State-Sponsored Terrorism

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State-sponsored Terrorism

G overnments are often the targets of terrorism, but they can also sponsor terrorists or use the tactics of terrorism. There are two broad definitions of "state-sponsored terrorism." One refers to governments that support or conduct terrorism against other governments. The other refers to governments that conduct terrorist acts against their own citizens.

International state-sponsored terrorism

The U.S. State Department, which is in charge of the United States's relationships with other countries, maintains a list of nations accused of conducting state-sponsored terrorism. The purpose of this list, the government says, is to put pressure on nations that either use terrorism or that support terrorist groups. The government also maintains a list of independent foreign terrorist organizations. Governments that support these organizations or do not help in efforts to arrest their members may be placed on the State Department's list.

In the months following the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., the State Department had seven countries on its list of governments that engage in state-sponsored terrorism: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, North Korea, and Sudan.


In 1979 a fundamentalist Muslim religious leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (pronounced koh-MAY-nee; c. 1900–1989), rose to power in Iran on the tide of a revolution and declared an Islamic government in Iran. The previous ruler of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1919–1980), had ruled for several decades as an ally of the United States, but major outbreaks of rioting in Iran's cities forced him to flee the country. Khomeini resented the political and economic influence the United States had on Iran. Once the Shah was out of power, Khomeini strove to make Iran's break with the United States complete: he allowed mobs to seize the U.S. embassy and hold about seventy employees hostage for more than four hundred days, from the end of 1979 until the beginning of 1981. Khomeini and the leaders who came after him also wanted to set up fundamentalist Islamic governments in other Muslim countries. To do this, Iran began supporting and funding various organizations in other countries, many of which used terrorist tactics.

Words to Know

Coup d'etat:
a French expression meaning the sudden, violent overthrow of a government, usually carried out by a country's armed forces.
a small group of military officers who take control of a country's government.
Secret police:
a group of police that operates undercover and often has more powers than the regular police.
a system similar to communism, in which the government controls the businesses and all property is shared by the people.
a form of government that has total control over its citizens, governing even the smallest aspects of their lives.

The U.S. government accused Iran of being the "most active state sponsor of terrorism in 2001." Its support took two forms. The first was direct terrorist actions planned and carried out by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (the Iranian intelligence agency) and the Revolutionary Guard Corps (a military force formed after the revolution. The second was providing support for other fundamentalist Islamic organizations.

These organizations included Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Palestine Islamic Jihad (see appendix). The Palestinian people had long wanted to found a country of their own, and Iran helped create the idea that any new Palestinian country should be an Islamist state. Hamas and Hezbollah, from Lebanon, conducted terrorist attacks on Israel, a nation founded in 1948 on Palestinian land as a homeland for Jews, who, as a people, were systematically killed by the German military during World War II (1939–45). Hamas and Hezbollah also help provide a variety of social services, such as education, for Palestinians living in refugee camps who were displaced by wars in the region. These Iranian-supported groups have actively opposed efforts to negotiate a peace agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO; one of the leading Palestinian guerrilla organizations) and the state of Israel. They believe this would defeat their central goal of founding an Islamic state in place of Israel.

Iran has not limited its support to Palestinians. It has also given financial support to fundamentalist Islamic groups elsewhere in the Muslim world, including parts of Africa, Turkey, central Asia, and the Persian Gulf.

Iran has also been the target of terrorism conducted by the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which receives official support from Iran's long-time enemy, Iraq. (Iraq and Iran fought a long and bitter war over territory from 1980 to 1988.) MEK was first organized to fight the Shah of Iran: it opposed the Shah's close ties with the United States. At first MEK supported Khomeini, since he also was an enemy of the United States. However, it did not like the extremely religious government Khomeini created in Iran. MEK occasionally attacks Iranian targets from bases in Iraq.


