This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years. And it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order.

 

President Barack Obama, September 10th, 2014

I have never heard Barack Obama use the word “terrorist” or some form of it as often as I heard him use it tonight. He avoids the term for political and public relations reasons. He doesn’t want to alienate people in the Muslim world. I get it. But the way he deployed it tonight didn’t just throw that reservation out the window, but he contradicted himself in its use. He’s not usually guilty of that. More often, it’s conservative commentators and specifically ones in Israel that I hear use the term strangely. He used it to denote ISIS even though terrorism is more of a tactic than a stated political position. I suppose the way ISIS terrorizes the population they are terrorists, but that strips the term of its value. It also underestimates what ISIS has become and what could potentially become of other Sunni Arab groups like the Al-Nusra Front in Syria were they to get tanks and heavy artillery: an army.

President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the Cross Hall in the White House, ordering the United States into a broad military campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” militants in two volatile Middle East nations, authorizing airstrikes inside Syria for the first time, as well as an expansion of strikes in Iraq. (photo credit: AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Pool)

President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the Cross Hall in the White House, ordering the United States into a broad military campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” militants in two volatile Middle East nations, authorizing airstrikes inside Syria for the first time, as well as an expansion of strikes in Iraq. (photo credit: AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Pool)

I don’t like to use the term so often. Terrorism is a tactic. It’s a strategy. It’s both together. I feel like its definition is diluted and insignificant once it’s employed against every single rogue militia in the world, and especially when it becomes an automatic label for groups simply because they are Muslim. Modern Islamist movements who stress jihad or liberally employ the concept of jihad can be called many things, but it can hinder efforts to raise public awareness of these groups’ crimes by desensitizing people to the term “terrorism” or “terrorist.”

Armies operate differently than terrorists. I suppose you could compare terrorism to something akin to a special forces operation: they seek out a single target, act against that target to frighten more people than they maim, then fade away. Armies stage much larger operations. They can be terrifying, for sure. But, their main objective isn’t to terrify, but to either hold or take territory.

Consider the above quote from Barack Obama. He isn’t referring to the use of lone suicide bombers in American cities that ISIS has sent from Syria. The ISIS “attacks” he’s discussing are their offensives and massacres in Christian, Yezidi and Shiite towns in Iraq or Syria. He’s talking about where the US Air Force will go in an anti-ISIS war.

Calling this a “counterterrorist” operation makes it sound like a police raid. It’s not. It’s on a completely, completely different scale. ISIS might not qualify as a “state” at this point, but they are a cohesive military force who is apparently utilizing former Iraqi (and maybe Syrian) military officers to command.

I saw this consistently during Operation Protective Edge, even though it’s nothing new.

Assassinations of Muhammad Deif’s founding colleagues in the Hamas military wing show Gaza’s terrorist regime penetrated by Israeli intelligence

Avi Issacharoff, Times of Israel

Since last night, 13 soldiers from the IDF’s Golani Brigade were killed while fighting Hamas terrorists in Gaza.

– Official IDF Twitter Account, July 20th, 2014

Blast kills four Hamas terrorists in northern Gaza

Jerusalem Post, August 7th, 2014

I have started to worry that the way Israelis employ the term to refer to Hamas and Hezbollah combatants, we simultaneously 1) begin to recharacterize the terrorists from other terrorist outfits in non-Muslim countries and 2) consistently underestimate the sort of tactics Hamas and Hezbollah now employ more often than they do classic acts of terror against random civilian targets. Those tactics are more often imprecise rockets (artillery), offensive combat units in Syria (infantry) or defensive units in Gaza.Hell, they have drones, so they have the beginnings of some sort of aerial capability.

Some Israeli military sources have even claimed Hezbollah could make a “ground offensive and multi-pronged attack on Israeli territory.”

Hezbollah fighters hold party flags during a parade in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon (photo credit: AP/Hussein Malla/File)

Hezbollah fighters hold party flags during a parade in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon (photo credit: AP/Hussein Malla/File)

Beyond that, Hezbollah’s electronic reconnaissance equipment puts it at another level. Getting back to ISIS, they have captured an unknown amount of tanks and equipment from Iraq’s inept military.

Just because Hamas, Hezbollah or ISIS don’t control countries for themselves: a Palestinian, Lebanon, Syria or Iraq – doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be treated as such. Hamas controls a de facto state in the Gaza Strip. Hezbollah controls a de facto state in some sense in southern and eastern Lebanon. ISIS, obviously, fancies themselves as a state carved out of massive chunks of Iraq and Syria. For all intents and purposes of war, these groups are independent countries. They might not have seats at the UN, but diplomatic recognition has little to do with actual sovereignty and the ability to maintain that sovereignty. These groups have full militaries that have monopolized the use of force in the areas they control. They are waging international wars. These aren’t simply guerrilla fighters attacking random civilian targets – the classic definition of terrorism – they are formidable.

How capable they are is a different question. Hamas got, well, crushed in Operation Protective Edge. Hezbollah is trying to keep a lid on how many men they’ve lost fighting in Syria. ISIS has an interest in seeming larger and more dangerous than they actually are (they captured Mosul with a few hundred men while many more Iraqi troops fled their positions). I personally don’t like to use the term “terrorist” so liberally – not to describe Hamas, nor ISIS, because it mischaracterizes what these groups do and underestimates the scale of destruction they wage.