Skip links

Countering State Sponsored Terrorism


For many years, terrorism was perceived as a contest between two sides: on the one hand, a group of people or an organization, and on the other, a sovereign state. However, during the course of the second half of the twentieth century, various countries began to use, and indeed have expanded their use of terrorist organizations to promote state interests in the international domain. Instead of the “weapon of the weak” – minority groups, liberation movements, and revolutionary organizations – terrorism has become a tool of states and even of superpowers. In some cases, states established “puppet” terrorist organizations, whose purpose was 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. In other cases, states sponsored or supported existing organizations, thereby creating mutually profitable connections.
The patron state provided its beneficiary terrorist organization with political support, financial assistance, and the sponsorship necessary to maintain and expand the struggle until the attainment of its objectives had been achieved. The patron used the beneficiary to perpetrate acts of terrorism as a means of spreading the former’s ideology throughout the word, or in other cases, the patron ultimately expected that the beneficiary would assume control over the state in which it resided or impart its ideology to broad sections of the general public.

According to Ray S. Cline and Yonah Alexander, state sponsored terrorism aims “to achieve strategic ends in circumstances where the use of conventional armed forces is deemed inappropriate, ineffective, too risky, or too difficult.” The high costs of modern warfare, the Cold War, 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 attaining state interests in the international realm.

State support for terrorism has led to greater cooperation between organizations in countries throughout the world, even in cases where ideological affinity was minimal. The Soviet Union was among the first to sponsor a variety of terrorist organizations, either directly or through its satellite states, although with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran has assumed leadership in the terrorism sponsorship field, both through direct and (primarily) indirect means. Considering the level and scope of its involvement in terrorist activities, post-Pahlavian Iran has become the leading force in state sponsored terrorism.

Report on State-Sponsored Terrorism

Recognizing the centrality and the vast influence of terrorism patrons on the scope and character of terrorist attacks throughout the world, the United States tracks these states on an ongoing basis and publishes an annual report of their activities. Inclusion in the report forbids American companies from trading with countries on the list, and excludes them from U.S. military or economic assistance, with the exception of humanitarian aid.

The chapter “State Sponsored Terrorism” in the 1993 report states:

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.

The 1994 report proceeds to emphasize that this aid “is crucial to the operation of many international terrorist organizations.” Going back to the 1993 report, we learn,

For this reason, a primary aim of our counterterrorism policy has been to apply pressure on such states to cease and desist in that support and to make them pay the cost if they persist. We do this by publicly identifying state sponsors and by imposing economic, diplomatic, and sometimes military sanctions.

The American list relates, as noted, to states sponsoring international terrorism, namely, terrorism directed against citizens of another country, or against expatriates living abroad. (Hence, the American list does not relate to domestic violence performed by official agencies). A review of the reports for the last few years reveals that the list is constant; Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria make up its members.

Terrorist Organizations

State Involvement in Terrorist Attacks

Diagram 1 maps international terrorist attacks in an attempt to clarify the features characterizing state involvement in these attacks. The diagram shows that terrorist attacks reflects a variety of possible combinations: the interests of a state as opposed of a terrorist organization, and state support for attacks as opposed to self-sufficient organizational action.

In general, terrorist attacks can be divided into two groups according to the perpetrating agency: attacks by terrorist organizations (colored gray in the diagram), and attacks perpetrated directly by official state institutions or their agents – security forces, intelligence services, and others (colored black in the diagram). Naturally, the former group of attacks is considerably larger than the latter, both because states prefer to avoid responsibility, and because terrorist organizations also conduct operations without direct links, initiative, or support from states.

Terrorist acts performed directly by a state are initiated by the state in order to attain a specific interest of that state (see mark 1). Most terrorist acts, however, are performed by terrorist organizations and result from the attempt to pursue the interests of the terrorist group (marks 4-9), while a minority are meant to satisfy only the interests of the sponsoring state (marks 2, 3). Some reflect a shared interest of the state and the organization (marks 6-9), and of these some are state initiated (8, 9).

Of attacks carried out by terrorist organizations, some involve direct state support at the planning, preparatory or operational stages (marks 3, 5, 7 and 9).

These attacks may be intended to achieve an interest of the organization (mark 5), or an interest shared by the organization and the state (marks 7 and 9), or even merely to promote the interests of the sponsoring state (mark 3). Attacks meant to attain an interest shared by both the state and the organization may sometimes enjoy state support (7, 9).

