State-Sponsored Terrorism: A Landscape in Transition

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In light of recent events, GIMUN’s blog has decided to publish a special series on the theme of terrorism. Today, Nayana Das gives us her analysis on how terrorist organisations are supported by States.

Source: Creative Commons

The sponsorship of terrorism by sovereign States to further foreign policy agendas represents a lethal source for the sustenance of international terrorism today. Such sponsorship came to the fore as a serious multilateral concern in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001. The subsequent Global War on Terror began to focus not only on terrorists, but also on States that financed, harbored and supported them. While this focus legitimized the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, it also led to developments in the United Nations like Security Council Resolution 1373, which highlighted the need to counter State-sponsored terrorism.

This does not mean that State sponsorship as a source of terrorism had its onset with 9/11. In fact, terrorism as an adjunct of foreign policy emerged as a popular tool for proxy warfare during the Cold War when both contending superpowers were supporting rebel groups in foreign countries to undermine governments and align political systems with their own respective ideological blocs. However, since then, the nature of State-sponsored terrorism has changed considerably.

The most overt change has been in the shift from an active to a passive form of sponsorship. Generally speaking, active sponsorship involves a deliberate regime decision to provide critical support to a terrorist group, typically in material forms. Not only does the backing of terrorist groups become an ‘adjunct of State policy’, but a strong symbiotic relationship develops between the State and the group. Such a relationship was exemplified in the case of Libya during the late 20th century wherein a separate government agency – the External Security Organization (ESO) – was set up to serve as the principal agency for the country’s support of terrorist organizations. Today, however, we can witness a more passive form of State sponsorship that is mainly characterized by willful inaction and lax law enforcement, the provision of operational support and the provision of safe havens. One of the most important elements of such a form of sponsorship is that even States that endorse robust counterterrorism measures within official policy might still be indirectly maintaining links with international terrorism.

Pakistan for example, despite having become an official ally in the global counterterrorism coalition after 9/11, continues to provide support to jihadist training camps being used by separatist militants fighting in Kashmir. This alludes to the existence of an action-inaction dichotomy in Pakistan which then raises confusing questions about the extent to which the government can be held accountable for sponsorship. These confusions are further aggravated when we take a look at the crucial steps Pakistan has taken since the past decade to deal with problems of terrorism. Along with cooperating with the Global Counterterrorism Force (GCTF), Pakistan has also undertaken structural steps on the domestic front, such as the 2001 amendment to the 1997 Anti-Terrorism Act, making terrorism and acts of abetting terrorism offences punishable by law. Despite these clearly robust steps, it is then rather surprising that support for terrorism continues to thrive in Pakistan.

A similar trend, i.e. the shift from an active to a more passive form of sponsorship, can also be found between Iran and in its relationship with Hezbollah, which dates back to the creation of the organization in 1982. In the backdrop of the raging Lebanese Civil War, Hezbollah was formed by a militia of Shia followers of Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khomeini, and was both backed and trained by Iran. However, this degree of active involvement has mellowed down to a great extent over the past two decades. With Hezbollah having become somewhat integrated into the political system of Lebanon, the organization has become more of a proxy partner through whom Iran supports other terrorist groups. This is an example of a nuanced approach towards State sponsorship which by being more passive enables easier deniability.

Another shift that can be witnessed in terms of State sponsorship today is regarding the source of this support. Conventionally, State sponsorship was the outcome of a deliberate decision taken by the leader of a given State with the support of other senior government leaders. While this was true for Libya under Qaddafi, for the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War, and also for Iran during the early years after the Islamic Revolution, it is not so simple today. Instead, State support today stems from either quasi-independent government bodies or from a half-hearted effort on the part of the leadership to deal with terrorist activities within areas under its sovereign control, or both. Such oversight and inaction is an outcome of the state succumbing to internal domestic pressures and influence exerted by powerful sub-state actors.

A strong example of this today, i.e. state’s inaction enabling terrorism because of pressures from domestic interest groups, can be found in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Here, support for terrorism is linked with the Wahhabi religious establishment, which represents the official basis for determining laws and conduct in the Kingdom. Analysts have often linked this political-religious association between Wahhabism and the Saudi Arabian ruling elite with the promotion of religious violence across the world. A study conducted by the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs in June 2013 found that Saudi Arabia had, through influential charitable organizations operating in different parts of the world, invested more than $10 billion in rebel and terrorist groups who would promote the Wahhabi agenda. Given the power wielded by the Wahhabi ulema (i.e. religious leaders) in the Kingdom, it then comes as no surprise that the State does not take action in keeping with its capacity to check the growth of Saudi private establishments as sources of international terrorism.

An overview of these changes substantiates the fact that the landscape of State-sponsored terrorism is indeed a landscape in transition, shifting from an active to a passive form which establishes indirect links between the state and terrorism. This shift is driven, to a large degree, by the shifting international context of the current century. With efforts at multilateral counterterrorism tightening progressively since 2001, countries that extend any form of support to terrorism in a post-9/11 world are more likely to take these efforts into consideration. As a result, State sponsors are likely to pacify their sponsorship to an extent that, while supporting or directly participating in global counterterrorism efforts, allows certain links with terrorism to remain intact. These links remain intact primarily because of domestic pressures and influence exerted by powerful sub-State elements, mainly from military and religious establishments. All of this produces the passive, easier-to-deny and perhaps more dangerous form of State sponsorship we are witnessing today.

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