Terrorism in Civil Wars

Earlier this year, The Strategy Bridge asked university and professional military education students to participate in our first annual writing contest by sending us their thoughts on strategy.

Now, we are pleased to present an selected for an Honorable Mention submitted by Suman Soni of New York University.


Civil wars and terrorism have been occurring for centuries in almost all parts of the world. Many definitions of both terms have arisen that are generally accepted by the academic community. For the purposes of this paper, I will use the definition of a civil war put forth by Uppsala University and the International Peace Research Institute. Looking at civil wars since 1946, the data collected classifies a civil war as, “intra-state conflict when at least 25 battle-related deaths per year have occurred.”[1] By defining intra-state conflict this way, as opposed to David Singer and Melvin Small’s definition of 1000 deaths per year, more civil wars are included. Observing the many different factors and types of civil wars over the years makes defining them more difficult and ever changing.

Attempting to define terrorism is no exception in terms of complexity. The media has become quite involved with giving terrorism specific connotations. One of the most accepted definitions, and one that will be used in this paper is by Bruce Hoffman, one of the most prominent terrorism studies experts. After conducting a survey that examined 109 definitions of terrorism, he defines the concept as,

...ineluctably political in aims and motives; violent or threatens violence; designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target; conducted either by an organization with an identifiable chain of command or conspiratorial cell structure…or by individuals or a small collection of individuals directly influenced, motivated, or inspired by the ideological aims or example of some existent terrorist movement and/or its leaders; and, perpetrated by a subnational group or state entity.[2]

This definition included many forms of terrorists and terrorism, regardless of the motives, nature, or beginnings.

Both occurrences have evolved in nature and in causation. Concerning civil wars, research has shown that many characteristics and motivators have changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kalyvas categorizes new wars as the civil wars occurring post Cold War and old wars as civil wars that occurred before the Cold War ended. David Rappoport identifies four temporal waves of terrorism. The four waves he named are the Anarchist Wave beginning in the 1880s, the Anti-Colonial Wave beginning in the 1920s, the New Left Wave beginning in the 1960s, and the Religious Wave beginning in 1979.[3] Now that the definitions and evolution of definitions have been laid out, I will continue with a proper literature review on the possible connection between civil wars and terrorism.

Literature Review

Terror tactics have been used in civil wars for decades. Non-state actors involved in a civil war that have used terror tactics have chosen to do so as a way of achieving their political goals. These goals are generally related to the civil war itself.[4] The connection between the two has been more prominent in recent years. As Jane Boulden observes, both civil wars and terrorism “are forms are political violence that increased in the aftermath of the Cold War.”[5] The United Nations saw this phenomenon as a new challenge that would require new approaches. However, these approaches would be different and specific to each of the two phenomena. While terror tactics occur during some civil wars, other civil wars go on without any form of terrorism. On the other hand, just because an official terrorist group doesn’t form, doesn’t mean rebel or insurgent groups don’t use terror tactics.

It is important to distinguish what terror tactics are in a world of insurgencies and guerilla warfare. The United States military defined insurgency as “an organized, protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government, occupying power, or other political authority while increasing insurgent control.”[6] Insurgencies typically rely on guerilla warfare as opposed to terror tactics. One of the main differences between guerilla warfare and the use of terror tactics is that guerilla tactics usually target their enemy’s paramilitary forces while terror tactics usually target civilians. The violence and strategies of both types of groups can overlap at times but that overlap shouldn’t misunderstand that terrorist groups are more likely to commit indiscriminate acts of violence.

Sara Polo and Kristian Gleditsch discuss the rationale behind the use of terror tactics in civil wars. Terrorist attacks help rebels coerce the government and communicate their goals.[7] Terror tactics can often serve as supplemental to conventional attacks during a civil war. These tactics add to the war by further coercing the government, intimidating the population and competing with other rebel groups.[8] Another relevant point made by Eck, Hultman and Wood is that rebels are more likely to target civilians (which is part of the terrorism definition) if they are losing the war.[9] This decision differs from other forms of “violence against civilians in that it seeks to influence an audience beyond those targeted with violence.”[10] Terror tactics do target civilians but they are not the target audience. Specific identification of the civilians being attacked is not necessary for a terrorism attack because the intended audience isn’t the victim; it’s the government.[11] Another difference in violence against civilians through terrorism is that the violence is more likely to be public and very visible to society. This way, mass psychological damage can be inflicted on many in the government’s constituency.[12] Polo and Gleditsch also note that some civil wars like the one in Myanmar have militant groups, such as the Restoration Council of the Shan State in Myanmar, that do not conduct terrorist attacks.[13] In a case study further on, I will discuss the different circumstances that possibly indicate whether terror tactics will be more or less likely to be used in a civil war.

