Open and active state sponsorship of terrorism is blessedly 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 acting. A border not policed, a blind eye turned to fundraising, or even the toleration of recruitment all help terrorists build their organisations, conduct operations and survive.
Such passivity in the face of terrorism can be deadly. In conducting the 11 September 2001 attacks, al-Qaeda recruited and raised money in Germany with relatively little interference, enjoyed financial support from many Saudis unobstructed by the government in Riyadh, and planned operations in Malaysia. None of these governments are active sponsors of al-Qaeda—indeed, several are bitter enemies—but their inaction proved vital to al- Qaeda’s success. Despite the importance of what I call ‘passive sponsors’ of terrorism, we lack any comprehensive understanding of their role. As a result, attention has been paid almost exclusively to active sponsors, and we often try to solve the problem of passive support with the same instruments we use against active sponsors, leading to the failure of coercion and, at times, making the problem worse.
The list of countries that tolerate at least some terrorist activity is long, and is not confined to the Middle East or even to states ruled by aggressive dictators. For example, France allowed various Middle Eastern terrorist groups, as well as Basque separatists, to operate with impunity in the 1980s; the United States permitted an umbrella group representing the anti-Tehran Mujahedin-e Khalq to lobby in the United States until 1997; the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam raised money with little interference in Canada and the United Kingdom; and Venezuela allowed the FARC to operate on its territory.1