Iraq invaded its neighbor to the south, Kuwait, in 1990 to acquire its oil reserves. In response the United States put together an international military force to drive out Iraq in what was called the Persian Gulf War (1990–91). After defeating Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein (1937–), the United States and Britain flew almost continuous air patrols for years to keep Iraqi armed forces within a narrow band of territory in the center of the country. (This was meant to prevent Hussein from attacking rebels in the northern and southern sections of Iraq.) The United States has repeatedly accused Iraq of trying to develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and on one occasion of supporting a plot to assassinate former President George H. W. Bush (1924–). United Nations (UN) inspectors, sent to Iraq after the 1991 war, discovered large quantities of chemical and biological weapons, which they ordered destroyed. Ten years later, Iraq was continuing to resist arms inspectors, and UN officials continued to accused Iraq of trying to conceal such weapons.

The U.S. State Department also has accused Iraq of supporting terrorist groups, although as the twenty-first century began Iraq itself had not tried to carry out terrorist attacks for at least a decade. The Iraqi government has been accused of plotting to kill its opponents living in Europe and harassing their relatives who still live in Iraq. The United States further pointed to the fact that in 2000 an Iraqi was allowed to hold a news conference after he fired on an office of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. The attack killed two people and injured seven others. The shooter claimed he was protesting the harsh economic sanctions (bans on international trade) set on Iraq after the government refused to let United Nations inspectors look for evidence of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The United States claimed this was more evidence that Iraq supports terrorists. In 2000 Iraq refused to hand over two men who hijacked a Saudi Arabian plane and flew it to Baghdad. Iraq's refusal was in violation of international law.

Several terrorist organizations are allowed to maintain offices in Baghdad, including the Abu Nidal Organization, the Palestine Liberation Front, and the MEK.


Colonel Mu'ammar Qaddafi (pronounced god-OFF-ee; 1942–) seized power from the Libyan king in 1969. Qaddafi pursued a policy of Islamic law (called Sharia ) and Arab nationalism. He launched a "cultural revolution" in 1973 to put his theories into practice. Fighting Western influence in the Arab world has long been one of his priorities. Shortly after he took power, he demanded that Great Britain and the United States give up their military bases in Libya and formed a loose alliance with Egypt and Syria.

In the 1970s Qaddafi was a strong supporter of attacks on Israel. He helped with the unsuccessful 1973 war launched by Egypt to take back territory it had lost in the 1967 Six Day War against Israel. After that war failed Qaddafi began supporting terrorist attacks on Israeli and American targets. Libya sponsored an attack against the Labelle Disco in Berlin, a nightclub popular with American soldiers, in 1986. That same year, the United States bombed Tripoli and Benghazi in Libya, evidently in an effort to kill Qaddafi. The bombing killed one of Qaddafi's children. Some observers believe Qaddafi responded by having agents plant a bomb aboard Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The explosion killed 259 people on the plane and 11 on the ground in Lockerbie. The United States and Britain accused two Libyan intelligence agents of carrying out the bombing. For ten years Libya protected the two men. Libya also was accused of trying to develop chemical weapons for use in terror attacks. These charges led to the United Nations passing economic sanctions (which banned many kinds of foreign trade) against Libya. In 1999 Qaddafi finally handed over the suspected bombers to stand trial and promised to stop supporting and protecting terrorists. Libya also paid an unknown amount to the family of a British policewoman who was killed by a gunman from the Libyan embassy in London in 1984. (The shooting took place during a demonstration outside the embassy.) And it paid $31 million to the families of 171 passengers who died on UTA Flight 772, which exploded in midair over the Sahara desert in 1989. Six Libyans were convicted of the bombing in absentia ("in their absence") in a French court ten years later.

Despite paying these reparations, as of 2002 the sanctions continued against Libya. The United States argued it had not fully met with all demands and still maintained contacts with some terrorist organizations. Nevertheless, after thirty years during which Libya was one of the most active supporters of Palestinian terrorists, Qaddafi clearly signaled a new course in 1999 by distancing himself financially from the groups.


Like other states bordering Israel, Syria long accepted and even helped terrorist attacks when traditional warfare failed to destroy the Jewish state. Though Syria greatly reduced its activities and stopped terrorist groups from launching attacks against Western targets from its territory in the late 1990s, the U.S. State Department has kept it on the list of terrorist nations because it still allows various terrorist groups to maintain headquarters in its capital city, Damascus.

Syria has long wanted to take back the Golan Heights, an area it lost to Israel in the Six Day War of 1967. For many years it supported terrorists within its borders and the neighboring country of Lebanon. Among the groups supported by Syria were the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP; see appendix)

During the Lebanese civil war (1976–90), Syria took control of the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, where the pro-Iranian Hamas terrorist group established hideouts, as did groups based in Damascus.


