State-Sponsored Terrorism

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Editor: Harvey W. Kushner
Date: 2003
Encyclopedia of Terrorism
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Although terrorism is widely condemned, nevertheless many countries have given assistance to terrorist groups in the form of money, weapons, training, or bases for operations. Every year, the U.S. State Department releases a list of countries that support terrorism, and those countries face stiff sanctions. If a country's support for terrorist groups is not extensive enough for it to be placed on the list, the United States may impose sanctions nonetheless. The United States declared a war on terrorism following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C.

During the Cold War, a decades-long period (1945–1991) of conflict with the former Soviet Union, the United States provided extensive aid to anti-Soviet and anticommunist groups in many countries. Likewise, the former Soviet Union was extremely open about its support for leftist groups— so much so that the U.S.S.R. was criticized for claiming to extensively support groups to which it gave little practical assistance. Some linguistic finesse was necessary: neither country claimed to support "terrorism," arguing instead that it was assisting, in the terminology preferred by the United States, "freedom fighters," or armed liberation movements that represented the true will of a given population. Many of these groups, however, would fit into contemporary definitions of terrorists.

The coinage of the phrase "freedom fighters" points to one reason why countries support terrorist groups: supporting terrorist movements, especially those with some popular backing, can actually enhance another nation's standing. The communist government of Cuba, for example, obtained international notice by openly promising to "export the revolution"—that is, to foster and support communist groups in other nations. Muslim governments in Iran and Afghanistan have made much the same promise to militant Muslim groups. While such proclamations can lead to international condemnation and trade sanctions, they can also establish a nation as an ideological leader, a country willing to make sacrifices to help support and export a certain political philosophy.

Exporting the revolution can also be a profitable business. Cuba routinely required leftist groups to pay for Cuban soldiers and civilians sent to help, and Bulgaria's government was once notorious for its willingness to sell weapons to terrorist groups at a hefty profit.

However, the primary reason countries support terrorist groups is neither prestige nor profits—ideological conflict that cannot be directly militarily expressed. A nation almost always supports terrorist groups that share a common enemy with the state, especially when peaceful reconciliation is impossible but war is also not an option. For example, during the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union were implacable foes, divided by deep ideological differences. Both countries had extensive arsenals of nuclear weapons, meaning that an outright war could have very well led to global annihilation. Instead of making peace or waging war, both countries supported terrorist groups that operated in other countries and that were in ideological alignment with one or the other of the superpowers.

Obviously, adopting this kind of policy involves risks: if a country supports a group that conducts direct attacks against a second country, the second country may take military action against the first. Thus, during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union did not support terrorist groups that conducted operations in each other's country. Instead, they would generally support insurgent groups operating in a third country. Usually one of the two—say, the Soviet Union—would support an insurgency in countries where the government was seen as friendly to the

Page 343  |  Top of Article

The Zhawar Kili Support Complex in Afghanistan bombed by U.S. forces on August 20, 1998, in retaliation for the East African embassy bombings Source: U.S. Department of Defense. The Zhawar Kili Support Complex in Afghanistan bombed by U.S. forces on August 20, 1998, in retaliation for the East African embassy bombings Source: U.S. Department of Defense.

United States. The United States would then provide arms and assistance to the government to help put down the Soviet-backed insurgent groups. An armed conflict or "proxy war" often resulted within the third nation. Supporting terrorism sometimes leads to out-right war. For example, in the 1990s Pakistan supported militant Muslim groups in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, which is largely controlled by India. These groups attacked Indian targets, raising the hostility level between the two countries to the point of battle between Pakistani and Indian troops.

Terrorist groups can be very hard to control. Pakistan essentially lost control over many of the militant groups operating in Jammu and Kashmir; they became more radical and more violent and eventually viewed the government of Pakistan as yet another enemy. Likewise, while the anti-Soviet mujahideen, supported by the United States in the 1980s, successfully defended the country from a Soviet invasion, the country subsequently became a haven for groups like Al Qaeda that considered the United States to be just as much of an enemy to its radical Muslim agenda as the Soviet Union.

