Terrorist Vs Freedom Fighter: a Distinct Difference Between the Two

Virgil pointing out Ephialtes and the other giants (Dante's Inferno) - Gustave Doré

"One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter"

How true is this aphorism?

As everybody knows, there is not one universal definition of terrorism yet; however the ones existing, thus far, universally agree on one fact: terrorist acts chiefly target civilians, and civilian objects, on purpose to achieve political goals.
There is another form of political violence that is often regarded as terrorism (for obvious political reasons): one that primarily targets military objectives and security personnel, to attain political goals. This form of political aggression is called guerrilla attack. 

Bearing the above in mind, it should be easy to conclude that if a political violent element has as its main target civilians, and civilian objects, he should be defined as terrorist (regardless of the motivations and categorisation of the terrorist act); if a political violent individual has as its main target security personnel, military objectives and political leaders (with decision-making power), he can and should be classified as a guerrilla fighter. 
(NB: even though a guerrilla fighter may set its mind on targeting the military and security forces only, he may inadvertently hurt civilians)
A rebel, in his quest to achieve political objectives, has to ask himself one question: do I want to fight for freedom or do I want to serial kill people?
The target selection, according to Max Abrahms (in Why Terrorism Does Not Work), is exactly what tells terrorists and guerrilla combatants apart. 

Guerrilla fighters behave as soldiers, and as such they fight according to the conventions of war; meaning that they will take prisoners (exchange them) and respect the rights of non-combatants (i.e. civilians). 
Terrorists may believe to be soldiers, especially when within a well organised group with different levels of command (similar to a hierarchical military system); however, they do not fight according to the conventions of war (which, according to them, is an advantage over State Actors, who are bound to national and international laws); meaning that when taking prisoners they will torture and, often, execute them. Furthermore the rights of non-combatants will not be respected at all. 

A freedom fighter is usually defined as "One engaged in armed rebellion or resistance against an oppressive government" (source: Dictionary) or "a person engaged in a resistance movement against what they believe to be an oppressive and illegitimate government" (source: Wikipedia).
It is safe to assume, then, that a freedom fighter seeks to free his fellow-citizens from state oppression and/or repression; and that his main problem is the government alone; therefore the most natural decision to make would be to engage in guerrilla warfare and target principally military objects, security forces/personnel and decision-making political leaders. However, when the fighter considers the government his foe but purposely targets civilians, he has turned himself into (what he claims to be fighting against) an oppressor, a suppressor, a mass murderer; and therefore he is not a freedom fighter but a terrorist. 

A freedom fighter (having fought the military and security forces, with as minimum civilian casualties as possible) will have the satisfaction of knowing that he fought for his country, for his people, for liberty (e.g. FRELIMO fighters during the Independence War; and RENAMO fighters during the Civil War, in Mozambique).  
A terrorist may eventually stop assassinating indiscriminately; however, the inconvenient truth is, he will never stop being a terrorist because his deeds cannot be erased, and the blood of the hundreds or thousands (if not more) of people, he killed, will be on him forever (e.g. Yasser Arafat).  

Therefore, I agree with Prof. Boaz Ganor: the adage "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" is false.  
But I'd say it was made true simply to justify convenient political moves and agendas, that in reality represent yet another hurdle in the path towards a consensual definition of terrorism. 

Comments

  1. Good call, Max.
    Max Abrahms in the cited work says:
    "By convention, any group whose strategy includes the intentional targeting of noncombatants is deemed a terrorist organization. This classification scheme may be defensible on normative grounds, but it obscures significant differences in the coercion rates of guerrilla groups and what I call “civilian-centric terrorist groups” (CCTGs).
    Guerrilla groups, by definition, mostly attack military and diplomatic targets, such as military assets, diplomatic personnel, and police forces. CCTGs, on the other hand, primarily attack innocent bystanders and businesses."
    It is important to make this distinction because it is not only true but also to avoid portraying terrorists as heroes in the future like they did with Arafat; the west included.

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    1. Hi Jack :D!

      Long time no see.

      Thank you *bowing*.

      I agree with Max Abrahms' view that target selection is what separates terrorist groups and guerrilla groups.
      You know it and, yet, they keep on doing it...till this present day.

      Jack, thank you so very much for your great input :D.

      Cheers

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  2. I would simply go by common sense. A terrorist is a terrorist and a freedom fighter is a freedom fighter. We have the former calling themselves the latter to no effect whatsoever on the public.

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    1. Hi Rummy :D!