On the basis of diagram 1, we can classify terrorist attacks into several groups, as follows:

* Acts of terror initiated by the organization to advance its own interests and without any state involvement.

* Acts of terror initiated by the organization to promote its own interests, with operational assistance from the state.

* Acts of terror initiated by the state to promote the interests of the state or a shared interest (at times with operational assistance from the state).

* Acts of terror executed by the state or its agents in order to achieve its own interests.

Types of State Involvement in International Terrorism

States are involved in terrorism in a variety of ways, from various levels of general assistance, to operational aid, to initiating and directing a terrorist organization’s activities, and up to direct attacks perpetrated by official state agencies. Such forms of involvement classify states as “states supporting terrorism or “terrorist states.” The second category has become a political weapon used by states to describe their rivals or by terrorist organizations against opposing countries.

Cline and Alexander suggested a definition of state sponsored terrorism:

The deliberate employment of violence or the threat of use of violence by sovereign states (or sub-national groups encouraged or assisted by sovereign states) to attain strategic and political objectives by acts in violation of law. These criminal acts are intended to create overwhelming fear in a target population larger than the civilian or military victims attached or threatened.

The use of legal factors in this definition makes it problematic and highlights the difficulties surrounding the study of the subject at hand. Laws and legal systems are the products of state action and are open to state interpretation. As such, terrorism defined as law infringement is dependent on the subjective nature of legal interpretation. States can therefore deny their involvement in terrorism by claiming that their actions are legal according to their legal systems. Nor is international law sufficiently developed to be of use in this definition. Furthermore, as noted, there are various kinds of state involvement in terrorism and, therefore, we must also define states according to their level of involvement

Ideological Support

The basic level of state support for terrorism is “ideological support.” Terrorist organizations, as noted, are a convenient instrument for spreading ideological doctrines, particularly revolutionary ones. States such as the Soviet Union and Iran, which set themselves the operative-strategic aim of spreading their revolutionary ideology (Communism in the former case and Islamic fundamentalism in the latter) found suitable allies in terrorist organizations.

In some cases, however, terrorist organizations were founded by extreme radical activists, who were inspired to found their group by a state which supported terrorism or who had accepted the ideological sponsorship of a state sponsor in an effort to attain material assistance, after having already founded their organization. In such cases, the terrorist organization is provided with political, ideological or religious indoctrination via agents of the supporting state or is trained by institutions of the sponsoring state. (In this context one should mention communist terrorist organizations, such as the “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,” which enjoyed support from the Soviet Union, and organizations with an Islamic fundamentalist outlook, such as Hizballah, with close ideological and religious ties to Iran).

Financial Support

A higher level of state support for a terrorist organization is “financial support.” In order to continue operations and develop further, a terrorist organization requires large sums of money, which are sometimes unavailable through its own independent resources. In such cases, terrorist organizations rely on the generous support of sponsoring states. Today Iran is one of the main contributors to terrorist organizations. Thus, it has recently been reported that Iran’s terrorist assistance budget has reached 100 million dollars a year (of which 60 to 70 million are transferred to Hizballah). These funds are appropriated to terrorist organizations through the “Office of Revolutionary Movements,” which is responsible, inter alia, for transferring funds to Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, and other groups and organizations.
Diagram 2: State Involvement in International Terrorism: A Classification

Diagram 2: Part I describes the different levels of state support for terrorist organizations, and state’s involvement in terrorist attacks. Part II classifies states according to their level of involvement.
Military Support
A higher level of aid involves “military support.” Within this framework, the state supplies the terrorist organization with a broad range of weapons, provides military training, organizes courses for activists, and so on. Iran also falls in this category. For instance, Hassan Salame (a Hamas leader responsible for several suicide attacks in Israel, who was arrested in mid-1996) reported that he had trained in Iran. His disclosure confirms many accounts about an extensive military and operational training network in Iranian facilities for members of terrorist organizations and extremist groups from all over the world.

Operational Support

The next level of aid is “operational support.” It entails the direct provision of state assistance in the perpetration of specific attacks. Operational support takes various forms: false documents, special weapons, safe havens, etc. Iranian embassies throughout the world, for instance, play a crucial role in this context. At times, Iranian embassies provide terrorist cells with weapons (transported through diplomatic mail), money, passports and visas, or recruit collaborators from within the Islamic community of the states in which the embassies are located, for the purpose of aiding the terrorists.

