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Insurgency and Counterinsurgency (Module)

Module description


  • Induction and Orientation module
  • If studying War in the Modern World you must also complete History of Contemporary Warfare 1: the early Cold War, 1945–1975 and History of Contemporary Warfare 2: from Cold War to War on Terror, 1975-2011.
  • If studying International Relations and Contemporary War, you must also complete International Relations and Contemporary War 1: Theories and Concepts and International Relations and Contemporary War 2: Problems and Issues.

Study units

  • Before Mao
  • Maoist and After
  • Transition
  • Complex Irregular Warfare
  • Global Insurgency


This module is about forms of conflict known as insurgency, acts of rebellion against constituted political authorities. There are many ways of challenging the political order through violent and non-violent means, and the subject of insurgency is consequently a broad one. For many years, it has suffered relative professional and academic neglect, perhaps because it is so complex and perhaps also because it generates much confusion and debate. Ultimately, it refuses to be straitjacketed into the rubric of ‘regular’ war, a situation compounded by a series of recent conflicts that throw into question strategic assumptions about contemporary and future warfare.

This module takes an evolutionary approach to the study of insurgency. Insurgency can be traced back millennia as a means of mobilising collective action by the population against an established administrative authority or state, but we focus in this module on the more recent history of insurgency and counterinsurgency (COIN).

Unit 1, 'Before Mao', looks at the roots of insurgency in order to outline its enduring principles and features. We look in particular at the legacy of one of the more romantic insurgent figures, Lawrence of Arabia, who wrote a treatise on The Science of Guerrilla Warfare. We will also examine the defining tactical method of the insurgent – propaganda of the deed – before moving on to consider pre-Maoist counterinsurgency, focusing primarily on British practice and theory.

Unit 2, 'Maoist Insurgency,' begins with the 1949 victory of Mao's revolution in China and describes the essential characteristics of Maoist insurgency, the insurgent archetype for many decades after. We explore the counterinsurgency doctrines that emerged in response to it, with a particular focus on Galula and Kitson. We will also consider the varying approaches of France in Indochina, Britain in Malaya and the United States in Vietnam, in order to understand the respective outcomes in these campaigns.

Unit 3, 'Transition', explores the evolution of the Maoist prototype of insurgency to a form more reflective of the increasingly urbanised and international post-WWII world. A major focus is on how two insurgent groups in particular, the IRA and the PLO, harnessed the international media to achieve their strategic aims. We will also look at the phenomenon of failing states and its impact on insurgency thinking, and discuss the characteristics of the so-called 'new wars' and other ways of understanding insurgent violence after the end of the Cold War.

Unit 4, ‘The Counterinsurgency Revival’, focuses on expeditionary COIN in the early 21st century and how COIN theory and practice have been applied, misapplied and argued over. We also explore what the implications of these debates are for force posture and structure, and for national strategy and international security, in the years to come. We will look at the case studies of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq and assess how American and British COIN doctrine and practice fared in these expeditionary conflicts.

Unit 5, ‘Global Insurgency’, assesses evolutionary theories proposing a new mode of political violence, the ‘global insurgency’, epitomised thus far by al-Qaeda since 9/11. We look at insurgency as a globalised form of political violence, enabled by networked flows of people, resources and ideas in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world. We ask whether there is a new ‘virtual’ dimension of political violence and how we might revise the concept of propaganda of the deed as a key strategic factor in global insurgencies fought not only on physical battlefields but in the hearts and minds of diverse and globalised populations.

*Please note that module information is indicative and may change from year to year.

Staff information

Not applicable

Teaching pattern

One-term course, 1 x 11 weeks

Module assessment - more information

All War Studies Online modules are 20-credit modules and will be assessed by:

  • 1 x 1500-word short essay
  • 1 x 3000-word long essay
  • In addition you will be assessed on participation within the discussions

Key information

Module code 7SSWM187

Credit level 7

Assessment coursework

Credit value 20 credits

Semester Full-year

Study abroad module No