Terrorism: State Support Is Self-Defeating

by Shireen T. Hunter

The end of June and the beginning of July were especially bloody times as terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) struck in several places. As usual, Baghdad, especially its Shia quarters, were favorite targets. The attack on Karada street, a mainly Shia-inhabited neighborhood, claimed close to 300 victims. The tragedy was of such magnitude that the Iraqi president cancelled festivities for the Eid Al Fitr at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. This was followed by other attacks, including one again in Baghdad and another in Balad, a city near Samara. Then there was the horrendous attack in Istanbul airport, followed by the bombings at a restaurant in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Saudi Arabia, too, had its share of bombings, including in the Shia–inhabited region of Qatif, plus in Jeddah and Medina. In the latter city, the bombing occurred close to the Prophet’s mosque (Masjid Al Nabi).

Given that nearly all countries claim that they are engaged in struggle against terrorism and their perpetrators and that the United States has been engaged in a war on terror at least since 2001, why have all these states, including megapowers such as the United States, so far failed to eradicate terrorism and their perpetrators? For example, 15 years after the start of the American invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban are still operating in that country and have even expanded their operations to Pakistan. Al-Qaeda, which was a main target of US operations in Afghanistan, also has not disappeared. Instead, it has sprouted branches throughout the Arab World and even in Africa, if not always by establishing a physical presence but by inspiring other extremist movements, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria. Even worse, during this “war on terror,” new terrorist groups have emerged, the latest and deadliest of which is IS.

Part of the difficulty in dealing with terrorism is that the use of terror to achieve specific goals has many causes as well as a long history, although in the past acts similar to today’s terrorist operations were not called by that name. Thus, the eradication of terrorism is time-consuming and requires the application of many tools of which military power is only one. However, the struggle against terrorism could have been more successful if various regional and international actors had not increasingly resorted to the opportunistic use of terrorist groups as an instrument of their foreign policy and as a weapon against their enemies and competitors.

In fact, when looked at closely, none of the deadliest of the recent terrorist groups could have emerged without either the active support the acquiescence of one or more states. Take, for example, the Taliban. By all accounts, the Taliban could not have come into being without active Pakistani support. Some scholars and analysts go as far as characterizing Pakistan as the Taliban’s godfather. After Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates established a patronage relationship with the Taliban, providing financial support and recognizing the Taliban government when it took control in Kabul in 1996. Their main objectives in creating the Taliban were to put in place a pro-Pakistan and pro-Gulf Arab government in post-Soviet Afghanistan and to use the Taliban as an instrument to pressure Iran on its eastern borders.

Meanwhile, the Western countries largely acquiesced in the Taliban’s creation. Only after 1998, when al-Qaeda, which had close relations with the Taliban, attacked US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, did the West become concerned about their ideology and operations. Some observers, including the late Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s prime minister, have even claimed that some Western countries provided the Taliban with arms while money came from the Gulf Arabs. Initially, much as they did with the creation of the Taliban in Afghanistan, many regional players and key international actors did not view the emergence of IS in Iraq with anxiety. On the country, some regional states were complicit in its emergence and saw it as a useful tool to force out Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to pressure Iran and to undermine Assad.

In a similar vein, in the Levant, Hezbollah could not have survived without Iran’s financial and military aid. Iran’s objectives for supporting Hezbollah can best be explained in terms of its so-called anti-Imperialist and anti-Zionist strategy. In post-2003-invasion Iraq, Saudi Arabia and later Qatar and Turkey have been the main supporters of Sunni groups while Iran has helped the Shia elements. In Syria different states have their favorite terrorists. Of course, none of these states calls their own collaborators terrorists. In short, terrorist groups have become instruments of states in what has increasingly been proxy wars among main regional players and between some regional players and key international actors.

In all the cases of the instrumental use of terrorist groups, no state that either helps to create a terror group or support it financially, militarily, or logistically once it has emerged can be certain that it will be able to control it once it acquires a life of its own. In fact, the evidence indicates that such groups often turn against their patrons and, once established, tend to pursue goals that often can be at odds with those of their sponsors’ interest. Worse, in some cases, these groups commit or threaten terrorist acts on the territories of their sponsors. According to the latest evidence, IS has turned against Turkey, which many believe initially provided it at least with logistical support by allowing it access to its territory. IS might have even turned against Saudi Arabia. Pakistan, meanwhile, seems not to be in control of all of the different variants of the Taliban, although it still continues to support what it calls the “good Taliban.”

Perhaps states will always exploit the weaknesses of their enemies and rivals. As the cost and destructiveness of full-scale warfare keeps increasing, perhaps such states will continue to engage in proxy wars and not shy away from using what is often called terrorist groups. Yet, increasingly, terror can no longer be confined to specific areas or be used for specific purposes and against specific targets. On the contrary, all states, even powerful ones, are more and more vulnerable to the actions of groups they create, nurture, or simply tolerate as long as they do not pose a direct threat to themselves. In a sane world, this reality should convince states to abandon the practice of using terrorist groups as instruments of policy. States should condemn acts of terror in all cases and not only when perpetrated against themselves or their friends. There are no good terrorists. They are all bad.

Even this realization would not solve the problem overnight. But it would eliminate a major factor behind the recent rise of deadly terrorist groups.

Photo: Anti-terrorism squad

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. Cohen’s first law of insurgency: “All insurgents have an outside partner.” That sums up Professor Hunter’s thesis.

  2. Stopping short by eliminating the use of terrorism by states does not fulfill the root cause: regarding and treating other states as enemies and disregarding the international law principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of another state.

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