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Essay: State support of terrorism as a foreign policy strategy

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  • Subject area(s): International relations
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  • Published: 15 November 2019*
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Once considered a tool of extremists and radical groups, terrorism has grown to be accepted, supported and used by some states as a legitimate foreign policy strategy. While there is a plethora of reasons why states may turn to terrorism as a means of achieving their goals, much of the reasoning behind state and state-sponsored terrorism can be simplified into two main causes – perceptions of justice, and the belief that change can be achieved through violence.

Perceived injustice on a social and political level can drive states to support or become directly involved in terrorism. Should state actors have reason to believe the state interests or rights are being threatened, they will take action to right what they perceive to be wrong. Often this is followed by the belief that change can be achieved through violence (or its threat) – that the ends of accomplishing state goals justify the violent means.

Should a state believe that its goals and interests are best served by acts of terrorism or terrorist organisations, it will in turn will either carry out the terrorist acts directly, or provide a terrorist group with resources that will aid them in achieving the goals of the state. Acts of terrorism are often viewed by supportive states as appropriate foreign policy strategies due to their low risk, low cost and relatively low difficulty.

This perception of terrorism as a practical use of force leads to cases of state and state-sponsored terrorism being justified as a means to further a state’s policy or international diplomatic efforts. In what follows, this essay will explore the reasoning behind state support and use of terrorism as a foreign policy strategy through the case studies two of the most well-known state sponsors of terrorism, Iran and the U.S.

Definitions

At present, the term ‘terrorism’ is used frequently by politicians and diplomats alike. Despite this, the definition of terrorism is often rather vague and can vary drastically depending on the source. Many are of the belief that ‘you know terrorism when you see it’, however if terrorism is to be investigated in greater detail a more precise definition is necessary. The U.S. Code defines terrorism as ‘premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.’ Under this definition, terrorism can be interpreted as acts intended to provoke a reaction of terror and fear, thus leading to changes in how things such as policies are perceived.

Generally terrorism is associated with non-state actors – terrorists are seen as groups of radical extremists with few ties to the government. However, state governments are known to both support and directly utilise acts of terrorism to further their own policies, leading to the terms ‘state sponsored terrorism’ and ‘state terrorism’ being coined.

The terms ‘state supported terrorism’ and ‘state sponsored terrorism’ are applied to situations where governments provide terrorist groups and organisations with support. This support can take the form of funding, supplies, training, weapons, equipment, and access to facilities not readily available to the public. Another valuable form of support states tend to provide is sanctuary – giving a terrorist organisation a ‘safe haven’ or physical base. States can also extend diplomatic protections and services to terrorist groups such as false documentation for identification documents, financial transactions and otherwise illegal purchases, diplomatic immunity from extradition and the use of protected facilities or areas.

‘State terrorism’ refers to instances when the government of a state is directly involved in terrorist activity, using terror tactics against other nations, its own people, or groups/individuals viewed as threats to the state’s interest. Generally, in these cases the offending state’s government personnel will deny that their actions are acts of terrorism, even if such activities qualify as terrorism under official sanction.

Case I – The U.S.

In recent history there have been numerous instances of the U.S. providing aid to terrorist and organisations across the globe. Non-state terrorist groups backed by the U.S have been prominent throughout Latin America and the Middle-East. The U.S. has also been found to support various authoritarian regimes that use terror tactics as a means of repressing dissent. The U.S. has provided various reasons explaining their support of terrorist groups, which can once again be broken down into ideas of what is right and wrong, and violence as a justifiable means of furthering the state’s own foreign policy agenda.

Perhaps the most famous case of U.S.-sponsored terrorism is their support of the Contra rebels who utilised terror tactics in their fight against the state. The Contras were a U.S.-backed, right-wing militant organisation of various rebel groups in Nicaragua who opposed the socialist Sandinista government at the time. The Contras received extensive aid from the U.S government from the early stages of their establishment.

Throughout the 1980s the Contra rebels received weapons, training and substantial financial support from the U.S. with the CIA in charge of operations. One of the objectives the CIA sought to accomplish in Nicaragua was a violent response from the government, which could then be used as justification for ‘real’ military intervention. Much of the Contras’ effectiveness as a military unit can be directly attributed to U.S. support.

