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An insurgency is any kind of armed rebellion against an established authority by a group not recognized as a legitimate belligerent,[1] regardless of the form of violence or the nature of the regime being fought. Some insurgents acquire a reputation as good, freedom-loving heroes, while others are nothing but bandits and terrorists trying to destroy all that is good. Most end up as both, depending on the timing or audience.

One particularly well-known and successful insurgency started in the 1770s in North America.[2]

Many of the most important battles in today's world are fought between legitimate governments and insurgents. For example, the three[3] most[4] powerful[5] governments in the world are all fighting insurgencies, two within their own borders, and one that started insurgencies on their own in someone else's countries. This has made the study of fighting insurgencies a high priority for all major states, and had led to the rock-star status of General David PetraeusWikipedia and Colonel David Kilcullen.

Theory of insurgency[edit]

The best known theorist of insurgency is Mao Zedong, who wrote On Guerrilla War. He laid out the best blueprint ever written for the practical insurgent.[6] Specifically, Mao laid out the importance of winning the "hearts and minds" of the population, a crucial move because the population provides the support and cover for the insurgency.

Mao laid out three "phases" of insurgency:

  1. Political work: Working among the peasantry to win them over, and build a base from which to operate.
  2. Guerrilla warfare: This is where the insurgents fight the state, but in harassing actions or against communications and logistics. The objective is not to win territory, but to weaken the enemy while consolidating one's own power.
  3. Conventional war: Once the enemy is weak enough, and the insurgent has enough control to fight large-scale battles, the insurgent must take control of the ground.

This is not the only theory of insurgency, however. "Focoism" was a popular theory in the 1960s and 70s that focused on the ability of violence to create its own logic and win its own support, bypassing step one. While it seemed to work in Cuba under Che Guevera, it has not enjoyed any success since then.


Many insurgent groups use terrorism as a tactic to weaken the opposing state or to cow the population into submission. This has not produced many tangible victories as of yet, if only because it tends to harden the opponents against any form of reconciliation rather than promote it.[7]

However, many have theorized that terrorism can be an effective tactic for the first phase of an insurgency, as a way of establishing control of a small region and of building support before moving on to stage 2. However, few terrorist groups have put this into practice, and it explicitly violates Mao's precepts for building support.

See also[edit]


  1. An example of a rebellion by a recognized belligerent would be the Confederate States of America. After the Civil War was over, however, the Ku Klux Klan helped to lead an insurgency against northern military rule.
  2. Breen, T. H. (2010). American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People. New York: Macmillan. p. 13. ISBN 9781429932608. Retrieved 2016-10-29. "We have come to regard insurgency as a foreign and unpleasant phenomenon that does not apply to our own experience. The problem [...] is that denial about the popular character of revolutionary resistance serves largely to distort our understanding of the nation's origins. For ordinary Americans confronting the crisis of imperial rule between 1774 and 1776, discussions about insurgency occurred all the time. [...] The men and women who became insurgents did not initially welcome armed confrontation with Great Britain. [...] At some point, however, they [...] accepted violence against the imperial state as a legitimate form of political resistance." 
  3. This is of course the US/NATO fight in Afghanistan and the US occupation of Iraq.
  4. Russia is still fighting in Chechnya.
  5. China is fighting a growing insurgency in Xinjiang.
  6. Though General Giap of North Vietnam could give him a run for his money
  7. A direct connection can be made between the failures of "strategic bombing" as a form of state terror and terrorism in this way.