This is a Stratfor (George Freidman) analysis of this contentious issue.
Strategic Forecasting said:We have received many reader comments, queries and complaints about our use of the term "jihadist." Some have suggested that by referring to Muslim militants as jihadists -- a term a few readers define as "holy warriors" -- we are being too kind. "Why not just call them terrorists and be done with it?" some have asked.
In Arabic, the word "jihad" can mean to "struggle" or "strive for" something. The word also can be applied to an armed struggle. One engaged in such struggles is called a mujahid (mujahideen in the plural). The term we use to identify militant Islamists seeking to establish an Islamic polity via "jihad," therefore, is "jihadist." Another hallmark of the jihadists is that they disproportionately adhere to extremist and radical Wahhabism. Therefore, in English, jihadists are those who seek to topple current regimes through warfare and establish in their place what they deem as Islamic rule.
By extension, jihadism is the ideology of such militant nonstate Muslim actors who seek this goal through armed insurrection. Many militant Islamists have appropriated classical definitions of jihad for themselves. In many cases, this is an attempt by militants to exploit the classical Islamic concept of jihad as a means to bring legitimacy to their causes.
However, mainstream Muslims (the vast majority of whom are not radicals) do not consider the term "jihadist" as an authentic way -- within the context of classical Islam -- to describe those who claim to be fighting on their behalf. In fact, those called jihadists in the Western context are considered deviants by mainstream Muslims. Therefore, calling someone a jihadist reflects this perception of deviancy. Just as Westerners cannot agree on a term for such fighters -- terrorists, militants, insurgents, etc. -- Muslims also have not agreed on a single term to describe them.
On the other hand, the Arabic word mujahideen has at its root the word mujahid, or someone who is engaged in jihad. Mujahideen is used to refer to combatants engaged in a legitimate armed struggle against a non-Islamic enemy, such as the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Therefore, we do not refer to most contemporary militant Islamist actors as mujahideen.
To complicate matters, U.S. military personnel often refer to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan as the "Muj," a derivation of the term mujahideen that entered the American lexicon during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. More derogatorily, U.S. personnel sometimes refer to their enemy as "Haji," which actually is a reference to a Muslim who has made the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca -- a requirement of all able-bodied Muslims and thus a term of honor. Therefore, the improper use of terminology can actually strengthen the jihadist cause because it plays into jihadist claims that the war on terrorism is a war against Islam.
Title 22 of the U.S. Code, Section 2656f(d): defines terrorism as "... premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience." The term implies criminal activity, which is certainly the perspective of most governments and victims of terrorist attacks. One person's terrorist can be another's freedom fighter, however.
A militant is defined as a nonstate actor participating in an armed struggle, usually against a state. In order to avoid taking sides on the ideological issue, we use the term militant to describe groups or individuals that commit terrorist attacks. The term jihadist acknowledges the fact that Muslim militants have adopted the classical Islamic concept of jihad into their ideology, but also provides for the distinction between them and legitimate mujahideen.