When the terrorist leader Osama bin Laden (c. 1957–) was thrown out of Saudi Arabia for antigovernment activities in 1991, he went to the Islamic nation of Sudan, on the east coast of Africa. Because some of the most active Islamist groups, including bin Laden's Al Qaeda, Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the PIJ, used Sudan as a hideout, Sudan was placed on the U.S. list of terrorist states in 1993.

However, in the late 1990s the government of Sudan began distancing itself from terrorism. It signed international conventions governing terrorism (see Chapter 3) and promised not to serve as a safe haven for terrorists in the future.

North Korea

American relations with North Korea have remained difficult since the Korean War. (The Korean War, which was fought from 1950 to 1953, was sparked by the division of the country into two sections, communist-controlled North Korea and pro-West South Korea.) Still ruled by a communist dictatorship, North Korea remains one of the poorest countries in the world. However, it has developed a ballistic missile (a long-range missile) that can be fired past Japan, and perhaps as far as Alaska. It is rumored that North Korea is developing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and supplies arms to Middle Eastern terrorist groups.

In early 2002 President George W. Bush (1946–) made a speech in which he said that North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, formed an "axis of evil" as states that supported terrorism worldwide. The term "axis of evil" reminded many people of the "Axis" powers—Germany, Italy, and Japan—that were allied against the United States in World War II. However, Bush apparently did not mean that Iran, Iraq, and North Korea were allies. In fact, Iraq supports an anti-Iranian terrorist group, according to the State Department. Nevertheless, Bush labeled North Korea as one of the leading terrorist states, even though its relations with terrorist groups have never been as strong or as obvious as other countries. North Korea responded angrily to the speech, saying it was close to a declaration of war.


Fidel Castro (1926–), the communist dictator of Cuba, has been a thorn in the side of the United States since he took power in 1959. Lying only 90 miles south of Florida, Cuba became an ally of the Soviet Union (today, Russia and it neighboring countries) at the height of the Cold War, in which the United States and the Soviet Union competed fiercely to make allies of poor nations in Latin America (see below). Under Castro, who had taken power at the head of a guerrilla army, Cuba became a leading supporter of revolutionaries in Central and South America. During the Cold War, the United States frequently supported military governments that tried to defeat communist revolutionaries. Sometimes these military governments did so by denying their citizens civil liberties, including ending democratic elections. For its part, Cuba welcomed hijackers who seized American planes and American radicals fighting for political change.

As a matter of principle, Castro has continued to oppose the United States. (The United States, in turn, has enforced economic sanctions against Cuba.) However, the level of terrorism in Latin America has dropped significantly since the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. In 2001 Cuba was still a refuge for some political figures wanted in the United States, for two terrorist groups from the South American country of Colombia (see appendix), and for some members of the nationalist organization Basque Fatherland and Liberty (also called ETA; see appendix).

The Cold War

When World War II ended, the United States and the Soviet Union (now the Russian Federation) were the two most powerful countries in the world. The two countries had been allies against Germany during the war, but once the war was over they turned on each other in a conflict called the Cold War that lasted until 1991. It was considered a "cold" war because the two countries never faced each other in battle: constantly competing for influence throughout the world, they used their arsenals of nuclear missiles only as threats of mutual destruction. The Soviet Union was a communist country, one that followed the economic theory of communism, in which all property is owned by the community, not by individuals. It supported communist parties in Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. The hope was that these parties could take political power in their countries and make those countries its allies. The United States is a capitalist nation in which individuals own property and can amass fortunes. It did everything it could to block local communists from gaining political power. This included supporting anticommunists, many of which were military governments.

This struggle between the two superpowers did lead to many smaller "hot" wars. The Vietnam War (1955–75), in which the United States supported the anticommunist government of South Vietnam against the communist government of North Vietnam, was one example. In other countries, communist parties supported guerrillas fighting to establish communist governments. The Soviet Union sent arms and money to these groups. The United States in turn supported military governments to keep pro-communist groups from coming to power. Some of the governments the United States opposed had been democratically elected by the citizens of the country. The methods used by some of these anticommunist governments to keep power were very similar to the tactics of terrorism. This was especially true in South America.

