US Success and Terror

Posted: January 19, 2010 in The Fight Against Jihad, US Success and Terror

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Kenneth Katzman is a senior analyst in Persian Gulf affairs and Middle Eastern terrorism for the Congressional Research Service. He prepares a yearly analysis for Congress on trends in Middle Eastern terrorism.

Hand-wringing to the contrary, the U.S. government can claim important successes in some aspects of its counterterrorism efforts. Its pressure on state sponsors of terrorism has made some regimes more cautious, especially about using their own agents or security organizations to conduct terrorist attacks. At the same time, the threat from independent terrorist groups is increasing, and Washington has only begun to address this newly-emerging challenge.

To assess future directions of U.S. counterterrorism requires an understanding of the record so far. With this goal, we focus on the five Middle Eastern governments the secretary of state lists as sponsors of terrorism-sometimes known as the “terrorism list” countries-Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Sudan. (The other two on the list are Cuba and North Korea.) In addition, Afghanistan has been listed for the past two years as a state that is noncooperative with U.S. counterterrorism efforts (as defined by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996).


Middle Eastern terrorism breaks down into three broad categories: (1) State terrorism, in which a government relies on its own agents or national apparatus to conduct acts of terrorism; no organized terrorist groups are involved, though foreign nationals might be subcontracted under certain circumstances. (2) State-assisted terrorism, in which organized terrorist groups receiving material assistance and possibly direction from governments, carry out the acts of violence. (3) Independent terrorism, in which the terrorist groups receive minimal or no assistance and virtually no direction from national governments.1

State terrorism in the Middle East is declining in both intensity and political significance. According to the State Department’s most recent report on international terrorism, “there is no evidence that Syrian officials have been directly involved in planning or executing international terrorist attacks since 1986,”2 when Syrian agents attempted to orchestrate a bombing of an El Al jetliner at Heathrow Airport in London. The same report notes that there is no evidence that Iraq’s agents participated directly in terrorist attacks during 1997, and that the last confirmed act of Iraqi state terrorism was a plot to assassinate former President George Bush when he visited Kuwait in April 1993.3 Libya continues to use its security apparatus to intimidate expatriate dissidents,4 but Libya does not appear to have conducted any acts recently on the order of the Pan Am 103 or UTA 772 bombings that its agents allegedly perpetrated. Iran does continue to engage in state terrorism against opponents of the regime;5 that said, the primary targets of recent operations are no longer in Europe but in Iraq, and mostly the Iraq-based People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), an organized opposition group that itself conducts terrorist attacks against the Iranian regime.6

To what can this declining trend of Middle Eastern state terrorism be attributed? Primarily it results from a realization that incidents of state terrorism can be definitively traced back to the states that sponsored them. The use of one’s own agents or national security apparatus to conduct terrorist acts leaves the sponsoring state, and its leadership, devoid of deniability. Proof of culpability has embarrassed governments and in some cases embroiled them in disputes with powerful opponents.

Most notably, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 on December 21, 1988, which the U.S. and British authorities conclusively established was perpetrated by two Libyan agents (‘Abd al-Basit ‘Ali al-Maghribi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima),7 shows that high-level Libyan officials, possibly including Mu’ammar al-Qadhdhafi himself, approved of the bombing. The Pan Am 103 case led to the passage of three U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that Libya hand over the two suspects for trial in the United States or the United Kingdom8 and prompted international sanctions on Libya (a civil aviation embargo and a ban on arms and petroleum technology sales to Libya).

Iraq was also caught red-handed in an act of state terrorism when the U.S. government found its intelligence service behind an assassination plot against former president George Bush in April 1993. In retribution, President Clinton had Tomahawk cruise missiles fired against the Baghdad headquarters of Iraqi intelligence, as well as some other sites, in June 1993. Iran also paid a price for state terrorism when a German court in April 1997 deemed the highest levels of the Iranian government responsible for the assassination of an Iranian Kurdish leader and other dissidents in Berlin in August 1992; this verdict caused European Union member countries to withdraw their ambassadors from Tehran for half a year. Although neither Iraq nor Iran suffered much or in a long-lasting fashion from these punishments, the conclusive determination of culpability both times represented a clear failure by the leaderships of the two countries and the architects of their terrorist operations.


