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Insurrection: From Foreign Threat to Domestic Problem

The events of 6 January, 2021, may have catapulted the United States into a new reality. Historically, most illicit activity in the United States has been defined by categories such as criminal behavior, hate crimes, and terrorism. We now may need to focus more attention on a fourth category: Insurrection.

As a former CIA political analyst, I spent decades studying the politics of foreign countries. I built models of political instability and tracked the prospects of many insurgencies. At the time, insurgency—or, in today’s terms, insurrection—was defined as “a protracted political-military activity directed toward controlling the resources of a country completely or partially through the use of irregular military forces and illegal political organizations.” One month ago, this term gained relevance for the United States.

Insurrectionist activity includes guerrilla warfare and other forms of political mobilization involving propaganda, recruitment, front organizations, and covert entities. Such activities are designed to weaken government legitimacy and control while increasing insurgent power, legitimacy, and control over territory or institutions.

Recent calls to pass a law for domestic terrorism are somewhat misplaced—because the term “terrorism” doesn’t really describe what we are facing. What we need are more robust laws defining and establishing penalties for domestic insurrectionist activity. Insurrectionist activity is distinguishable from terrorist activity in that terrorists do not seek to create an alternate government capable of controlling a given area or the country. Insurrectionist activity, as it revealed itself on 6 January, now poses a far greater threat to US democracy than terrorism.

Political science literature lists insurrectionist groups as having six primary objectives:

  • Destroying the self-confidence of government leaders, causing their abdication, withdrawal, or removal.
  • Increasing domestic legitimacy of the insurrectionists at the expense of the government.
  • Reducing government coercive power while strengthening insurrectionist coercive capabilities and popular support.
  • Limiting the ability of government to provide social services.
  • Obtaining the support or neutrality of critical elements of the population.
  • Gaining international support for the insurrectionist cause and operations.

Analysts who follow insurgencies or insurrections say they usually pass through four stages of development (see table below). In the United States, we appear to be moving from Stage II to Stage III, crossing the boundary from free speech to insurrectionist behavior and supporting activity. If such a transition is occurring, the country will need more robust investigative authorities for dealing with Stage II activities and better articulated legal structure for prosecuting Stage III insurrectionist acts. The objective is to neutralize the political impact of those who are organizing to conduct—and actually engage in—acts of sedition against the US government and its institutions.

Insight into how to use Indicators to track the emergence of insurrectionist behavior can be found in the Analyst’s Guide to Indicators, available at