The Contras

In the early 1980s, some officials of the U.S. government were involved in financing a rebel group in Nicaragua called the Contras. The Contras were guerrilla fighters opposed to the elected government of Nicaragua, which was dominated by a political party called the Sandinistas. The Sandinistas were friendly towards the Communist government of Cuba, and were open to relations with the Soviet Union. The administration of President Ronald Reagan (1911–) wanted to provide aid to the Contras, whose goal was to overthrow the elected Sandinista government, but was blocked from doing so by laws enacted by the Congress. Rather than obey the spirit of these laws, some U.S. officials sold arms to the government of Iran and used the money paid for these weapons to provide funding to the Contras. The operation was kept secret because other laws had barred the United States from providing help to Iran's government after Islamic radicals had overthrown the Shah of Iran and held U.S. diplomats hostage in their own embassy.

Whether the Contras fighting against the Sandinistas were terrorists is a question that depends, partly, on one's political viewpoint. Members of the Reagan administration regarded the Sandinistas as pro-communist and potentially dangerous to the interests of the United States in the Western Hemisphere. To them, the Contras were Nicaraguan patriots fighting against communist influence. Others, however, viewed the Contras as terrorists trying to overthrow the democratically elected government of Nicaragua by using violence, the classic definition of terrorism. From this perspective, the United States, by providing financial support to the Contras, was guilty of sponsoring terrorism. Eventually, the illegal supply of arms to Iran and diversion of money to the Contras became public and a handful of those believed to have been involved, including some who worked in the White House, were punished.

State terrorism versus government repression

Many governments have used violence to control their political opponents. During the 1930s, Germany and the Soviet Union used secret police (a group of police that operates undercover and often has more powers than the regular police) to watch citizens' activities. People who disagreed with the government were often arrested and sent to a prison camp. In the case of the Soviet Union, these camps were often located in Siberia, a huge, frigid region in northwestern Russia. Over a period of several decades, millions of people were sent to these camps, and many of them died. Was this state terrorism?

There is little doubt that the secret police in the Soviet Union and Germany terrified many citizens. Neighbors were dragged from their homes in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. On the other hand, a harsh government is not quite the same thing as state-sponsored terrorism. In most cases, people who were arrested were accused of a crime and given some form of trial. Whether these procedures were fair or not, they were at least meant to give the appearance of being legal. Citizens of totalitarian states understood that they should avoid certain actions, such as saying that they disagreed with the government, in order to avoid the fate of their unlucky neighbors. (A totalitarian government has total control over its citizens, governing even the smallest aspects of their lives.) The rules, however unfair, were at least clear to most people.

Domestic state terrorism

A leading Spanish judge, Ernesto Garzón, offered a definition of state terrorism quite different from the one used by the U.S. State Department. Garzón defined state terrorism as "a political system that allows secret and unpredictable methods to get its way, even if such methods are banned by the courts." Garzón believed that state terrorism gets in the way of judicial (court-based) activity and makes the government "an active agent in the struggle for power."

Garzón was referring to military dictatorships that ignore the written law and judicial system. Instead, they use secret, unpredictable punishments even on innocent people. Such governments take over the job of judges in dealing with justice, and they fight for power in ways similar to non-state terrorist groups.

In Central and South America during the Cold War, the United States actively supported governments whose main feature was a strong commitment to anticommunism. In some countries, these military governments kept their power by arresting, torturing, and executing their opponents without any trial. Political enemies were often kidnapped from their houses or from the streets, never to be seen again. The Spanish word desaparecidos, meaning "disappeared ones," is used to describe the thousands of unknown victims of this form of state terrorism (see below). Governments accused of this form of terrorism include, at various times, Chile, Uruguay, Peru, and Argentina.

Operation Condor

In October 1975 General Manuel Contreras, leader of Chile's secret police, organized a meeting of intelligence officials from four other South American countries: Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil. (Bolivia joined the operation

later.) These five countries were run by small groups of military officers called juntas (pronounced HOON-tuhs). The officials agreed to work together in an operation they called Operation Condor. The purpose of Operation Condor was to allow military authorities to operate across national borders. This would make it impossible for their political opponents to hide in a neighboring country. Many of the officers who ran Operation Condor knew one another from having attended the School of the Americas, a training base in Georgia operated by the U.S. Army, where South and Central American military officers were taught how to fight rebel groups operating in their countries. Some of these rebel groups were receiving support from the Soviet Union through Cuba.