State-assisted terrorism gives the state sponsor far greater deniability than state terrorism. States are more easily identifiable and subject to the instruments of U.S. statecraft than are groups. It is often nearly impossible to demonstrate with certainty that a state sponsor orchestrated or ordered an act of terrorism by a terrorist group it assists. Even if the state sponsor is known to have assisted a terrorist act, it still is difficult to prove that it was committed on behalf of the state sponsor. From the state sponsor’s point of view, the deniability of acting through surrogate terrorist organizations makes this type of terrorism much preferable to using the state’s own personnel.

Recent examples of this ambiguity are plentiful. Argentine authorities are convinced that Iranian diplomats assisted Hizbullah in its April 1992 bombing of Israel’s embassy in Buenos Aires. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has concluded that Hizbullah, working with Iranian diplomats, was also behind the July 18, 1994, bombing of the Argentine-Jewish Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires that left nearly 100 dead.9 Assuming the FBI’s information is correct, does this mean Tehran was ultimately responsible for these two bombings? Hizbullah clearly had its own reasons for the first attack: retaliation for Israel’s killing of its leader, ‘Abbas Musawi, a month earlier. Perhaps Iranian diplomats assisted these operations only because of Tehran’s general sense of loyalty to Hizbullah-not because it wanted the Argentinian targets destroyed. It is equally plausible that Tehran did orchestrate the attacks to strike at Israel’s interests, if only to demonstrate that Iran can hit Israel and Jews at a time and place of its choosing, while hiding behind Hizbullah’s facade.

The June 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers, a complex housing U.S. airmen who enforce the allied “no fly zone” over southern Iraq, offers another example of ambiguity. The weight of public evidence indicates that the Saudis believe the attack was perpetrated by Saudi Shi`i Muslims linked to Iran; in August 1996, the American secretary of defense publicly threatened U.S. military retaliation if Iran was found responsible. Some reports have Iranian intelligence officers instigating the plot. Tehran and its alleged Saudi surrogates both had motives for the attack. The local Shi`a, belonging to a group called Saudi Hizbullah, view the American presence in Saudi Arabia as a pillar of a regime they view as corrupt and oppressive. Tehran dislikes the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf as a threat to its interests and its revolution.

These two cases exemplify the benefits using surrogate terrorist groups. However much the Argentine authorities suspected Iranian official complicity, they were reluctant to sever relations with Iran. That Hizbullah, and not the Iranian government, perpetrated the Buenos Aires attacks gave the local government a reasonable excuse to preserve its relations with Iran. It was reluctant even to investigate possible Iranian complicity in the embassy bombing until late 1997, when it did so under U.S. pressure.

Iran’s deniability for Khobar actually served everyone’s interests. The Iranians have thus far managed to escape the consequences of their actions. The Saudis, apparently so worried that a U.S. military retaliation for Khobar would draw them into a protracted conflict with Iran, capitalized on Iran’s deniability to shift their long-term policy toward Iran from confrontation to accommodation. The Clinton administration benefited in so far as it wished to reach out to Muhammad Khatami, the Iranian president unexpectedly elected in May 1997; a lack of certain attribution to Iran allowed it to keep at bay congressional and other calls for retaliation against Iran. These many benefits make it likely that Middle Eastern countries will continue to support terrorist groups that promote their interests.

