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Getting Orwellian: Contractors, Mercenaries, Private Security and Terrorists

In all the to-do about my Washington Post op-ed last week, I think our readers missed two good posts showing three words that most journalists unintentionally misuse, and that many politicians deliberately misuse: military intelligence, interrogation and Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Whereas journalists just don’t know the distinction between AQI and Al Qaeda proper, the two terms up discussion today have overt political connotations. Basically, the proper word choice depends on who is speaking.

First up terrorists. Now you might think I am going to roll out the so-common-it’s-trite aphorism “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” and then bring out examples of communist terrorists in Malaya, or the Irish Republican Army terrorists in Ireland. As I said, that’s trite and boring.

Currently, the US military labels insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan as “terrorists”. I could provide dozens of examples, but this press release about the capture of a Haqqani network leader is an example of this phenomena. The State Department annual reports on terrorism--amplified in importance after 9/11--describe violence in Afghanistan and Iraq as terrorism, ignoring the alternating civil wars and raging insurgencies.

Instead, I think we--as a publishing community (journalists, bloggers, politicians and academics)--should just settle on a few prerequisites for terrorism. First, it can’t take place in active warzones. So right now Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Mexico don’t have terrorism, they have active insurgencies. For this threshold, I am using Wikipedia and most of academia’s general criteria of 1,000 plus yearly casualties. Second, I think we should exclude military victims in the terrorism calculus. Soldiers, sailors and airmen use violence to pursue a nation’s aims, and thus are not illegitimate targets. This statement is crazy controversial (it would exclude the bombing of the USS Cole and the bombing in Beirut) but it makes a lot more sense.

The last word goes to eminent political theorist-cum-patriotist Stephen Colbert: “It’s only terrorism if you kill American civilians.”

Second up, mercenaries, contractors and private security.

Does the world even still have mercenaries? Since 9/11 they were personas non grata. At least the term was, until Moammar Qaddafi started hiring them. Read these articles in Foreign Policy, the NY Times, or countless others.

On the other hand, the number of “armed security contractors” employed by the U.S. in Afghanistan reached its highest level in the war, near 19,000 individuals. While reported in the media, I discovered it on the “Secrecy News” blog, a good candidate for inclusion on the next On Violence blog roll update.

From what I can tell, the mercenaries in Libya and the armed contractors in Afghanistan are definitionally identical. In each case, they are a combination of foreigners or citizens using violence to pursue the political aims of a government, while not maintaining membership in that country’s armed forces.

Eric C, when reviewing this post, brought up two more details often confused about contractors. First, most Americans assume “contractors” are Americans who travel to Afghanistan or Iraq. This is not the case. A plurality of contractors are local Afghans or Iraqis. Another huge group is third country nationals imported by larger contracting firms to clean dishes or serve food. The majority of “security contractors” are local Iraqis or Afghans; not at all like the commonly understood Xe-turned-BlackWater public perception. For example, this headline from Lez Get Real, “Obama’s Surge: mercenaries Soar to 250,000 in Iraq/Afghanistan” doesn’t make any sense; most of these people aren't fighting.

The difference between armed contractors and unarmed contractors also regularly confuses the public. When I say armed contractors nee private security contractors nee private military contractors are indistinguishable from mercenaries, I mean that. But unarmed contractors--like electricians, MWR maintenance technicians (yep, that’s the real name) or chow hall cooks--don’t qualify as mercenaries. They perform functions that support our troops without directly using violence.

Some words have dirty connotations. Terrorists are worse than insurgents who are worse than rebels. Private security contractor sounds better than mercenary. But we need to call a lightsaber a lightsaber. Otherwise we end up confusing lightsabers with blaster pistols, when one is an elegant weapon from a more civilized age and the other is clumsy and random. (Blasters can’t hit crap anyways.) 

ten comments

I think it is odd anyone would consider a military target a victim of terrorism. Basically, it would have made the founding fathers and the rebel army terrorists. They weren’t fighting conventionally to the accepted norms of the time.

I’m curious if anyone is going to argue this point. Otherwise, good post.


I would suggest that terrorism could (and does) happen in active warzones. I would agree that acts against military members may not constitute an act of terrorism but perhaps, for example, one Iraqi’s act of violence toward another member of the Iraqi society in order to have them politically behave a certain way.

