State Sponsored Terrorism

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State Sponsored Terrorism

The Conflict

Terrorism has grown beyond extremist groups to also include radical states that sponsor or support terrorist activity as tools of their own foreign policy. A state sponsor is a government that supports an actor in the performance of an act or acts of terrorism. U.S. President George W. Bush stated in his 2002 State of the Union address that "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world." Such words indicate the seriousness of and renewed attention directed at terrorism and those who sponsor it. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, the international community is placing intense scrutiny and pressure on state sponsors to end their support of terrorism. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, North Korea, and Sudan are the seven states currently designated by the United States as state sponsors of international terrorism.


  • A nation, or state, may determine that its interests are served by the actions of terrorist groups or organizations and will provide means for the terrorist organization to pursue its activities with the intent that such activity will also facilitate the state's objectives or goals.
  • Each year the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the Secretary of State, provides Congress with a list of countries that support international terrorism, and getting off the list is difficult.
  • Actions against states that sponsor terrorism can be difficult to implement and there is often debate about their efficacy.


• Condemnation of state sponsors' actions by individual states or the international community may take the form of economically harmful boycotts or embargoes.


• In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, there has been growing sentiment in the U.S. administration that military action be taken against state sponsors. This controversial action is under much debate within the United States and the international community.

In his State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, President George W. Bush added a new concept to the international terrorism lexicon by coining the phrase "axis of evil"—a specific reference to North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. After referring to weapons of mass destruction in relation to North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, as well as other difficulties with these nations, President Bush stated, "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world."

"Terrorism is premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience." This definition, in U.S. Code, Section 2656f(d), sees terrorism as the actions of individuals or groups or organizations designed to instill fear or terror for the purpose of seeking a change in the perception or the policy of individuals, groups, or states. Terrorism, which has taken numerous shapes and forms, has grown to include radical states that sponsor or support terrorist activity as tools of their own foreign policy. A state sponsor is a government that supports an actor in the performance of an act or acts of terrorism.

Terrorism has become a tool of some states. A state determines that its interests are served by the actions of terrorist groups or organizations. The state then provides the means for the terrorist organization to pursue its objectives that will, in turn, facilitate the objectives or goals of the state. State sponsored terrorism seeks to achieve state ends or objectives through means other than the use of traditional force, namely war. Why terrorism rather than war? The state sponsor makes a decision that the use of conventional armed forces is inappropriate, unlikely to achieve the objective, too risky, too costly, or too difficult for one reason or another. The support of a group to attack the enemy through terrorist acts then becomes the more appropriate choice. It is a "cost-effective" method of using force to accomplish a goal. Those that are sponsored by states gain additional capability to carry out larger scale and more deadly attacks than other terrorists because of the additional resources at their disposal.

What Do State Sponsors Do?

State sponsors are enablers that provide the terrorists (whether individuals, groups, or organizations) with the ability to carry out their acts. State sponsors provide a range of support. To continue their activities and perform their operations, terrorists require funding, sometimes small amounts, oftentimes more substantial amounts of money. Some terrorist organizations have engaged in illegal activities to obtain the necessary funds, e.g., robberies, extortion, ransom, etc.; others have resorted to the siphoning of funds from related charitable organizations, sometimes creating organizations whose primary purpose is to raise funds for the terrorist activities. When their own techniques prove insufficient, or when they determine it is to their advantage, the terrorists can, and often do, turn to state sponsors for the funding they need to continue their operations. States, in turn, can utilize their financial leverage to convince terrorist groups to perform the actions the states deem desirable.

Training and training facilities are required by terrorists and a state sponsor can readily arrange the necessary facilities and those that will train the terrorists. The state can also provide offices and other facilities required by the terrorists in which they can plan, prepare, coordinate, and generally ensure the success of their operations. The sponsor can provide a refuge or safe haven to avoid rule of law before and after the attack, help raise or provide the funds necessary for the terrorists in preparation for and in carrying out the terrorist operation, and provide access to other sponsors and groups or individuals willing to endorse or assist the terrorists. Additionally, state sponsors supply a source of weapons and a means to transport them, such as through the diplomatic pouch and the use of state airlines. States have broad and ready access to essential equipment, including weapons that the terrorists can employ to their benefit. In addition, logistic support is often essential as terrorists seek to move to their targets and may require assistance to move themselves or their weapons to an appropriate location. Travel and identification documents required for international movement are essential to the terrorist as well and the state sponsor can readily provide these as needed.

In many instances the actions of the terrorist would have been difficult if not impossible without the aid and support of the state sponsor. An example was the use by Iran's government of young militants to take the U.S. embassy and seize hostages in 1979. Similarly Nizar Hindawi's effort to plant a bomb on a plane at Heathrow airport in London, England, in 1986 would have been impossible without Syrian government assistance.