However, the state sponsor does lose a measure of control when it delegates its terrorism operations to organized groups. These often accept and welcome state assistance but then act in ways inimical to the state sponsor’s national interests. Hizbullah’s zeal to attack Israel in southern Lebanon, for example, has faced Syria with the possible danger of being dragged into an unwanted war with Israel. When fighting between Israel and Hizbullah threatened to escalate and involve Syrian in 1993 and 1996, Damascus took steps to calm the situation. In the latter case, for example, it agreed to become part of a five-party monitoring committee to prevent future escalation on Israel’s northern border.

State sponsors sometimes try to rein in client terrorist groups when doing so suits their overall foreign policy interests. Having improved relations with Iran over the past two years, Baghdad has restrained the People’s Mojahedin from making cross border attacks into Iran; concurrently, it has issued only muted protests when Tehran conducts air strikes on PMOI bases in Iraq. Iran has responded by reining in the Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), an anti-Iraq Shi’i Islamist group. Khartoum has removed some Egyptian fighters of an opposition Islamist bent from Sudan to Afghanistan, partly with an eye to improving relations with Egypt and the West-which in turn support Sudanese opposition organizations in Eritrea and Ethiopia.

The U.S. government is attempting to strip away the deniability inherent in state-assisted terrorism. With its help, the family of Alisa Flatow, a young American woman killed in an April 1995 bombing in Gaza by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, won a judgment for her death against Iran in a U.S. court. The family, using U.S. government information in the case, proved that Palestinian Islamic Jihad was financed by and tied politically to Iran, and that Iran should be held liable.10 In August 1998, three former U.S. hostages in Lebanon won judgments totaling $65 million against Iran by demonstrating in a U.S. court that Hizbullah, the organization that held them hostage, was a terrorist organization financed by Iran.11

Just as the exposure of state terrorism reduced that form of terrorism, so such prosecutions might cause state sponsors to rein in their terrorist group clients. By establishing the linkage between governments and their client groups, these prosecutions embarrass and discredit those within the state (usually intelligence apparatus) who conspire with the group. Convictions in court also demonstrate the U.S. government’s substantial information about these linkages, which could be used in the future; for example, it could be presented to the U.N. Security Council as part of an attempt to build consensus for international sanctions against a state.


Independent terrorism is a relatively new rubric. For now, the terrorist network of Saudi exile Usama bin Ladin represents the only entry in this category. It is independent of any state because bin Ladin, with a net worth estimated at $250-$300 million, mostly inherited from the Bin Ladin Group, his family’s construction business in Saudi Arabia,12 is a financial donor to his state hosts, not a recipient of their largesse. In Afghanistan, bin Ladin has used this wealth for such projects as helping the mujahidin build roads and defensive positions. He also benefits from residual goodwill among many Afghans for his role in recruiting Arab volunteers for the war against the Soviet occupation. In Sudan, bin Ladin helped capitalize a number of businesses in concert with the ruling National Islamic Front; according to U.S. officials, he contributed funds to Sudan’s Military-Industrial Complex which included the alleged chemical weapons plant struck by American bombers on August 20, 1998.13

Such investments give bin Ladin substantial leverage over his host regimes and help explain why, even though the Sudanese authorities expelled him in mid-1996, he continues to maintain close ties to the ruling National Islamic Front. He also enjoys the protection of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, even though his presence in that country is a foremost reason why all but three governments around the world refuse to recognize the Taliban (despite their control over 90 percent of Afghanistan) as the legitimate government. Additionally, his presence prompted the U.S. government to fire Cruise missiles on six base camps in Afghanistan believed run by him, in retaliation for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Bin Ladin’s personal wealth gives him options that other terrorist organizations lack. Not only can he buy protection from state hosts but he can maintain a thriving network without need of state assistance. In contrast, such groups as the Abu Nidal Organization, the Palestine Liberation Front, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine became inactive when state sponsors cut their funding in the second half of the 1980s. Hizbullah maintains its operations against Israeli forces in south Lebanon because it gets Iranian aid, estimated at $80 million to $100 million per year; without this, Hizbullah would likely not be able to raise enough money to sustain those operations.

