Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Middle East
     Nov 5, 2005

For reasons of state

Deadly Connections. States That Sponsor Terrorism by Daniel Byman

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Since the end of the Cold War, a myopic fad of obfuscating state-sponsored terrorism as "old talk" has set in, paralleling the fascination among current affairs commentators for non-state actor violence.

In this methodical survey of the regimes that create, nurture, mould and abuse terrorist groups for self-interested objectives, Professor Daniel Byman of Georgetown University restores the state back to the epicenter of the problem. The author's central message is that puppets cannot dance without powerful governmental manipulators. For terrorism to recede, the states profiting from it have to be reined in.

State-sponsored terrorists are more able and willing to kill in large numbers than autochthonous fringe radicals. State-supported terrorist outfits flourish because they are less vulnerable to arrest or disruption. Iran's backing transformed Hezbollah from a disorganized ragtag collection of fighters into a formidable movement that is "a notch above al-Qaeda in many ways". (p 97)

From the terrorist group's point of view, state sponsorship is a devil's bargain. States hold terrorist proteges on a short leash, pulling back whenever they fear direct military clashes with the victim state or international condemnation. Attacks not conducted or targets not struck are good measures of the degree of state control over a terrorist group.

Pakistan, for instance, applies limits on its proxies waging jihad against India in response to US pressure or fear of escalation from New Delhi. Libya and Iraq were notoriously fickle sponsors, alternatively hosting and expelling Palestinian terrorist groups as state goals adjusted to the changing environment.

Byman defines terrorism as violence perpetrated by a non-state entity against non-combatants. "Terrorist-like" actions carried out directly by agents of state are covert acts of war and not equated to terrorism. State sponsorship of terrorism takes different values on a spectrum. Pakistan is an active sponsor of groups fighting for Kashmir, but a passive sponsor of al-Qaeda, turning a blind eye to the latter's bases in the country. States also switch from one form of active support to another, modulating their strings dexterously.

Though far from ideal, terrorism offers weak states a force multiplier for augmenting their feeble conventional sources of power. States choose terrorism instead of more traditional instruments of statecraft due to three general motivations - strategic, domestic political and ideological.

Often, states prop up terrorists for overlapping with insurgencies in which they have a strategic stake. Destabilization of neighboring states over disputed territory or hostile alliances is one of the leading causes for terrorist sponsorship. Iran and Iraq have sustained numerous terrorist groups against each other in an endless game of revenge.

Projecting power regionally, toppling regimes and replacing them with more amenable leaderships, and shaping the nature of opposition against a hated foe (Arab states and Palestinian groups) are other strategic reasons for sponsorship. Exporting an ideology or political system can introduce terrorists as the vanguard of a revolutionary state. Such state sponsors believe that victory is inevitable, whether it is blessed by God or some other deterministic force. Some states abet terrorism as a means to enhance their international prestige and long shadows as regional leaders.

Domestic political motives for sponsorship stem from desires to aid religious or ethnic kindred who are perceived as oppressed or from tactics of bolstering the state's position against dissidents and critics. Pakistani elites, for example, use the Kashmir cause to appease the armed forces or to shore up unity at home among disparate communities that are at loggerheads.

Active sponsorship can be operationalized through several assistance mechanisms - training and operational aid through the state's skilled professionals, money, passports, safe passage, front companies and NGOs, diplomatic sympathy, criticism of victim states' human rights records, ideological direction, safe sanctuary etc. Target states that are at the receiving end of terrorism find it difficult to deliver knockout blows to state-sponsored outfits owing to diplomatic complications, constraints on intelligence gathering and politicization of the terrorist cause.

Byman's first case study is Iran's mentor relationship with Hezbollah, a product of theology and strategic thinking in Tehran. Hezbollah was created to spread the Iranian revolution and prevent Western takeover of Lebanon. It was a loyal proxy that advanced Iran's agenda without provoking military retaliation from Israel and aided in eliminating pro-Iraq groups in Lebanon and anti-Khomeini dissident Iranians in Europe.

Hezbollah received tactical guidance from Iranian diplomats, fundamentalist ardor from Iranian clerics and rigorous training from Iranian intelligence. A state subsidy of US$100 million was also given to Hezbollah at its peak in the 1980s for humanitarian and social work. After (Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini, Iran slightly distanced itself from Hezbollah and urged its "Lebanonization", thanks to growing costs of sponsorship. American covert attempts to overthrow the government in Tehran, sinking of Iranian ships and economic sanctions hurt Iran considerably. Friction with Syria, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council also raised the costs of underwriting Hezbollah.

Byman's second case study is Syria's "antagonistic sponsorship" of Palestinian terrorists. Aiming to improve bargaining vis-a-vis Israel and as part of its rivalry with Jordan and Iraq, Damascus has opened and shut the taps on an array of Palestinian groups. The Assad dynasty, which belongs to the minority Alawi community, also supports terrorist causes to make up for its legitimacy deficit in Syrian society.

After being routed by Israel in 1967, 1973 and 1982 (in Lebanon), direct military confrontation was unthinkable for Syria. Terrorism came in handy to level this asymmetry. Since the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fiercely resisted Syrian hegemony, Damascus consistently backed former PLO leader Yasser Arafat's rival outfits - Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and PFLP-General Command. These groups were trained in Lebanon with Iranian collaboration and handled by Syria's Directorate of Internal Security.

