Discussion: Were The Rebel Alliance A Terrorist Organisation?

21st May 2016

Rebel Alliance emblem in red on black

When watching a film we always tend to side with the characters who the film focuses on – the protagonists. It tells their story so naturally we want to watch and be told about their experience, their challenges, their achievements. But as we watch the film through the eyes of these characters, we are only being told their side of the story. What if it turned out that the Rebel Alliance of the Star Wars universe were actually one of the villains of the Star Wars saga?


Terrorism is usually defined as the use of “terror” in order to pursue political or ideological aims. Terror would include the use of extreme fear tactics and violence against people with the intent of helping them to achieve their desired political aims. In this regard you may argue that the Rebel Alliance are terrorists as they use violence in order to bring about a change in regime and the existing political structure. Although it may also be argued that the Rebel Alliance only use violence against military targets so the definition of terrorism would not apply. Both sides of the argument have weight in their claims.

They Are A Terrorist Organisation

  1. Military personnel are not their only victims: The Rebel Alliance targeted multiple imperial locations and outposts. This would imply that all personnel present were military. However, this is virtually entirely untrue. The Death Star was a large space station that as we know from Leia’s imprisonment there, also housed prisoners and would have required support workers to sustain itself unless these tasks were all being completed by droids. If civilian workers were present on both the Death Stars, this would have meant a huge loss to civilian life when each were destroyed. Even if only military were killed, this would not by any means automatically negate the claim of them being a terrorist organisation. The fact that they are not a recognised regime or entity (explained further in this article) means that the fact they target the military may in fact add to supporting the claim that they are terrorists.
  2. They are using violence to achieve their aims: The fact that violent resistance is at the core of what the Rebel Alliance are doing, and that they are doing this to achieve a political aim and change in regime, helps to support the claim of the Rebel Alliance being a terrorist organisation.
  3. The dominant regime believes them to be: The fact that the Empire believes them to be a terrorist organisation is perhaps enough of a reason to label them as such. If they dominant regime believes them to be then technically they are, even if others may label them as “Freedom Fighters”.
  4. They did not have popular support of the masses: There is no evidence to suggest that overall the Rebel Alliance has widespread public support among the citizens of the Galactic Empire. As a matter of fact, since the Empire controlled the media and information that citizens received it is likely that they did indeed carry the view that the Rebel Alliance were terrorists or least of all violent criminals. Furthermore we can find evidence to support the view of popular support for the Empire if we look at the scene from Revenge of the Sith where Palpatine declares that “the Republic will be reorganised into the First Galactic Empire for a safe and secure society”. The response from the senators to this is a round of applause and joy. If the senators supported this motion, believing it provided stability and safety for the masses, it is perhaps reasonable to assume that the general population may have also been pleased with the Chancellor (after being known as the Emperor) being granted greater powers to provide a more stable and secure society for them to be a part of. This can also perhaps be supported by the earlier moment in Attack of the Clones where Jar Jar Binks convinces the senate to vote for emergency powers for the Supreme Chancellor and the joyous response he receives from this. It would seem that the galaxy believed at large that it needed strong and stable leadership to remain at peace. This is what they believed emergency powers to the Chancellor, and later the reorganisation of the Republic to the Empire would provide.
  5. They were not an officially recognised entity: As is demonstrated clearly in the TV Series Star Wars: Rebels, the Rebel movement did not have any direct recognition and was not an official entity by any means. It was more a collection of splintered groups campaigning for similar aims. This has also been hinted in the novel Tarkin (see my review). It just so happened that the largest and most well organised of these groups was led by Princess Leia. But even the Rebel Alliance did not appear to officially be a recognised regime or political entity and did not appear to have any fixed base of operations. Also the fact it was an ‘Alliance’ implies it was a collaborative effort from different groups to organise into one while still technically being separate as opposed to being a fixed, single entity.

