Until the mid-1990s, international terrorism was generally considered to be state-sponsored. At one extreme, terrorist organizations motivated by communist ideology were receiving support from the USSR. The Soviets regarded these organizations as proxies—an inexpensive tool to promote the superpower's interests all over the world and in conflict areas in particular. Such affiliated organizations could both challenge Soviet enemies and preserve and promote Soviet dominance and influence in conflict areas. For other states, such as Iran, Syria, and Libya, terrorism was considered a low-risk tool that could achieve various goals inexpensively in both the international and regional arenas.
Global jihadi terrorism, however, highlighted by the atrocity of the 9/11 attacks, may be a sign of the growing decline in the importance of state-sponsored terrorism. After the attacks of 9/11, Al-Qaeda's organization was less hierarchical, much more amorphous, and seemingly disintegrated. Al-Qaeda was paving the way toward a complex, global jihadi network constructed out of allied organizations, local and independent networks, and indoctrinated individuals. This network is characterized by loose connections between network nodes and a lack of strict hierarchy, concrete decision-making processes, or efficient command and control systems.
In his important book, Deadly Connections: States that Sponsor Terrorism, Byman, senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, reassesses the role states play in the realm of terrorism, arguing that their importance has not been diluted but strengthened. Even Al-Qaeda, Byman stresses, relied heavily on states, first working with the Islamist regime in Sudan and then becoming closely intertwined with Afghanistan's Taliban in 1996. Investigations of the September 11 attacks suggest that an operation of such scale and lethality would have been far more difficult to execute had Al-Qaeda lacked its haven in Afghanistan.
According to Byman, there are many different reasons why states support terrorists. Among them, he explains that terrorists offer alternative means for states to influence their neighbors, topple a hostile adversary regime, counter U.S. hegemony, or achieve other aims of state. Support for terrorism is cheaper than developing conventional military capabilities, and it allows states to influence events far beyond their borders. Supporting terrorists can also serve a broader range of regime objectives from the domestic to ideological.
From the organization's perspective, terrorists enjoying state support are far less vulnerable in the face of countermeasures initiated by a target regime. The victim state is less capable of delivering a knockout blow to the terrorist group, disrupting logistics, discrediting its cause, or otherwise defeating it. This is why terrorist groups receiving state support usually flourish, becoming more deadly and less vulnerable to arrest or disruption.
One of the most important contributions Byman makes is to show the need to distinguish between different levels of state involvement in terrorism. By grouping all states actions with regard to terrorism in a single category, he argues, we ignore different motivations and cannot craft effective solutions. Byman offers six categories of state support to terrorism:
- Strong supporters — highly committed to the terrorist groups and able to offer significant resources;
- Weak supporters — states with few resources to offer support;
- Lukewarm supporters — those that favor the terrorists or their cause in general but do little to advance it directly;
- Antagonistic supporters — states that seek to control the group or weaken its cause;
- Passive supporters — those that turn a blind eye to their activities, usually because many people in their society favor the group; and
- Unwilling hosts — a state that is too weak to stop the terrorists within its borders.
This classification system is particularly helpful when analyzing measures against states that sponsor terrorism.
Byman uses his classification system to analyze several case studies reflecting different levels of state involvement in terrorism: Iran and Hezbollah; Syrian and Palestinian terrorist organizations; and Pakistani ties to organizations operating out of Kashmir. All these cases provide further support for Byman's argument that states still play an important role in promoting regional and international terrorism.
He argues against state support for terrorist groups not only on moral grounds but because it makes the groups far more capable and less vulnerable to counterterrorist efforts. Interestingly, however, Byman finds that a state's influence sometimes leads a terrorist group to moderate its activities or become more pragmatic. This may occur when a sponsor state fears reprisal or even escalation from the terrorist's target state. States may rein in their proxies in order to limit damage to their reputation if they feel that terrorism would lead to a direct military clash, or if they feel their proxies are not trustworthy. States may also see terrorists as a potential threat to their own interests should the organization become strong enough. For example, Syria's changing attitude toward the Palestinian Fatah organization reflects this process.
Some groups also narrow the limits of their activities as a result of state support. For example, state support may make a terrorist group less likely to use chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons. In other cases, states reduce or end their support for terrorist groups due to changes in their own goals, outside pressure, or, more rarely, because the terrorist group itself changes. Examples include Libya and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP/GC, Jibrill Group), as well as Iraq and Abu Nidal.
Many proxy organizations, therefore, find that they pay a high price for the support that they receive from a state: A group which is perceived as being controlled by a foreign power loses its credibility. A state may turn terrorist groups against each other or may even crack down on a terrorist group it once supported. Syria played such a role in the 1970s when it demanded the Palestinian PFLP/GC fight against the Fatah organization during the Lebanese civil war, or when it promoted a revolt in Fatah against Yasser Arafat in Lebanon after the 1982 Lebanon war. Byman, therefore, argues that many of the most capable terrorist groups walk a thin line between accepting the myriad of benefits of state support and maintaining their own independence.
In conclusion, Deadly Connections offers a detailed analysis of its subject and is a must-read on the subject of the relationship between states and terrorist groups. By developing a consistent methodological platform, Byman provides guidelines for analyzing state involvement in terrorism, guidelines that should prove helpful in creating more efficient counterterrorism policies and strategies.
Boaz Ganor is the founder and executive director of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism and associate dean of the Lauder School of Government and Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.