombing of an Iraqi National Guard compound that killed 12 Guardsmen. This seems to be an attack by insurgents, but since we do not know who carried out the attack, only the target, we cannot say with certainty that it is in fact insurgents. I would not define this as a terrorist attack because the target was military in nature. In order for this to be an attack by insurgents it must be known if the attackers are Iraqis or foreign fighters.

The next story is an AP article from Fox News that covers the same attack:,2933,134598,00.html Again, the source of the attack is blamed on ‘insurgents” but it is not clear from the story exactly who is doing the attacking.

Both of these articles attempt to link this attack to “insurgents” by changing the focus of the store to the Iraqi Government’s battle against the forces of Al-Sadr, a true insurgent group. Unfortunately neither story can link the attack to Al-Sadr or any other group.

This article from the weekend talks about another beheading in Iraq: In the article the author uses the term ‘terrorist’ to refer to the perpetrators of this crime. This seems to me to be the proper label for these people. Contrast the CNN story with this AP story from Fox News:,2933,134293,00.html The AP story never uses the term ‘terrorist’ and refers to the perpetrators as ‘militants.” I feel this is absolutely incorrect! People who kidnap and murder are not militants and should never be honored as soldiers. They are terrorists and criminals - and should be referred to as such.

This is a small sample and I could go on and on. So what is my point? The point of this is that terrorist, militant and insurgent are not synonyms. Each of these terms refers to a very specific thing and the use of these terms in news stories is very important to understanding what is going on in Iraq. It is not just an exercise in semantics, it has real meaning to the story. When you read a story pay attention to the terms that are used, then ask yourself if the facts in the story support the terms that are used. If the terms seem wrong then you may begin to see the bias of the reporting, or the ignorance of the writer.

1 comment:

The Mad Tech said...

Well said. When you begin to realize that words actually mean things, the bias of the media becomes clear to all.