MIT Security Studies Seminar

Passive Sponsorship of Terrorism

Daniel Byman
Georgetown University

October 6, 2004

There is tremendous variation in the way governments deal with terrorists. Some go after them. Some help them. Many turn a blind eye. The good news is that there are very few state sponsors of terrorism left. The US State Department's list of sponsors is not accurate. The only true sponsors on the list are Iran and Syria. Pakistan sponsors terrorism but is not on the list.

Al-Qa'ida no longer has a state sponsor. The problem is now passive sponsorship. The US has to fight toleration of terrorism along with overt support for it. Passive support may be the more intractable problem.

What is passive sponsorship of terrorism? It is not when the regime makes a deliberate decision to provide assistance, though it includes situations where individuals are assisting terrorists without their government's permission. A regime is guilty of passive sponsorship if it knowingly allows a terrorist group to raise money, enjoy a sanctuary, recruit, or otherwise flourish but does not directly aid the group itself. Passive support has the following characteristics:

I will discuss three cases of passive sponsorship today: Saudi Arabia's relationship with al-Qa'ida and other jihadi causes; Pakistan's indirect ties to al-Qa'ida; and the United States' experience with the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudis supported Al-Qa'ida, but now they are trying to destroy it. There are three ways the Saudis may have helped Al-Qa'ida.

The first way is direct state support. In his recent book, Senator Bob Graham says that the Saudis directly supported Al-Qa'ida. This allegation is not well-substantiated, but has not definitively been proven false. The 9-11 Commission found no evidence of direct government support, but it is unlikely to have found evidence of such support if it occurred. On the other hand, there is good evidence that the Saudis tried to have Bin Laden killed. Senator Graham says himself that what may have happened is that some individuals in the Saudi government supported Al-Qa'ida without government permission.

Second, Saudi individuals and NGOs tied to the government poured money into religious charities, fueling a network of jihad which benefited Al-Qa'ida. Much of the money flowed to terrorism, from Kashmir to Chechnya to Bosnia, to Afghanistan, and of course to the Palestinians. The Saudis have paid protection money to terror groups in the past. These sorts of payoffs may have occurred with Al-Qa'ida.

The Saudis also provided ideological support to Al-Qa'ida. Even though the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia today differs somewhat from the salafist jihadism of Bin Ladin, Saudi institutions tied to government spread a virulent ideology that is anti-Israeli, anti-American, and promotes the idea that Islam is under Western attack. Since 1975, the Saudis have spent an estimated $70 billion to spread Wahhabism outside the Kingdom through mosques, schools, and Islamic centers.

Why give this support? There is tremendous domestic Saudi support for jihadist causes and anti-American ideas. The government followed public opinion. In Saudi Arabia, jihadis are heroes. Backing these people helps provide the rulers with legitimacy.

A second reason is the limited threat that the terrorists were thought to pose in Saudi Arabia. They were long content to let extremists travel to make jihad. One problem is that most of these people eventually came back.

The US ability to push a Saudi crackdown on terrorism is limited. The government is run by a few powerful people who have masses of incompetent underlings. Thus only a few people can actually accomplish change. It is thus hard get more than a couple things done when dealing with the Saudis.

Additionally, because they have no income tax, the government loses a huge degree of control over people and finances. On the other hand, because it is a closed society with strong family linkages, the government has advantages in domestic intelligence gathering.

Why did the Saudi attitude change? 9/11 helped, but May 12, 2003 was far more important. That was the first terrorist attack on Saudi soil. Because the attacks killed Arabs and Muslims, the regime could rally popular support. They got credible clerics to criticize the terrorists and began to develop a counter-terror capability.


Pakistan made major contributions to Al-Qa'ida before 9/11. Pakistan helped the Taliban, which gave Al-Qa'ida haven. Pakistani intelligence worked directly with jihadi groups in Kashmir and Afghanistan. This support aided Pakistan strategically, by giving the government legitimacy, aiding a cause it supported in Kashmir, and tying down Indian troops.

Al-Qa'ida worked closely in Pakistan with Kashmiri groups and other extremists hostile towards Shiites. Al-Qa'ida aided its legitimacy in Pakistan by working with these groups. Many of these groups are small organizations linked to criminals. Al-Qa'ida uses these groups for logistics.