An example of terror tactics used for the purposes of gaining control and intimidating a population would be those used by a terrorist group in the United States. The Weather Underground used terrorism as an attempt to influence the American population. They issued a political statement in 1974 saying, “At this early stage in the armed and clandestine struggle, our forms of combat and confrontation are few and precise. Our organized forces are small, the enemy’s forces are huge...We believe that carrying out armed struggle will affect the people’s consciousness of the nature of the struggle against the state. By beginning the armed struggle, the awareness of its necessity will be furthered.”[14] The group intended to use terrorism to motivate the people to start a revolution or civil war. As Kalyvas suggests, terrorism is a method that can be used to gain control over a population.[15] He goes on to say, “Terrorism is synonymous with resorting to violence in the context of a civil war in order to achieve compliance.”

Terror tactics are used for different reasons depending on the time of the civil war. Once the war has begun, terrorism is used to stimulate it. Before or in the beginning of the civil war, terrorism is used to convince the local population of the need for a revolution by attempting to change the beliefs of the people and intentionally getting them on board with violent methods.[16] At the end of the war, terror tactics have been used to delegitimize the peace. The Angolan civil war exemplifies this claim because terror attacks increased around the time of each of the three peace agreements. The amount of terror attacks is relatively low before the late 1980s when the peace agreement hadn’t really taken foot yet. The terrorist violence “increases in the years following the first two agreements.”[17] Once the final agreement was settled on, the violence declined, arguably because it was the most forceful agreement. Terror levels around peace agreements for the Angolan civil war is shown below.

Another example is the number of terrorist attacks doubling since the first peace agreement was signed between the Israelis and Palestinians. To put the numbers and time frame into perspective, before the peace agreement (The Oslo Accords) was signed, there was an average death rate by terrorist attacks of 27 people per year. When the Oslo Accords were signed, the amount of deaths by terrorist attacks immediately went up to 66 deaths per year. This doesn’t include the many soldiers killed in the Gaza strip during this time.[18] Kydd and Walter explain the terrorist attacks around peacetime by saying, “the purpose is to exacerbate doubts on the target side that the moderate opposition groups can be trusted to implement the peace deal and will not renege on it later on.”[19]

Terror tactics are also used in tandem with civil wars because they impose significant economic costs on the government. As Enders’ research and data analysis suggests, the economic costs from terrorism can be significantly damaging to a country already dealing with war. Enders further describes the effects by noting, “direct costs of terrorism include the value of tangibles damaged or destroyed such as factories, equipment, housing and structures, and merchandise. Since economic activity can be disrupted, lost wages and other forms of income are also part of the direct costs of terrorism.”[20] The research demonstrates a scale effect that shows the level of damage having a more detrimental effect on a small country. Larger economies are usually more diversified and therefore more resilient.[21]

Now that a relationship between terrorist activity and civil wars has been established, I will use the civil wars in Yemen, El Salvador, Colombia, and the Central African Republic to explore the circumstances under which terrorism does and does not occur in civil wars overall.

Yemen, El Salvador, and Colombia

The civil war in Yemen began in March 2015 and is currently ongoing in terms of fighting and complications. The conflict has been going on for years but the actual civil war is marked in 2015 because that is when the Saudi-led coalition got involved. It began with two main sides, one of forces loyal to President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and one of Shia rebel forces categorized by their Houthi ethnicity. What started off as a conventional civil war, with a rebel group fighting government forces, escalated into a proxy war with many competing factions. In solidarity with other Arab countries toppling their dictators in what is now known as the Arab Spring, Yemenis wanted a similar change. Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to relinquish his power and hand off the presidential title to Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi in 2011.