The Contras used terror tactics against the Nicaraguan populace in order to weaken the government’s influence. Acts of terror committed included the destruction of schools, state medical centers and hospitals – acts that would otherwise be considered war crimes. The Contras notoriously kidnapped, raped and murdered thousands of civilians, resulting in many more being reported ‘disappeared.’ Many of these acts were considered justified under the Reagan Doctrine as long as they worked against communism. The Reagan Doctrine also supported acts of terror such as kidnappings and murder as ‘Low Intensity Warfare’ with the objectives of disrupting state social structures and asserting control over the populace.

The U.S. has offered many explanations for its support of the Contras. Many of these explanations contain the underlying theme of terrorist actions being justified as a means to an end; support for the Contras ensured favorable conditions for producing the results that best served American interests. The United States’ opposition to the Sandinistas can be traced back to the U.S. support of former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, who was overthrown by the Sandinistas in 1979. The Sandinista having strong ties to communism and friendly relations with the Soviet Union was perceived as a security threat to the U.S.; the U.S. saw potential danger in the notion of a communist-backed state in such close proximity to their own territory. Thus, the U.S. backed a terrorist organisation in order to further their own political agenda, hoping that the Contras would destabilise social structures and oust the Sandinista government. The U.S. was willing to support the Contras despite their poor record with regards to human rights and terrorist acts because they sought goals favoured by the U.S.

In 1982 the U.S. Congress outlawed U.S. aid of the Contras for the purpose of overthrowing the Nicaraguan government. In 1986, a large political scandal unfolded when President Reagan admitted that the government had been diverting funds from covert arms deals with Iran towards supporting the Contra rebels. This scandal would come to be known as the Iran–Contra Affair and led to a substantial decrease in public support for President Reagan.

Case II – Iran

Iran has been an active supporter of religious terrorism since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 Described as an ‘active state sponsor of terrorism’ by the U.S. State Department, Iran is considered to be a central part of terrorism throughout the Middle East. As politics and religion are impossible to separate in Islam, perceived injustices against Muslims have led to Iranian support for terrorist groups with ideologies that align with the government’s own. Prominent examples of this include Hezbollah and Hamas, terrorist groups operating with religious ideologies – which align with Iran’s own – and combine political action with terror tactics in Lebanon and Palestine. The goals of both groups range from short-term goals such as the release of imprisoned members, to the long-term, continued resistance to Israeli occupation and achieving liberation of all Muslim ‘believers’. For Iran, supporting these terrorist organisations enable them to be used as cheap, effective tools with which they can seek the advancement of their foreign policy agenda.

Iran’s hostility towards Israel is a central component of its foreign policy. Prior to the 1979 revolution, Iran and Israel fostered relatively close relations, as two non-Arab states in the Middle East with common strategic interests. Iran was a crucial supplier of oil for Israel, and Israel was a crucial supplier of arms and weapons. Following the revolution, relations deteriorated, the Iranian government severed its ties with Israel, and allied itself with Palestine. Iran’s once nuanced and guarded relationship with Israel would be replaced with Islamist ideas that perceived Israel to be the source of oppression for Muslims. For many Iranians, the creation of a Jewish state that displaced Palestinian Muslims was an unforgivable sin. Iran withdrew its recognition of Israel as a state for various reasons; Iranian leftists viewed Israel negatively for its imperialism and relationship with the U.S., while the religious right perceived Israel to be a threat to Islam (and by extension, Islamic law and justice) and an unjust occupier of Muslim land.  Aside from the ideological aspects of Iran’s animosity towards Israel, there were also strategic purposes to be found. Iran’s embrace of the Palestinian cause enabled the once isolated Shia regime to gain influence and support across the Arab world.

Iran’s beliefs have led to the state providing generous support for Hamas through provision of military and financial aid, as well as advanced training for Hamas personnel at IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) bases in Iran and Lebanon. Aid increased steadily over the years, with notable increases following the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. After Hamas’ victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections led to the loss of international funding, Tehran provided substantial support in the form of financial donations to the Hamas led government. Hamas itself has been vocal concerning its Iranian support. After opening an office in Tehran, Hamas declared that its views were identical to those of Iran in regards to ‘the strategic outlook toward the Palestinian cause in its Islamic dimension’. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal visited Iran in 2009 following the 2008 Gaza war in order to formally thank Iran for its aid during the conflict, referring to Iran as its ‘partner in victory.’

