374 - War, terrorism, reprisal | Scoins.net | DJS

374 - War, terrorism, reprisal

What is the difference between an act of war, a reprisal, and an act of terrorism?    This was found as a question to ask aspiring Oxbridge candidates and I thought it interesting enough to share on here.

First, let's be clear what these three terms are, and then I'll look at what they aren't and at the grey areas of what may be overlap.


Generally, war is between political entities. These are usually nation states, and we use the term civil war to describe an internal conflict. Generally the war is over the possession of land or its result is the acquisition of territory. War is usually well-organised, clearly declared by one or both parties and necessarily funded by the state.  It is a large scale physical or non-physical state of a clash between two parties [5]. War tends to be a long affair, no matter that at the beginning the population is told 'It'll be over by Christmas'. War tends to be over a large area, to act on many fronts.

So war can have unlimited geographical dimensions and the amount of damage caused by war is usually catastrophic compared to one caused by a “conventional” terrorism attack; War damages are often unaffordable; as one insurance site I looked at put it, the premium calculation for war is difficult, which is why it is excluded from insurance. War is an action on behalf of the state. Carl Von Clausewitz, a Prussian military general, summarised as follows: "War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will." Do you agree with this as a definition?

One aspect of war is that there are seen to be combatants and non-combatants, where this latter group is often called civilians. Perpetrating an act of war upon civilians is considered beyond the understood behaviour within war and so we have the concept of there being conventions in war, some agreement of what constitutes acceptable behaviour.

Terrorism has as its primary objective the creation of fear among the targeted population. It is not backed by a distinct political entity (a statement with which you may want to argue). Terrorism tends to be unorganised in form, though it may be detailed in particular instances. Terrorism occurs in short bursts of events. Terrorism can involve both political and religious communities [5] (discuss). Terrorism is usually localised, held within a limited impact area. Terrorism does not aim to take land but to instil fear and disruption.

Terrorism is the use, or threat of use, of any of the actions listed below, and these are designed to influence the government, or an international governmental organisation or to intimidate the public. Specific actions included are: serious violence against a person; serious damage to property; endangering a person's life (other than that of the person committing the action); creating a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public; and action designed to seriously interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.  

An act of terrorism is designed to have a strong psychological impact. Terrorist acts are often said to be arbitrary or random in nature, but in fact groups tend to select targets carefully in order to provoke the maximum reaction, and also, where possible, to strike at symbols of the regime. Terrorism is the act of sub-state groups, not states. This is probably the most widely disputed feature among different observers and experts. Nation states tend to use this as the essential test of a terrorist act, but if we limit terrorist acts to sub-state groups, then we have already decided that a violent act carried out by a state cannot be terrorism, however terrible it may be.  Terrorism involves deliberately targeting civilians. This criterion is also disputed by many experts, since it rules out the possibility of attacks against military personnel or other state officials such as politicians or the police being classified as terrorist attacks.

I wonder if the term 'direct action' when used by a pressure group sometimes crosses the line into terrorism, such as having powdered glass in baby food. Closing a facilty such as an abortion clinic or a road may be criminal without being more than that. peaceful protest should be neither criminal nor cause damage and as such should be a (relatively) protected activity. I imagine quite often peaceful protest ruuns up against issues of trespass.



A reprisal is a limited and deliberate violation of international law to punish another sovereign state that has already broken them.[1] Reprisals in the laws of war are extremely limited, as they commonly breach the rights of non-combatants, an action outlawed by the 1949 Geneva Convention.       [4]

Defined to the right, a reprisal is a wrong action taken as response to an earlier wrong action. So the test condition is that the first action was illegal, so the retaliation is made not illegal. Counter-reprisals are generally not allowed.

An example of reprisal is the Naulila dispute between Portugal and Germany in October 1914. After three Germans were mistakenly killed in Naulila on the border of the then-Portuguese colony of Angola (in a manner that did not violate international law),[4] Germany carried out a military raid on Naulila, destroying property in retaliation. A claim for compensation was brought by Portugal. The tribunal emphasised that before reprisals could be legally undertaken, a number of conditions had to be satisfied: There had to be a previous act by the other party that violated international law; Reprisals had to be preceded by an unsatisfied demand for reparation or compliance with the violated international law; There must be proportionality between the offence and reprisal.  