Sponsorship Motivation

State sponsors are motivated by a number of factors, some of which intersect. There are often political, and sometimes ideological and religious factors, involved in the determination to sponsor terrorism. Defeat by an enemy in conventional war might trigger a desire to retaliate through terrorism, such as Syria supporting attacks against Israel because of defeat in the Arab-Israeli wars. A desire for a state to seek to recoup losses in combat with the terrorist target—an example being Syria supporting groups to get a response from Israel in regaining the Golan Heights lost by Syria to Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Often state sponsorship is to achieve political objectives after a failure to do so through conventional political, diplomatic, or military means. Thus, terrorists are cheaper than the military. There is also a series of specific reasons that prevail, such as ideological, religious, state security, regime security, and various tactical and strategic objectives.

Historical Background

United States Designation of State Sponsors

Each year, under the provisions of Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act of 1979, as amended, the U.S. secretary of commerce in consultation with the secretary of state provides Congress with a list of countries that support international terrorism. Each determination under Section 6(j) of the Act must also be published in the Federal Register. Section 6(j) stipulates that a validated license shall be required for the export of goods and technology to any country on the secretary's list and that the secretary of commerce and the secretary of state must notify the House of Representatives' Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations at least 30 days before issuing any validated license required by this act.

Paragraph 6(j)(4) further states that once a country is put on the terrorist list, the determination may not be rescinded unless the president submits a report to the committees mentioned above. The president's report must certify that there has been a fundamental change in the leadership and policies of the government of the country concerned (this means an actual change of government as a result of an election, coup, or some other means); the new government is not supporting acts of international terrorism; the new government has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future. When the same government is in power, the president's report must justify the rescission and certify that the government concerned has not provided support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period; and the government concerned has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future. Congress can then either let the president's action take effect or seek to block it, perhaps over the president's veto. Congress could also pass a joint resolution against the action, but this would also require the president's signature to have effect.

The congressionally mandated designation of state sponsors of terrorism by the United States—and the imposition of sanctions—is a mechanism for isolating states that use terrorism as a means of achieving political objectives. The criteria are not clear-cut for listing a state. The U.S. Department of State determines the listing (or delisting) of a state sponsor based on the broad determination of a significant threat to the U.S. national interest. Clearly this involves assessments and judgments of that state's various policies and activities. U.S. policy seeks to pressure and isolate state sponsors so that they will renounce the use of terrorism, end support to terrorists, and bring terrorists to justice for past crimes. The United States is committed to holding terrorists and those who harbor them accountable for past attacks, regardless of when or where the acts occurred. There is no "statute of limitations." States that choose to harbor terrorists are seen as accomplices and will be held accountable for the actions of the terrorists.

Getting off the list is difficult and, to date, only Iraq has been able to achieve that end, though it was later relisted. The United States is committed to removing countries from the list of state sponsors once they have taken necessary steps to end their link to terrorism. For example, in 2000-01, and subsequently, the Department of State was engaged in ongoing discussions with North Korea and Sudan with the goal of getting those governments to end their support of terrorism and hence to be removed from the state sponsors list.

Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, North Korea, and Sudan are the seven states that the U.S. Secretary of State has designated as state sponsors of international terrorism. Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism in 2000, but each has involved itself with various terrorist groups either through providing financial support, weapons, training bases, or safe havens for terrorists. State sponsorship has decreased over time. Nevertheless, the United States continues actively researching and gathering intelligence on other states that will be considered for designation as state sponsors. If the United States deems a country to "repeatedly provide support for acts of international terrorism," the U.S. government is required by law to add it to the list.


Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Fidel Castro has been slowly trying to resuscitate the ailing communist Cuban economy, which had been heavily reliant on Soviet subsidies. Although Cuba remains a one-party state with a command economy, it has benefited greatly from increased revenues due to tourism and growing foreign investment in its petroleum sector. Foreign oil companies doing business with Cuba, however, are subject to the sanctions in the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 and its restrictions on trade and investments with Cuba.

Cuba has served as a refuge for a number of U.S. fugitives, as well as Basque and Colombian terrorists. More serious regional security issues, however, revolve around issues of illegal immigration and the country's use as a transshipment point for narcotics to the United States. Havana also maintained ties to other state sponsors of terrorism and Latin American insurgents.

The United States has had a unilateral embargo on Cuba since the administration of John F. Kennedy (1961-63). A unilateral embargo is one in which the international community is not required to participate. Relations between the United States and Cuba have varied over this period but they have not risen to the level of warm or cordial relations, in part due to the U.S. perception of Cuba as a terrorism sponsor. Cuba, primarily for economic reasons, has sought to improve relations in recent years with the clear objective of being removed from the U.S. terrorism sponsors list. Some of the efforts to move in that direction include Cuba's government being unusually conciliatory about the U.S. using its naval base at Guantanamo Bay, which is rented by the United States from Cuba and long sought by the Cuban government to have its return to Cuban control, for Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners. Cuba has even promised some cooperation with regard to the incarceration of those prisoners. Cuba was also quick to condemn the attacks of September 11, 2001, and indicated that it supports the principle of the war against terrorism, although it does not fully agree with the conduct of that war. Despite these and other positive signs Cuba remains on the terrorism sponsor list and the U.S. sanctions remain in place.