In Operation Condor, the "enemy" of the military was no longer just the guerrillas fighting in the jungle. Enemies now included many civilians—union leaders, politicians, priests and nuns, university students, and professors—who were fighting a war of ideas. People who supported change and a more democratic government were lumped into a group called "subversives": people who opposed the control that the military and the richest families in the country had over political life. Many of these subversives were killed or "disappeared."

On some occasions Operation Condor went beyond the six member nations. On September 21, 1976, for example, Chilean citizen Orlando Letelier and an American assistant, Ronni Moffitt, were killed by a car bomb in Washington, D.C. (Moffitt's husband was also injured in the attack.) Letelier had been the minister of defense and foreign affairs in the Chilean government headed by President Salvador Allende Gossens (1908–1973). In 1973 the popularly elected Allende was over-thrown by a military coup d'etat (pronounced coo day-TAH) supported by the U.S. government. The United States opposed Allende because he was a socialist. (Socialism is a system similar to communism, in which there is no private property, and all businesses and industry are owned by the workers.) Letelier had escaped imprisonment by the military government that replaced Allende, and he was in the United States conducting a political campaign against the Chilean government when he was murdered. Several men, including General Contreras, were eventually convicted of the killings.

The desaparecidos

The military governments of countries taking part in Operation Condor often used violence to protect their power. A favorite technique was disappearance: kidnapping a political opponent, who was never heard from again. People assumed they had been murdered, but the government never officially admitted or explained what happened to them. This technique was a powerful psychological tool against others who might disagree with the government. In Argentina alone, there were at least ten thousand desaparecidos from 1976 to 1983.

The coup in Argentina In 1976 military officers seized power in Argentina after years of troubles in the country, including violent political conflicts. For several years underground communist fighters, aided by Cuba, had tried to set up a communist-oriented government in Argentina. The United States, worried about the possibility of communism spreading further into Latin America, helped organize opposition. This included training Argentinian military officers to fight communist guerrillas.

Argentina was getting close to civil war when the military took power in 1976. One of their first priorities was to get rid of people they regarded as subversive. This included not just the communist activists, but also people who supported civil rights. In a period known as "the dirty war," the military kidnapped at least ten thousand people, some of whom were priests and nuns. These people simply disappeared, murdered by the military government. Their bodies were buried in unmarked graves or thrown into the South Atlantic from Argentine navy planes. The government never admitted killing them; in fact, the government denied they were dead when relatives came looking for information. In some cases the children of people seized by the government were given new identities and adopted by military officers. The military junta, and the disappearances, ended only after an economic crisis in 1983. The country's financial problems were made worse by Argentina's military defeat in its 1982 war with Britain over control of the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina. The new civilian government began prosecuting members of the military who had taken part in the disappearances during the 1970s. In 1985 and 1986, 11 military officers were convicted (out of 481 who were charged) of responsibility for the torture and murder of political enemies. In 1990 the president of Argentina granted a general pardon to members of the junta.

One of the prosecutors who charged the military officers involved in the "dirty war" later wrote: "Crimes like those committed in Argentina during the so-called 'Dirty Wars' were more complex than regular crimes: instead of upholding laws, authorities ordered them violated [broken]; law enforcement agencies committed crimes instead of preventing them; criminals were not isolated by society, but rather were supported by its elite [upper classes]; and finally, groups that the regime deemed problematic were systemically eliminated [destroyed] with no respect for their human rights."

The actions of the Argentine military had strong support. Many Argentine business leaders accepted the violence as a reasonable price to be paid for civil order. The United States helped train the military and, except for the four years when Jimmy Carter (1924–) was president (1977–81), tended to look the other way when the foreign press reported what was happening. During Carter's presidency, the United States withdrew aid to Argentina and put pressure on the country to correct its human rights abuses. After President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, the United States once again supported the junta until it was overthrown in 1983.

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