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International Terrorism - State-sponsored Terrorism

terrorist support united israel

The Nature of State-Sponsored Terrorism

Characterizing state-sponsored terrorism briefly is almost as difficult as coming up with a succinct definition for the term "terrorism" itself. Nevertheless, a crucial part of the concept is a sovereign government's involvement (at varying levels) with individual actors or organizations that carry out acts of terror. Boaz Ganor, an expert at the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism in Herzliya, Israel, claims in his article "Countering State-Sponsored Terrorism," posted at the Milnet Web site (, that states choose to sponsor terrorism for a variety of reasons. According to Ray S. Cline and Yonah Alexander, who are quoted by Gonar, one of the most obvious reasons is the ability to "achieve strategic ends in circumstances where the use of conventional armed forces is deemed inappropriate, ineffective, too risky or too difficult."

State sponsorship of terrorism dates back centuries, as rulers and governments throughout history have aided subnational organizations to wreak havoc on their enemies. The cold war of the twentieth century witnessed abundant support for revolutionary and guerilla organizations by the Soviet and U.S. superpowers. (Guerilla groups are generally irregular forces that fight for revolutionary causes and employ tactics not usually employed by states' regular military forces, like hit-and-run operations and illicit fundraising.) The United States and the Soviet Union saw these groups as conduits to establish more potential allies and fewer potential enemies without the larger threat of a global war. Such efforts occasionally led to the establishment of "puppet" regimes—essentially, governments put into power through the efforts of a larger, more powerful sponsoring state that would preach the sponsor's doctrine and promote its interests and philosophies in a given region.

One distinct characteristic of state-sponsored terrorism is its covert nature, including plausible deniability, or


the ability of a state to credibly claim it has no knowledge of the terrorist activities occurring. State support for terrorist groups allows the violent expression of the state's unfulfilled goals without overtly pressuring other governments toward certain political ends. State sponsorship of terrorism aspires to promote domestic and foreign policy through clandestine, or secret, means.

State-sponsored terrorism is also frequently employed to silence dissidents of a regime. Iran and Syria are two countries the U.S. Department of State identifies as sponsoring such crimes.

Terrorist groups often see state sponsors as desirable because of the resources they can provide that would otherwise be difficult and costly to acquire. According to Patterns of Global Terrorism, 1993 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, April, 1994), "International terrorism would not have flourished as it has during the past few decades without the funding, training, safe haven, weapons, and logistic support provided to terrorists by sovereign states."

One of the most blatant acts of state-sponsored terrorism, and one that put the phenomenon on the center stage of international relations, was the 1979 taking of hostages by Iranian "revolutionists." For more than a year, Americans waited anxiously as a group of fundamentalist "students" held fifty-two Americans hostage in Iran for 444 days. Many of the so-called students were actually agents of the incoming radical Islamic regime headed by Ayatollah Khomeini. This fundamentalist regime was later implicated as a sponsor of several acts of terrorism in the region over the years.

Hossein Sheikhosleslam, a leading figure among the revolutionary students, went on to hold the prestigious post of assistant for political affairs in the Iranian Foreign Ministry after the coup. The Iranian hostage crisis was followed by more than a decade of violence by fundamentalist Islamic and nationalist groups in the Middle East, fueled by anti-Western sentiments and supported by a handful of states sharing similar ideologies.

Levels of Support

In "Countering State-Sponsored Terrorism" (, Ganor has outlined the levels of culpability (blame or guilt) a state incurs based on its depth of involvement in the sponsorship of terrorist activities. According to Ganor, the escalating scale of state involvement begins with mere ideological support and ends with direct terrorist attacks by government agents. The six levels of state involvement Ganor outlined are:

  1. Ideological support. Communism, democracy, and Islamic fundamentalism are a few of the doctrines that a state might choose to support through a puppet regime or terrorist organization.
  2. Financial support. This requires funding terrorist organizations with cash in order to carry out their operations.
  3. Military support. Training and the supplying of weapons fall under this category. For example, many experts agree that the attack on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, would not have been possible without some form of military assistance from a state.
  4. Operational support. This category involves the logistical support that is involved in carrying out any terrist operation, such as providing falsified documents and safe havens.
  5. Initiating/orchestrating terrorist attacks. It is at this level that states move from passive and indirect complicity to orchestrating terrorist attacks themselves.
  6. Direct attacks by government agents. In such instances, agents of the state carry out the attacks themselves to further state agendas and interests.