Bin Ladin’s wealth, in contrast, appears sufficient to sustain his approximately three thousand fighters spread out in east and north Africa, the Middle East, former Yugoslavia, and parts of east and central Asia. His wealth also enables him to become patron of Egypt’s Islamist organizations, Islamic Group and Al-Jihad. These groups had looked to Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman for leadership but with him in jail in a medical facility in Missouri for plotting to destroy New York landmarks, his residual network has had to turn elsewhere for support, and bin Ladin has filled the gap.

Should the Taliban regime lose power or decide to expel bin Ladin from Afghanistan, his wealth again gives him options. In an interview he once talked openly of going to Yemen in such circumstances.14 Yemen, another relatively poor country, has tense relations with Saudi Arabia and so might welcome a Saudi renegade like bin Ladin. Alternately, he could seek refuge in Pakistan, particularly those areas near the Afghan border that were home to the mujahidin parties during the anti-Soviet war. He might also return to Sudan, which won no easing of international sanctions for expelling bin Ladin in 1996, and whose leaders might find they have nothing to lose from taking him back.

If bin Ladin’s unique capabilities complicate U.S. efforts to prevent terrorism, his attributes are personal and not institutional; his terrorist network has no structure that could survive his death or capture. Bin Ladin’s wealth is personal and would not automatically fall under the control of any of his associates. In the event of his demise, his allies presumably do not know where the funds are but perhaps his brothers, still in the family business in Saudi Arabia and not involved in Usama’s terrorist exploits, do know about the disposition of his assets and could gain control over them. Were they to do so, funds would no longer be available to keep the bin Ladin terrorist network operational. If this analysis is correct, the implications are substantial: should U.S. law enforcement run bin Ladin to ground, his network might disintegrate.

If Usama bin Ladin is unique in his relative independence from state sponsorship, his independent group is not easy to replicate. Independently wealthy businessmen generally do not become terrorist leaders on the lam but prefer to live comfortably in their countries of origin. Moreover, bin Ladin’s network grew out of the special circumstances of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, a passionate struggle that gave him the base to recruit Muslim adepts almost without territorial or ethnic limits.

It remains to be seen whether independent terrorist groups represent a fleeting occurrence or a more permanent fixture of Middle Eastern terrorism. Accordingly, there is little reason to believe that U.S. counterterrorism policy-which has until now focused on state sponsors-must be overhauled to focus on networks such as bin Ladin’s.


In the aggregate, the U.S. government can do much to reduce the terrorist threat. Recent investigations and court cases have embarrassed state sponsors and exposed both their conduct of terrorism and their links to surrogate terrorist groups. Sudan and Libya, the targets of international sanctions, have paid a distinct price for their use of terrorism. The government of Sudan, poor and weak, has succumbed to some of these pressures and somewhat distanced itself from international terrorism. Its Libyan counterpart, blessed with oil wealth, is more able to resist international pressures, but even it shows concern about the U.N. sanctions. Such penalties have not eliminated state-sponsored terrorism, though they have diminished it.

Incentives can also yield benefits and should not be ruled out. The Syrian regime harbors virtually all of the major anti-peace process terrorist groups but it has supported terrorism less since it joined the Arab-Israeli peace process in 1991, perhaps because regaining control over the Golan Heights is more important than toppling Yasir Arafat as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Syria’s President Hafiz al-Asad undoubtedly understands that the United States will not help him regain the heights if he is seen as responsible for a major and sustained upsurge in terrorism. In Iran, the supporters of Muhammad Khatami understand that they cannot join the world economy, lay energy pipelines across Iran, or receive new World Bank loans until Tehran convincingly sheds its reputation as the prime state sponsor of terrorism, though it remains to be seen whether they can prevail on this issue. Other terrorism list states might be signaled that they can get off the list if they expel terrorists, as in fact happened once before, in 1982, with Iraq when it expelled Abu Nidal. (Iraq was then reinstated to the list following the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.)