Initiating Terrorist Attacks

The next level of state involvement in terrorism is “initiating and directing terrorist attacks.” In this category, the state no longer limits itself to providing aid indirectly to terrorist organizations. Instead, it gives specific instructions concerning attacks, it initiates terrorist activities, and it sets their aims. In this context, the remarks made by former-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres are significant:
Let it be clear – Iran finances, trains, directs, and pressures Hizballah to perform these attacks and hurt innocent victims . . . We know that Iran has been exerting pressure to strike targets within Israel, as well as Jewish and Israeli targets abroad.

It is worth noting that the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, relying on Egyptian sources, reported that a conference of Islamic terrorist organizations, sponsored by Iranian intelligence services, convened in Iran in mid-June 1996. At the conference, it was decided to create a monthly forum based in Iran to coordinate positions and obtain the authorization of Iranian secret services for terrorist activities.

Direct Involvement in Terrorist Attacks

The highest level of state involvement in terrorism is “perpetrating direct attacks by government agencies.” In these cases, the state carries out terrorist attacks in order to further its interests, using agencies from its own intelligence services and security forces, or through people directly responsible to them. Iranian involvement can also be found in this category, specifically regarding attacks on Iranian exiles in Europe. Thus, for instance, in may 1996 an Iranian intelligence agent was arrested in Germany for the murder in Paris of Reza Masluman (a former minister in the Shah regime and a leading member of the Iranian opposition). In another instance, four Lebanese and one Iranian were tried for the 1992 assassination of four Kurdish leading members of the Iranian opposition, at the Mikonos restaurant in Berlin. The former-Iranian president, Abdel Hassan Banisader, who testified at their trial in Berlin, accused the Iranian leaders, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khamenei, of personal involvement in the murders. He reported he had received this information from a former top agent in Iranian intelligence who had defected. According to this source, Khamenei authorized the murder in writing, while Rafsanjani was involved at the planning stage, three months before its execution.

Iran is not the only country which executes terrorist activities through its own official agencies. Direct Libyan involvement in terrorist activities deserves mention in this context. For example, a French judge recently declared — following a prolonged investigation (parts of which were carried out in Libya) of the explosion of a UTA-owned (France) airplane over the Sahara Desert in 1989, in which all 170 passengers and crew were killed — that leading figures in Libyan intelligence stood behind the incident. The judge issued two international arrest warrants against Libyans for their involvement in preparing and transporting the bomb, and intends to prosecute them in absencia.

The pyramidal structure of the diagram serves to illustrate the degree of state involvement in terrorism. The basis of the pyramid marks more limited involvement, while the apex indicates the highest level of state involvement in terrorism. The ascent along the various levels of the pyramid reflects state implication at rising levels of support and assistance. The use of the pyramid also illustrates the scope of the phenomenon. The farther up the pyramid one goes, the fewer are the groups and organizations which enjoy heightened levels of state support.

In Part II of Diagram 2, states are classified according to their level of involvement in international terrorism. At the basis of the pyramid, reflecting the lowest level of terrorism involvement (from an international perspective), is the “terrorist state” — a state that systematically and purposefully brings violence to bear on its citizens, going so far as to oppress civil society within its borders. Not all states that disregard their citizens’ rights or establish dictatorial or autocratic regimes are sponsors of international terrorism, however it is safe to assume that states which sponsor international terrorism are involved, to some extent, in the oppression of some sectors or strata of their own societies, as well.

At the next level of the pyramid is the “state supporting terrorism” – a state that supports terrorist organizations, aiding them in their activities according to the levels of support described in part I of the second diagram (see above).

A higher level of involvement comes to the fore in the activities of a “state operating terrorism” – a state which initiates, directs and performs terrorist activities through groups outside its institutions.

The highest level of involvement in international terrorism is represented by the category “state perpetrating terrorism.” At this level are countries which execute terrorist acts abroad through its own official bodies (members of its security forces or intelligence services, or their direct agents). Such states intentionally engage in attacks against citizens in the territories of foreign countries in order to achieve political aims and goals, without declaring a state of war. (According to international conventions, acts of intentional aggression committed against citizens by official agencies of a state, either in a state of war or in occupied territories, are considered war crimes rather than terrorism).

The levels of the pyramid represent degrees of involvement in international terrorism: i.e., the higher up the pyramid, the greater and deeper the involvement. In addition, and similar to part I, the pyramidal structure also illustrates the number of states sponsoring international terrorism — the greater the involvement (as we ascend the pyramid), the smaller the number of relevant states.

