Are You Sure It's Domestic Terrorism?

 Rebel, militant, or terrorist?I had an interesting conversation with a coworker the other day regarding the conflict in South Sudan. In the description of some events regarding this conflict the word “militant” was used to describe the main opposition group, Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The use of the word militant would imply that SPLM are terrorists, but my coworker disagreed. SPLM are an armed opposition group, not terrorists but rather citizens unhappy with their government and have taken up arms to express this. So it got me thinking about domestic terrorism, and the difference between a domestic terrorist and a rebel. Is there a difference? Who decides the label a group receives, and why? Let’s tackle these questions together and walk through how our analysts distinguish the differences, and assure events are put into the correct context. 

So what is a rebel? Or, should I say who is a rebel. Within Riley, we define a rebel as an individual or group who has taken arms against the ruling government as an armed opposition, not as terrorists, and would typically classify them as armed conflict. The key difference between a rebel and a domestic terrorist is the government they’re fighting against. Domestic terrorists are against a government when the majority of their fellow citizens are in favor of the regime. A rebel may be the manifestation of a large majority of dissent within the population, as is the case for the SPLM in South Sudan.

Domestic terrorism is not spoken of as much as its international counterpart. Here in the United States we have a few examples, but much like the discussion on international terrorism these examples do not reflect the rest of the world’s experiences. Nonetheless, the Oklahoma City Bomber, the Unibomber, and the Boston Marathon Bombing are some of the most famous examples of domestic terrorism in the United States. There is no confusion on whether or not these perpetrators were rebels or not, they were deemed domestic terrorists and that was that. In the rest of the world the discussion is not that simple, many labels are up to interpretation and in many cases this interpretation is conducted by the government. In some cases the conflict is deemed a civil war, where the party in question goes from rebel to “opposition.” To continue with the example we’ve been using thus far, the conflict in South Sudan was an official civil war that ended in February of this year. SPLM is now officially recognized as a political party, armed actors are deemed as rebels – making the use of the word militant incorrect. 

In other countries it is less clear. The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) are a rebel group currently operating in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They’re a rebel group, but in Uganda (where they’re from) they are classified as a terrorist organization. I conducted further research into their background and learned that they were even initially formed by multiple liberation groups joining together; these liberation groups were also considered rebels.Domestic terrorism However, officially the ADF is recognized as a terrorist group by the Ugandan government. Is this incorrect? Well, that’s also a no. The ADF are a Ugandan group, but now are embroiled in the Kivu conflict in the DRC. Is this movement away from their original Ugandan liberation goal the reason that Uganda classified them as terrorists? Their attack types have changed as well, they now employ methods that other known terrorist groups use like IEDs, more large scale attack types, and landmines. It appears safe to say that their label fluctuates, and our content and analysis team know this. Much like everything else in the world of geopolitics, “one size fits all” just doesn’t exist. 

I ran an experiment, similar to the international terrorism experiment from the last installment. I went through our data on the ADF and exported all of our valid, published data. From there, I ran a keyword search. My goal was to see if the ADF were classified as only militants, only rebels, or if the label was determined from the situation. From a sample of 35 events, which were all valid events concerning the ADF, and all of which occurred in the DRC, I found 16 descriptions which used the term rebel, and 19 that used militant. There were no overlapping examples, which means that individual events were classified based on what their description and context said. Within Riley all of our events are contextualized to correctly represent the situation and how it would accurately impact global security. This small experiment helps to demonstrate this fact, that all of our data is reviewed by an analyst before it enters the database. Just because it sounds like domestic terrorism that does not mean that it always is, and this is reflected in our contextualized data.