Terrorism Chart

You may have seen this chart making the rounds on the internet recently. It’s been getting a good deal of attention, most of it negative because it’s an oversimplification of a complex problem. But, I don’t think it’s entirely without merit, so I endeavored to improve upon it. What do you think?


The main problem I had with the first chart was that by definition civilians cannot be combatants of any kind, at worst they are criminals. Once a civilian undertakes organized conflict, they are engaging in military or paramilitary activities.

Well, we’ve been over this “define terrorism” debate before; my own opinion is that it is impossible to clearly define, at least in any useful way that can be applied to real-world situations with a high degree of inter-rater reliability.

The problem I think this chart would fall into is that groups on opposing sides of a conflict would differ about whether particular violent actors should be defined as military, paramilitary or civilian; for instance, there is debate about to what extent Hezbollah should be considered an independent force vs. an agent of the Iranian, Syrian, and/or Lebanese governments. Also, many organizations have both violent and nonviolent wings; should someone who runs a soup kitchen for Hamas be considered a civilian or a member of a “paramilitary”? A group that considers itself to be the military force of a sovereign State may be viewed by others as a secessionist paramilitary. (Please note that I am offering these as examples of debates, and am not proposing to derail the thread by actually engaging in these debates!).

Another major problem I see with your chart is that many actions that would almost universally regarded as terrorism (for instance, the actions of Tim McVeigh and the Unabomber) were carried out by individuals or small groups of people that couldn’t reasonably be considered to have a “paramilitary” level of organization.

However, I certainly agree that you have improved upon the original.

Apologies in advance for my long post, but you raise some interesting questions.

Whether the actors themselves object to the classification given them doesn’t really change anything. The real question is what does the consensus of the international community label them, and even more than that what does objective political analysis reveal. Even so, I agree some parties would still not have unanimous agreement as to their status. So, the chart really only applies well to groups that do have a firm categorization. America and China for example, are clearly in possession of a military force.

Whereas Hezbollah as you mentioned has both paramilitary and civilian humanitarian arms. Whether the two can be divided is difficult to say. Can Hezbollah’s armed forces be attacked without also attacking the doctors and schoolteachers employed by them? Likely not, because of the common pool of resources. However, I wonder if a military attacked Hezbollah and killed civilian humanitarian workers would that qualify as a war crime as both charts indicate it would. Personally, I think it’s analogous to the private contractors working in the US military, doing jobs liking cooking for the troops and driving trucks. They are civilians, but their close contact with the military force has to color their categorization to some degree. A doctor paid by Hezbollah to administer vaccines to children is almost certainly aware that the organization he chose to work in also hires combatants. Oddly enough, this question makes me recall the scene in clerks when they debate whether the contractors building the Death Star had it coming when the thing blew up. As for Hezbollah’s independence, I tend to think that while they are likely aided if not sponsored by one or more states, they do have some autonomy and should be regarded as an independent paramilitary organization.

I considered Timothy McVeigh when I made the chart and chose to lump him into the paramilitary category. Clearly he’s not military, as he was discharged from the US Army long before he bombed the federal building. So he is either a civilian or paramilitary. Its unclear whether McVeigh was a so-called “lone bomber” or if he was a member of some radical anti-government organization. If the latter is correct, then I think its okay to consider him paramilitary. But, if he truly was just one deranged individual acting alone the question is less clear. When I looked up the definition of civilian, it read, “A person who does not belong to a particular group or engage in a particular activity.” The second part might fit here. Even if McVeigh didn’t belong to a particular group he did engage in a particular activity, namely his involvement with weapons. He was a regular attendee at gun shows both as a buyer and seller and reportedly was very involved in that community. Now, I’m not trying to say that anyone who is involved in some sort of expo is no longer a civilian. A guy who sells memorabilia at baseball card shows isn’t paramilitary. What makes McVeigh different in my eyes is the nature of his activity. Guns and bombs are the purview generally of militaries and paramilitaries. I am tempted to say the severity of the attack and the political motivations behind it also point towards paramilitary, but I think that would undermine the chart, which makes no distinction regarding the size of an attack or whether it was politically motivated or not.

Two questions I still have are what do we call it when a military attacks a foreign paramilitary? When the US bombs Al Queda is it war? Also, I used the word conflict to describe attacks by one paramilitary against another, but it’s a pretty vague definition. Is there any more precise way to describe it?

Oh, I am the last guy you should be apologizing for long posts to!

But I think that when differences get to the point of armed conflict, there very often is not any consensus of the international community, and it becomes next to impossible to engage in “objective political analysis”, except in the easy cases. A chart like this would only be really useful if it improved agreement on what to call the tough cases.

I also think that defining “anyone who’s into guns and bombs” as a member of a paramilitary is way too broad a definition; it would leave very few violent people in the “civilian criminal” category. I don’t think most people think of street gangs as paramilitaries, for instance, though they are clearly both violent and organized. Although I don’t think there is ever going to be a generally accepted definition of “terrorism”, I think any minimally useful definition absolutely has to include a political motivation, precisely because we need to be able to make that distinction.