The continuing rationale for Cuba's retention on the list was provided by the Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism Edmund J. Hull on April 30, 2001: "Our problems with Cuba relate to its continuing provision of safe haven to wanted terrorists… They also have some associations with terrorist groups, like the ELN and the FARC in Colombia. Then finally I would point out that Cuba's position on terrorism is just very equivocal."


Iran is an Islamic republic that is politically divided between reformists and conservatives. Despite the victory for moderates in Iran's recent presidential and parliamentary elections, aggressive countermeasures by hardline conservatives have blocked most reform efforts. Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism in 2000. Its Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) continued to be involved in the planning and the execution of terrorist acts and continued to support a variety of groups that use terrorism to pursue their goals.

Iran's involvement in terrorist-related activities remained focused on support for groups opposed to Israel and groups oppposed to peace between Israel and its neighbors. Statements by Iran's leaders demonstrated Iran's unrelenting hostility to Israel. Supreme Leader Ali Hoseini-Khamenei continued to refer to Israel as a "cancerous tumor" that must be removed; President Mohammad Khatami-Ardakani, labeling Israel an "illegal entity," called for sanctions against Israel during the intifada (up-rising); and Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai said, "Iran will continue its campaign against Zionism until Israel is completely eradicated."

Iran has long provided Lebanese Hizballah and the Palestinian rejectionist groups (those that reject negotiation or peace with Israel)—notably HAMAS, the Palestine Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC)—with varying amounts of funding, safe haven, training, and weapons. This activity continued at its already high levels following the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000 and during the Palestinian intifada in the fall of 2001. Iran continued to encourage Hizballah and the Palestinian groups to coordinate their planning and to escalate their activities against Israel. Iran also provided a lower level of support—including funding, training, and logistics assistance—to extremist groups in the Persian Gulf, Africa, Turkey, and Central Asia.

Despite the fact that Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the United States is still concerned about the upcoming completion of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, partly due to Iran's parallel efforts to develop long-range missiles. Aided in this endeavor by the North Koreans, Chinese, and the Russians, U.S. intelligence estimates expect the Iranians to possess an intercontinental ballistic missile in the next few years. Iran is also suspected of maintaining chemical and biological agents in order to strike a balance against those of Iraq.

Although the Iranian government has taken no direct action to date to implement Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's fatwa against Salman Rushdie, calling for the writer's death, the decree has not been revoked, and the bounty for his assassination has not been withdrawn. Moreover, hardline Iranians continued to stress that the decree is irrevocable. On the anniversary of the fatwa in February 2000, the IRGC released a statement that the decree remains in force, and Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a member of the Council of Guardians, reiterated that "the decree is irrevocable and, God willing, will be carried out."

The United States sees Iran as continuing to provide support—including arms transfers—to Palestinian rejectionist and terrorist groups. More recently Iran has failed to move decisively against al-Qaeda members who have relocated from Afghanistan to Iran.


Under the leadership of President Saddam Hussein, Iraq has been involved in two major wars, the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) which resulted from Iraq's invasion of the Islamic Republic under the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the 1991 Gulf War, which followed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990 and led to the ousting of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in early 1991. At the end of the Gulf War strict United Nations (UN) sanctions were imposed to pressure Iraq to relinquish its weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This, as well as the destruction of oil facilities and 90 percent of the power grid, left Iraq in a state of economic upheaval from which it has yet to fully recover. In comparison to pre-Gulf War levels, Iraq's GDP, per-capita income, and living standards have fallen sharply.

In the aftermath of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the ensuing Gulf War, the international community, acting through the United Nations, imposed a series of requirements and sanctions on Iraq that took form in various UN Security Council resolutions. On April 3, 1991 the Security Council adopted Resolution 687, establishing a ceasefire on the basis of Iraq's acceptance of conditions deemed essential to the restoration of peace and stability in the area. It required Iraq give up its weapons of mass destruction (WMD), return Kuwaiti property, account for detainees, and renounce terrorism, as well as accept the United Nations demarcation of the Iraq-Kuwait border. Other resolutions, including 688, 715, and 833, were subsequently adopted to further the implementation of the terms of 687.

The United States has continually stressed Iraq's need to comply with the UN resolutions and has sought to enforce sanctions against Iraq until full compliance is met. A series of measures were adopted to enforce the resolutions, including UN economic sanctions against Iraq, a multinational interdiction force to police the sanctions regime at sea, no fly zones over portions of northern and southern Iraq, and multinational protection of the security zone in northern Iraq.