State Sponsors of International Terrorism

Each year the U.S. State Department identifies countries it considers terror sponsors, or countries that repeatedly support international terrorism, on a watch list. Countries on the list suffer four sets of U.S. government sanctions. First, a ban on arms-related exports and sales goes into effect. Second, a thirty-day congressional notification is required for the export of dual-use items, or those with both civilian and military uses, that could increase military capability or the ability to support terrorism. Third, prohibitions are implemented on economic assistance. Finally, there are various financial and other restrictions, such as U.S. opposition of loans by international financial institutions to terror list countries and the lifting of diplomatic immunity to allow families of terrorist victims to file civil lawsuits in U.S. courts.

The State Department's 2003 list appeared in its annual publication Patterns of Global Terrorism. It featured Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, North Korea, and Cuba. Libya and Sudan have taken positive steps toward cooperating in the war against terrorism. Since Iraq's liberation and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, that country is no longer officially a state sponsor of terrorism. However, because terrorist incidents still occur within its borders, Iraq has become "a central front in the global war on terrorism," according to the State Department.

The State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism is often debated among terrorism experts, many of whom believe it is outdated and merely a political tool the United States uses in order to impose sanctions. Critics of the list also claim that it intentionally does not include some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, that are known to have terrorist links but are important to the United States for economic or other reasons.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush stated, "Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime." Some state sponsors on the list, such as Libya, Sudan, Iran, and Syria, made initial limited moves to cooperate with the international community's campaign against terrorism. Despite hostile relations with the United States, all four states offered deep condolences after the September 11 attacks. Iran publicly stated that the United States had every right to seek retaliation for these attacks and even closed its boundaries with Afghanistan to prevent terrorists from escaping U.S. forces. The Sudan clamped down on extremists within its own boundaries and arrested several alleged members of al Qaeda.

Despite these moves, the State Department emphasizes that none of its seven state sponsors of terrorism has yet taken all necessary actions to divest itself fully of terrorist ties. For example, the State Department claims Iran and Syria have sought to have it both ways. They clamped down on certain terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda, but maintained their support for others, like Hamas and Hizballah, insisting they are national liberation movements.

MIDDLE EAST TENSIONS: THE ISRAELI/PALESTINIAN CONFLICT AND OTHER ISSUES. Tensions with many of the countries in the Middle East have been a problem for the United States for many years. There is much resentment of U.S. support for Israel, a Jewish nation located in the midst of mainly Muslim states. The dispute between Israel and its neighbors, particularly the Palestinians, goes back to 1948, when European Jews gained independence from Western powers occupying the Middle East (mainly Great Britain) and formed an independent Jewish state. The Jews felt the need for their own state in the area of the Middle East that three religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, consider sacred ground. During World War II (1939–45), the Nazis had exterminated more than six million European Jews during the Holocaust. Many of those who survived had lost numerous relatives and loved ones. They not only felt uncomfortable remaining in Europe but yearned for a homeland in the Holy Land—the biblical "Promised Land" of their ancestors—and a place in which to arrange for their own protection.

However, the indigenous Palestinians and other Arabs in the area were pushed out of some regions by the creation of the new state. They resented that lands they believed were theirs had been taken over by Israel in the vacuum created by the departure of the British. Since that time, the Israelis have fought several wars with their Arab neighbors, including the Six-Day War of June 1967. In that conflict, Israel seized some of the most contested areas in the region: the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, while fighting Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Algeria also offered aid against the Israeli attacks, but within six days Israel had taken control of the contested areas. Egypt lost the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, Jordan lost East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and Syria lost the Golan Heights. Since that time, various peace agreements have forced Israel out of parts of those territories.

