Irregular soldier fighting in a small, unofficial unit, typically against an established or occupying power, and engaging in sabotage, ambush, and the like, rather than pitched battles against an opposing army. Guerrilla tactics have been used both by resistance armies in wartime (for example, the Vietnam War) and in peacetime by national liberation groups and militant political extremists (for example, the Tamil Tigers).
The term was first applied to the Spanish and Portuguese resistance to French occupation during the Peninsular War 1808–14. Guerrilla techniques were widely used in World War II – for example, in Greece and the Balkans. Political activists who resort to violence, particularly urban guerrillas, tend to be called ‘freedom fighters’ by those who support their cause, ‘terrorists’ by those who oppose it. Efforts by governments to put a stop to their activities have had only sporadic success. The Council of Europe has set up the European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism, to which many governments are signatories. In the UK the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1984 was aimed particularly at the Irish Republican Army.
Despite their earlier condemnation, many guerrilla leaders have eventually entered the political process; Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is an example.
The Institute for the Study of Terrorism was founded in London 1986.
Abu Sayyaf Militant Islamic guerrilla group involved in the kidnapping of foreign tourists and violence in the Philippines from 2000, and fighting for an Islamic state.
Action Directe French group in alliance with Red Army Faction (see below); carried out bombings in Paris and elsewhere.
Amal Shiite Muslim militia in Lebanon, formed in 1970. It fought a long campaign against Palestinian refugees in the 1975–90 Lebanese Civil War called the War of the Camps. It also fought its fellow Shi'a group Hezbollah for control of Beirut, before Syrian forces intervened in 1987.
Armed Forces for a Federal Republic (FARF) rebel force in Chad, which signed a peace agreement with the government in April 1997.
Armed Islamic Group (GIA) Islamic extremist group in Algeria, based south and west of Algiers, seeking to establish an Islamic state, and responsible for a wave of killings of civilians 1992–98.
Armed Revolutionary Nuclei (NAR) neofascist group; responsible for 1980 bomb in Bologna railway station, Italy, which killed 76.
Black September Palestinian group named after the month when Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas active in Jordan were suppressed by the Jordanian army; killed 11 Israelis at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972.
Bougainville Revolutionary Army secessionist force active in the Papua New Guinea's island province of Bougainville since 1989. A permanent truce was signed with the Papua New Guinea government in 1998, after nine years of fighting that had claimed around 20,000 lives.
Chūkaku-ha (Middle Core Faction) Japanese Trotskyist group founded in 1959; claimed responsibility for a rocket attack during the Tokyo summit in 1986, and for missile attacks on January 1990 on residences in Kyoto and Tokyo belonging to the emperor's brother.
Contras right-wing guerrillas in Nicaragua who opposed the democratically elected Sandinista government in the early 1980s; received funding from the USA.
Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA), Basque separatist movement in northern Spain; responsible for more than 800 deaths 1968–95, including national and local political figures. In March 2006 it declared a ‘permanent ceasefire’, but it broke the ceasefire on 30 December 2006 with a car bomb attack at Madrid Barajas airport, which killed two Ecuadorean immigrants.
Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) Palestinian Sunni Islamic fundamentalist organization, opposed to the Palestine Liberation Organization's 1993 peace accord with Israel; active, through its militant wing Al Qassam, in the Intifada 1987–93 in the occupied territories; launched several suicide bomb attacks against Israeli citizens from 1994 in attempt to derail peace process. In 1995, a splinter group, based in Gaza, accepted the authority of the PLO leader Yassir Arafat. After Arafat's death in 2004 Hamas's political wing entered local elections and in 2006 surprisingly won the parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority.
Hezbollah Shiite Muslim militia organization in Lebanon, the extremist wing of Amal (see above); backed by Syria and Iran. It fights to establish an Islamic state in Lebanon and to destroy Israel.
Irish Republican Army (IRA) organization committed to the formation of a unified Irish republic; planted bomb in Brighton hotel hosting Conservative Party conference in 1984; launched mortar bomb in 1991 on 10 Downing Street, London, which narrowly missed Prime Minister John Major. Ceasefire 1994–February 1996. Although the IRA has been described as the military wing of the political party Sinn Fein, the Sinn Fein leadership has distanced itself from IRA violence. A new IRA ceasefire was declared in July 1997, paving the way for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement for peace in Northern Ireland, but there were some subsequent breaches attributed to a breakaway faction. In July 2005 the IRA's army council announced an end to its armed campaign and instructed all members to dump their weapons.