The overall objective of the United States has been to ensure that UN resolutions are implemented. The United States has been especially concerned that Iraq has sought to preserve its weapons of mass destruction capability by avoiding appropriate international inspection and monitoring. The goal is to prevent Iraq from reacquiring weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them. Though Iraq has not been especially active in terrorism since 1991, it was linked to a 1993 plan to assassinate former president George H. Bush (1989-93) in Kuwait.

The United States purports that Iraq has a long history of supporting terrorists, including the provision of sanctuary to the Abu Nidal organization. Iraq did plan and sponsor international terrorism in 2000. Although Baghdad focused on anti-dissident activity overseas, the regime continued to support various terrorist groups, but has not attempted an anti-Western terrorist attack since its failed plot to assassinate former president Bush in 1993. There have, however, been reports that the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) might retaliate against Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) for broadcasts made by Radio Free Iraq critical of the Iraqi regime. To intimidate or silence overseas Iraqi opponents of the regime, the IIS reportedly opened several new stations in foreign capitals during 2000. Various opposition groups joined in warning Iraqi dissidents abroad against newly established "expatriates' associations," which, they asserted, were IIS front organizations. Opposition leaders in London contended that the IIS had dispatched women agents to infiltrate their ranks and was targeting dissidents for assassination. In Germany an Iraqi opposition figure denounced the IIS for murdering his son, who had recently left Iraq to join him abroad. Dr. Ayad 'Allawi, secretary general of the opposition group Iraqi National Accord, stated that relatives of dissidents living abroad are often arrested and jailed to intimidate activists overseas.

The Iraqi regime rebuffed a request from Riyadh for the extradition of two Saudis who had hijacked a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight to Baghdad, but did promptly return the passengers and the aircraft. Disregarding its obligations under international law, the regime granted political asylum to the hijackers and gave them ample opportunity to ventilate in the Iraqi government-controlled and international media their criticisms of alleged abuses by the Saudi Arabian government, echoing an Iraqi propaganda theme.

Several expatriate terrorist groups continued to maintain offices in Baghdad, including the Arab Liberation Front, the inactive 15 May Organization, the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), and the Abu Nidal organization (ANO). PLF leader Abu 'Abbas appeared on state-controlled television in the fall to praise Iraq's leadership in rallying Arab opposition to Israeli violence against Palestinians. The ANO threatened to attack Austrian interests unless several million dollars in a frozen ANO account in a Vienna, Austria, bank were turned over to the group.

Additionally, the Iraq-supported Iranian terrorist group Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) regularly claimed responsibility for armed incursions into Iran that targeted police and military outposts, as well as for mortar and bomb attacks on security organization headquarters in various Iranian cities. MEK publicists reported that in March 2002 group members killed an Iranian colonel working in intelligence. A MEK claim to have wounded a general was denied by the Iranian government. The Iraqi regime also deployed MEK forces against its domestic opponents.


Following decades of economic isolation due to Muammar Qadhafi's anti-Western rhetoric, Qadhafi appears to have changed his view of the world and is now increasingly seeking international acceptance. Libya's political system, however, is Qadhafi's own creation, a mix of socialism and Islamic values, and he essentially runs the country as a military dictator. In the early 1990s Qadhafi refused to surrender two Libyan intelligence agents suspected in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103. This led the UN Security Council to pass Resolutions 748 and 883, which imposed stiff economic sanctions on Libya, particularly on its petroleum sector. By 1999 Qadhafi acquiesced and handed over the terrorist suspects in exchange for a suspension of UN sanctions. Since then, he has continued to seek a rapprochement with the United States and European countries in order to encourage foreign oil companies to reinvest in the oil fields that were abandoned following the passage of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) in 1996.

Libya remains the primary suspect in several past terrorist operations, including the La Belle discotheque bombing in Berlin, Germany, in 1986 that killed two U.S. servicemen and one Turkish civilian and wounded more than 200 persons. It has also provided sanctuary to terrorist groups opposed to the Middle East Peace Process, including the Palestine Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, and has actively supported various African rebel and terrorist factions in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Eritrea in the past.

Recent developments show that Libya has not been engaged in recent terrorist activities and is trying to move toward reintegrating itself in the world community. By 1999 it had expelled the Abu Nidal organization and distanced itself from Palestinian rejectionist groups. That same year Libya released for trial two Libyans accused of the Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. The trial court issued its verdict on January 31, 2001, concluding that Abdel Basset al-Megrahi had caused an explosive device to detonate on board the airplane, resulting in the murder of the flight's 259 passengers and crew as well as 11 residents of Lockerbie, Scotland. Co-defendant Al-Amin Kalifa Fahima was released after the court concluded that there was insufficient evidence to satisfy the high standard of "proof beyond reasonable doubt" that is necessary in criminal cases.