An image from the civil war in Yemen (Al Jazeera)

Massive unemployment, food insecurity, suicide bombings and a separatist movement in Southern Yemen all marked the political transition between the two presidents.[22] These four detrimental factors were not causes of the Yemeni civil war but were exacerbating the situation. The Houthi alliance with forces loyal to former President Saleh, forced the current president Hadi and his government to flee to Saudi Arabia. The most prominent fear by Saudi Arabia at this point in the war, was that Iran now has the perfect opportunity to exert a stronger regional influence in the area. This worry is legitimate based on the fact that Yemen is largely considered a failed state in terms of Robert Rotberg’s description: “Failed states are tense, deeply conflicted, dangerous, and contested bitterly by warring factions.”[23] As Rotberg points out, “In the wilder, more marginalized corners of failed states, terror can breed along with the prevailing anarchy that naturally accompanies state breakdown and failure.”[24] Failed states present ideal opportunities for external manipulation and internal terror breeding.

Where there is a prevalence of disorder or chaotic behavior, as there is in many failed or collapsed states, there is a certain compatibility with networks of terror. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is the network of terror associated with the Yemeni civil war more and more frequently. The Arabian Peninsula arm of Al Qaeda is a jihadist extremist terrorist group that has been growing in strength and numbers. Many of the southern Yemeni citizens who have lost their jobs have to inevitably choose between joining the Houthi rebel group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or the Islamic State.[25]

The ongoing civil war has created certain conditions that assist terrorist groups in recruiting and operating more freely. These conditions are easily sustained in a failed state because of the lack of government control. In Yemen, hundreds of young men have been recruited while Al Qaeda promotes their jihadist ideology and gathers massive amounts of weapons to carry out terror attacks.[26] As previously mentioned, Kalyvas states using terror tactics as a way to gain control occurs in civil wars. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been carrying out terror attacks and gaining control of specific areas in Yemen by taking advantage of the growing chaos.[27]

Civil wars, depending on numerous factors like the severity and duration of the conflict, have led to failed states. Along with Yemen, civil wars in Somalia and Syria are good examples of civil wars leading to failed states. The civil war in Somalia has lasted for almost 20 years; the government can no longer perform basic functions due to the violence and poverty.[28] The Syrian civil war has not gone on as long but has been relatively severe when it comes to the amount of active rebel groups and corrupt government forces that have control over a significant amount of resources.[29]

Another condition, besides a failing or failed state, that contributes to individuals using terror tactics in a civil war is the type of government. A data analysis on regime type and tactics used by rebel groups showed that “among 19 rebel groups fighting democratic opponents, terrorism is the dominant tactic, with 79% of the groups bombing civilian targets.”[30] The use of terrorism against non-democratic governments was much less common. Against autocratic governments, terrorism was used by three of the 37 rebel groups. It is a common claim in the international relations world that democratic governments are more susceptible to the costs of war than other regime types. The most accepted reasoning for this is that democratic political institutions are influenced by public opinion. There are incentives for political leaders to appease their constituents.[31] Autocratic or dictator style governments are less vulnerable to the demands of their citizens.  In terms of civil wars, rebel groups consider what tactics would best accomplish their goals based on the regime they are trying to get political attention from.

El Salvador became a democracy in 1983. The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) terrorist organization had been active in the country for years attacking the government. Once elections were held in 1984, the Front switched their tactics from conventional warfare to terror tactics that included ambushes on government personnel and public infrastructure. The organization’s commander explained the group’s shift in strategy as part of an economic campaign to destabilize the country and manipulate the population into opposing the current democratic government. Once peace negotiations began, the terrorist attacks in El Salvador increased in frequency and intensity, just like in the Angolan civil war.[32] The graph below, in Jessica Stanton’s study, displays the likelihood of rebel groups’ use of terrorism. As you can see, the likelihood of rebel groups using terrorism grows steadily the more democratic a regime is categorized.

