[T]his is the result of a more expansive application since 9/11 of standard definitions of terrorism, to the point where virtually any violence perpetrated by rebels in civil wars is now being called terrorism.
But, as Carl von Clausewitz stressed, the whole effort in war—at least in non-criminal ones—is to obtain political goals. In his most famous formulation, “war is a mere continuation of policy with other means” and is “a true political instrument.” And the means to attaining that goal, stresses Clausewitz, involve using coercion and inflicting fear and intimidation to break the enemy’s will—that is, to create “compliant behavior.” In battle, says Clausewitz, “the loss of morale” is the “major decisive factor.”
If terroristic violence became really sustained and extensive in an area—if it was no longer fitful or sporadic—the activity was generally no longer called terrorism, but rather war or insurgency.
If one wishes to embrace the broader definition of terrorism that effectively took hold after 9/11, a huge number of violent endeavors that had previously been called civil wars would have to be recategorized.
The definitional confusion can be seen currently when ISIS is commonly labeled a band of terrorists, even though it occupies territory, runs social services, and regularly confronts armed soldiers in direct combat. In any armed conflict before the current century, that would be called an insurgency. In the civil war in Syria, the United States brandsthose fighting the government of Bashar Al-Assad to its own convenience: ISIS fighters are deemed to be “terrorists,” while those insurgents approved by the United States are labeled the “moderate opposition.” Assad himself is more consistent, if equally self-serving: any violent opposition to a sitting government, he says, is “terrorism.” Assad’s perspective, one that has become increasingly popular since 9/11, would allow us toretire the concept of “civil war” just about entirely.