They Are Not A Terrorist Organisation

  1. The Empire used propaganda to portray the Rebels as terrorists: The Empire is shown in the non-film Canon and Legends (previously known as the Expanded Universe) continuity to have heavily censored the media and flow of information and communications in the territories that they controlled. The Holonet, which is the Star Wars universe’s equivalent of the Internet, was heavily controlled and sometimes shut down entirely by the Empire. Much of the Empire’s communications would portray their critics as enemies of their society and any planets and people who suffered at the hands of the Empire were presented as a danger to the stability and safety that the Empire wanted its citizens to believe it provided. Star Wars: Aftermath (see my review), a novel set immediately after the events of Return of the Jedi, shows how this belief among much of the population of the Empire of it having been a force for good persisted even after the Empire fell as the propaganda used had a lasting legacy.
  2. Terrorist or Freedom Fighter?: Simply put, what one person views as a terrorist another may view as a freedom fighter. The Rebel movement’s supporters would have believed that their actions were for a just cause so would have viewed them as “Freedom fighters” while imperialists would have viewed their actions as a threat to peace, security and the safety of the Empire’s citizens who were all just trying to go about their lives. So imperialists would have viewed the Rebel movement as a terrorist movement and its members as terrorists. So it is all a matter of perspective.


In conclusion, how you would answer the question of whether or not the term terrorist applies to a member of the Rebellion would depend on your own view and the view of the societies in Star Wars as to what a terrorist would be. Certainly the Empire convinced many citizens to view the Rebel Alliance as a terrorist organisation and in many of the Legends stories, as well as New Canon novels, it is explained how the Empire carefully controlled any news and information being provided to the citizens of the Empire to portray their critics in the worst possible terms. I personally believe the Empire were not all that evil while the Rebel Alliance were not all that bad, and vice versa. Both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance viewed themselves as the heroes and believed that what they were doing was for the greater good that they would achieve through different means. In essence, it could be argued that a “terrorist” is defined by the dominant regime, which in the case of the Star Wars universe of the original trilogy would be the Empire. By this logic the Rebel Alliance are a terrorist organisation (though undoubtedly to many they were also freedom fighters). At the very least, they were a criminal organisation, even if they had good intentions with what they were doing.

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  • Jen'ari-asha 25th May 2016 at 12:08 pm

    Things that are worth mentioning:

    The Rebels condoned a member of Rogue Squadron who deliberately targeted civilians. That is a war crime, and the Rebel’s condoning it makes them complicit. This rebel, Escol Loro, infamously stated “There are no neutrals on a planet, they are either with us or against us”

    The Rebels maintained prisoner camps for Imperial PoW’s. Whilst that is not a crime in and of-itself, those PoW’s never received a fair trial before a court of law, and therefore it is a violation of the rules of war. The Rebels also threatened to execute an Imperial captain for war crimes, which is fine, but that Imperial Captain had not been judged guilty by an international court. Making their threats another war crime.

    As for droids on the Death Star, we actually know the exact number of people on the Death Star. 3,000,000. And we know that 600,000 of those were non-combatants, which would make the attack on the Death Star the single worst terrorist attack in History.

    The Rebels also used children as soldiers. They condoned 16 year olds joining their airforce, and even used kids as young as 11 as support personnel. That’s a big no no from the Geneva Convention.

    For me personally, it comes down to this. Whilst I do not agree with the Rebels’s goal, I do understand their motivations, and I can sympathize with them. But the way that they achieve those goals is completely unacceptable, and good intentions do not justify that, sadly. The Empire was far from perfect, but no matter its flaws, it was an improvement from the Old Republic.

    What the Rebels need to realize is that they can’t solve problems by starting more wars. That won’t fix anything, it’ll only bring more pain and suffering to the people of the galaxy. Remember, the main reason why the Empire was so popular was because people were tired of constant wars.

    And the Rebel’s brilliant solution to people being tired of wars? More wars!

  • otnesse 26th May 2016 at 1:06 pm

    Considering the Rebel Alliance was explicitly stated by George Lucas to be based on the Vietcong and the Galactic Empire likewise was based on Vietnam War-era America since 1973 at the earliest, I’d argue that, yes, the Rebel Alliance was very much a terrorist organization. Really, read up on the horrific acts conducted by the Vietcong, and many of which was to implement Stalinism in Vietnam, and you’ll lose any sympathy and love for the Rebel Alliance. I know it did for me, being very much an anti-Communist due to their trying to commit genocide against Christianity and, heck, any religion in the world, to ensure Karl Marx’s dream came true.

  • otnesse 4th September 2016 at 12:41 pm

    This is more in regards to a reply to Jen’ari-Asha than a true comment, but I digress:

    Your description of Escol Loro sounds very similar to Louis de Saint Just during the Reign of Terror, where he said something very similar (I believe his exact words on October 1793 were that not only the traitors but also the indifferent would have to be exterminated).

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