As Syria widened the fissures in the Palestinian nationalist movement, it unwittingly gave Israel the upper hand. Other costs of sponsorship incurred by Damascus are Israeli hesitation to return occupied land and US sanctions. Syria did abandon the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in 1998 under threat of massive Turkish military attack, but it remains an active sponsor of Palestinian groups despite the costs.

Byman's third case study is Pakistan's funding, arming, training and diplomatic support of varied terrorist groups active in Indian Kashmir. So close is the tie between the Pakistani state and these outfits that its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) "selects targets, including civilian ones and knows about major attacks in advance". (p 156)

After jettisoning secular groups early in the Kashmir insurgency, Islamabad placed its bets on Islamicizing movements such as Jaish-e-Muhammad, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba. Pakistan also inserted foreign fighters from the Taliban and al-Qaeda to boost the sagging fortunes of these movements from time to time. Due to the sanctuary offered on Pakistani soil, New Delhi has not succeeded in crushing the cells that infiltrate and exfiltrate across borders.

The broad bureaucratic and political support for annexing Kashmir means that Pakistan can never snap its ties to the terror groups, despite the tarnishing of its image and backdoor American arm-twisting. Byman make a very pertinent point in this regard that "Pakistan's cooperation on al-Qaeda limits US leverage on Kashmir." (p 185)

The last case study of the book is that of Afghanistan under the Taliban and its symbiosis with al-Qaeda from 1996 to 2001. Unique in the annals of state sponsorship, al-Qaeda had more influence on its state sponsor by virtue of its indispensable military and financial largesse than the other way around.

Unlike other conventional state sponsors, the Taliban did not and could not restrict al-Qaeda operations. Another distinct feature of this case is that "the story of the Taliban's support for al-Qaeda is a triangular one: it includes Pakistan. (p 189) From the haven in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda raised 10,000 to 20,000 guerrillas to wage insurgencies around the world and a smaller but more lethal number of terrorists that carried out sensational attacks in several states. Since the Taliban were dethroned, al-Qaeda has managed to survive but lost the freedom and scope to recruit and plan on the same scale as before.

Byman's chapter on passive sponsors focuses on diasporas and public-opinion factors that push some states to turn a blind eye to terrorist mobilization, fund-raising and regrouping. The Saudi Arabian state allowed private individuals and charities to donate to terrorist causes in Kashmir, Chechnya, Bosnia, Afghanistan and elsewhere as a strategy of managing domestic dissent.

Only after the May and November 2003 attacks in the kingdom did Riyadh move to substantively improve its counter-terrorism capacity. Nonetheless, unofficial Saudi financial support for radical Wahhabi (Islamic reform) movements continues right under the nose of the US.

Byman adds mini-studies of Greece and the November 17 group as well as the US and the Provisional Irish Republican Army to argue that passive support for terrorism can be overcome through policy interventions that raise the costs of apathy for the sponsor.

Moving to cracking the harder nut of active sponsorship, the author feels that it is "difficult at best and impossible at worst". (p 273) Punishments often fail to amend behavior of active sponsors, as they cleverly anticipate the feasible range of boomerangs before starting to shelter and train groups.

Ideologically possessed sponsors are the most intractable, due to their irrational policy calculus. Some states are adept at tactical concessions that preserve the groups under new names or in temporary hibernation. A first step in effective counter-terrorism would be to recognize variations in the motivations of the sponsor and tailor responses accordingly.

One-size-fits-all solutions fail. Economic sanctions were unsuitable for Iran under Khomeini and Afghanistan under the Taliban. Limited use of force backfired by boosting Hezbollah's popularity when Israel attacked Lebanon in 1993 and 1996. Byman faults the US for failing to set priorities and mixing up counter-terrorism with other foreign-policy concerns such as non-proliferation, drug trafficking and human rights.

Multilateralism always yields better outcomes, as the case of Libya's big turnaround under pressure of UN sanctions demonstrates. Byman stresses the vitality of timing in counter-terrorism. Potential shifts such as a change in leadership, the regional balance of power or a fall in price of a key export can raise chances of successfully coercing state sponsors.

Among the lessons for victim states and dissuaders, Byman calls for putting an end to the fiction of deniability behind which sponsors hide. The burden of proof should be on the accused state. Lowering the international bar on legitimate escalation against sponsors allows the victim state to respond adequately. Demanding a high standard for regime accountability and creating a strong norm against state sponsorship at the international level are also necessary for preempting new state sponsors from emerging.

This book is recommendable as a course-correcting comparative study of terrorism. It shatters the myth that non-state terrorist groups have taken over the sordid business of deliberate violence against civilians. The paradigm is still a state-centric world with state-sponsored terrorists penetrating and weakening enemy states. At least in this sphere of transnational affairs, nothing has changed drastically from the Cold War era when proxies were normalized as weapons of indirect warfare.

Deadly Connections. States That Sponsor Terrorism by Daniel Byman. Cambridge University Press, New York, 2005. ISBN: 0-521-83973-4. Price US$30.00, 369 pages.

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing .)


Al-Qaeda goes back to base (Nov 4, '05)

Song and dance on the terror trail (Oct 14, '05)

Blaming the mosques (Aug 5, '05)

The pawns who pay as powers play (Jun 22, '05)






All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110