Also in 1999, continuing its push for international reconciliation, Libya paid compensation for the death of a British policewoman who was killed when gunmen in the Libyan People's bureau in London fired on an anti-Qadhafi demonstration outside their building in London, a move that preceded the reopening of the British embassy in Libya. It also paid damages to the families of victims in the bombing of UTA flight 772. Six Libyans were convicted in absentia in that case, and the French judicial system is considering further indictments against other Libyan officials, including leader Muammar Qadhafi.

Libya played a high-profile role in negotiating the release of a group of foreign hostages seized in the Philippines by the Abu Sayyaf Group, reportedly in exchange for a ransom payment. Many believe that Libya's behavior and that of other parties involved in the alleged ransom arrangement served only to encourage further terrorism and to make that region far more dangerous for residents and travelers. Additionally, Libya has yet to comply fully with the remaining UN Security Council requirements related to Pan Am 103—accepting responsibility, paying appropriate compensation, disclosing all it knows, and renouncing terrorism. The United States remains dedicated to maintaining pressure on the Libyan government until it does so. Qadhafi stated publicly that his government has adopted an antiterrorism stance, but it remains unclear whether his claims of distancing Libya from its terrorist past signify a true change in policy.

In early 2000 there were indications that the Bill Clinton administration (1993-2001) was beginning to ease its policy stance in order to indicate to Libya and other state sponsors that there were benefits of cooperating with U.S. sanctions policies. The U.S. perception of Libya is changing in response to evidence that Tripoli has ended its support for international terrorism and is willing to cooperate with investigations into past terrorist acts. Most notable in this perception change is a possible lifting of the ban on U.S. citizens traveling to Libya (actually a ban on the use of U.S. passports for travel to Libya), which was first imposed in December 1981 and renewed most recently in November 1999.

North Korea

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is a communist state under the authoritarian control of Kim Jong Il, who took control in 1994 after the death of his father Kim Il Sung. The DPRK devotes upwards of 30 percent of its GDP to military expenditures, in order to sustain a one million-man army, and its ongoing long-range missile development program. Initially a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the DPRK withdrew in 1993, while continuing to pursue graphite nuclear reactor technology, capable of producing fissionable material. The following year the DPRK froze its nuclear program in exchange for two light water nuclear reactors being provided by the United States, the first of which will not be operational until 2008.

The DPRK is not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since 1987, when Korean airliner KAL 858 was bombed in flight. In 2000 the Democratic People's Republic of Korea engaged in three rounds of terrorism talks that culminated in a joint DPRK-U.S. statement on October 6, 2000 wherein "the two sides agreed that international terrorism poses an unacceptable threat to global security and peace, and that terrorism should be opposed in all its forms." The United States and North Korea agreed to support the international legal regime combating international terrorism and to cooperate with each other to fight terrorism. The DPRK, however, continued to provide safe haven to the Japanese Communist League-Red Army Faction members who participated in the hijacking of a Japanese Airlines flight to North Korea in 1970. Some evidence also suggests the DPRK may have sold weapons directly or indirectly to terrorist groups during the year; Philippine officials publicly declared that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front had purchased weapons from North Korea with funds provided by Middle East sources.


While Sudan has been cooperative with the United States on many fronts in the war against terrorism, it is not in full compliance with UN Security Council resolutions passed in 1996, which mandate an end to all Sudanese support for terrorism. Khartoum also still had not complied fully with UN Security Council Resolutions 1044, 1054, and 1070, passed in 1996—which demand that Sudan end all support to terrorists. They also require Khartoum to hand over three Egyptian al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya fugitives linked to the 1995 assassination attempt on Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia. Sudanese officials continued to deny that they had a role in the attack. Sudan has yet to prevent elements of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, HAMAS, and the Egyptian al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya from operating on Sudanese soil.

The United States and Sudan in mid-2000 entered into a dialogue to discuss U.S. counterterrorism concerns. The talks were constructive and obtained some positive results. By the end of the year Sudan had signed all 12 international conventions for combating terrorism and had taken several other positive counterterrorism steps, including closing down the Popular Arab and Islamic Conference, which served as a forum for terrorists.

Sudan, however, continued to be used as a safe haven and refuge by members of various groups, including associates of Osama bin Ladin's al-Qaeda organization, the Egyptian al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the Palestine Islamic Jihad, and HAMAS. Most groups used Sudan primarily as a secure base for assisting compatriots elsewhere.


