‘War is Terrorism with a Bigger Budget.’ A discussion.

Posted on February 10, 2013


Image“Throwing a bomb is bad,

dropping a bomb is good;

Terror, no need to add,

Depends on who’s wearing the hood.”

In order to examine and put this statement to the test it is necessary to focus on the concept of terrorism rather than that of war. This is because of the two concepts, it is the latter that has been more controversial to define at a philosophical level. The difficulty in finding a universal definition for terrorism is not due to an inexplicable nature of it but to the many forms it has taken during history. This essay argues that such difficulty is caused by the distinction that is all too often made by observers between war and terrorism. In order to settle this, it is necessary to deny the ‘state’ the status of the foremost actor on the international stage and to accept that a state of war can exist between a state and a non-state.  Indeed, an argument is developed that finally sees terrorism as just another way to fight a war, coherently to the ratio between the material capabilities that usually characterise states and non-state actors. Firstly, the role of discourse in creating the impression that war and terrorism are incongruent concepts will be discussed and focus will be given to the problem of defining terrorism. Secondly, the core means and ends of war as seen by the theory of Clausewitz will be assessed. Finally, terrorism will be shown to be a tactic that is to be included within the concept of war itself and possibly even central to it.

Finding a universal definition for terrorism is not a straightforward task: terrorism’s moral implications have proven impossible to cast aside by a number of academics and policy-makers. Moreover, according to Mockaitis a great part of the work being put into analysing terrorism is undermined by two ‘mistaken notions’: firstly, that terrorism changes only in magnitude and secondly that al-Qaeda’s  terrorism represents a new phenomenon altogether (Mockaitis 2008:19). Indeed, the work of Law among others draws a chronological history of terrorism showing that terrorism is in fact a tactic which has been employed as means to the end of coercion by states and non-states alike (Law 2009).  Along with Law, the most objective academics have agreed that the definition of terrorism should not imply particular ends, targets or victims. Whittaker has focused on the different definitions of terrorism and shows how different definitions emphasise different historical and cultural contexts in which terrorism is employed. For instance, the FBI’s definition points at the unlawfulness of terrorism and somewhat excludes any moral implication by using the word ‘intimidate’ instead of the more emotionally-charged ‘terror’ or ‘fear’ ; the US Department of Defence, on the other hand uses the word ‘fear’ in its own definition and, arguably, implies a morally wrong action (Whittaker 2003:3).

The reluctance or incapacity to analyse terrorism from without the boundaries of morality is likely to derive from the negative connotations that the word itself has attracted during history. Paul Johnson described terrorism as “intrinsically evil, necessarily evil, and wholly evil” (Whittaker 2003:4). However, Johnson, advisor to Margaret Thatcher, would have probably refrained from describing the Falklands War in the same terms as he has terrorism. And yet what was the war against Argentina if not ‘coercive intimidation’? In other words: ‘leave the Falklands alone, because we have the power (and the will) to strike you in your home’. Hoffman observed that terrorism is a pejorative term and how they choice of calling someone a terrorist, guerrilla or even freedom fighter is entirely subjective to who makes this choice (Hoffman 2006:23). Boaz Ganor, director of the International Policy institute for Counter-Terrorism highlighted the threat that discourse poses to the correct and objective definition of terrorism by pointing out that ‘freedom fighter’ and ‘terrorist’ as concepts are not even mutually contradictory since they “only differ essentially in the fact that terrorists deliberately involve citizens or non-combatants in their attacks” (Smit 2005:127). In other words, a freedom fighter might employ terrorism as a tactic to achieve a goal: an enemy and an ally will not use the same terms to describe this type of non-state actor. It is therefore useful to report Ganor’s argument in its entirety, because it strikes to the core of the discourse problematic:

By characterising terrorism as a mode of operation directed against civilian targets, as opposed to basing the definition on the goals of violence, we refute the slogan that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. This distinction between the target of the attack and its aims shows that the discrepancy between ‘terrorism’ and ‘freedom fighting’ is not a subjective difference reflecting the personal viewpoint of the definer. […] It constitutes an essential difference involving a clear distinction between the perpetrators’ aims and their mode of operation (Smit 2005:128).

