What Is Guerrilla Warfare? Definition, Tactics, and Examples

Members of the Afghan guerrilla group Mujahideen in 1987 during war with Soviet Union.
Members of the Afghan guerrilla group Mujahideen in 1987 during war with Soviet Union. The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images / Getty Images

Guerrilla warfare is waged by civilians who are not members of a traditional military unit, such as a nation’s standing army or police force. In many cases, guerrilla combatants are fighting to overthrow or weaken a ruling government or regime.

This type of warfare is typified by sabotage, ambushes, and surprise raids on unsuspecting military targets. Often fighting in their own homeland, guerrilla combatants (also referred to as rebels or insurgents) use their familiarity with the local landscape and terrain to their advantage.

Key Takeaways: Guerrilla Warfare

  • Guerrilla warfare was first described by Sun Tzu in The Art of War.
  • Guerrilla tactics are characterized by repeated surprise attacks and efforts to limit movement of enemy troops.
  • Guerrilla groups also use tactics of propaganda to recruit fighters and win the support of local populations.

History

The use of guerrilla warfare was first suggested in the 6th century BC by Chinese general and strategist Sun Tzu, in his classic book, The Art of War. In 217 BC, Roman Dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus, often called the “father of guerrilla warfare,” used his “Fabian strategy” to defeat the mighty invading army of Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca. In the early 19th century, citizens of Spain and Portugal used guerrilla tactics to defeat Napoleon’s superior French army in the Peninsular War. More recently, guerrilla fighters led by Che Guevara assisted Fidel Castro in overthrowing Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista during the Cuban Revolution of 1952.

Largely due to its use by leaders like Mao Zedong in China and Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam, guerrilla warfare is generally thought of in the West only as a tactic of communism. However, history has shown this to be a misconception, as a multitude of political and social factors have motivated citizen-soldiers.

Purpose and Motivation

Guerrilla warfare is generally considered a war motivated by politics—a desperate struggle of common people to right the wrongs done to them by an oppressive regime that rules by military force and intimidation.

When asked what motivates guerrilla warfare, Cuban Revolution leader Che Guevara gave this famous response:

“Why does the guerrilla fighter fight? We must come to the inevitable conclusion that the guerrilla fighter is a social reformer, that he takes up arms responding to the angry protest of the people against their oppressors, and that he fights in order to change the social system that keeps all his unarmed brothers in ignominy and misery.”

History, however, has shown that public perception of guerrillas as heroes or villains depends on their tactics and motivations. While many guerrillas have fought to secure basic human rights, some have initiated unjustified violence, even using terrorist tactics against other civilians who refuse to join their cause.

For example, in Northern Ireland during the late 1960s, a civilian group calling itself the Irish Republican Army (IRA) conducted a series of attacks against British security forces and public establishments in the country, as well as Irish citizens who they believed to be loyal to British Crown. Characterized by tactics such as indiscriminate bombings, often taking the lives of uninvolved civilians, the IRA’s attacks were described as acts of terrorism by both the media and the British government.

Guerrilla organizations run the gamut, from small, localized groups ("cells") to regionally dispersed regiments of thousands of well-trained fighters. The groups’ leaders typically express clear political goals. Along with strictly military units, many guerrilla groups also have political wings assigned to develop and distribute propaganda for recruiting new fighters and winning the support of the local civilian population.

Guerrilla Warfare Tactics

In his 6th century book The Art of War, Chinese General Sun Tzu summarized the tactics of guerrilla warfare:

“Know when to fight and when not to fight. Avoid what is strong and strike at what is weak. Know how to deceive the enemy: appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”

Reflecting General Tzu’s teachings, guerrilla fighters use small and fast-moving units to launch repeated surprise “hit-and-run” attacks. The goal of these attacks is to destabilize and demoralize the larger enemy force while minimizing their own casualties. In addition, some guerrilla groups home that the frequency and nature of their attacks will provoke their enemy to carry out counter-attacks so excessively brutal that they inspire support for the rebel cause. Facing overwhelming disadvantages in manpower and military hardware, the ultimate goal of guerrilla tactics is typically the eventual withdrawal of the enemy army, rather than its total surrender. 

Guerrilla fighters often attempt to limit the movement of enemy troops, weapons, and supplies by attacking enemy supply line facilities like bridges, railroads, and airfields. In an effort to blend in with the local population guerrilla fighters rarely were uniforms or identifying insignia. This tactic of stealth helps them utilize the element of surprise in their attacks.

