Stateless Terrorism Revisited

At the Weekly Standard, Bill Roggio and Tom Joscelyn describe “Pakistan’s Jihad.” They begin with Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari’s incongruous appearance on the Larry King show:

“This is not the time to point fingers,” Zardari protested. “The state of Pakistan is in no way responsible.”

Instead, Zardari said, “I think these are stateless actors who have been operating all throughout the region. .  .  . The gunmen plus the planners, whoever they are, [are] stateless actors who have been holding hostage the whole world.”

Roggio and Joscelyn provide the best short history I’ve seen of Pakistan’s intelligence service’s support for Islamic terrorism, by way of showing that the terrorists who attacked Mumbai were “stateless” in only the most limited sense.

The Australian‘s Greg Sheridan broadens the point in “The dangerous illusion of independent terrorists”. “Stateless terrorism,” while not an oxymoron, does not describe any of the key terrorist phenomena of our time:

When US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in India this week, all the talk was about “non-state actors” and the challenge they throw up to the international system. The assumption was that the Pakistan-based terrorists responsible for the murders of about 175 people in Mumbai, and the injuries to hundreds more, were non-state actors. …

The radical increase in the lethality, range, political consequence and strategic influence of terrorists comes not from their being non-state actors at all. Instead it comes from their being sponsored by states.

Sometimes they are the instruments of states and at other times they make strategic alliances with states.

A terrorist group operating without any state sponsorship is an infinitely less dangerous outfit than a terrorist group operating with the co-operation of even the most ramshackle state. However, states not only co-operate with terrorists, in many cases they direct and even found the terrorists.

One important example is al Qaeda. But, as Sheridan points out, state-supported or -enabled terrorism is the rule, not the exception:

Al-Qa’ida at least has an independent existence apart from its succeeding state sponsors.

In the case of Iran, this is not so clear. Iran sponsored Hezbollah as its representative force in Lebanon. Increasingly, Tehran has taken direct control of Hezbollah. … Hezbollah is a particular type of terrorist organisation. It is certainly capable of suicide terrorism, but it has become in effect a standing terrorist army, with its most important investment being in medium and even hi-tech missiles that it can launch at Israel whenever Iran gives the order.

Thus Hezbollah is less a non-state actor, as the popular jargon has it, and more an instrument of state power that nonetheless provides its state sponsor with political distance or a level of plausible deniability. …

Similarly, Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood organisation. But its primary capacity is a conventional military capacity, especially the rockets it is now acquiring. It receives support from one big state, Iran, but it also constitutes on its own a kind of state power in Gaza.

Terrorists have to operate from somewhere. There are three alternatives. They can operate in what is truly ungoverned space, such as much of contemporary Somalia. Or they can operate clandestinely, against the wishes of a governing authority, as say the terrorist groups that have gathered in London. But of necessity such operations tend to be small and furtive. It is the third option that allows terrorists to grow to their full potential: where they are operating as either allies or agents of a sympathetic government.

This revival of talk about stateless terrorism creates a sense of deja vu. As we pointed out here, the dogma that modern terrorism is “stateless” dictated the Clinton White House’s approach to the issue:

Prior to 9/11, the dominant view within the IC was that al Qaida represented a new form of stateless terrorism. That was also the view promoted by the Clinton White House, above all terrorism czar, Richard Clarke.

It was the “stateless terrorism” theory that led Clarke and other veterans of the pre-September 11 intelligence community to insist that Iraq’s intelligence service couldn’t possibly support al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

Today, it is more obvious than it was seven years ago that the concept of stateless terrorism exists mainly as an excuse for inaction: if trans-national terrorists are truly stateless, there isn’t much we can do about them, and there is no need to confront knotty problems like Iraq, Iran and Pakistan.

In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, the Bush administration has been taking a fairly hard line with Pakistan. Condoleezza Rice visited both India and Pakistan; perhaps I missed it, but I don’t believe that accounts in the American press have captured the tone that is conveyed by Indian newspapers:

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has told Pakistan that there is “irrefutable evidence” of involvement of elements in this country in the Mumbai terror attacks and it had no option but to act urgently “otherwise, the US will act.”

Rice, who travelled here after a visit to India earlier this week, “pushed” the Pakistani leaders to move against the perpetrators of the terror strikes.

The clear message was conveyed by her to Pakistan’s top leadership during her brief stopover here on Thursday, diplomatic sources said. …

The sources said Rice, during her interactions with President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, made it clear that Pakistan needs to act effectively to bring the perpetrators to justice. She warned that the “US will act if Pakistan did not”.

Rice also told Pakistan that it “needs to act urgently and effectively to avert a strong international response”.

In the last days of the Bush administration this may be an empty threat, assuming it was made as reported. One can only hope that the Obama administration will be clear-eyed about the sources of trans-national terrorism, and will not bring back the pre-September 11 intelligence community’s obliviousness to the importance of terrorist-facilitating states.

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