Confronting Passive Sponsors of Terrorism

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Nonresident Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

February 1, 2005

For many terrorist groups, a state’s tolerance of or passivity toward their activities is often as important to their success as any deliberate assistance they receive. Open and active state sponsorship of terrorism is rare, and it has decreased since the end of the Cold War. Yet this lack of open support does not necessarily diminish the important role that states play in fostering or hindering terrorism. At times, the greatest contribution a state can make to a terrorist’s cause is by not policing a border, turning a blind eye to fundraising, or even tolerating terrorist efforts to build their organizations, conduct operations, and survive.

This passivity in the face of terrorism can be deadly. In conducting the September 11 attacks, al-Qa’ida recruited and raised money in Germany with relatively little interference, enjoyed financial support from many Saudis unobstructed by the government in Riyadh, planned operations in Malaysia, and sent operatives to America. None of these governments are “sponsors” of al-Qa’ida—indeed, several were and are bitter enemies of the organization—but their inaction proved as important, if not more so, than the haven the group enjoyed in Afghanistan in enabling al-Qa’ida to conduct the attacks.

This Saban Center analysis paper analyzes the vexing issue of passive support for terrorism by looking at four countries that have passively supported, or at least tolerated, terrorism: Saudi Arabia’s backing of radical Islamist causes and organizations, Pakistan’s indirect links to al-Qa’ida, Greece’s tolerance of the 17 November Organization, and the United States’ blind eye for Provisional Irish Republican Army fundraising. In each of these instances, the government allowed terrorists to operate, and at times flourish, despite being aware of their activities.