The German claim that it had acted lawfully was rejected on all three grounds.    [4]

Since WWII, reprisals tend to be non-military, labelled as countermeasures and often economic. Where a belligerent countermeasure is to occur, a warning—in effect a single-action declaration—must occur. So the quote above serves to define what reprisal is by giving those three conditions: the first illegal act of one state upon another; a demand for reparation or compliance; proportionality in the response.  One often hears the words proportionality and compliance used when listening to foreign office officials discuss reprisal.


If war requires no non-combatant injury or death, what we might call innocents or civilians or both, and if terrorism aims to kill civilians particularly, one wonders why we insert innocent at all. A similar colouring word is defenceless.  There is an implied right to not be attacked or harmed and separately implies a liability to be attacked. [3] One might ask whether the perpetrator sees the civilians as being innocent; the way terrorists are portrayed and explained, I suspect not. The thinking seems to be that a targeted group includes all members of that group. So if the target is 'America' or 'abortionists' or 'the establishment', then—to a terrorist—all members of such a group are included as legitimate targets by association. Grey areas in war result from civilian—non-combatant—death and injury. If in an attacking force, it would be entirely understandable that to the soldier in action every body not 'us' must be 'them'. A non-binary position is largely too difficult. One suspects that for the individuals who might be seen as non-combatant there is also a grey area in defining what actions may remain seen as 'innocent' and non-combatant.

Can a war be unjust? Well, probably. Is that different from terrorism? Confused. Generally an unjust war is one whose cause is unjust (and that needs explanation at some length). Other muddles are whether an unjust combatant is necessarily a terrorist. The test of that position might be that intimidation (of the perceived opposition) is intended. Similarly, it might be that terrorism can be used for just causes. An example [3] uses is to consider the (carpet) bombing of German cities in WWII as acts of terrorism wrongfully committed in pursuit of a just cause in a just war. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were also terrorist acts perpetrated in a just war, though their immediate aim – unconditional rather than conditional surrender – was not just. Which rather suggests that an unjust combatant is worse than a terrorist.

It may be that a declaration is required for war to exist. See [6]. Forms of declaration include a formal diplomatic note passed between parties but also there can be recognition that a state of war has come into existence, such as has occurred in 2020 between Azerbaijan and Armenia [10]. Source [6] declares a third situation, the categorical, that confuses me: I think it requires that the bodies declaring war have the power to do so, and that if they do this the people they represent will concur and act.

What makes a war a just cause, that one party has been somehow wronged, perhaps by injury to a third party nation. Thus land-grabbing, though it may result from war, is not a just cause for going to war. That may explain why so often the war gains are returned. Wars are only just if waged in a protective manner, to secure the rights of the nation and its people. This has the consequence that, for any given war, only one side of the war is fighting a just war, the side defending its, or another nation's, rights.  [...] the wrong done must be of sufficient measure to warrant the atrocities of warfare. [7]     Orend ([9], but still from [7]) offers three specific classifications for a just cause: “1) self-defence from aggression; 2) the defence of others from aggression; and 3) armed intervention in a non-aggressive country wherein grievous human rights violations are occurring.”   These are similar to the general causes set forth by Grotius.

Reprisal, only because it is so well explained, is less difficult to sort out in overlap with war or terrorism. I might agree with a contention that there is no overlap of reprisal with terrorism, but a terrorist might well disagree. I'm afraid I don't see the point of wanting to frighten a population as I don't see that producing any political or social advantage – that is, I do not understand what the objective is. Unless the only objective is social disruption, to which I shall return. 

I see that a non-commensurate excessive reprisal might well move towards war and reach that situation where war is observed to exist without there being formal declaration beforehand. Where reprisals breach the accepted conventions on non-combatants, one can see that what one party calls a reprisal another can label as crossing the accepted boundaries of war. But that does not make a reprisal into terrorism, except for those people who happily say that collective violence directed at civilians is what terrorism is.

Terrorism, if defined as requiring the intimidation of the civilian population (but not only that), is usually not an intended part of war.  But that is a largely fallacious position; there were 70-85 million deaths in WWII, of which [11] 19-28 Million were from disease and famine and the other 50-56 million were civilian and military deaths, of which about half belonged to China and the Soviet Union. [11] suggests military deaths from all causes were 21-25.5 million and civilian deaths due to war 39-30.5 million. All war statistics are notoriously bad, but if 'war' fails as soon as civilians are killed then it is a rare war that is not such a failure.