Pakistan is a weak government using Kashmir to shore up its legitimacy. Musharraf has even given some electoral help, via rule changes, to hardcore Islamic parties. Street power means a lot in Pakistan; this fact aids the power of Islamic groups.

This support for extremists is not without problems. Musharraf's is now a secular government backing Islamic groups that oppose secular government by definition - groups that are killing Shiites. Moreover, sectarian violence hurts the military.

After 9/11, the US pushed Musharraf to stop giving support to extremists crossing into Kashmir. This effort worked temporarily.

When Al-Qa'ida fled Afghanistan, it largely moved into the border areas and Pakistani cities. The crackdown on extremists led to an assassination attempt on Musharraf which led him to accelerate the crackdown.

That said, there has been limited progress. Pakistan has strategic interests in Kashmir and thinks it has strategic interests in Afghanistan. The support for extremists in Kashmir hasn't changed. The education system hasn't changed. The Taliban goes back and forth from Afghanistan to Pakistan without molestation. It is not clear that Pakistan is going after terrorists with real energy.

In Pakistan, there has been less of a sea change than in Saudi Arabia, largely because the government is weaker. They lack capacity. It is not clear that they can operate in tribal areas. The US, in asking Musharraf to crackdown, is asking for more than what we ask of the Saudis. By going after terrorists, Musharraf doesn't just undermine his legitimacy, as the Saudis do, but sacrifices strategic interests in Kashmir.

The United States and the IRA

After the troubles began anew in 1969, the IRA set up fundraising in the United States. The money went generally to the cause, not necessarily to the fighters. The US didn't do much to suppress this fundraising in the 1970s.

Eventually the US housed an IRA arms network. Supporters shipped ArmaLite rifles by the dozen. This small amount went a long way in the relatively unarmed Northern Ireland. The IRA also had a relocation program of sorts here, for people who had to avoid capture across the pond.

Civil liberties, including free speech, aided the problem. There was also an unfortunate legal precedent holding that the US could not extradite someone who committed murder for a political reason.

Things began to change in the 1980s, as British pressure to crack down mounted. The US cracked down on the arms traffic and fixed extradition laws.

The big push to change came from public relations. Not surprisingly, British efforts to convince Irish Americans to see thing their way fell largely on deaf ears, but the British succeeded when they successfully enlisted the Irish Republic to campaign against terrorism. They played up the killing of innocents, which was effective.


Why do states give passive support to terrorists?

1. Domestic sympathy. It's easy for publics to endorse the humanitarian side.
2. Low level of perceived threat.
3. Strategic opportunity. (i.e. Pakistan and Kashmir).
4. Lack of capacity. This problem is hard to fix in short term, but governments can build capacity.

Why does passive support cease?

1. Increased costs of toleration. Outside pressure is a factor here.
2. The real key is the shift in public opinion. The change in Saudi Arabia didn't come until the violence reduced the political support for terrorists. Pakistan has had less of a shift in public opinion and thus little increase in anti-terrorist effort.
3. Passive support also diminishes when the government is attacked and has to accept the threat.

How can outside states stop passive support for terrorism?

1. Embarrassment. States will take some steps to avoid stigma. But it is hard to push these countries. In places like Pakistan, pushing too hard could undermine the government, and things could get far worse.

2. Diminish popular support for terrorism. This is hard. One method is to put victims on display, to talk about violence, not its supposed cause. Terrorists understand that it is not their violence that wins them friends, but the governmental response to it. The cause might win support, but violence against innocents usually hurts public support.

US propaganda efforts against terrorism are not working. We have to be indirect. The US is not credible in the Muslim world. The US needs intermediaries there.

3. Bolster counter-terror capacity. The US can help states with this. But capacity without will is meaningless.

4. Alliances. There is a lowest common denominator problem with terrorists because they can go to the state that offers the least resistance. The war on terrorism relies on bilateral cooperation. The US has yet to think through what changes in approach to our alliances the war requires.

Professor Daniel Byman is an Assistant Professor and member of the core faculty in Georgetown University's Security Studies Program. He has served as a Professional Staff Member with the 9-11 Commission and the Joint 9/11 Inquiry Staff of the House and Senate Intelligence Committee. Before joining the Inquiry Staff he was the Research Director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corporation, and has also served as an analyst on the Middle East for the U.S. government. Byman got his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Rapporteur: Ben Friedman

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