When it comes to bin Ladin, the same mix of punishments and inducements could be considered. Placing the Taliban on the terrorism list is one option, guaranteeing that they would receive no U.S. assistance or support for international loans. International sanctions, such as a ban on international air traffic, are another option. Incentives should also be considered in U.S. efforts against bin Ladin. Although he is relatively independent of state sponsorship, there are limits to his independence. Some formula of recognition, financial assistance, and other benefits could prompt the Taliban regime to expel bin Ladin from Afghanistan or yield him up. Alternatively, financial benefits could persuade the Taliban’s patron, Pakistan, to pressure them to do this. Should the Taliban expel bin Ladin, Washington might consider offering incentives to keep him from relocating. Sudan might get off the terrorism list if it refuses him entry. Yemen might be considered for increased financial assistance if it too closes its doors.

The U.S. government should stress the futility of terrorism as an instrument of state policy. For example, Tehran might have celebrated when a major Hamas bombing campaign in February-March 1996 helped tilt the May 1996 Israeli election toward Binyamin Netanyahu, for his election suited Iran’s objective of slowing, and possibly derailing, Arab-Israeli negotiations. In retrospect, however, it is clear that the Palestinians might well end up accepting a less favorable deal from Netanyahu than they would have received from Shimon Peres. But jawboning has its limits. Neither Syria nor Iran is likely to sever its support for Hizbullah, which is bleeding Israel in south Lebanon and prompting a growing debate within Israel over a unilateral and unconditional Israeli withdrawal from its security zone in Lebanon.

U.S. counterterrorism initiatives, finally, will be enhanced by a more careful distinction, such as that made here, between state sponsorship and state involvement. In particular, Washington should drive a wedge between state sponsors and their clients, for example, by offering incentives to a state sponsor while singling out its client for military action; or vice versa. Such a policy also requires that economic sanctions and other policy tools remain sufficiently flexible to allow the government to offer incentives or implement punishments, as necessary.

1 These categories are put forward for the purpose of analysis for there might be substantial overlap among them. Thus, most state sponsors have pursued both state and state-assisted terrorism. Some analysts might see the distinction between state and state-assisted terrorism as meaningless. Others might argue no truly independent terrorist groups exist, for all need some form of state support. These are complicated issues that require a vast amount of detailed information, often not available from open sources.
2 Patterns of Global Terrorism (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of State, 1997), p. 34.
3 Ibid., p. 32.
4 Ibid., p. 33.
5 Ibid., p. 31.
6 The secretary of state named the PMOI, along with twenty other groups worldwide, as a terrorist group on Oct. 8, 1997.
7 There is still some debate among terrorism experts about the responsibility for bringing down Pan Am 103. No one argues that the bombing itself was conducted by any one other than the accused Libyan agents, but some analysts believe that the operation was initiated by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), led by Ahmad Jibril and that it carried out this act at the behest of Iran-retaliation for the mistaken U.S. downing of Iran Air Flight 655 in July 1988. According to this theory, the PFLP-GC, which at the time was also supported by Libya, handed the bombing operation off to Libyan intelligence when the PFLP-GC realized that European authorities suspected its role and were investigating the plot.
8 Or the Netherlands: as of October 1998, Libya had not submitted the two for trial in the Hague, as provided for in a compromise plan first suggested by Libya itself.
9 The Washington Post, Aug. 8, 1998.
10 Ibid., Sept. 27, 1998. However, the U.S. government then opposed the family’s attempts to collect on the judgment by seizing frozen Iranian diplomatic property in the United States, based on the belief that doing so would infringe on the universal sanctity of diplomatic property.
11 Iran Times, Sept. 4, 1998.
12 “Usama bin Ladin: Islamic Extremist Financier” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, Aug. 1996).
13 Briefing by Defense Department spokesman Kenneth Bacon. Reuters, Sept. 8, 1998.
14 Al-Quds al-‘Arabi, Nov. 27, 1996.

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