Syria has been on the U.S. State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism since the list was established in 1979. The State Department's annual report on terrorism, Patterns of Global Terrorism, notes that Syrian government officials have not been personally involved in terrorist activities since 1986 when the then head of the Syria Air Force intelligence was held responsible for masterminding Nizar Hindawi's attempt to blow up an El Al Airliner. The Syrian government, however, has continued to provide safe haven, training facilities, and political support, among other items, to numerous Palestinian radical nationalist and Islamic terrorist organizations in Syria and in Syrian-controlled portions of Lebanon. It has also facilitated the shipment of weapons from Iran through Syria, by land and air, to Hizballah in Lebanon. It is likely that, as late as 2001, Syria was providing not only safe haven for political offices of various terrorist organizations, but also allowing operational planning and other activities to take place in the country.

Syria has been involved in terrorism since the 1950s, when it provided support for Palestinian fedayeen. Fedayeen are Palestinians who infiltrated into Israel to commit sabotage or terrorism in the period prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. In the 1950s and 1960s Syria allowed Palestinian groups to use Syrian territory to stage attacks against Israel. In the 1970s it formed its own groups (Palestinian groups) as alternatives to the PLO, which operated independently of the Syrians in the 1970s. In the 1980s Syria began to use both state agents and surrogate groups to conduct acts. The year 1986 was the last for which there is confirmed involvement of Syrian state agents in an actual terrorist operations. Subsequently, in the 1990s and beyond Syria was especially active in providing support to various Palestinian, Lebanese, and Turkish (Kurdish) groups.

Syrian sponsorship of and support for terrorism seemed to reach its heights in the 1980s and involved a number of targets, not just Israeli. Between 1983 and 1985 Syrian-sponsored groups were responsible for attacks in some 15 countries, including 30 attacks in 1985 on a variety of targets including Arab, U.S., British, Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli targets. Terrorism has been a useful tool for Syria with regard to Israel by shifting the conflict to a different arena of activity—away from the military sector to the arena of terrorism where Israel did not enjoy the significant advantages it did in the military sector. It would allow a weaker Syria to confront and "hurt" a stronger Israel by inflicting civilian and non-combatant casualties and perhaps leading to a change in Israel's strategy and policy.

Syria agreed in the 1990s to enter into peace talks with Israel, beginning after the Gulf War, in which Syria was a member of the coalition allied against Saddam Hussein and Iraq. When the Madrid Conference was convened in the fall of 1991, Syria participated, and later entered into a series of other negotiations. These talks involved the United States at the most senior levels and included substantial high-ranking delegations visiting Damascus to further the peace efforts, including a visit by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1994. At the same time Clinton met with Syria's foreign minister in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and then later with President Hafez al-Assad in Geneva in March 2000. In 2001 Syria sought membership on the UN Security Council and to that end launched a major campaign to change its image as a terrorist haven. Syria formally backed the U.S. campaign against the Taliban after the September 11 attacks on New York City and Washington, DC. Despite these actions, however, Syria remains on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

As is the case with other state sponsors, Syria has been adamant in declaring that there is no Syrian government complicity in terrorism. Formally Syria has noted its opposition to terrorism and condemns it in all its forms. Syria argues further that it distinguishes between terrorism and those who are struggling to restore their occupied land and usurped rights. Clearly Syria sees Israel as a terrorist state and has even suggested to Washington that Israel be added to the U.S. government's list of state sponsors. Its arguments continued to stress that there were double standards for terrorism, with terrorism being linked to Islam while Israel's terrorism against the Palestinians was tolerated.

Syria has continued to provide safe haven and support to several terrorist groups, some of which maintained training camps or other facilities on Syrian territory. Ahmad Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Fatah-the-Intifada, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) maintained their headquarters in Damascus. The Syrian government allowed HAMAS to open a new main office in Damascus in March 2002, although the arrangement may be temporary while HAMAS continues to seek permission to reestablish its headquarters in Jordan.

In addition, Syria granted a variety of terrorist groups—including HAMAS, the PFLP-GC, and the PIJ—basing privileges or refuge in areas of Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, which is under Syrian control. Damascus, however, generally upheld its agreement with the Turkish government in Ankara not to support the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). Although Syria claimed to be committed to the peace process, it did not act to stop Hizballah and Palestinian rejectionist groups from carrying out anti-Israeli attacks. Damascus also served as the primary transit point for terrorist operatives traveling to Lebanon and for the re-supply of weapons to Hizballah. Damascus appeared to maintain its longstanding ban on attacks launched from Syrian territory or against Western targets.

Additionally, under President Hafez al-Asad, Syria used state agents and terrorist surrogates to commit acts of political violence designed to further its foreign policy objectives. Some of this was directed against non-combatants and civilians. Part of the reason for these actions is Syria's recognition that it cannot achieve its strategic policy objectives by conventional diplomatic or military means. Syria sought to hurt its regional adversaries—primarily Israel—by sponsoring acts of terrorism, and to achieve its policy objective of regaining the Golan Heights, taken by Israel from Syria in the Six Day War of 1967.