However, portraying ‘terrorism’ as merely a discourse-driven concept is dangerous because it can potentially transform terrorism into just another word for war, waged by state and non-state actors. There is one type of violent action that can be defined as terrorist in an objective manner. That is the discriminate targeting of civilians to challenge a government; not as part of an insurgency aimed at toppling such government but merely as an act to intimidate the civilian population and its leaders into accommodating a certain non-state actor’s wish. Howerver, the association between terrorism as a tactic that is employed by states is less clear and will be addressed later in this work. This essay argues that this double standard is due to the fact that state war is more easily justifiable under objective terms.

The reason why it is relatively easy to find a non-moralistic approach to the nature of war lays in the dynamics of discourse: what is an evil war for one state will be a good war for another. It is rather easy for a state to justify wars as ‘defensive’ and ‘just’. After all, it is tricky to avoid war when it is declared on us. Similarly, states could declare war on other states and still claim to be in the right, when such wars’ aim is the alleged preemption of greater evils. Recent political discourse demands that Laqueur and Primoratz among others have acknowledged the role played by discourse in the perception of terrorism and has pointed out how words with different denotations such as ‘terrorist’ and ‘guerrilla’ have been often used to describe the same non-state actors (Laqueur 2003:232; Primoratz 2004:114). The most obvious example is the political situation in Palestine, where the saying “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” fits a situation where the Israeli state and its supporters will portray Hamas’ hostile activities as ‘terrorist’ as opposed to the Arab states which will be inclined to invert the roles. Moreover, expanding Primoratz’s argument that states attract legitimacy (Primoratz 2004:114), this paper argues that states, necessarily bound to a neorealist discourse, agree to give legitimacy to a violent non-state activity only when such activity is carried out in the interest of such states.

The statement discussed in this essay that war is terrorism with a bigger budget is of a universalistic nature. For Martha Crenshaw, terrorism must be transformed into a useful analytical tool, rather than a ‘polemical tool’ (Whittaker 2004:7). For the purpose of this essay, Crenshaw’s wish is realised and the analytical tool is used to assert whether terrorism as a tactic is intrinsic to war as a concept or it is only a tactic that can be used at times to achieve a greater strategic goal. Laqueur stated that “terrorism is violence, but not every form of violence is terrorism” (Laqueur 1999:8). Whilst we can subscribe to the first part of this statement without further investigation, provided that we include the threat of violence as a form of violence itself, the second part is worth analysing in greater depth. Indeed, in order to claim that war is in fact “terrorism with a bigger budget” one would also have to think that every form of violence is terrorism. Here, discourse again plays a vital role in distinguishing war and terrorism.

Fotion agreed with the discourse thesis and wrote that since states became the centre of international politics in the modern world they worked so that only wars started by the leaders of states would be considered just. He shows how, within conventional warfare, the targeting (by states) of civilians who contribute to the enemy’s war effort is sometimes unofficially considered legitimate (Fotion 2005:30). In the era of total war especially, the lines which define a combatant and a non-combatant are very shady indeed. The bombing of railways, railway hubs, ports, and factories was normal practice in a war like the Second World War. Equally, in post-Cold War conflicts TV and radio stations have become an appreciated target while they are not normally manned by military personnel. Similarly, Ceulmans recognized that non-state combatants, be they terrorists or guerrillas, are never officially combatants but contribute to making the difference between civilians and combatants a confused and confusing one (Ceulmans 2005:26-27). The targeting of civilians then is not an entirely reliable measure to assess whether a certain actor is committing terrorism within the context of a total war, of which civilian morale is a vital element.

Furthermore, it is arguable that terrorism and war cannot even be compared. Terrorism is a tactic to be located within war, as a concept. In a purely post-WW2 sense of the term, when non-state actors resort to terrorism they don’t do so because it is an ideology they subscribe to, as pointed out by Law, nor is it because of irrational thinking by its perpetrator. Rather, Law argues that terrorism is “part of a process of rational and conscious decision-making within particular contexts” (Law 2009:3). Law here is referring to non-state actors who employ terrorist tactics and helps stir this essay straight to the point.

