Insurgencies and counterinsurgencies have been common throughout history, but especially since the beginning of the 20th century. The United States began that century by defeating the Philippine Insurrection. The turmoil of World War I and its aftermath produced numerous internal wars. Trotsky and Lenin seized power in Russia and then defended the new regime against counterrevolutionaries. T.E. Lawrence and Arab forces used guerrilla tactics to overcome the Ottoman Turks during the Arab Revolt.
"Before World War I, insurgencies were mostly conservative; insurgents were usually concerned with defending hearth, home, monarchies, and traditional religion." Governments were seldom able to completely defeat these insurgencies; violence would recur when conditions favored a rebellion. For example, the history of the British Isles includes many recurring insurgencies by subjugated peoples based on ethnic identities. Another example of a conservative insurgency is the early 19th century Spanish uprising against Napoleon that sapped French strength and contributed significantly to Napoleon’s defeat.
"Since World War I, insurgencies have generally had more revolutionary purposes." The Bolshevik takeover
of Russia demonstrated a conspiratorial approach to overthrowing a government; it spawned a communist movement that supported further “wars of national liberation.” Lawrence’s experiences in the Arab Revolt made him a hero and also provide some insights for today. The modern era of insurgencies and internal wars began after World War II. Many of the resistance movements against German and Japanese occupation continued after the Axis defeat in 1945. As nationalism rose, the imperial powers declined. Motivated by nationalism and communism, people began forming governments viewed as more responsive to their needs. The development of increasingly lethal and portable killing technologies dramatically increased the firepower available to insurgent groups. As important was the increase in the news media’s ability to get close to conflicts and transmit imagery locally and globally. "In 1920, T.E. Lawrence noted, “The printing press is the greatest weapon in the armory of the modern commander.” Today, he might have added, “and the modern insurgent,” though certainly the Internet and compact storage media like cassettes, compact disks, and digital versatile disks (DVDs) have become more important in recent years. Thus, 20th century events transformed the purpose and character of most insurgencies. Most 19th century insurgencies were local movements to sustain the status quo. By the mid-20th century they had become national and transnational revolutionary movements. Clausewitz thought that wars by an armed populace could only serve as a strategic defense; however, theorists after World War II realized that insurgency could be a decisive form of warfare. This era spawned the Maoist, Che Guevara-type focoist, and urban approaches to insurgency.
While some Cold War insurgencies persisted after the Soviet Union’s collapse, many new ones appeared. These new insurgencies typically emerged from civil wars or the collapse of states no longer propped up by Cold War rivalries. Power vacuums breed insurgencies. Similar conditions exist when regimes are changed by force or circumstances. Recently, ideologies based on extremist forms of religious or ethnic identities have replaced ideologies based on secular revolutionary ideals. These new forms of old, strongly held beliefs define the identities of the most dangerous combatants in these new internal wars. These conflicts resemble the wars of religion in Europe before and after the Reformation of the 16th century. People have replaced nonfunctioning national identities with traditional sources of unity and identity. When countering an insurgency during the Cold War, the United States normally focused on increasing a threatened but friendly government’s ability to defend itself and on encouraging political and economic reforms to undercut support for the insurgency. Today, when countering an insurgency growing from state collapse or failure, counterinsurgents often face a more daunting task: helping friendly forces reestablish political order and legitimacy where these conditions may no longer exist.
"Interconnectedness and information technology" are new aspects of this contemporary wave of insurgencies. Using the Internet, insurgents can now link virtually with allied groups throughout a state, a region, and even the entire world. Insurgents often join loose organizations with common objectives but different motivations and no central controlling body, which makes identifying leaders difficult.
"Today’s operational environment also includes a new kind of insurgency, one that seeks to impose revolutionary change worldwide." Al Qaeda is a well-known example of such an insurgency. This movement seeks to transform the Islamic world and reorder its relationships with other regions and cultures. It is notable for its members’ willingness to execute suicide attacks to achieve their ends. Such groups often feed on local grievances. Al Qaeda-type revolutionaries are willing to support causes they view as compatible with their own goals through the provision of funds, volunteers, and sympathetic and targeted propaganda. While the communications and technology used for this effort are often new and modern, the grievances and methods sustaining it are not. As in other insurgencies, terrorism, subversion, propaganda, and open warfare are the tools of such movements. Today, these time-tested tools have been augmented by the precision munition of extremists—suicide attacks. Defeating such enemies requires a global, strategic response—one that addresses the array of linked resources and conflicts that sustain these movements while tactically addressing the local grievances that feed them.