Syria's use of terrorism (originally by direct state-controlled and mounted organizations and later sponsored) has permitted it to achieve some of its goals and objectives. It has killed and injured individual Israelis, helped to solidify its presence in and control of Lebanon, and thwarted some regional plans for peace, including the May 17, 1983 agreement brokered by the United States between Israel and Lebanon. Nevertheless, despite these and other achievements Syria failed in its primary goal to regain the Golan Heights from Israel.

Its "failures" in the terrorism sphere resulted from a number of interrelated factors, including the fact that terrorists often have their own agendas in addition to those of the state sponsor and thus the two may not move in the same direction. Also, retaliation by a terrorist target, such as Israel, against the state sponsor is often an objective easier to achieve than against the sponsored group.

Syria's role in sponsoring anti-Israel actions by terrorist groups was amply demonstrated over time by the triangular relationship among Israel, Lebanon, and Syria with regard to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1970s and 1980s, and with regard to Hizballah in the 1990s and subsequently. During U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's Middle East visit in April 2002 this was again demonstrated by Powell's sudden visit to Beirut and Damascus after Hizballah forces shelled Israel from Lebanon at the same time that Israel was engaged in a deadly exchange with the Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank.

The Status of Afghanistan

Why wasn't Afghanistan designated as a state sponsor of terrorism when it clearly meets the conditions for such a listing? In recent years the Taliban controlled regime in Afghanistan has emerged as the "sponsor" of the al-Qaeda movement and the operatives of Osama bin Laden. Although not formally listed as a "state sponsor" the Taliban-bin Laden connection in effect created a state-sponsored terrorist operation. That is terrorism supported by a state mechanism—Taliban Afghanistan. The relationship among the Afghan state, the Taliban regime, and the al-Qaeda terrorist organization (as well as Osama bin Laden himself) was a complex one and difficult to precisely define. It was a variant of state-sponsored terrorism, because it clearly differed from the usual pattern due to the very close and extensive links between Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization and the Taliban-controlled government of Afghanistan.

The problem with Afghanistan being listed as a state sponsor is that the United States saw Afghanistan as a country where "there is no functioning central government" (CIA Factbook, 2001) but was instead seen as divided among various fighting factions. As of October 2001, the Taliban controlled about 90 percent of the country including the capital, Kabul, and virtually all the major urban areas.

A Taliban edict had renamed the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and installed Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, its supreme leader, as Head of State and Commander of the Faithful. He held all ultimate authority. A rival regime known as the Islamic State of Afghanistan (also known as the United Front or Northern Alliance) was nominally headed by Burhannudin Rabbani, mostly in the northeast area of the country. The Northern Alliance controlled most Afghan embassies and retained Afghanistan's seat in the United Nations. The UN recognized the Islamic State of Afghanistan, as headed by Burhanuddin Rabbani, which controlled about 10 percent of the country as of October 2001. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were among the few who recognized the Taliban regime in 1997. Saudi Arabia and the UAE withdrew recognition following the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The recent decades of Afghanistan's history have been marked by warfare, which occurred in the 1980s following the Soviet invasion of the country and in the 1990s between and among various Afghanistan warlords of diverse ethnic backgrounds and political preferences and the various militias they controlled. Tribal and other loyalties were often quickly switched by both warlords and their fighters. The fighting was marked by numerous casualties, as well as displaced persons and refugees. The country sank into anarchy with various leaders and local warlords controlling various sections of the country with no overall, acceptable functioning authority.

In response to the anarchy and the role of the warlords a movement of mujahideen (holy warriors) arose. Many of the Taliban had been educated in madrassas in Pakistan and were largely from rural Pashtun backgrounds (and were severely under-represented in the government in Kabul under Rabbani). The name "Talib" means pupil. The new group dedicated itself to removing the warlords, creating order, and imposing Islam throughout the country.

This effort generated substantial support from Pakistan. In 1994 it captured the city of Kandahar and proceeded to expand its control throughout Afghanistan, occupying Kabul in September 1996. By the end of 1998 the Taliban occupied about 90 percent of the country. Efforts by the UN and others who sought to end the conflict failed, usually because of Taliban intransigence. The Taliban imposed an extreme interpretation of Islam on the entire country and committed massive human rights violations and atrocities in the process. Since the mid-1990s the Taliban provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and provided a base for his and other terrorist groups. The United Nations Security Council sanctioned the Taliban for these activities on various occasions.

On October 7, 2001, the United States and its partners in the anti-terrorist coalition began a campaign in Afghanistan, targeting terrorist facilities and various Taliban military and political assets within the country. In part, this was in response to the Taliban's refusal to expel bin Laden and his group and end its support for international terrorism.