Colombia is one of the oldest democracies in South America, but has had one of the largest terrorist groups in the continent. In 1946, tensions between the liberal and conservative parties escalated into a civil war known as La Violencia. The Presidential election was a transfer of power from the liberals to the conservatives, with Ospina Perez assuming leadership. Mr. Perez wasn’t able to implement a bipartisan government because the regional governments were not willing to share power with Liberal Party members. This was the cause for massive unrest and violence throughout the country. On top of the federal/regional government rivalry, the next liberal candidate to run in the 1950 election was assassinated. La Violencia began after the assassination, which is now categorized as a decade long civil war in Colombia. Out of this conflict came the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). As a guerrilla group who started to use terror tactics against governmental paramilitary groups, they killed thousands of civilians.[33]

In November of 2016, Colombia’s democratic government approved a peace deal with Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia. The House and Senate overwhelmingly voted in favor of the peace agreement to avoid continual bloodshed from the many terrorist attacks launched by the rebel group. Ultimately, FARC was able to negotiate congressional representation in exchange for giving up their weapons.[34] In contrast, multiple terrorist groups have marked the current civil war in Syria. The Assad dictatorship continues to fight the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in Syria with an international air coalition. The Syrian government does not have the will or capacity in its structure to accommodate political representation of groups like the Islamic State or Al Qaeda. It is also important to note that weak or transitioning democracies are more susceptible to terrorism and terrorist demands than strong and established democracies.[35] The more a state builds its legitimacy through its democracy by supporting human rights and rule of law at local, national and international levels, the stronger the democratic government can be at deterring terrorism.[36] This claim will be further explored below when discussing the Central African Republic.

Central African Republic

Pre-civil war, the Central African Republic technically had a democratic government set up but the post-independence leaders  did not rule democratically. Shortly after independence, David Dacko turned the Central African Republic into a one party state in 1962. By 1965, Dacko was overthrown by Jean-Bedel Bokassa who was an army commander, and by 1972, declared himself president for life. Taking autocracy a step further, Bokassa renamed the country The Central African Republic and titled himself emperor. A series of coups occured up until the 1990s when the ban on other political parties entering the government is lifted. However, military coups by rebel groups began again in the early 2000s. Rebel leader Francois Bozize declared himself president in 2003 and disbanded parliament. The Central African Republic has gone through multiple periods of civil war between rebel groups and government forces. In 2013, the Seleka rebels seize power and rebel leader Michel Djotodia suspended the constitution and disbanded parliament.[37]

Throughout all the violence and rebel groups forming since the Central African Republic’s independence, terrorist groups did not form. A possible explanation for the absence of terror groups is that rebel groups were successful in their aims of overthrowing the government without having to use terror tactics. If the Central African Republic had a democratic setup where the people’s opinions were taken into account, the use of terror tactics could have ended with rebel groups officially having their concerns heard by the government. Post-civil war, armed groups are still controlling major areas in the country and many members of the current government are hesitant to hold democratic elections just yet. One of the presidential candidates, Charles Armel Doubane, supports  elections being held soon while others like Christophe Gaza-Mbeti state that there are other priorities that should be taken into consideration first.[38]

Charles Armel Doubane looks on as Marco Impagliazzo addresses a political delegation from Central African Republic, June 19, 2017. (AFP)

Many scholars and analysts warned of the Central African Republic becoming a failed state back in 2013.[39] Since then, the African Union and the United Nations have been working to prevent this from happening. There are thousands of peacekeeping forces working to stabilize the country and restore the government.[40] However, recent reports have surfaced in the past couple months of MINUSCA (the UN peacekeeping force in the Central African Republic), not being able to continue its aid and efforts in stability. Violence has resurfaced and is spreading while local militant groups begin attacking government targets again. The distrust of the citizens towards the UN peacekeepers and the current utilization of weapons as self defense are two factors that could contribute to labeling the Central African Republic a failed state. In this case, terrorist groups could move in or the rebel groups could start using terror tactics. This situation is becoming more and more likely. The President of the Better World Campaign, working to better US/UN relations, noted that ISIS has already tried to engage with local rebel groups in the Central African Republic.[41]


There are many other possible reasons for why an individual or a rebel group decides to use terror tactics in a civil war that are not fully explored in this paper. A country’s history with terror organizations, economic opportunities and political instability could all be contributing factors as well.  Failed states and democracies that experience civil war, do not always lead to terrorism within. However, these two factors do increase the chances of terrorist activity in a civil war. Civil wars and terrorist activity have long been associated with one another. As the Yemeni war suggests, along with other civil wars discussed, terror tactics are more likely to be used in some civil wars based on whether the state is considered a failed state and based on its regime type.  Failed states provide the chaos that terrorist groups can take advantage of while democratic states provide the structure and values needed for terror to exploit. The relationship between the two is evident but whether or not the relationship has the right circumstances to materialize is more complicated.