The methods terrorist groups use can make state sponsorship of terrorism extremely controversial even in the sponsoring state. In the early 1980s, for example, the anticommunist Nicaraguan Contras were linked to torture, rape, and assassinations. U.S. support of the Contras became so controversial that Congress essentially outlawed such aid; the decision by members of the administration of U.S. president Ronald Reagan to continue support regardless led to a major scandal.

Terrorist groups often find they have little influence with sponsor nations. Because terrorism is so controversial, state sponsorship often vanishes when it becomes public knowledge, or when a new administration comes to power. Even states that are very open to supporting terrorism may not be willing or able to provide the amount of funding needed—especially if the state is trying to support several groups to advance its specific ideology. As a result, most well-established terrorist groups find other sources of funds, from narcotics to kidnap-and-ransom schemes to networks of private supporters.

A state's sponsorship of a terrorist group can also create public relations problems for the group if it is seen as simply the pawn of that country. Indeed, a common tactic of governments battling terrorist groups is to emphasize any support by foreign states, implying both that the group is operating at the behest of foreign powers and that it lacks popular support in the country where it operates.

Nonetheless, state support can be crucial to a terrorist group and can transform a relatively ineffective organization into a serious threat. Nations often can provide great sums of money that groups need to buy equipment and supplies; states also have well-developed militaries that can train and provide expertise to terrorists. A state can give away or sell weaponry and explosives that ordinarily would be very hard for aPage 344  |  Top of Article private group to obtain. Such gifts can be crucial to the success of a terrorist group; the decision of the United States to provide the mujahideen with antiaircraft missiles or that of Libya to provide the Irish Republican Army with the plastic explosive Semtex significantly increased the military capabilities of both groups.

States can also do a great favor to terrorist groups by providing them with a haven where members of the group can plan attacks without fear of arrest, and where they can flee and regroup after attacks—a role Afghanistan came to play extensively under Taliban rule. Such havens also provide groups an opportunity to interact and form networks to share information and to carry out coordinated attacks; such networking is sometimes explicitly encouraged by supportive governments.

The issue of safe havens can be complicated, because a country can provide havens to terrorists passively or even inadvertently simply by not arresting members of terrorist groups. Countries with lax banking laws can become financial havens as well, allowing groups to hold and channel money.


Because state support can be so important to terrorist groups, international efforts to curb such support have a long history. During the Cold War, however, such efforts were hindered because the United States and the Soviet Union were supporting a variety of armed groups in many countries. International treaties in the 1970s and 1980s designed to curb terrorism thus focused on certain actions that all parties could agree were "terrorism," not "freedom fighting"—including hijacking, the taking of hostages, and violence against diplomats, but excluding bombings and assassinations. Despite these limitations, the treaties did encourage the international community to act in coordination to condemn countries that were seen as supporting terrorism.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s largely put an end to superpower support for armed groups, and by the end of the decade states that supported terrorism risked being treated as international pariahs.

How best to deter states from supporting terrorist groups is still under debate. The United States has taken a relatively confrontational approach, occasionally launching military attacks against governments it considers especially flagrant in their support for terrorism and readily imposing trade sanctions and other restrictions on such governments. U.S. officials argue that such actions help isolate states that contribute to the problem of terrorism and that they deter other states from considering support for terrorism.

European countries, in contrast, have generally taken a more conciliatory approach, preferring to keep diplomatic and trade relations intact with countries that support terrorism. Such engagement, they argue, is in the long run more likely to turn countries away from such policies and avoids the risk of retaliatory terrorism that often follows an attack.

But all opponents of state-sponsored terrorism have focused on the importance of international cooperation, essentially an attempt to create a global culture in which supporting terrorism is unacceptable. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, efforts to end state support and even state tolerance for terrorist groups took on a new life—as did debates over how best to discourage the practice.

Further Reading

Han, Henry H, ed. Terrorism & Political Violence: Limits & Possibilities of Legal Control. New York: Oceana, 1993.

Köcher, Hans, ed. Terrorism and National Liberation: Proceedings of the International Conference on the Question of Terrorism. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1988.

Levitt, Geoffrey M. Democracies Against Terror: The Western Response to State-Sponsored Terrorism. New York: Praeger, 1988.

Tanter, Raymond. Rogue Regimes: Terrorism & Proliferation. New York: St. Martin's, 1998.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3438800270