Civil War and Terrorism

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The causes of civil war coincide and contrast with the causes of terrorism in a few fundamental ways. The effects of both civil war and terrorism are prevalent and often wide spread because they are rarely contained within the geographical area in which they begin. Neighboring states and other cultural populations are also affected by the results of terrorism and civil wars. For example, The Irish Republican Army was a group of armed actors in a civil war against Great Britain. With the goal of achieving Irish independence, the IRA employed terrorist actions toward civilians. Many times, the same strategies are used for civil wars and acts of terrorism. However, there are two key differences between groups engaged in civil wars and those involved in terrorist groups. Civil wars are between organized groups who aim to change the government in a profound way. Terrorist groups aim to cause fear and terror among the civilian population. Another key difference between groups that engage in terrorism versus civil wars, is that terrorism groups are much smaller. They are incapable of executing an organized civil war like those in rebel groups.

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To understand the causes of civil war and terrorism one must first understand what those causes are. A civil war is between armed participants who face a conflict within the same state. Civil wars are typically between a government and a rebel group within the state. Somalia has no central government and as a result that country has many groups that face ongoing conflict. To be considered a civil war there must be at least 1,000 battle-related deaths, and those deaths must be endured by all sides. Civil wars have many wide-ranging effects. Civil wars can create large groups of refugees that can burden other states. Civil wars also increase widespread crimes against humanity. The civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo led to millions of deaths as well as a horrendous amount of rape and other human atrocities.

In an attempt to end this humanitarian crisis, 20,000 United Nations peacekeepers were sent out. This civil war is a profound example of how civil wars can affect others outside a single state, spilling out of the nations borders and effecting other countries. On the other hand, terrorism is the act of violence or the threat of violence against civilians in order to achieve a political goal. The terrorist goal is to achieve a political aim by way of fear, whereas the goal of rebel forces in a civil war is to defeat the armed forces of the opposing force. The terrorist goal is to attack a targeted civilian population in order to force the acquiescence of a political demand. Without this demand, a terrorist attack would be nothing more than an act of violent criminality. Almost all terrorist attacks take place domestically, rarely crossing national borders.

Terrorism and civil wars are sometimes similar in the sense that rebel groups often attack civilians. Both can occur when there is a nonstate actor that has interests that bring them into conflict. The underlying conditions that give rise to a civil war are also similar to those of terrorism. The first cause of a civil war occurs when there is a conflict of interest within the state. The second cause is grievances which can lead to war when certain policies discriminate against members of an interest group. Examples of grievances which could lead to war are differing values between cultural groups, blocking access to jobs and upward mobility, or the denial of services.

The third cause is greed. Greed is a desire to control more of the countrys assets or wealth. This often leads to war because groups want more or better access to economic resources such as shares of oil and minerals. Groups also want privileged access to jobs and governmental power which they believe they can achieve through civil war and the eventual armed overthrow of a government. Almost all civil wars are fueled by grievances and greed. Even though terrorism is fueled by similar conditions, there are some differences. One of the goals terrorists try to execute is the overthrow of the government or the annihilation of an opposing group. Since the 1980s, The Shinning Path is a terrorist group that has operated in Peru. They have sought to destabilize the Peruvian government and start a communist revolution. A similar goal often attempted by terrorists is to expel a foreign power from their homeland. Depending on the interest group, this is done in attempt to create a new society based upon an economic or religious ideology or to create a homogeneous society free from intruders.

As mentioned previously, strategies of civil war and terrorism share a few things in common. A main strategy of civil war is insurgency. Insurgency is when lightly armed units will use guerilla-type attacks against military, governmental, and civilian targets. Terrorist use this strategy as well. Rebel groups will typically attack military bases, government buildings, or population centers. After the attack, rebel groups will hide out in jungles, mountains or other areas so as not to be seen.

In fact, Chinese Communist leader, Mao Tse-tung once said that insurgents should swim among people. In other words, they should do their best to blend in. Insurgency is a popular strategy because it is a way to attack another actor that has much stronger military capabilities. The main goal is to try to impose a high cost on the government or create intense political pressure. This is different from the main goal of terrorism, which is to gain something politically. Insurgency is also used to increase the amount of people who may be willing to side with the rebels by addressing the collective action problem. Foreign states that will benefit from the victory of one of the sides will often help by supplying money, arms, training, and sanctuary to their side. An example of this is the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo which involved 25 different rebel groups all aided by eight different countries.

These rebel groups are led into a civil war for many reasons. Rebel groups are organized around the interests for which they fight. For example, some rebel groups are motivated by strong religious beliefs. Taking a look at El Salvadors civil war, many peasants joined because they were motivated by a feeling of fighting injustice and a desire to do something meaningful with their lives.

Counties are influenced by other factors. The first factor that leads countries into engaging in a civil war is the political institutions and the regime type. If a conflict can be resolved without war that is typically preferred by most countries since war is so costly. Poor countries are more likely to find themselves in a civil war because they do not have strong institutions. Civil wars are also more likely in highly populated countries. This is due to that fact that rebel groups can recruit more people and also hide out among larger populations.

