State Sponsored Terrorism

The common perception for much of the 20th century was that terrorism was perceived as a contest between two sides: on the one hand, a shadowy somewhat connected group of people or an organization, and on the other, a sovereign state with the power of the law and legal if not democratic legitimacy. However, throughout history various countries have used terrorist organizations to promote state interests in the international domain. In some cases, states have established "puppet" terrorist organizations, whose purpose is to act on behalf of the sponsoring state, to further the interests of the state, and to represent its positions in domestic or regional fronts. This allowed the state to effectively wage a low level war against rival powers without the risk of escalation or a political backlash. It was for many years easy for a state supporting terrorists to deny any involvement with little risk of retaliation.

In other cases, states sponsor existing organizations, on the basis of mutual interests. The patron state provides its beneficiary terrorist organization with political support, financial assistance, and the sponsorship necessary to maintain and expand its struggle. Depending on proximity and borders some patron states also provide a safe haven for terrorists who raid across the border but this runs the risk of revealing open involvement with the terrorists and retaliation, military or politically. An example of this is alleged French support for Basque separatists carrying out attacks in Spain. The patron uses the beneficiary to perpetrate acts of terrorism as a means of spreading the former's ideology throughout the word, or in some cases, the patron ultimately expects the beneficiary to gain control of the state in which it resides or impart its ideology to broad sections of the general public.

The heyday of state sponsored terrorism was the 1970s and 1980s, with the 'Cold War' raging between the Superpowers while neither was willing to risk escalation to a full scale war and possible nuclear exchange. In the Third World they supported rival groups in many countries (as in Angola and Namibia) fighting war by proxy, but for the Soviet Union the real ideological battle ground was Europe. Despite officially condemning terrorism as futile and elitist the Soviets had a strong tradition of supporting various dissident and terrorist groups in Europe directly or indirectly through Warsaw pact states and friendly Arab powers such as Libya and Syria. Given a choice the Russians would have preferred to use other methods than terrorism to weaken the West as terrorist groups were and are notoriously difficult to control and often resort to criminal acts and indiscriminate violence. Despite a commitment to support "National Liberation movements" the Soviets could not be seen to openly support terrorism as it would have damaged their image of responsible statesmanship and made foreign relations with neutral powers difficult. Academically Russian writers are not as concerned with terrorism as the West partially because they don't see it as a major threat to security and partially because until the end of the Cold War Russia had yet to suffer much terrorism. With the end of the Cold War it seemed that the days of State sponsored terrorism had ended with many of the files kept by the Soviet block security services being handed over to the western authorities and many groups suddenly finding not only their support cut off but also their former sponsors working with the enemies of the terrorists.

This holiday period for the security forces lasted only a brief time as new terrorist groups rose from the ashes and old groups grew stronger in the terrorist power vacuum that followed. As we enter the 21st century terrorism seems if anything to be more prevalent - certainly after September 11th it is more in the public eye but is it state sponsored? With military campaigns in Afghanistan (2002) and Iraq (2003) failing to capture their targets and failing to persuade an increasing cynical publicm, is the idea of state sponsored terrorism being used as an excuse to justify military operations? Never before have such large scale military operations been carried out partially motivated by counter terrorism. With terrorist groups remaining elusive is the West's military reaction to such attacks as September 11th justified or even effective? Evidence linking large scale involvement by the Iraqi government in state sponsored international terrorism remains elusive and unconvincing, yet in fairness this was bound to be the case in such a shadowy area where deniability is everything. Can state sponsored international terrorism achieve strategic ends where the use of conventional armed forces is not practical or effective? The high costs of modern warfare, and concern about non-conventional escalation, as well as the danger of defeat and the unwillingness to appear as the aggressor, have turned terrorism into an efficient, convenient, and generally discrete weapon for groups seeking to upset the balance of power but despite the tragic human cost of life all the attacks of September 11th really did was to harden world opinion and make life increasing difficult for the international terrorist. The US and British campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq at the start of the 21st century show the potential cost for any state that has links with international terrorism. Such campaigns have done little to curb terrorism, while terrorism has done little serious hard to the US. The war against terror as the US is fond of calling it seems to have no winners, no clear aims, and sadly no end in sight.

How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, TDP. (6 April 2001), State Sponsored Terrorism,

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