At first glance one could be forgiven for seeing the Iran-Hamas relationship as a fair example of multilateral co-operation, however Hamas is classified as a terrorist organisation by many countries and organisations such as the European Union. Hamas has been responsible for rocket attacks deemed to be war crimes by human rights organisations, due to the fact that many of these attacks were found to be deliberately aimed at civilians, and that even if they were aimed at military targets, the inaccuracy of the weapons would pose a considerable threat to civilians anyway. Hamas has also been condemned for committing human rights violations – a list of these violations presented by Human Rights Watch in 2012 stretched 43 pages long. The report included numerous cases of Hamas torturing activists and peaceful protestors. Another report, released by Amnesty International in 2015, detailed inhumane acts carried out by Hamas during the Israel-Gaza conflict of the previous year such as extrajudicial killings, torture, abductions and arrests of Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel.

Despite Hamas’ long history of criticism and international acknowledgement as a terrorist group, Iran continued to show support until 2013, when Hamas officials stated that the organisation was no longer receiving aid from Iran as ‘punishment’ for developing stronger relations with Saudi Arabia, and showing support for the rebels in the Syrian Civil War, concepts that do not align with Iran’s state interests. Iranian support for Hamas has since resumed.

The Hamas–Iran relationship can thus be interpreted as a state providing aid for a group that fights for rights and concepts the state agrees with, until the group’s ideologies begin to clash with the state’s, at which point support will be withdrawn. The Iranian state support of the terrorist organisation can be explained by two basic causes; perceptions of injustice and belief of the ends justifying the means. Iran believes Islamic Palestine to be the victim of an unjust Israeli occupation, and is prepared to aid an external group in carrying out acts of terrorism in order to defend Muslim rights. To Iran’s rulers, the price the state pays is justified by the ideological and strategic advantages to be gained from support of terrorism and terrorist groups; sacrifices are necessary and must be made in order to further the state’s foreign policy agenda.

In 2011, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stated that ‘wherever a movement is Islamic, populist, and anti-American, we support it’, implying that Iran will support anything with similar interests to its own. This is reflected in the sheer number of terrorist organisations backed by Iran – Hamas is one of many. The Islamist political movement and militant organisation Hezbollah has received substantial support from Iran in the form of funding, training and weapons, as well as considerable amounts of political, diplomatic and organisational aid. Unsurprisingly, Iran has made efforts to persuade Hezbollah to take action against Israel. Iran is also a major financial supporter of the terror organisation Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group whose goal of destroying the State of Israel and establishing a sovereign Islamic state in its place also align with Iran’s state interests.

Iran is known in the present day as one of the most active supporters of terrorism as foreign policy strategy to further its own agenda and spread its ideologies to neighbouring regions. These ideologies commonly involve the liberation of Muslims from perceived threats, as the Iranian government considers the rights of Muslims a justified cause for terror tactics and violence. On several occasions, the U.S has awarded damages to the victims of terrorism, payable by Iran due to evidence showing the Iranian government making payments to support offending terrorist groups despite the state not being the direct perpetrator of the attacks. Exactly how to enforce these decisions to make Iran pay reparations has been the subject of much debate.

In general there are two main elements found in explanations behind why a state may choose to support terrorism as a legitimate foreign policy tool; ideas of right and wrong and a willingness to overlook the evils involved in terrorism as a justifiable means to an end. These two components can be found across numerous cases of state sponsorship or involvement in terrorism.

For the U.S., terrorism was supported when they provided aid to Nicaraguan rebels who used terror tactics against civilians in order to dismantle the government. The U.S. viewed the Nicaraguan socialist government to be a threat. Thus, the U.S. supported the Contra rebels because their goals aligned with the U.S. foreign policy agenda of destroying communism. In order to achieve these goals, the U.S. supported the acts of terror committed by the Contras, labelling them as ‘low level warfare’.

For Iran, terrorism has proved to be an effective tool in furthering their foreign policy agenda in Palestine. The Iranian government believes Israel to be the source of injustice and oppression for Muslims in Palestine, and is primarily focussed on resistance. Thus, the Iranian government has supported and continues to support terrorist organisations with similar – and in some cases, identical – goals to the state’s. They too are willing to overlook the horrors of terrorism as necessary evils, means by which their goal of Palestinian Muslim liberation can be accomplished.

While the logic behind state support of terrorism as a foreign policy strategy can be incredibly simple at times, its simplicity does not make it right.

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