Rationality of States Involvement in Terrorism

Having established the various features of state sponsorship of international terrorism, we are faced with determining the possibility of preventing states interested in assisting terrorist organizations or in perpetrating terrorist acts on their own. Before turning to this issue, however, we must determine the extent to which one can view the decision to engage in terrorist activities as a rational act.
The most widely accepted strategy for coping with terrorism in general, and with states involved in terrorism in particular, is deterrence. However, if the state’s decision to sponsor terrorism does not follow from rational considerations, deterrent activities against it will be meaningless. Indeed, a policy of retribution against irrational states might be ineffective, and could even lead to further escalation. Prof. Yehezkel Dror, of Hebrew University, emphasizes that deterrence is a weak and indeed irrelevant strategy in coping with a “crazy state.” He writes,

[A]s the fear of sanctions will not affect its behavior… deterrence by threatening to harm targets that appear important to the deterring state could be irrelevant to the ‘crazy’ state, which has different targets and values…. A prominent feature of a ‘crazy state’ is its risk proneness…

Nevertheless, Dror asserts,

Except for these extreme cases (of states ready for self-sacrifice), which one cannot assume will actually materialize, deterrence might be the preferred sub-strategy against their madness…

Most states engaged in terrorism choose to do so. They take into account the price they will be required to pay for their activity, in exchange for the benefits gained by the attainment of their policy goals. Usually, these states adhere to rational cost-benefit analyses. Indeed, most countries which sponsor terrorism are not democratic, and their decision-making processes are limited to the consideration of a single ruler. The variables entering the cost and benefits equation in such cases might seem irrational to Western sensibilities, as they seemingly assign exaggerated and disproportionate weight to ideology, religion, and emotions. But even the lone decision maker tests the extent to which his activity will ultimately promote his goals, as he himself has defined them, and whether countermeasures adopted against his country, if and when its involvement in terrorism is disclosed, will endanger his and his country’s basic interests.

For every country, there is a limit to the amount it willing to pay for its continued involvement in terrorism. The price scale varies from country to country, as does each one’s “breaking point.” Hence, in order for deterrence to be successful, countries contending with terrorism must raise the costs of terrorism involvement to the point where the costs outweigh the benefits, and they must do so according to the specific characteristics of the individual state sponsors.

What is the range of activities available in the deterrence of states sponsoring terrorist activities? What is the “price scale” that the international community can endorse in an attempt to alter the costs and benefits analysis of those states which are involved in terrorism?

The “Price Scale”

Diagram 3 specifies deterrent options against states engaged in terrorism. The diagram reflects a rising scale of prices of international efforts, each one conveying a more stringent sanction than the previous one, beginning with a warning to cease terrorism sponsorship, to international condemnation and cultural boycott (including banning the sponsor from international events, removing it from international cultural or educational programs, and the expulsion of its citizens who live, work, or study in other countries). The next stage is a diplomatic boycott, including the removal of terrorism sponsors from international institutions, the suspension of its membership in UN institutions, removal from the UN General Assembly and even a cessation of bilateral relations (no country has ever been expelled from the UN). At the next stage (or parallel to the previous one) is an economic boycott. Such a measure could include restricting the state’s ability to purchase military or dual-use equipment (in a military conflict or in its involvement in terrorism), preventing exports to it and purchases from it, freezing and confiscating its assets throughout the world, and the construction of a blockade, by air, land and sea. In addition, a secondary boycott could be imposed on countries and companies which insist on maintaining commercial ties with the sponsor. The next phase is the legal stage. Here, the sponsoring state’s political and military leaders are defined as “war criminals” or charged with “crimes against humanity,” with international show trials set to punish them (even if not in their presence). The highest stage of punishment and deterrence against a state sponsoring terrorism is the offensive stage – international coordinated military actions against the terrorist organization’s facilities in the sponsoring country and the sponsor’s military installations.