As to what is 'allowed' in war, or what the rules are, or whether there are any laws applicable to war, that is, as a soldier would put it, a proper minefield. See [12].  We do have some international treaties and conventions; we have some customary laws and some principles. I found suggestions that the customary laws and the treaty-type laws are opposites. I agree with the wikipedia author that wrote that creating laws for something as inherently lawless as war seems like a lesson in absurdity [12]. Staying with that source, principles are that (numbering only to separate):- (i) the objective that caused the war is a limiting factor, so unnecessary destruction is not appropriate (ii) an objective is to end as soon as possible. (I think historians might disagree, given that I found a consensus that WWII occurred because WWI ended without true resolution) (iii) people not contributing to the war effort should be protected, which I take to also mean  that they be excluded from inclusion. Thus  (paraphrasing [12]) the laws of war have the intention to (iv) protect both combatants and non-combatants from unnecessary suffering (v) safeguard certain fundamental human rights of persons who fall into the hands of the enemy, particularly prisoners of war, the wounded and sick, children, and civilians and (vi) facilitate the restoration of peace.   By implication, those actions that fail to fulfil these objectives fail to be in line with the 'proper' pursuit of war. The tests I found often cited were that actions should be proportionate, that military necessity be applicable, that some weapons are prohibited, that there is distinction between combatants and civilians. Associated with these are accepted behaviours for the treatment of prisoners and surrender. 

We have weapons not allowed in war (whatever 'not allowed' means). [14, 15] That list includes nuclear, chemical and biological weapons – but [15] seems to show that this is not at all an agreement. These (NCBW) are the weapons of mass destruction, WMD; they qualify as non-proportionate, probably failing in military objectives and probably killing far more non-combatants than combatants. Thus, WMD fail the test of military necessity and, in some states that means that in some sense they are the weapons of terrorists. [14] lists the weapons banned by the Geneva Convention and I've added that list by the link. I'm afraid that, while the UN has tried hard to cause there to be conventions, and hence the term conventional weapon, that does not mean that several very significant nations have signed up to these. In general (my interpretation) Europe and Commonwealth nations have signed, but there are at least three large and military nations that are often not signatories. I am left wondering what value any such list has as soon as any entry is ignored; one that leapt out at me was the hollow-point bullet, which fragments on impact so as to cause a lot of damage, and which is commonly found, despite being on that 'banned' list, in use by internal forces including the police. I can see point in having rounds that stop inside the first individual hit on the assumption that this is the intended target. But then I'd be happy, as a Brit, for there to be very limited weapons available in public life outside the military forces. And I say that having taught people to shoot, if badly.

Returning to social disruption as an objective, this is a common aim of protestors but that does not mean that protestors are terrorists – except in the media, where extreme stretch of language is normalised. The (UK) Terrorism Act of 2000 defines terrorism, both in and outside of the UK, as the use or threat of one or more of the actions listed below, and where they are designed to influence the government, or an international governmental organisation or to intimidate the public. The use or threat must also be for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause. I've put the list at [18], below.

That connects the action with the intent to influence the government or intimidate the public. Which last pair may be seen as the same thing in some quarters The mind boggles at that rather; of course any action judged as terrorism will affect the government, but I doubt it will influence them in the desired direction. [18] also gives examples and how prosecutions may be pursued. One result is that an early official response to any atrocity is to decide whether the event is being treated as terrorism; not least, the powers available are far greater if this is so. Thus we have recent events where an early media comment passed on from the police is that 'this is not being treated as terrorism'.

I haven't come to a clear conclusion, which is unsatisfactory. Clearly some events in war can be considered as terrorist acts and this should serve as a restriction on considered actions. Equally, a terrorist group may consider that war has been declared and that the conventions do not apply – and so they qualify as terrorists. But, while I am less vague than when I began this, I still see a grey and disputable area for parties to argue that some action (event or proposal) does indeed constitute an act of terror.

DJS 20211124

Top pic from vox.com as an illustration of the trigger of the 'war on terror'. I was unable to pick an event that I felt matched this in a UK context. See [19]. You might point to 1971 when Irish militants started action on the mainland, to the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, the Baltic Exchange bombing in 1992, or the London Bridge station bombing earlier that same year, the Manchester bombing of 1996 or at the Arena in 2017, the 7/7 bombings of 2005. It's not a short list, and that's only the ones that succeeded. High on my own list would be Guy Fawkes' Gunpowder plot of 1605. 




