We live in a world where the greatest terrorist threats to the United States can hardly even be given a label. The actors are neither traditional terrorist groups nor the classic state sponsors. In the murkiest of undergrounds, weaknesses within states and their governments’ desires to bolster their security often result in an inability to rein in societies’ darkest undercurrents. In this netherworld, Saudi Arabia funded the kind of networking that ultimately led to 9/11. Pakistan becomes in part responsible for the Talibanization of its own country as sectarian strife explodes and members of its intelligence service abet radicals. Even Iran, a classic state sponsor, finds itself hedging its bets, funding all kinds of radical groups in Iraq, even ones that are fighting its favored proxies. These states create serious problems for the United States, deadly problems for their regions and at times catastrophic problems for themselves.
For all the talk of “nonstate actors” or “networked organizations,” states remain at the core of the war on terror. Some are willing to fight al-Qaeda and become invaluable allies; others ignore the danger or even tacitly support it. Yet these states’ motivations and activities are far different than the types of sponsorship seen during the cold war. Then, terrorists were funded to act as deniable proxies for states; now, many terrorist groups are as much “playing” their sponsors as vice versa. Indeed, states are often more anxious to support terrorism not to cause trouble for others but to keep it out of their own backyards.
A closer look at states like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and many other countries linked to terrorism reveals that the primary problem today is government passivity rather than active support. It is what states are not doing that poses the greatest danger—especially when such states deliberately turn a blind eye as terrorists recruit, raise money and otherwise build their organizations on their territory.
One way that states try to deal with terrorism is to pawn the problem off on someone else: they give suspected militants the choice of staying and being arrested if they target locals or leaving for another country, where these same radicals often commit or plan acts of terror. Yemen, on paper a strong U.S. ally, is the poster child for this method. On the one hand, Sanaa’s security forces have made dramatic arrests of leading al-Qaeda figures. Yet terror detainees have repeatedly escaped from the country’s jails and many Yemeni jihadists who went through the government’s “reeducation” program later went to Iraq to fight against U.S. forces.
Yemeni political-analyst Murad Abdul Wahed Zafir has compared his country to a bus station: some terrorists are stopped, but others are permitted to go on their merry way. “We appease our partners in the West,” he says, “but we are not really helping” to destroy transnational terrorist networks. And this phenomenon is not limited to Yemen. It can be observed in several other North African and Middle Eastern states—local radicals shipped off to the jihad battlefields of Iraq as a way of passing the buck.
We are also observing a fundamental shift in the power relationship, as many terrorist groups are better thought of as partners of governments rather than merely state proxies. But judging these changes can be difficult. The idea of sponsorship itself is clouded: governments are at times divided or do not control their own intelligence services or regional branches. In some cases, terrorist groups have “captured” at least part of the state apparatus for their own ends. Complicating the picture is “blowback”: state sponsors regularly become infected with the terrorism virus they seek to spread to others. What’s happening in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia—two key U.S. allies—underscores these dangers.
The objective of this kind of [safe zones] project may be described as fundamentally humanitarian, but the reality is that any number of parties, starting with the Assad regime and the Islamic State, are going to see it as a threat, and that’s going to make it a target instead of a safe place.
No vetting system is perfect, but if you look at those who have been arrested for suspicions of being linked to the Islamic State, for example, the vast majority have been American citizens.