Many Palestinians, especially those in groups advocating violence (in order to reclaim land) like the Palestine Islamic Jihad and Hamas, feel Israel has taken a rigid and militant stance in favor of taking, holding, and defending Israel, a concept known as Zionism. To them, Zionism, the motivating force for Israel's original independence, continues more than half a century later in the occupied West Bank. There, a new generation of orthodox Jewish settlers has been residing and building homes and schools throughout the occupied territories. This perceived Zionism has bred Palestinian nationalist groups, which to Arab nations seem to be legitimate movements for national liberation, not terrorist groups. These Arab factions are also largely anti-American because American policy has generally favored Israel, which it sees as an outpost of Western-style democracy in the Middle East and a reliable ally.

The actions of the Israelis have increased tensions, and the Palestinians and Arab nations in the region, including Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, have pursued terrorism to try to force Israel out of certain areas. Some terrorist groups and nations in the Middle East advocate the elimination of Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state at any cost. Increasingly, suicide bombing is being used as a tool against Israeli civilians as well as the military. Such bombers give their lives for what they perceive as martyrdom. These methods have drawn criticism from various outsiders, more retaliatory measures from Israel, and praise from groups of Arabs who feel more and more desperate. The United States has tried to serve as a broker of peace, but this peace brokering is viewed with skepticism by countries that believe U.S. solutions have a bias in Israel's favor. Consequently, a more even-handed American approach to resolving the region's rivalries is the U.S. foreign-policy goal in the volatile region.

In general, the Middle East has seen a resurgence of terrorism in the early years of the twenty-first century, mostly because of intensifying Arab anger at Israel's refusal to remove settlers and forces from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the U.S. and allied war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though Yassir Arafat's Palestinian Authority had subdued terrorist groups such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad from their customary violence for about a year, the violence returned in the Palestinian Intifada (uprising) of 2000–02 and Israel's subsequent invasion of the occupied territories.

More than ever, previously peaceful Islamic charitable organizations are supporting harder-line political groups. Stronger, more organized, and more spontaneous Islamic political movements, many in the West believe, are providing both loyal support and conspiratorial cover for terrorist activities. Terrorist sponsors and "informal" sponsors, though they might be located in the Middle East, can support terrorist organizations around the world. Neither the state sponsors nor the terrorist groups themselves respect international boundaries.

IRAN. Iran is a state of concern for the United States. The country underwent a conversion from a society favorable to U.S. interests to one unfavorable to the United States in 1979, when a fundamentalist Islamic revolution deposed the monarchy of Iran. In the early 2000s, more moderate forces began to have some influence in the Iranian government. Iran's hostility toward the West, particularly in the form of aggressive comments about harming Israel or the United States, lessened. It renounced the fatwa (a formal legal statement researched by an Islamic cleric in Islamic holy texts and through consultation with other Islamic scholars and clerics) death sentence that its clerics had called for earlier against expatriate Indian author Salman Rushdie. They had originally claimed Rushdie deserved death because of what they considered his sacrilegious writings, and the author had gone into hiding. Reformist President Mohammad Khatami claimed that Iran would no longer support terrorism. In addition, Iran began to offer assistance to the United States by actively investigating members of al Qaeda.

Despite these changes, according the State Department report Patterns of Global Terrorism, 2003, released in April 2004, Iran remained the most dangerous "rogue" state. The State Department justifies this designation by stating that even though Iran is seemingly assisting the United States in battling some terrorist groups, it is supporting others at the same time (such as Hizballah, Hamas, and the Palestine Islamic Jihad). By August 2004 Iran was also defying UN inspectors seeking to visit its nuclear plants.

