NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

State Supported Terrorism

September 13, 2001

State support of terrorist groups has become an integral part of the global struggle for power, say experts. Hostile states, such as the Soviet Union during the Cold War and Iran today, have employed terrorism as a form of low-intensity warfare to advance their interests at the expense of the United States and other democracies. Accordingly, U.S. policymakers frequently have resorted to sanctions against state sponsors of international terrorism. However, confronting state sponsors of terrorism is difficult for several reasons:

  • Terrorist states normally seek some measure of "plausible deniability" when sponsoring terrorist groups. Financial support, for example, normally is funded through indirect channels.
  • Sometimes, taking strong actions against state sponsors may conflict with other U.S. foreign policy objectives. In 1991, for example, Washington allowed Syria to join the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq even though Damascus has long been a sponsor of international terrorism.
  • Not all states are equally vulnerable to economic sanctions. Further sanctions against North Korea, for example, probably would have little impact given Pyongyang's commitment to economic autarky.

A more effective anti-terrorism policy would involve a balance of offensive and defensive measures that are aimed at both terrorists and their sponsors.

  • Washington should persuade its allies to participate in developing a multilateral version of the State Department's list of states that support terrorism. Once placed on the list, a terrorist state should be denied economic assistance, arms sales and preferential trade privileges from all participating states.
  • Where possible, the U.S. should use military responses to raise the cost of terrorism above the price a terrorist-supporting state is willing to pay. This means striking targets that the state in question highly values, such as its internal security forces and secret police.
  • In some cases, especially where terrorists may have access to weapons of mass destruction, the United States must consider preemptive strikes against known terrorist sites to protect its vital national security interests.

Source: James Phillips and James H. Anderson, "International Terrorism, Containing and Defeating Terrorist Threats," Issues 2000: The Candidate's Briefing Book, Chapter 20, Heritage Foundation, 2000.


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