      Ah, my friend...common sense according to whom? There is not no universal common sense, is there?
      Unless we come up with definitions that indicate who is a terrorist and who is not; common sense doesn't do much good. For instance, Al-Qaeda folks, and their supporters, see themselves as freedom fighters (as they are fighting to free the Muslim world of foreigners and purging the world of infidels) yet most of its affiliates are civilian-centric terrorist groups - although Al-Nusra seems to be shifting from that group. Our common sense says they are terrorists, but their supporters' common sense says they are freedom fighters. The same goes for the general Palestinian population who do not even view as terrorism the acts perpetrated by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad etc. So we have to ask, common sense according to whom?

      But you are absolutely right in one thing: the public, the victims of terrorist acts, despite of how we call the perps will always see them as terrorists, due to the fear and terror they cause in them.

      Rummy, thank you so so much for your great comment :D.

      Cheers

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  3. And those who start as guerrilla fighters and then move on to being terrorists or those who mix tactics?

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    1. Hi Anonymous :D!

      Well, they start as guerrilla fighters and then move on to become terrorists.
      Ah, you asked a vital question: what about those who mix tactics? Well, like Max Abrahms suggested, you have to check the balance: how many civilians were killed and how many military/security personnel and political leaders were killed? And then take it from there.
      Pretty complex, eh?

      Anonymous, thank you so much for your great question :D.

      Cheers

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  4. It is an insult to freedom fighters like the FRELIMO soldiers to be in the same list as Yasser Arafat who was a damn terrorist, no matter how we twist the issue. At the end of the day that's what he was. Mozambican freedom fighters didn't target civilians and even fought their war in the bush, but Arafat targeted civilians and brought the war into the cities. In the end he got a peace prize...great.

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    1. Hi Carlitos :D!

      I understand where you are coming from. And I believe you make a good case.
      As for the peace prize: politics.

      Carlitos, thank you ever so much for your fabulous comment :D
      Are you from Mozambique?

      Cheers

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  5. Perhaps I am unrealistic on my concept of a freedom fighter: He must have some concept of freedom, or at least be fighting on behalf of a cause that has a concept of freedom. Fighting against a repressive dictatorship is nice, but if it is only to replace one repression with a different one, then nothing has been gained. The real trick is to convince someone that he is a freedom fighter, when he is not.

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    1. Hi Looney :D!

      Excellent point! Excellent point indeed.
      And many times, the so-called freedom fighters were none of the sort (when they established dictatorship in their nations): Gaddafi, Mubarak, etc etc...

      Looney, thank you so very much for your fabulous input :D.

      Cheers

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  6. When we speak of noncombatants are we talking about civilians only or should we include military personnel (unarmed or off duty)? Cause if we follow your reasoning then the stabbing attack in London, earlier this year, was not a terrorist act but simply a criminal act and against an off duty soldier, even though the attacker did it in the name of Allah. But the US state department, and others, consider it a terrorist attack cause noncombatants include off duty military personnel. How do you comment this?

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    1. Hi Interested Reader :D!

      Non-combatants should include only civilians, but I am aware that (not only the State Department but also) other political bodies include off duty military personnel, security forces etc - for political reasons (that way they have the legitimacy to counter-attack the attackers as they see fit without having to declare a state of war, maybe?).

      You raise a great question: was the stabbing attack, in London this year, a terror attack or not? The UK and most of the Western world viewed it as such; however it was not, in my opinion (and based on the cited papers in this post). Drummer Lee Rigby was a soldier - he was trained, he was in the active; and simply because he is off duty doesn't mean that he had stopped being a soldier serving Her Majesty's government. Until one is discharged, he is always a soldier no matter what.

      I hope I answered your question...

      IR, thank you ever so much for your fantastic input :D.

      Cheers

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  7. Yasser Arafat wasn't a terrorist! He was a resistance fighter who used terrorism as a means to get what he wanted...it's different!

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    1. Hi Celia :D!

      He wasn't? Then why does his target selection tell us otherwise?
      Well, if he used terrorism then he is a terrorist, don't you think so? If he were indeed a resistance fighter he would confront the Israeli Forces only, or decision-making politicians...but no, he decided to target Israeli civilians mainly.

      Celia, thank you so much for your input :D. Always a pleasure.

      Cheers

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  8. Celia will always be Celia...
    Anyway, I agree with Rummuser: we know a terrorist when we see one; and we know a freedom fighter when we see one. But I know that politicians, public figures and damn leftists manipulate the terms according to their own interests. Of course, Arafat was a terrorist and a damn criminal (ask his victims' families) but it was convenient to call him a freedom fighter! I mean, Hamas is on every terrorist list and still many in the West will call them resistence fighters...please!

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    1. Hi Ana :D!

      Indeed.
      But others will say that "your terrorist" is not a terrorist but a freedom fighter and vice-versa. So, perhaps common sense is too subjective a term when discussing terrorist acts?

      I understand what you mean. But that confusion about Hamas is exactly because there lacks an unequivocal definition of terrorism.

      Ana, thank you so much for your great comment :D.

