The U.S. approach toward state sponsorship of terrorism rests on a flawed understanding of the problem and an even more flawed policy response. The U.S. Department of State’s current formal list of state sponsors includes Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. But Cuba and North Korea have done almost nothing in this area in recent years, and Sudan has changed its ways enough that elsewhere the Bush administration credits Sudan as a “strong partner in the War on Terror.” Of those on the list, only Syria and Iran remain problems, and in both cases their involvement in traditional international terrorism is down considerably from their peaks in the 1980s.
What seems like a brilliant policy success, however, is really an artifact of bad list management, because much of the problem of state sponsorship today involves countries that are not on the list at all. Pakistan has long aided a range of terrorist groups fighting against India in Kashmir and is a major sponsor of Taliban forces fighting the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan. Hugo Chavez’s government in Venezuela is a major supporter of the FARC. And several other governments, such as those in Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian territories, create problems by deliberately looking the other way when their citizens back terrorist groups.
These new state sponsors are actually more dangerous to the United States and its interests than the remaining traditional state sponsors, because some of them are tied to Sunni jihadist groups such as al-Qa‘ida— currently the greatest terrorist threat facing the United States. The nightmare of a terrorist group acquiring nuclear weapons is far more likely to involve Pakistan than it is Iran or North Korea.
The new state sponsors can also be harder to deal with than the old ones, not least because they often have a more complicated relationship with terrorists. In many cases, the government in question does not actively train or arm the terrorist group, but rather lets it act with relative impunity— an approach that, in practice, allows the government to claim ignorance or incapacity. Thus it can be hard to distinguish between Yemen’s willful inaction and cases like Jordan, where terrorist cells also operate but do so despite a fierce regime counterterrorism campaign. Many of the new sponsors are also U.S. allies. And some cooperate, albeit fitfully, with the U.S. war on terrorism even as they surreptitiously allow terrorists to operate from their soil.
Because of this complexity, the answer to the problem does not lie only in updating the State Department’s state sponsorship list to reflect current relationships— swapping out Cuba for Venezuela, say, or replacing North Korea with Pakistan. The very concept of a binary list, with countries either on it or off, is flawed and often does more harm to U.S. interests than good. Once a country is listed it is hard to remove even if it does not support terrorism (as Sudan has found out),and the list provides little incentive for partial or incomplete counterterrorism cooperation (which is all several countries are realistically likely to give).
So what Washington should really do is adopt a new approach that recognizes the complex nature of state sponsorship today. The first step should be to forge an international consensus on a broad definition of what constitutes state sponsorship—a definition that encompasses not only errors of commission, such as arming and training groups, but also errors of omission, such as unwillingness to stop terrorist fundraising and recruitment. A good precedent to follow here is the effort to stop money laundering: by forging an agreement among key states on financial accounting standards, the United States and its allies have been able to make considerable progress on improving compliance and reducing the number of countries with lax enforcement.
At a bilateral level, moreover, simple embarrassment has proven surprisingly effective as a tool against some countries. The spotlight held on Saudi Arabia after September 11 humiliated the kingdom’s royal family,making it scramble to at least appear cooperative. The United States should consider creating a list of passive sponsors and their activities in an attempt to “name and shame” them into better behavior, using as a model the “transparency index” that measures the level of corruption in countries around the world.
If diplomatic pressure has little impact, political and economic penalties should then be introduced. Initially, such penalties should be mostly symbolic at first, embarrassing a regime in front of elites and signaling to foreign investors and others that more harsh penalties are on their way. (Travel bans for regime leaders fall into this category.) If those don’t work, more serious economic and other penalties should come into play over time, tailored to the circumstances of each particular case and with care taken to ensure that both sides understand what, exactly, the sanctions are linked to and what will be required to have them lifted.
Together, such a package of measures would do much more to combat the real problems of state sponsorship of terror that currently exist than does the outdated approach Washington employs today.1
Trump has spent more time dealing with North Korea than any other foreign policy issue.