[1] https://www.coe.int/en/web/compass/war-and-terrorism

[2] https://www.cps.gov.uk/crime-info/terrorism

[3] https://philosophy.rutgers.edu/joomlatools-files/docman-files/War,_terrorism,_and_the_war_on_terror.pdf  Readable, in my opinion.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reprisal

[5] https://askanydifference.com/difference-between-war-and-terrorism/

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaration_of_war explains the theory of what is required for a state of war to exist. (i) the ability to engage,  (ii) action that in effect declares war (iii) formal declaration of a state of war. I think that involves an official document passing between the parties.  One might read up on the Hague Conventions. One might try to list occasions where a formal declaration of war has been given, say for this century.

6: Declaration of war, (D), or recognition of the existence of a state of war, 2000-2020.  see [6]

Examples:  2005 Chad to Sudan; 2008(D) Georgia to Russia; 2012 Sudan to South Sudan; 2015 Egypy to the Islamic State; 2020 Azerbaijan to Armenia; 2020(D) SADR to Morocco.   That's the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, SADR. See here.

[7] seems to be a reprint of the wikipedia entry. https://military-history.fandom.com/wiki/Declaration_of_war

[8] https://digitalcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=7594&context=etd

[9] Orend https://philpapers.org/rec/OREWAI  War and International Justice a Kantian Perspective, Brian Orend, University of Waterloo, ISBN(s) 0889203601 (pbk)   0889203601   0889203377

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_Nagorno-Karabakh_war also called the 44-day war and the second Nagorno-Karabakh War.

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_war  You might also look at what is considered to be (have been) a war crime.

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_necessity    the death of civilians during an armed conflict, no matter how grave and regrettable, does not in itself constitute a war crime. [...]    A crime occurs if there is an intentional attack directed against civilians (principle of distinction) or an attack is launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. So, when assessing a proposed action one must have considered (a) the anticipated civilian damage or injury; (b) the anticipated military advantage; (c) whether (a) was "clearly excessive" in relation to (b). And, if aware of the possibility of later accusation of war crime, to have documented this consideration. Yeah, right, that's going to happen.

[14] https://www.wearethemighty.com/articles/9-banned-weapons-countries-cant-use-in-modern-warfare/   

  • Poisonous Gases. There are five types of chemical agent banned for use in warfare. See [16]
  • Non-Detectable Fragments. ... 
  • Land Mines. ...   See the Ottawa Treaty. I think this means that mines limited targeted use, not including anti-personnel.
  • Incendiary Weapons. ...  protocol 1983. Do read this as if a bloody-thirsty warrior, looking for loopholes.
  • Blinding Laser Weapons. ... 
  • “Expanding” Ordnance. ...  The 1899 conference. Read. Largely ignored, as far as I can tell.
  • Poisoned Bullets. ... 
  • Cluster Bombs 2008 Dublin convention applies. The non-signatories are significant, see map.
  • Biological Weapons

If any of these are ignored, what value is the list at all? Expanding ordnance—dum-dum bullets, high-wounding bullets, hollow point ammunition—is widespread, not least in internal conflicts. Flamethrowers are 'okay' on a battlefield, but surely many modern battlefields are already covered in civilians. The incendiary weapons and the cluster munitions are a partial failure and saying that they are banned is untrue; it might be better to distinguish between banned and limited.

[15] https://www.un.org/press/en/2021/gadis3666.doc.htm

[16] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geneva_Protocol This covers CBW, just the first of [14]. This is Geneva Protocol 1925, easily muddled with 1924, 1949 (1,2,3), 1977 (1,2) and 2005.  No, I didn't know that either. Oh, and see [17], yet another one, perhaps dated 1980.

[17] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convention_on_Certain_Conventional_Weapons probably called the CCW or the UNCCW, this tries to detail what is 'not allowed' in the sense of being accepted practice. This is another Geneva convention not in the disambiguation list with Wikipedia. The objective is to reduce suffering by combatants and to protect civilians. It lists directly the second to sixth items of the list at [14]. Nations have signed up to some of these, often quite selectively.

[18] https://www.cps.gov.uk/crime-info/terrorism  The specific actions included are:

  • serious violence against a person;
  • serious damage to property;
  • endangering a person's life (other than that of the person committing the action);
  • creating a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public; and
  • action designed to seriously interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.

The use or threat of action, as set out above, which involves the use of firearms or explosives is terrorism regardless of whether or not the action is designed to influence the government or an international governmental organisation or to intimidate the public or a section of the public.  My emphasis.

[19] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_terrorist_incidents_in_Great_Britain

why?  Email: David@Scoins.net      © David Scoins 2021