      Cheers

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  9. There is a difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter and all we have to do is admit it once and for all. I agree with Looney though: if a so-called freedom fighter gets power and then is worse than the guy he deposed, what kind of freedom soldier is that? He is not, he is just an opportunist (like most "freedom fighters").
    Terrorism is a serious threat, it is not a joke and when people trivialize the definition of the phenomenon they trivialize the threat.

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    1. Hi Adam :D!

      Good point.

      "Terrorism is a serious threat, it is not a joke and when people trivialize the definition of the phenomenon they trivialize the threat."

      You've nailed it.

      Adam, thank you so much for your outstanding comment :D.

      Cheers

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  10. Thought of the week: the Syrian people may be tired of violence and food disruptions but Islamists are not the answer to their problems. They will never stay away from their private lives; they will impose Shari'a Law and they will tell them how to be Muslims. What they are getting now is candy to sweeten them.

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    1. Hi Joseph :D!

      I understand where you are coming from - humans behave the same wherever they are. The Syrians' behaviour reminds me of the Portuguese who now are saying that things were better under Salazar's dictatorship because the country was rich, there was no debt and deficit, no crimes, etc. Yet they did not have freedom of speech, of assembly etc etc. It's a paradox.

      You are right about the Islamist Groups: they will impose Sharia law, if given the chance. The ball is on the people's court.

      Joseph, thank you ever so much for your outstanding comment to the thought of the week :D.

      Cheers

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  11. The noncombatant term is too broad and subjective. Who is a noncombatant: civilians or off duty soldiers, diplomats, politicians, off duty police forces? To define terrorism we need to agree that the target should be civilians only, that is objective.

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    1. Hi Carl :D!

      My contributing editor said the same thing. I think I will have to review my thoughts on it.
      You guys may be right on this...I will definitely look into it.

      Carl, thank you so much for bringing this detail up. It is of huge importance. You are outstanding :D.

      Cheers

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  12. Olá Max,

    It is extremely important to come up with a definition of terrorism so that we can fight it with more efficacy. Not having a universal definition will only create safe havens for terrorists.
    I think Carl raised an excellent issue: who is noncombatant? It can't be a broad definition either, it has to be specific; otherwise it will be subject to interpretations and political manipulation and abuses.

    Great job, Max.

    Tchau

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    1. Olá Celeste :D!

      "Not having a universal definition will only create safe havens for terrorists."

      Are you talking about extradition agreements?

      Yes, Carl brought a crucial question to the table. I will have to think about it and then let you guys know my conclusions.

      Thanks, love.

      Celeste, thank you so so much for your great comment :D. Always a pleasure.

      Cheers

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  13. Terrorism for all its definition is an act of cowardice implemented by a handful of crazy fanatic fellows who draws on its foot soldiers either out of coercion or some false lame principles and try to motivate them in the name of religion and bask in the false glory once perpetrated.

    But I would want to bring in the other dimension to it i.e. the political one which I would love if you can incorporate in the post. More often than not history has shown us these non-state actors are actually political creations to subvert or weaken an enemy nation where, almost all major nations in some point or the other covertly through their spying agencies utilize the services to weaken another nation and provide the much needed financial support to these fanatic institutions but the irony has been these radicals has one day or the other strike the nations that created them, sometimes sheltered them and breed them, for the creator nations to lament that day.

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    1. Hi Kalyan :D!

      Aha, but they are not crazy; in fact, they are quite rational because they plan, they build strategies, they know exactly what they are doing. But they are fanatics, yes. There is even an interesting article that was sent to me called "Rational Fanatics" (if you wish to read it: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2000/09/01/rational_fanatics).
      They do not coerce their operatives, otherwise it wouldn't be as effective as it seems to be; but they create a bond, a sense of brotherhood, empathy with the cause etc which compels the operatives to do whatever to please the group, God, whatever.

      You have added a brilliant question to the debate. The case you are describing falls into State-Sponsored Terrorism category; nevertheless, the people who carry out the attacks are terrorists at the same if their main target is the civilian population. Working on behalf of a state will not alter this - even more so, because the State uses/creates such groups for deniability purposes (meaning it will never admit its involvement and other nations will often refrain from accusing it of having been involved, out of sheer political convenience).

      I assume, though, that you are going a bit deeper than what I said above; perhaps you are suggesting that States also commit terrorism?

      K, thank you a million times for your outstanding comment :D.

      Cheers

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    2. Thanks for sharing the article. I wanted to hint at the fact that it was the Big Brother who sowed the major seeds of terrorism by creating Laden, the face of modern day terrorism, in its fight against Soviet, a decade or two back.

      Delete
    3. Kalyan,

      You are most welcome.
      I can't argue with you on that one, my brother.

      Cheers

      Delete

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