Dependent on the local population for support, guerrilla forces employ both military and political arms. The political arm of a guerrilla group specializes in the creation and dissemination of propaganda intended not only to recruit new fighters but also win the hearts and minds of the people.

Guerrilla Warfare vs. Terrorism

While they both employ many of the same tactics and weapons, there are important differences between guerrilla fighters and terrorists.

Most importantly, terrorists rarely attack defended military targets. Instead, terrorists usually attack so-called “soft targets,” such as civilian aircraft, schools, churches, and other places of public assembly. The September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing are examples of terrorist attacks.

While guerrilla rebels are typically motivated by political factors, terrorists often act out of simple hatred. In the United States, for example, terrorism is often an element of hate crimes—crimes motivated by the terrorist’s prejudice against the victim’s race, color, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

Unlike terrorists, guerrilla fighters rarely attack civilians. In contrast to terrorists, guerrillas move and fight as paramilitary units with the objective of seizing territory and enemy equipment.

Terrorism is now a crime in many countries. The term “terrorism” is sometimes incorrectly used by governments to refer to guerrilla rebels fighting against their regimes.

Guerrilla Warfare Examples

Throughout history, evolving cultural ideologies such as liberty, equality, nationalism, socialism, and religious fundamentalism have motivated groups of people to employ guerrilla warfare tactics in efforts to overcome real or imagined oppression and persecution at the hands of a ruling government or foreign invaders.

While many battles of the American Revolution were fought between conventional armies, civilian American patriots often used guerrilla tactics to disrupt the activities of the larger, better-equipped British Army.

In the Revolution’s opening skirmish—the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775—a loosely-organized militia of Colonial American civilians used guerrilla warfare tactics in driving back the British Army. American General George Washington often used local guerrilla militias in support of his Continental Army and utilized unconventional guerrilla tactics such as spying and sniping. In the final stages of the war, a South Carolina citizen militia used guerrilla tactics to drive British commanding General Lord Cornwallis out of the Carolinas to his ultimate defeat in the Battle of Yorktown in Virginia. 

South African Boer Wars

The Boer Wars in South Africa pitted 17th-century Dutch settlers known as the Boers against the British Army in a struggle for control of two South African republics founded by the Boers in 1854. From 1880 until 1902, the Boers, dressed in their drab farming clothes, used guerrilla tactics such as stealth, mobility, knowledge of the terrain, and long-range sniping to successfully repel the brightly-uniformed invading British forces.

By 1899, the British changed their tactics to better deal with Boer attacks. Finally, British troops began interring civilian Boers into concentration camps after torching their farms and houses. With their source of food almost gone, the Boer guerrillas surrendered in 1902. However, generous terms of self-governance granted to them by England demonstrated the effectiveness of guerrilla warfare in securing concessions from a more powerful foe.

Nicaraguan Contra War

Guerrilla warfare is not always successful and can, in fact, have negative results. During the height of the Cold War from 1960 to 1980, urban guerrilla movements fought to overthrow or at least weaken the oppressive military regimes ruling several Latin American countries. While the guerrillas did temporarily destabilize the governments of counties such as Argentina, Uruguay, Guatemala, and Peru, their militaries eventually wiped out the rebels, while also committing human rights atrocities on the civilian population as both a punishment and a warning.

From 1981 to 1990, “Contra” guerrillas attempted to topple the Marxist Sandinista government of Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan Contra War represented the era’s many “proxy wars”—wars instigated or supported by Cold War super-powers and archenemies, the Soviet Union and the United States, without directly fighting each other. The Soviet Union supported the Sandinista government’s military, while the United States, as part of President Ronald Reagan’s anti-communist Reagan Doctrine, controversially backed the Contra guerillas. The Contra War ended in 1989 when both the Contra guerrillas and the Sandinista government troops agreed to demobilize. In a national election held in 1990, anti-Sandinista parties took over control of Nicaragua.

Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

In late 1979, the military of the Soviet Union (now Russia) invaded Afghanistan in an effort to support the communist Afghan government in its long-running battle with anticommunist Muslim guerrillas. Known as the Mujahideen, the Afghan guerrillas were a collection of local tribesmen who initially fought the Soviet troops from horseback with obsolete World War I rifles and sabers. The conflict escalated into a decade-long proxy war when the United States began supplying the Mujahideen guerrillas with modern weapons including advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft guided missiles.

Over the next 10 years, the Mujahideen parlayed their U.S.-supplied weapons and superior knowledge of the rugged Afghan terrain to inflict ever more costly damage on the far larger Soviet army. Already dealing with a deepening economic crisis at home, the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in 1989.

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