Adjusting the Price of Involvement in Terrorism

Sorting out states according to their level of involvement is an efficient way of arriving at a clear and defined international strategy against states which sponsor and perpetrate terrorism. Classifying these states and adjusting the punishment to their crimes will cause some to reconsider their involvement in terrorism and to reevaluate the costs and benefits of continued or increased involvement in terrorism.
Clearly, it is neither necessary nor justified to adopt all the punitive and deterrent measures available against all countries involved in terrorism. They must be adjusted to the level of involvement and the characteristics of the countries involved in terrorist attacks. Thus, for instance, against states “supporting terrorism” (helping terrorist organizations indirectly), a warning, a condemnation, and a cultural and diplomatic boycott might suffice, whereas against states that “operate terrorism” (initiate attacks and execute them through other groups and organizations), one might consider an economic boycott and even legal action. Against states “performing terrorism” (executing terrorist attacks through their own intelligence and security services and their agents), it may be necessary to adopt offensive measures.

Diagram3: The Price of Terrorism

Diagram 3. It should be stressed that the diagram only brings examples of punitive and deterrent measures against countries involved in terrorism. One can add or detract steps according to the features of the country at stake, the estimated effectiveness of these actions, and the current international situation.

The “punitive price scale” adopted against states engaged in terrorism must be clear, explicit, and consistent. No measure should be chosen randomly. Only when the terror sponsor is aware a priori of the price to be exacted for its continued involvement in terrorism, and only when it can be persuaded that the international community is determined in its stance, will the deterrent measures succeed. The way to deter a state from engaging in terrorism or supporting terrorist organizations is to clarify a priori that the price of these activities will be higher than the benefits of terrorism sponsorship, and that the price has indeed been exacted.

International Measures against Terrorism

In the past, when punitive measures were used against terrorism sponsors, they were employed randomly, by either one or several countries and at times relying on UN resolutions while at others not. However, they were not used as part of a clearly defined “price scale.” Thus, in 1986, following the disclosure of Syria’s direct involvement in Hindawi’s plan to blow up an El-Al plane bound for Tel-Aviv, the Bonn federal government adopted a series of measures against Syria, among them: imposing restrictions on Syria’s German embassy, Syrian airlines, and on Syrian nationals in Germany. The sending of Germany’s ambassador to Damascus was also suspended. In addition, France and Germany decided on punitive steps against Syria, after a British motion for joint sanctions was rejected at a Luxembourg meeting of foreign ministers of the European Common Market. Concurrently, Britain vetoed a five-year aid package worth 140 million dollars that the European Common Market had intended for Syria. The British foreign secretary, Sir Jeffrey Howe, said that “Britain is not prepared to continue financial aid to Syria in the present circumstances.”
Some of the more prominent measures adopted against terrorism have been levied against Libya. Following the disclosure of Libyan involvement in various terrorist acts (including against American troops), the United States bombed targets in the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Bengazi in 1986.

In April 1991, due to Libya’s continued involvement in terrorism and, specifically, its refusal to extradite the Libyan security personnel suspected of involvement in two attacks on passenger planes that resulted in hundreds of deaths (the Pan-Am flight over Lockerbie and the French UTA plane in the Sahara desert), the Security Council, following an American initiative, imposed sanctions on Libya that included a ban on commercial flights, an arms embargo, a restriction of the transfer of technical information, and other measures. As Libya continued its refusal to bow to international pressure, the Security Council stepped-up its punitive efforts, and imposed air blockade. In the resolution (Number 748), Libya is required to undertake an explicit commitment to desist from any terrorist activity and stop any aid to terrorist organizations. The Security Council also called upon members of the United Nations to stop supplying Libya with weapons, to reduce the number of Libyan diplomatic representatives, and to limit the movements of Libyan diplomats within the territories of their host countries. This was the first time the UN used its power to impose sanctions against a country accused of international terrorism (the resolution was approved by a majority of ten, with five abstentions).

Later, in November 1993, the Security Council adopted an additional resolution (Number 883) against Libya, which re-ratified the previous one (this time with a majority of eleven and four abstentions). The new resolution called for the freezing of funds and economic assets owned or controlled by the Libyan government, a ban on the supply of drilling equipment to Libya, and other steps. The resolution also stated that the sanctions against Libya would be suspended if Libya were to meet the Security Council’s demands, namely requiring the suspects in the Lockerbie incident to attended their trial and cooperating with official French agencies investigating the UTA affair.

Conflicts of Interests

The struggle against states involved in terrorism reflects many conflicts of interests in the international arena – between states and superpowers, alliances and leagues of states, groups, and organizations. At times, however, the counter terrorism effort creates conflicts of interests within a state, between its security and economic interests. Thus far, economic interests have had the upper hand, whereas security interests, expressed in the will for a more effective struggle against states engaging in terrorism, have been relegated second class status.
In a study published by the Washington Institute for Near East