Karen National Union (KNU) ethnic-based regional secessionist movement active since the late 1940s in southeastern Myanmar (Burma), fighting the government through its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). As other secessionist groups have signed ceasefire agreements with Myanmar's military government since 1993, the KNU has faced concentrated offensives by government forces.
Khmer Rouge communist guerrilla movement that ruled Cambodia 1974–78 and fought to re-establish control. It was dissolved formally in 1996 by its leader Pol Pot, but remnants remained after Pol Pot's death in 1998. Its other leader, Ta Mok (‘The Butcher’), died in custody in 2006, while other leading figures awaited trial on war crime charges.
Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) separatist paramilitary force which, from 1997–99, has fought for the independence of this predominantly Albanian province of Kosovo. It was disarmed in 1999.
National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC) banned guerrilla group, formed in 1976, that fights for Corsica's independence from France but is regarded as a terrorist organization by France. It has been behind a series of terrorist bombings and bank robberies.
Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) organization originally committed to the creation of a separate Palestinian state, but from 1993 pledged to peaceful coexistence with Israel.
Québec Liberation Front (FLQ) separatist organization in Canada committed to the creation of an independent French-speaking Québec; kidnapped and killed minister Pierre Laporte 1970.
Red Army organization in Japan; killed 26 people at Lod airport in Israel 1972; attacked the US embassy in Indonesia 1986 and 1987.
Red Army Faction (RAF) organization opposed to ‘US imperialism’, formerly led by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, active in western Germany from 1968. Popularly known as the Baader–Meinhof gang, it officially disbanded in 1998.
Red Brigades extremist left-wing groups in Italy; infiltrated by right-wing agents who kidnapped and murdered Christian Democrat prime minister Aldo Moro 1978; kidnapped US Brig-Gen James Lee Dozier 1981.
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) Colombian left-wing movement. Originally set up in 1949 under the Communist Party of Colombia, it reformed following a 1964 army invasion and has been active since the 1970s, along with the national Liberation Army (ELN). In March 1998 the ELN agreed to peace talks with the government, but the FARC inflicted a major military defeat on government forces, claiming 80 lives. It has around 15,000 members, with strong bases in the country's southeastern jungles.
Sandinista National Liberation Front (SNLF) Marxist organization that overthrew the dictatorship in Nicaragua 1978–79 to form its own government. It was defeated in elections in February 1990 but in its leader, Daniel Ortega, became president of Nicaragua again from 2007.
Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) Peruvian Maoist organization committed to the overthrow of the government. The organization leader, Abimael Guzman Renaro, was captured in 1992 and more than 6,000 of its guerrillas surrendered to the authorities in 1994. The movement had been sporadically active since the early 1990s.
Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) military wing of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), engaged in civil war in Sudan 1983–2005. Based in South Sudan and largely non-Muslim and non-Arabic it succeeded in its aim of establishing an independent democratic South Sudan following a referendum in 2011.
Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) organization that kidnapped Patricia Hearst, granddaughter of a newspaper tycoon, in the USA 1974.
Tamil Tigers Tamil separatist organization in Sri Lanka. A ceasefire between them and the government broke down in 1995, and the organization was outlawed in 1998. In 2001 the Tigers dropped their demand for a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka and said they would be satisfied with regional autonomy.
Tupamaros left-wing urban guerrillas founded by Raoul Sendic in Montevideo, Uruguay, 1960; named after Peruvian Indian leader Túpac Amarú. During 1996–97 they held 80 hostages in the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru.
Ulster Defence Association (UDA) Protestant anti-IRA organization in Northern Ireland, formed in 1971 to fight to retain British rule in Northern Ireland; its paramilitary wing is the Ulster Freedom Fighters. In November 2005, the UDA announced it would ‘consider its future’ in the light of the IRA standing down.
UNITA (National Front for the Total Independence of Angola) nationalist force formed in Angola by Jonas Savimbi in 1966. It fought the MPLA regime, in power since 1976, despite signing peace agreements in 1991 and 1996. In 1998 UNITA was demilitarized and formally legalized.
Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) Mexican movement which, since 1994, has been fighting for the autonomy and the rights of the indigenous Maya people in the poor southern province of Chiapas. Led by Subcomandate Marcos, the EZLN is an armed but non-violent revolutionary group which sees itself as part of a wider antiglobalization movement.