The Differences Between the Guerrilla Warfare and Terrorism

The term; guerrilla, has been used to refer “little war” in Spanish. These small, mobilised and revolutionary forces can only withstand the stronger and larger forces through guerrilla warfare. In other words, lightly armed small forces mostly utilise asymmetrical warfare techniques against belligerent state’s conventional army. Guerrillas compose of a certain number of militant groups, acting as a military unit and thus take the name of paramilitary forces or combatants. Guerrilla tactics include; ambush, sabotage, hit and run technique. They often avoid open battle and aim to harass and weaken the enemy’s strength, herewith forcing the enemy to withdraw from the contest. Combatants are educated like soldiers, directed by a commander, wear a distinctive uniform to show that they are guerrillas, and try to get support from the populace by giving the impression that they are fighting for them. To this end, “provocation” is often used to uproot the people against the enemy.

On the other hand, the lexical meaning of “terrorism” comes from Latin linguistic family and means “trembling with fear” or “causing to tremble.” According to the French Petit Robert vocabulary, terror signifies; “a common fear that a group of people create in order to break the resistance of the people”. In fact, there is no original idea or an absolute definition of terrorism. The latter is a cruel act of violence that borrows and hides behind captive thoughts, thus seeking to legitimise itself in the face of targeted people and eventually capture political power.[1] According to Bruce Hoffman; Terrorism is defined “as violent actions carried out by a subnational group or non-state actors, operating with the aim of generating a psychological effect on the society rather than directly targeting determined victims, acting with political purpose and motivational factor”.[2] In short, terrorism mercilessly destroys social values on the pretext of protecting superior values. People, with low social status, display aggressive behaviour patterns and violent acts to earn respect, attract attention and realise themselves. At this point, radical terrorism provides a great opportunity for these unqualified people to gain glory, protect their honour and thus achieve status.

Comparison of the Guerrilla Warfare and Terrorism

Contrary to terrorist groups, guerrillas usually work in open positions as armed units, try to hold and seize land, do not refrain from fighting enemy military force in battle and usually apply pressure to control or dominate territory and population.[3] While the primary concern of guerrillas is enemy’s active military units, terrorists largely are concerned with non-military agents and target mostly civilians. Guerrilla forces principally fight in accordance with the law of war (jus in bello). In this sense, they respect the rights of innocent civilians by refraining from targeting them. Terrorists, on the other hand, do not limit their actions and terrorise civilians by putting fear in people’s hearts and even kill innocent foreigners in the country. In essence, guerrilla warfare is not symbolic but rather devoted to a certain aim by contrast to terrorism where violence is a tool and symbol. In the guerrilla struggle, military personnel and facilities are targeted in line with political goals, but in case of terrorist actions; civilians are targeted intentionally to achieve the political aims. That is, the terrorist action becomes a tool for political purposes.

The Deceit of PKK

Although the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is originally a terrorist organisation and directly assault innocent people, the founding manifesto of PKK states that guerrilla warfare would be carried out together with urban militancy within the scope of the party program. The PKK, on the one hand, focuses on acts of terror to create fear in society, on the contrary, it aims to gain sympathisers and reorganise people. The PKK has continuously voiced that their so-called guerrilla struggle against the state is a kind of national liberation movement conducted on behalf of allegedly oppressed Kurdish people. However, there is a great contradiction between the method and actions they implement and its core argument. In this regard, the number of civilians killed by the PKK between 1984 and 2006 surpassed 7000 deaths, including public officials, teachers and village guards.[4] The PKK has not hesitated to carry out terrorist acts and spread fear on society contrary to the principle of avoiding to target civilians and directly attacking military personnel and facilities to reach the political goals which are the most distinguishing feature of guerrilla warfare. The PKK has carried out acts inconsistent with the guerrilla warfare techniques such as killing, kidnapping and bombing civilians, thus violating the whole law of war. This character of PKK is sufficient for defining them as a terrorist organisation.

Terrorist groups with inadequate funds and human sources started to seek support from the people. Otherwise, they found sustenance through foreign fighters. In the contemporary world, the quality of the armed groups is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Nowadays, terrorists and guerrillas both resort to asymmetric and hybrid warfare techniques, seek public support, wear uniforms and continue to target civilians. There is no significant difference between them. They are rather half-blooded armed brothers.


[1] Mesut Hakkı Caşın, Uluslararası Terörizm, 1.Baskı, Nobel Yayın Dağıtım, Ankara 2008, s. 107.

[2] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, Colombia University Press, New York 2006.

[3] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, Indigo, London 1999, s. 41.

[4] “Sayılarla 1984’ten Bu Yana PKK ile Çatışmalardaki Ölümler”, 140 Journos, https://140journos.com/sayilarla-1984ten-bu-yana-pkk-ile-catismalardaki-olumler-5ce123d214be, (Date Accessed: 08.09.2017).