Suman Soni is a Master's student at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs with a professional background in defense and security. Her academic interests center around counterterrorism, intelligence, international relations, and national security.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: Nigerian peacekeepers patrol by the bodies of several partisan fighters killed in 1996. (Corinne Dufka)


[1] Boulden, Jane. “Civil wars and terrorism”. Civil Wars, 11:1. pg 6.

[2] Boulden, Jane. “Civil wars and terrorism”. Civil Wars, 11:1 pg 7.

[3] Rapoport, David. “Four Waves of Modern Terrorism”. UCLA International Institute. pg 47

[4] Boulden, Jane. “Civil wars and terrorism”. Civil Wars, 11:1 pg 7.

[5] Boulden, Jane. “Civil wars and terrorism”. Civil Wars, 11:1. pg 6.


[7] Polo, Sara, et al. “Twisting Arms and Sending Messages”. Journal of Peace Research. 14 Nov 2016. Pg 4.

[8] Ibid, pg 5.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Boulden, Jane. “Civil wars and terrorism”. Civil Wars, 11:1. pg 6.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Polo, Sara, et al. “Twisting Arms and Sending Messages”. Journal of Peace Research. 14 Nov 2016.

[14] Findley, Michael, et al. “Terrorism and Civil War: A Spatial and Temporal Approach to a Conceptual Problem”. 11 Aug 2010, pg 2.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, pg 3.

[18] Gordon, Evely, et al. “Terrorism Against Israel Should Be the Focus of peace Talks.” Commentary Magazine, 1 May 2017

[19] Findley, Michael, et al. “Terrorism and Civil War: A Spatial and Temporal Approach to a Conceptual Problem”. 11 Aug 2010. pg 3.

[20] Ender, Walter, et al. “Measuring the Economic Costs of Terrorism”.  University of Alabama. 2008, pg 6.

[21] Ibid, pg 10.

[22] “Explainer: The War in Yemen Explained in 3 Minutes.” Youtube, Al Jazeera, 3 July 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLRgdFP-s30.

[23] Rotberg, Robert. “Failed states, collapsed states, weak states: causes and indicators”. World Peace Foundation. 2003. Chpt 1 pg 5.

[24] Ibid. pg 9.

[25] Al-Qarari, Abdulsalam. “YEMEN – Now Officially Failed State.” The Maghreb and Orient Courier, June 2016

[26] Ibid

[27] “Explainer: The War in Yemen Explained in 3 Minutes.” Youtube, Al Jazeera, 3 July 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLRgdFP-s30.

[28] James, Paul. “Failed States”. Global Policy Forum., 2013

[29] Butler, Christopher K, et al. “Explaining Civil War Severity: A Formal Model and Empirical Analysis.” Explaining Civil War, 8 Dec. 2015.

[30] Boulden, Jane. “Civil wars and terrorism”. Civil Wars, 11:1. pg 7.

[31] Ibid, pg 4.

[32] Ibid, pg 11.

[33] “La Violencia Begins in Colombia: 1948.” World History In Context, GALE, 2014

[34] Casey, Nicholas. “Colombia’s Congress Approves Peace Accord With FARC.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 30   Nov. 2016

[35] Piccone, Ted. “Democracy and Terrorism.” Brookings, Brookings, 8 Sept. 2017

[36] Ibid.

[37] “Central African Republic Profile - Timeline.” BBC News, BBC, 21 Sept. 2017

[38] “Why Democracy May Have to Wait in the Central African Republic.” IRIN, 22 Jan. 2016

[39] Nichols, Michelle. “Central African Republic on Brink of Collapse: U.N.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 14 Aug. 2013

[40] Ibid.

[41] Lavinder, Kaitlin. “Terrorist Safe Haven? Bloodshed Spikes in Central African Republic.” The Cipher Brief, 16 Nov. 2017