The ‘particular contexts’ introduced above are constituted by the difference in budget that exists between a state and a non-state actor. This budget is nevertheless not to be understood in merely pecuniary terms, but in broader terms which embrace a number of elements. Firstly, the lack of legitimacy that non-state actors suffer at the hands of the state they seek to challenge causes the non-state actor to be denied the legitimate purchase and use of arms and makes it difficult for such group to raise funds to come by the aforementioned arms. Secondly, terrorist groups will always lack the manpower to be able to oppose states while using the same open warfare tactics that state vs. state wars involve. Terrorist tactics allow actors to make up for certain material deficiencies. In the case of terrorist groups as intended by the typical western perspective the deliberate targeting of civilians is a greatly effective weapon against a state in a situation of asymmetrical conflict.

Laqueur has argued that terrorism has recently become the prima ratio of small groups who want to “impose their extreme views on a dissenting group” (Laqueur 2003:235).  Laqueur’s rather universalistic statement implies that small groups would resort to terrorism to impose their extreme views without even considering viable, non-terroristic, options. As worded by Laqueur, such an action could arguably be considered irrational. Yet if one takes into consideration the lack of manpower and material capabilities endured by the average small non-state group when compared to the average state it is hard to think that they could impose their ‘extreme views’ to a ‘dissenting majority’ through peaceful participation to the legal political process. Hence, although terrorism for such groups is undeniably the first consideration (prima ratio) it is so because there is no other rational way to do it. It is thus appropriate to use the expression ‘sola ratio’: the only way. Such reasoning, of course, requires that all the meanings attached to the word ‘rational’ which connote ‘good’ as opposed to ‘evil’ be ignored. Let us remember that the person that resorts to terrorism does so because of a sense of impotence against its more powerful enemy. It is rational for a terrorist seeking the liberation of an imprisoned comrade to kidnap hostages and threaten their life in exchange for the liberation of said comrade. Instead, it would be irrational in most cases for a small non-state group to attempt a full blown assault on a governmental prison to achieve the same aim.

Of course, although modern political discourse has shifted the focus of terrorism away from states and directly to non-state actors, it isn’t only the latters that use terrorist tactics to achieve their goals. States have employed terrorism against enemy populations as well as against their own. The most recurrent examples are also the most obvious ones: the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945, the nuclear bombing of Japanese cities and the terrorist totalitarian governments of post-WW1 Europe. As with other terrorisms, these greatly differ from each other as they share a tactic (terrorism); yet the aims differ. For instance, Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany needed terror to consolidate and conserve their power over their countries. The Allied bombing of Axis cities throughout the war consisted of bombing both industrial centres and ports to thwart the Axis’ war effort and crush the civilians’ morale. The bombing of Dresden in particular can satisfy a large variety of definitions for terrorism. It involves the discriminate targeting of civilians and the aim of was to terrorise German people into rejecting Nazi rule. From a strictly moral point of view, the ultima ratio principle standard does not apply here, as the war was practically won in Europe and the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima was necessary to fulfil the goal of unconditional surrender that the US government was seeking. In both cases the survival of the Allies was no more at risk; yet terrorist tactics were still used. But the rational thinking behind the decisions behind these events demanded that the war should end as soon as possible, in order to avoid further casualties: a rational choice.

Terrorist government in the aforementioned totalitarian regimes shows that although terrorism is a widely used tactic within symmetrical and asymmetrical warfare, not all terrorism is war; that kind of terrorism is employed to impose policies that would not be accepted by citizens without the use of psychological and physical violence (or the threat of them). It is possible to argue that totalitarian terrorist coercion on a state’s population is not necessarily war. We can claim that a conflict is war when both of the opposing groups are actually opposed (for the most part) to each other; in a totalitarian state not everyone will be in conflict with the government. One can thus say that only the groups which chose to oppose to totalitarian coercion will be at war with the state. Other fringes of the population will accept the government’s rule and will be at peace with it.  For this reason, it is hard to justify that totalitarian terrorism is a form of war in absolute terms. Furthermore, not only then do states use terrorism as a tactic, but they can do it as a result of rational thinking as well as non-state actors. As a result, we can also assert that the targeting of civilians -intrinsic to the most widely accepted definition of terrorism, is discriminate and rational. States are as likely as non-state actors to resort to terrorism when conventional war tactics are not a rational option.

