What does it mean to sponsor terrorism?

Al-Qaida linked Nusra fighters.

As President Obama meets with Saudi officials this week, hammering out differences over Iran and defeating the Islamic State will be high on the agenda. At home, Congress is considering a bill that would allow Americans to sue the Saudi government for any role it may have had, if any, in the 9/11 attacks. Meanwhile, European officials are pressing Turkey to control its border to stop the flow of foreign fighters to and from Syria. European officials are also concerned that European Union members like Belgium are not doing enough to stop terrorists on their own soil.

In different ways, all these countries have allowed terrorism to flourish. It’s easy, and correct, to call Iran a sponsor of terrorism—but should Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and even Belgium be on the list? 

Let’s start with Iran and then muddy the waters (excuse me, I mean explore more difficult faces of a complex issue) from there. Tehran is considered a sponsor of terrorism because it provides a wide range of assistance to groups like the Lebanese Hezbollah, which the State Department has designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Hezbollah gets money, weapons, training, and other forms of support from Tehran. The organization is not Iran’s puppet, but the two are close, and all major Hezbollah decisions occur in consultation with Iran. 

Belgium is the other end of the spectrum. No one is accusing Brussels of deliberately assisting the Islamic State or any other terrorist group. Rather, Belgium’s problem is incapacity. Its intelligence services are not experienced counterterrorists, and they often coordinate poorly internally and with other European services. Belgium’s government institutions, bureaucratic design, and fractious state structure are not favorable for a robust counterterrorism response. As a result, hotspots like the Molenbeek neighborhood flourish, generating terrorists and allowing wanted suspects to hide out.

Turkey has capacity issues, too. Its border with Syria is 899 kilometers long and there is a long tradition of smuggling. Yet Turkey’s capacity issue was self-imposed. Unlike the United States, Turkey’s primary goal in Syria is defeating the Assad regime, not fighting terrorism. So Ankara has backed an array of rebel groups, including some linked to al-Qaida’s affiliate, the Nusra Front. In Turkey’s case, the government tolerated a permissive environment that enabled the Nusra Front, the Islamic State, and others to exploit Turkish territory. Turkey had the capacity to act, but it didn’t. However, there is progress: after allowing terrorism in Turkey to flourish, with deadly effect, Turkey is now more aggressive against the Islamic State, trying to seal its borders and disrupt terrorist activities on its soil.

The elephant in the room

This spectrum of sponsorship is useful when examining the Saudi case. Before the September 11th attacks, Saudi Arabia acted as what I called a “passive sponsor” of al-Qaida: the regime knowingly tolerated activities related to terrorism, but to my knowledge did not sponsor the group directly. A range of Islamist non-government organizations (NGOs) flourished in Saudi Arabia, some of them sympathetic to jihadist causes. Indeed, al-Qaida personnel often posed as members of these NGOs as cover for their terrorist activities. 

Saudi Arabia also spread its often-extreme Salafi interpretation of Islam and allowed its institutions to back jihadist causes in the Balkans, Chechnya, and elsewhere. Then-Treasury official Juan Zarate declared that al-Qaida “has taken advantage of state-supported proselytizing around the world.” Terrorist groups, or at least the causes they support, seemed legitimate to much of the Saudi public. From the regime’s point of view, placating public opinion made sense when the group appeared to pose little direct threat. 

It’s best to think about sponsorship beyond money and guns.

Riyadh, however, became far less permissive after the 9/11 attacks and in particular after al-Qaida’s Saudi affiliate struck the Kingdom in 2003. Saudi Arabia hit al-Qaida fundraising, arrested its cells, and otherwise engaged in a significant crackdown. Today Saudi Arabia is a vital U.S. counterterrorism partner, foiling many plots and otherwise working to disrupt active terrorist groups. Yet the regime still sponsors preachers with radical teachings, and support for sectarianism, which the Islamic State champions, is strong in the Kingdom.

It’s best to think about sponsorship beyond money and guns. It can involve non-state actors and institutions, and tolerance and state capacity are vital issues to consider. From a U.S. policy point of view, breaking this down is vital. Active sponsors must be fought, coerced, and opposed as much as possible; passive sponsors may require persuasion as well as pressure, convincing them of a shared danger while also imposing penalties if they allow terrorists free rein. For countries that lack capacity, money and technical assistance may prove the most vital. Above all, the United States will need to be flexible, recognizing that many countries change their policies—while progress may not be absolute, it is still worth recognizing.