IRAQ. Under the regime of Saddam Hussein, Iraq was linked to radical Palestinian terrorist organizations such as the Arab Liberation Front and the Abu Nidal Organization. In addition, Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) agents were believed to be involved in a plot to assassinate former President George H. W. Bush during a trip to Kuwait in April 1993. Abu Ibrahim, the former head of the now-disbanded 15 May Organization, which masterminded several bombings, sought refuge in Iraq, as did Abdul Yassin, a suspect in the 1993 World Trade Center bomb plot. Iraq also provided financial, military, and operational support to the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization, an Iranian terrorist faction that opposes the existing Iranian government and has carried out several attacks and assassinations. Several terrorist attacks were carried out against UN relief workers and others attempting to remove land mines from territory in Iraq during the mid-1990s.

Iraqi agents are also believed to have been involved in several attacks against dissidents and "enemies of the state." An Iraqi scientist was assassinated in December 1992 as he was about to defect to Jordan. In early 1999, reports emerged from eastern Europe of a deadly plot to bomb the Prague, Czech Republic, headquarters of Radio Free Europe, which houses Radio Liberty. Radio Liberty had begun broadcasting its services to Iraq in 1998, much to the displeasure of Iraqi authorities. Although specific details of the case remain classified, it is believed that the alleged bomb plot was being orchestrated by the IIS.

Iraq was the only Arab Muslim country that did not condemn the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, and it even expressed sympathy for Osama bin Laden following U.S. retaliatory strikes. In 2001 Iraq continued to provide training, bases, and political encouragement to numerous terrorist groups. According to the article "Saddam Hussein's Philanthropy of Terror" by Derek Murdock (American Outlook, fall, 2003), Hussein had been rewarding Palestinian suicide bombers by granting their families bonuses of up to $25,000. Since the removal of Hussein in 2003, Iraq is no longer a state sponsor of terrorism.

SYRIA. Although Syria has made a point of clamping down on certain terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda, it continues to support other terrorist groups, including Hamas and Hizballah, insisting that these are purely national liberation movements. In 2004 Syria continued to harbor and provide logistics support to a number of terrorist groups, allowing Hamas, the Palestine Islamic Jihad, and other Palestinian groups to maintain offices in Damascus. There also is continuing suspicion that Syria has played a role in hiding Iraqi WMD materials. In January 2004 David Kay, former head of the U.S. Iraq Survey Group (ISG), was quoted in the Daily Telegraph ( as saying that interrogations with Iraqi officials showed that "a lot of material went to Syria before the war, including some components of Saddam's WMD programme." According to a Washington Times ( report in August 2004, the ISG had discovered that just before the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraqi intelligence officials took over border crossings between Syria and Iraq, removed the regular guards, and allowed a number of eighteen-wheeled trucks to pass through into Syria unchecked. Pentagon and CIA officials have made no public comment about the cargo in those trucks.

LIBYA. In the 1980s Libya fired missiles at American aircraft doing maneuvers off the Libyan coast. Libyan agents were also involved in the April 1986 bombing of La Belle Discotheque, a popular Berlin, Germany, nightclub frequented by U.S. military personnel. A soldier and a civilian were killed in the attack and approximately two hundred people were injured. In retaliation, President Ronald Reagan ordered U.S. aircraft to strike targets within Libya in an operation code-named "El Dorado Canyon." Ten days after the bombing at La Belle, U.S. planes simultaneously struck five military targets within Libyan territory. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's daughter was killed in the attack.

Two years later, on December 21, 1988, a bomb exploded on board Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and killed all 259 of the plane's passengers, plus eleven people on the ground. Two Libyans were connected to the incident but could not be charged, as they took refuge in Libyan territory. Nearly twelve years after the attack, Libya agreed to hand over the two suspects, al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah and Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, to a special Scottish court convened in the Netherlands. After a two-year trial, the court delivered its verdict in January 2002. Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison; al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah was found not guilty of the crimes. Al-Megrahi appealed his conviction, but the verdict was upheld in March 2002. In October 2002 Libya took responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and settled with the families for $2.7 billion. In January 2004 Libya also settled with France over a 1989 plane bombing in which 170 people were killed.