A second thought is that perhaps even though the uniformed members of a military “use violence to pursue a nation’s aims” the expectation is that they will be engaged by a state sponsored uniformed military.


@ Jared – Hypothetically, if America were taken over by a foreign country—a la Red Dawn, or the new game Home Front— and our Army was disbanded, could Americans fight back even if they weren’t a part of a state sponsored uniformed military?

Would they be considered insurgents, or terrorists?

Curious for your response, I think you brought up a good distinction.


I believe that terrorism is tough to define. To answer your question, I believe that in the Red Dawn case, they most likely would not be terrorist but insurgents. I say most likely because terrorist will not abide by any rules of engagement, Geneva Convention, or any other socially acceptable form of warfare.

As far as terrorism against military members, I think that the idea of time and space also need to be included in the discussion. If a military member is in a warzone, I agree, it would be hard to say that they were a target of a terrorist act. But what about the military member who is/was not in a warzone?

Lastly, if a member of a military is always a legitimate target and actions toward them cannot be defined as “terrorism” does this then mean that the members of the military cannot commit acts of terrorism and all the military acts are legitimate?


@Jared – the military would be committing war crimes in that case


Good distinction about warzones Jared. Yeah it is a gigantic grey line. Part of my argument rests on whether the servicemember is acting in a role as a member of our armed forces. So say a Soldier in Germany if off duty, in civilian clothes, and their are taken hostage. That is terrorism. In the case of Lebanon, though, Marines were deployed partly as a stabilizing force in that country’s insurgency. That makes it much harder to call it terrorism. In the case of the USS Cole, the soldiers were on a military vessel in open waters.

I’m not saying those last two were not terrorist attacks. I think ultimately the USS Cole was terrorism. I just want to caution that we should be even more stringent with the use of the word terrorism when it comes to military men and women.

Soldier or not, it is illegitimate to attack another person with violence. Killing US sailors and marines was still a morally reprehensible act. Whether that act was terrorism, warfare or a crime, I think is up for debate.

And insurgents don’t follow the Geneva convention either. They aren’t signatories to the treay, for one, and they don’t where uniforms for two. That helps to make the distinction between terrorist and insurgent so difficult.


The “T” word remains legally undefined – internationally – for good reason. All wars – theoretically – are fought toward political ends; in modern warfare, civilians are regarded as a part of the battlefield (if not the battlefield itself) whether as a means of support that is potentially switchable or as holders of a national will, the breakage of which will lead to operational success. The use of terror in this equation is inevitable.

The currently accepted definition of a terrorist among the US and its allies is the use of deadly force against a civilian target by a non-state actor. There’s the rub, you see.

So, when an American official says something like:

““If there are civilians dying in connection with these attacks, and with the destruction, the locals at some point have to make a decision,” one Pentagon official said. “Do they want to harbor the insurgents and suffer the consequences that come with that, or do they want to get rid of the insurgents and have the benefits of not having them there?”“

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/12/intern..=

We know that he’s involved in terrorism but is he to be regarded as a terrorist?

BTW, I just googled the words “al qaeda linked” and got 6,260,000 results. Is that a reporting issue or do we see the heavy hand of the editor in there?

We can imagine the conversation, can’t we?

Another one I loved for all its tragi-comic shades of dishonesty was “gunmen in Interior Ministry uniforms”……… fill in the blanks.


Michael, I think what you’re searching for here is what constitutes hors de combat. The GC doesn’t really help much.

Does being taken by surprise (USS Cole and Beirut) count? Because if it does then that would call into question a great many US actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There’s a lot of one-rule-for-us-and-quite-another-for-them out there these days, don’t you think?


Yeah and the post from last week on this I just mentioned that. I was taught that our country’s two founding documents laid out a call for universal human rights. (Yes I know that our initial definition of “universal” only included white, male, property-owners, but it has been expanded.) That’s why though we don’t have to apply the Bill of Rights to everyone in the world, we probably should. All humans have the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness unless denied that by due process. Our terrorism targeting processes would never qualify as due process.


I’m glad you made distinction between armed and unarmed contractors.