By Barry Rubin Friday, December 4, 2009
Let me start with a true story. In 1984 I founded what was just about the first program on terrorism in the United States, at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) with a small grant from the Ford Foundation. We brought together journalists, officials, and academics to discuss the threat of terrorism to the United States and U.S. policies. I edited three books on terrorist groups.
After the grant ended I went to the Ford Foundation office in New York to discuss renewing it. The grants’ officer had made up his mind before I stepped into his room. “We aren’t going to renew the grant,” he said, “because we don’t believe terrorism will be a problem in the future.”
This experience came into my mind as I was conversing with a leading world expert on terrorism who asked me an interesting question: Has state sponsorship of terrorism declined nowadays? It was a very good question indeed.
A superficial examination would say that the answer is “Yes.” But a more careful look suggests that this is illusory in two respects. First, the state sponsorship that is continuing is largely overlooked. Second, terrorism has gone big-time and mainstream.
In the old days, a wide range of countries systematically supported terrorism internationally. These particularly included Cuba, the Soviet bloc, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and North Korea. Iran and Afghanistan entered the field after Islamist revolutions there. Several of these countries were Communist, and with the fall of the Soviet empire in 1991 their involvement declined. With the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq dropped out. The same U.S. invasion of Iraq that brought down Saddam also intimidated Libya, that most wild-eyed of dictatorships, into caution.
Then, too, there arose Usama bin Ladin and the many radical Islamist groups that formed part of his organization. The word was that terrorism had been privatized, backed by the bin Ladin family wealth rather than the treasury of any specific country. Moreover, the PLO largely transformed itself into the Palestinian Authority, which negotiated with Israel and looked to the United States as its main aid-giver. State sponsorship, it appears, has gone out of fashion.
Under intensive pressure from Turkey, Syria expelled the Kurdish terrorist PKK. Bin Ladin voluntarily left Sudan, while he and his Taliban sponsors were on the run after the post-9/11 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Cuba and North Korea quieted down, in part because they felt so much on the offensive and overt sponsorship of major terrorist attacks seemed too risky with the United States waging a War on Terrorism.
And yet while there has been a decline in state sponsorship in many ways, appearances are also deceiving and even that lull may be partly illusory. Three countries stand out today as especially energetic: Iran, Syria, and Pakistan. While stating that as a fact is not so surprising, the consequences of this sponsorship has been strongly downplayed by the media and Western governments for strategic or diplomatic reasons. After all, to admit and define a problem is to create pressure for doing something about it. In addition, the idea that al-Qaida is without state sponsorship has become a dogma which resists evidence to the contrary.
Let’s examine the issue in detail starting with Pakistan. There is a huge amount of evidence that Pakistan sponsors the Taliban and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan as well as those attacking India. The organizations which carried out the bloody Mumbai attack in 2008 and much terrorism in disputed Indian Kashmir, for example, operate freely in Pakistan and it is hard to believe that Pakistani military intelligence is not well appraised of each detail of their plans. Indeed, it funds and protects them.
Why, then, is not this seen globally as a major instance of state sponsorship of terrorism? Because Pakistan is needed by the United States to conduct operations in and near Afghanistan. Thus, Pakistan is regarded as a U.S. ally, receives massive funding, and little criticism. The Indian government cannot retaliate no matter how great is the provocation since it lacks international support and Pakistan is a nuclear power. Thus, Pakistan has become a state sponsorship of terrorism which is immune to pressure or punishment.
As for Syria, it is an active state sponsor of terrorism on several fronts. In recent years, it was deeply involved in terrorist attacks in Lebanon against moderates who advocated the expulsion of Syrian influence and a more independent policy for their own country. In conjunction with Iran and Hizballah, assassinations were carried out that included the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. An international tribunal was set up to investigate this responsibility but despite leaks that it found involvement by the highest elements in the Syrian government, the West has not pushed for the culmination of the tribunal and Lebanon has been intimidated out of doing so.
At the same time, Syria and Iran backed two major terrorist groups, Hamas and Hizballah, in attacking Israel. They are headquartered in Damascus and while in no way purely puppets or instruments of their two sponsors certainly pay close attention to their wishes. Their weapons and budget are largely supplied from Tehran and Damascus. Yet for a variety of reasons, ranging from Israeli policy to U.S. engagement efforts, Syria does not pay much of a penalty for its behavior.
Perhaps more shocking is the fact that Syria is waging a war of terrorism against America in Iraq and the group it is sponsoring there is al-Qaida. Thus, it is an open secret that Syria is now allied with al-Qaida, the group that carried out the September 11 attacks on America, yet pointing out the logical bottom line seems to many people as some far-out or silly notion. Moreover, terrorists trained, armed, financed, and given safe haven in Syria are killing American soldiers and civilians in Iraq. Yet the U.S. government won’t even back Iraqi complaints and demands for action on this issue.
Lip service is given to Iran’s being the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism but many argue that this activity has declined in recent years. To do so, however, they must leave out Iranian operations in regard to Hamas, Hizballah, and insurgents in Iraq, which include direct attacks (often through Iranian-made roadside bombs) against U.S. troops.
The current defense minister of Iran is a wanted terrorist for his involvement in the bloody attack on the Jewish center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, while he and his predecessor, then stationed in Lebanon, were involved in the attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1984 which killed 241 Americans. This last point has not even been mentioned by any U.S. official. Few Americans know that a U.S. court found Iranian involvement in the terrorist attack on American military personnel in the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.
Since the emphasis now is on conciliation rather than confrontation, Western governments find it convenient to forget past and ignore present-day state sponsorship of terrorism.
All of this leads to the second point: the mainstreaming of terrorism. Hamas now rules the Gaza Strip; Hizballah has ministers in the Lebanese government. Both have run in elections. There are many in the West who argues—though this has nothing to do with reality—that these groups each have a military wing (bad) and a political wing (good). There is tremendous pressure in Europe, especially Britain, to engage with the “good” Hizballah.
Indeed, the advisor to President Barack Obama on terrorism stated that Hizballah couldn’t be a terrorist organization because its membership included lawyers. Further afield, the Sri Lankan terrorist group, the Tamil Tigers, has attained respectability, notably in Canada. The Tigers’ representative in the United States, V. Rudrakumaran, is himself a lawyer. In Europe, the PKK runs a television station, while Hizballah’s al-Manar television is shown by many cable networks—though barred from others—around the world. With the Goldstone Commission report, the UN has been transformed into a propaganda organ for Hamas, despite the report’s minor criticisms of that group which did not appear in the General Assembly’s resolution bashing Israel.
Thus, state sponsorship has been airbrushed out for political reasons, while terrorist groups have reinvented themselves as political parties without abandoning their ideology or terrorism. Since terrorism has proven to be so profitable and sponsorship so low cost, it is reasonable to worry that both phenomena will increase in future and that the current period will prove to be a lull and not an end. Unfortunately, it is a lull during which the West is helping to show that these are low-risk, high-yield policies for radical regimes.