The U.S. State Department noted in Patterns of Global Terrorism, 2003 that Libya is one of two states (the other being Sudan) that seem closest to understanding what they must do to get out of the terrorism business, and each has taken steps in that direction. For example, following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Qaddafi issued a statement condemning the attacks as horrific and gruesome. He urged Libyans to donate blood for the U.S. victims. On September 16, 2001, he declared that the United States was justified in retaliating for the attacks. After September 11, Qaddafi repeatedly denounced terrorism. In December 2003 Libya stated that it would abandon its WMD program and allow UN inspectors unhindered access to all of its WMD research plants.

In general, Libya appears to have curtailed its support for international terrorism, although it may maintain residual contact with a few groups. Qaddafi's government in later years sought to recast itself as a peacemaker, offering to mediate a number of conflicts, such as the military standoff between India and Pakistan that began in December 2001. Still, Libya's past record of terrorist activity hinders Qaddafi's efforts to shed Libya's rogue state image. In April 2004 the United States lifted sanctions against Libya.

SUDAN. The United States and Sudan have continued and enhanced the counterterrorism dialogue they began in mid-2000. Like Libya, Sudan condemned the September 11, 2001, attacks. It pledged itself to combating terrorism and cooperating with the United States. The Sudanese government has stepped up its counterterrorist cooperation with various U.S. agencies, and Sudanese authorities have investigated and apprehended extremists suspected of involvement in terrorist activities. In late September 2001, the UN recognized these positive steps by removing UN sanctions on the country.

However, the U.S. State Department still designates Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, and unilateral U.S. sanctions remain in place. The United States contends that a number of international terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the Egyptian group al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, the Palestine Islamic Jihad, and Hamas, continue to use Sudan as a safe haven, primarily for conducting logistical and other support activities. Still, the State Department concedes that press coverage about Sudan's cooperation with the United States may have led some terrorist elements to leave the country.

NORTH KOREA. North Korea, also known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, has been on the list of designated state sponsors of terrorism since 1988, after it allegedly shot down a South Korean plane carrying civilians in 1987. Another reason North Korea is on the list is that the country offered sanctuary to four Japanese Communist League/Red Army Faction members after they hijacked a Japan Airlines flight to North Korea in 1970. In addition, the U.S. State Department reports evidence of recent sales of small arms to terrorist groups.

In a statement released shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks, North Korea repeated its official policy of opposing and not supporting terrorism. It also signed the UN Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, agreed to be bound by the Convention Against the Taking of Hostages, and indicated its willingness to sign five related agreements.

CUBA AND TIES TO LATIN AMERICA. Cuban leader Fidel Castro continues to be ambiguous about the U.S.declared "war on terrorism." In October 2001 he called the war "worse than the original attacks—militaristic and fascist." When that statement did not gain him the support he anticipated, Castro instead declared Cuba's support for the war on terrorism. He eventually signed all twelve UN counterterrorism conventions, as well as the Ibero-American declaration on terrorism at the 2001 Ibero-American summit. Cuba did not protest the detention of approximately six hundred al Qaeda members captured in Afghanistan at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

However, American officials believe that Castro still accepts terror as a political tactic. Twenty members of the Basque Homeland and Freedom (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) guerrilla group, whose cause is the separation and independence of the Basque region from Spain, continue to reside in Cuba with the knowledge of the Cuban government. Cuba also provides a degree of safe haven and support to members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and National Liberation Army groups, both Colombian organizations that commit acts of terrorism against Colombian political, military, and economic targets, and kidnap and kill citizens of other countries, including the United States. In August 2001 a Cuban spokesman revealed that Sinn Fein's official representative for Cuba and Latin America, Niall Connolly, one of three Irish Republican Army members arrested in Colombia on suspicion of providing explosives training to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, had been based in Cuba for five years.

The triborder area of Latin America, where the boundaries of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet, is also considered to be a hotbed for terrorist and other illicit activities. The U.S. State Department has claimed that groups such as Hamas, Hizballah, and al Qaeda use the region for various logistical and financial (mostly money-laundering) purposes. The three governments have pledged to fight terrorism and, after September 11, 2001, made several arrests of individuals linked to terror groups.

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