Looking back at strategies, terrorist have four common methods. The first method is coercion. Coercion is imposing costs typically by causing civilian casualties or destroying infrastructure. This is very similar to a rebel groups strategy. The goal of a terrorist attack in this case is to change a policy. The second strategy is provocation. This strategy is used in order to generate a response from the targeted government. An example of provocation is the pressure on the Bush Administration to strike back after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. The third strategy is spoiling. This tactic is used to destroy any peace between the target and moderate leadership from the terrorists home society. The final terrorist strategy is out-bidding. Out-bidding occurs when a terrorist group shows its commitment by out doing another group devoted to the same interest. In this case, a group may commit a dramatic attack not only to affect the target but to also show the other group what they are capable of.


The bargaining failures are similar in civil wars and terrorism. In both, there is incomplete information, commitment problems, and indivisibilities. Civil war from incomplete information occurs when the capabilities and resolve cant be determined. For example, it can be hard to estimate effective or strong a rebel group really is. They often take certain measures to make this hard to observe. Commitment problems in civil war can create a long-lasting war when power is changing. An actor cannot credibly commit to not revise any deal made then, so the actor that anticipates growing weaker may want war now. Commitment problems show that economic downturns are associated with higher risk of civil wars. Lastly, war may be inevitable if the conflict is something that is difficult to divide. Territory is often seen as an indivisibility. Russia has fought two civil wars since Chechnya claimed independence. Russia would have been better off letting the Chechens take their land. Instead they partook in a war that costed many lives and also increased terrorist attacks led by Islamic militants.

Terrorism is a result of incomplete information because groups often hide within the population. It is difficult to determine a terrorist groups size and capabilities. Typically, terrorist groups are unheard of until after it is known for an attack. Commitment problems are also an issue in terrorist attacks. After an attack, the target will have the organization commit to no violence in the future. If the commitment is not credible, this can prevent the agreement. Successful credibility can be difficult in this situation. The target must trust that the terrorist group will not attack again, and they must also trust that they could defend themselves if they did. Lastly, bargaining will fail if it is not possible to negotiate. Often times, it is seen as impossible to compromise with terrorists since they are considered extremists. Overall, civil wars and terrorism have the same bargaining failures.

Civil war and Terrorism both seem to have no clear ending. However, both have a few strategies that can help minimize the damage. Organizations such as the UN can help keep peace within states. But the overall best strategy to help prevent civil wars is changing into a more democratic country. International efforts can also help by resolving commitment problems. Compromises that entail rebels disarming can lead to a commitment issue. If peacekeepers can ensure the safety of disarmed rebels, that can help the problem. International peace can best be achieved by economic and political reconstruction, these strategies will have a long-term effect on preventing civil wars. On the other hand, terrorism will be harder to prevent. As long as extremist, problems of information, and credible commitment exist terrorism will be possible. States can create certain counterterrorist strategies to lessen the damage done by an attack and even lessen the attacks in general. Terrorist groups do not have a clear location which can make retaliation and deterrence tough. Another strategy is preemption. This strategy involves states disrupting or destroying terrorists and their networks before the attack takes place.

An example of preemption is the invasion of Afghanistan after the attacks of 9/11. This invasion was not only to retaliate, but to also prevent future attacks happening. The main goal was to capture or kill the leader of the terrorist group. An alternative strategy is taking defensive measures. States can guard against attacks. The united states took this action after the attacks of 9/11. Now national monuments are guarded, and boarder security forces have increased. Defensive measures are not convenient or cheap. All passengers must go through security at airports now. Trucks must face longer delays at borders. Defensive measures can still not guarantee safety but they can help. Criminalization is another strategy. This strategy usually takes place after the attack has already happened. The goal is to arrest terrorist for the attacks in hopes of preventing others from carrying out attacks as well as bringing groups to justice. The last strategy of terrorism is negotiation and compromise. As mentioned before, terrorist attacks are hard to prevent. Most states are hesitant to compromise with terrorist groups so other groups do not make greater demands. Although in some cases a compromise has been met, terrorist may never get everything they want.


The causes of civil war and terrorism coincide in many ways as well as contrast in their own ways. Civil wars and terrorism both include violence led by rebel groups and terrorist organizations. Both caused by a conflict of interest and each have their own objectives. Civil wars are usually fought over territory, grievances, or greed. Terrorist attacks are executed over political goals. Insurgency is the main strategy of civil war. The main purpose for this strategy is to impose a cost on the targeted government. Terrorist have four principal strategies; coercion, provocation, spoiling, and out-bidding. Civil wars and terrorism share the same bargaining failures and similar strategies to prevent them from reoccurring.

Overall, the best attempt at minimizing civil wars and terrorism is operating as a democratic country. Economic and politically strong countries are at less risk of a civil war because they have more to lose by getting involved in war. The importance of understanding the similarities and differences between civil wars and terrorism is to be able to identify that not all violent acts are terrorist acts. It is also important to understand the causes of both of these violent operations to be able to fight it. It cannot be prevented if it is unclear why it is happening.

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Civil War And Terrorism. (2019, May 18). Retrieved May 28, 2023 , from

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