Now that the role of the realist discourse has on the perceived legitimacy and in explaining how coercive intimidation is seen depending on who perpetrates it and by which means it is necessary this essay will discuss on whether terrorism as a tactic of war, rather than an evil ideology typical of non-state insurgent groups, is to be considered intrinsic to war itself. Igor Primoratz concluded that “terror is meant to cause others to do things they would not otherwise do”. To him, terrorism is in essence ‘coercive intimidation’ (Primoratz 2004:16). Similarly, war is, first and foremost, an act of coercion. Clausewitz saw it as “an act of violence intended to compel [an] opponent to fulfil our will” (Clausewitz 2010:21). Whether we fight a defensive or offensive war, the aim is the same: to coerce the opponent into accepting our terms.

This essay has previously made the claim that both war and terrorism are, at their roots, instruments of coercive intimidation. However, if one were to follow up on Primoratz’s and Clausewitz’s deconstruction of the concepts of terrorism and war respectively, war and terrorism would be essentially the same thing. Yet, this essay argues that the comparison cannot be made. Here, the argument is put forward that terrorism is a rationally selected coercive tactic. In the words of Hoffman, terrorism is “ineluctably about power: the pursuit of power, the acquisition of power, and the use of power to achieve […] change” (Hoffman 2006:2-3). Yet, war is not intrinsically terroristic in nature. If one had to draw a definition of ‘terrorism’ that would satisfy to some extent all of the definitions gathered by Whittaker (2003) it would be the same as Primoratz’s ‘coercive intimidation’. We have seen how that definition would imply a total congruence with what war is considered to be. That does certainly pose a problem as it has been outlined how not all terrorism is war and war is only terrorism when civilians are deliberately targeted to the end of coercion.

In conclusion, terrorism is a difficult concept to pin down. The emotional charge that it carries makes it so that even the word itself is an instrument at the mercy of political discourse. States often use the word ‘terrorist’ as a pejorative term to describe their non-state rivals because they are the ‘doorkeepers’ of political legitimacy and are bound to a realist view of the international system. Yet, terrorism has been shown to be merely a tactic that is used rationally by states and non-state actors alike in peace as well as in war. It was argued in this paper that non-state terrorism is war with a smaller budged or rather, small non-state groups that want to pose a threat to states have to resort to terrorist tactics in order to make up for all deficiencies that a small budget implies. States can engage in terrorist tactics within war, when they are considered to offer a quicker and easier way to victory. Terrorist totalitarian government, it has been concluded, does not generally imply a state of civil war. Finally, war could and at the same time could not be considered to be terrorism with a bigger budget: two different conclusions can spring from two different core assumptions on the nature of terrorism: firstly, one could chose to subscribe to the core assumption that terrorism, just like war, is nothing but ‘coercive intimidation’ and decide that the difference between the two only lays within discourse dynamics but not in essence. Secondly, one could opt for the assumption that although terrorism is indeed a form of ‘coercive intimidation’, the deliberate and almost exclusive targeting of civilians sets it aside from conventional war, where civilians are sometimes deliberately targeted -within a broader context dominated by military targets.


Ceulmans, Carl (2005) ‘War Against Terrorism: some ethical considerations from the just war perspective’ in Smit, Wim (ed) ‘Just War and Terrorism’, Leuven, Peeters.

Clausewitz, Carl, Von (2010) ‘On War’, Bottom of the Hill Publishing.

Fotion, Nick (2005) ‘Applying Just War Theories to Wars Involving Terrorism’, in Smit, Wim (ed) ‘Just War and Terrorism’, Leuven, Peeters.

Hoffman, Bruce (2006) ‘Inside Terrorism’, New York, Columbia University Press.

Laqueur, Walter (1999) ‘The New Terrorism’, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Laqueur, Walter (2003) ‘No End to War: terrorism in the twenty-first century’, New York, the Continuum International Publishing Group.

Law, D., Randall (2009) ‘Terrorism: a History’, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Primoratz, Igor (2004) ‘What is Terrorism’ in Primoratz, I (ed.) ‘Terrorism: the Philosophical Issues’, Basingstoke, Palgrave McMillan.

Smit, Wim (2005) ‘Beyond Paralysing Fear and Blind Violence’ in Smit, Wim (ed) ‘Just War and Terrorism’, Leuven, Peeters.

Whittaker, J., David (2004) ‘Terrorists and Terrorism in the contemporary world’, London, Routledge.

Whittaker, J., David (2007) ‘The Terrorism Reader’, Oxon, Routledge.