Measures Against States Involved in Sponsorship of Terrorism

Actions against states that sponsor terrorism can be difficult to implement and there is often debate about their effectiveness. Among the mechanisms available are: warnings of actions by individual states or the international community against the perpetrator if the actions do not cease and identified terrorists are not brought to justice; condemnation of their actions by individual states or the international community; boycotts or embargos of various sorts and types can be threatened or implemented. These might include limited actions such as selective boycotts or more significant actions such as diplomatic and/or economic embargoes or boycotts. Additionally, legal steps, usually at the international legal level, are possibilities. There is also the possibility of the use of force.

Internationally Imposed Sanctions (United Nations)

In the case of Libya the United Nations imposed sanctions under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 748 of March 31, 1992. The Security Council has utilized a procedure of review and renewal it had routinely followed since the adoption of the sanctions in 1992 and continued until the Lockerbie trial.

Sanctions and Actions by Individual States—The United States, Iran, and Libya

The United States has adopted a special approach to various states, state sponsors, and others, when deemed appropriate for U.S. foreign policy. Sanctions were applied to Cuba in the form of an embargo during the administration of John F.Kennedy (1961-63). In 1986, after the disclosure of Libyan involvement in various terrorist acts including actions against U.S. forces, the United States bombed Libya, specifically the cities of Bengazi and Tripoli. It also struck targets in Sudan and Afghanistan after the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In addition, it attacked Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. In the case of Libya and Iran the United States imposed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) in 1996, which was renewed by Congress in 2001.

The Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 imposes sanctions on foreign companies that engage in specified economic transactions with Iran or Libya. The act was intended to help deny Iran and Libya revenues that could be used to finance international terrorism; to limit the flow of resources necessary to obtain weapons of mass destruction; and put pressure on Libya to comply with UN resolutions calling for it to extradite for trial the accused perpetrators of the Pan Am 103 bombing.

The law sanctions foreign companies that provide new investments over US$40 million (later reduced to $20 million) for the development of petroleum resources in Iran or Libya. The law also sanctions foreign companies that violate existing United Nations prohibitions against trade with Libya in certain goods and services such as arms, certain oil equipment, and civil aviation services. In the event of a violation the president is to impose sanctions against the violating company. The sanction choices include denial of Export-Import Bank assistance; denial of export licenses for exports to the violating company; prohibition of loans or credits from U.S. financial institutions of over $10 million in any 12-month period; prohibition on designation as a primary dealer for U.S. government debt instruments; prohibition on serving as an agent of the United States or as a repository for U.S. government funds; denial of U.S. government procurement opportunities (consistent with World Trade Organization obligations); and a ban on all or some imports of the violating company.

The primary intent of the sanctions was to affect negatively the economies of the two state sponsors. Implementation of the law and the sanctions contained therein are essentially at the discretion of the administration in power. Officials generally examine each foreign investment deal as it is proposed to see if it warrants action under the act. Since these are unilateral sanctions the administration may often be reluctant to antagonize friendly countries who wish to invest in either Iran or Libya. Various countries and the European Union (EU) have often spoken out against the ILSA. The EU in particular has commented on the fact that uni-lateral sanctions have extraterritorial effect and thus create unnecessary and unhelpful differences between the United States and the European Union.

In the summer of 2001 the U.S. Congress voted overwhelmingly on the ILSA Extension Act of 2001 (Public Law No. 107-24) to extend the sanctions against Iran and Libya for an additional five years. The sentiment of Congress was clearly that these two states were among the most dangerous of outlaw states. The sanctions renewed those first put in place in 1996 and were intended to discourage foreign energy firms from investing in Iran and Libya. If they did, sanctions could be applied to them.

Recent History and the Future

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, DC, the United States reassessed its global response to terrorism and, in so doing, suggested that further action against state sponsors of terrorism would be considered. The reference to an "axis of evil" clearly connected state sponsors with broader concerns on such issues as weapons of mass destruction and the need to ensure that these would not be used against the United States. At the same time the United States suggested possible links between these sponsors and attacks against the United States. Although not all of the state sponsors were linked to the September 11, 2001 attacks, there were some connections made, such as Iran's links to al-Qaeda. At the same time all seven state sponsors were retained on the United States' state sponsors list.

Using Force Against State Sponsors?

In the case of Iraq, although there was little evidence of a direct connection between Iraq and the September 11 attacks, there was growing discussion of a potential U.S. strike against the regime of Saddam Hussein. This was, in part, seen as a need to change a regime that is engaged in developing weapons of mass destruction and remains a state sponsor of terrorism. The George W. Bush administration (2001-) increasingly indicated its preference to use force to remove Saddam Hussein after the failure of the UN Security Council to modify its sanctions against Iraq into "smart sanctions" that would help to focus the sanctions' impact on the Iraqi regime and not on its people. The idea of the use of force was increasingly associated with the U.S. Department of Defense and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

The idea of utilizing force to deal with the Iraqi regime had been broached on a number of occasions and emerged in 2002 as a major element in the relationship between the United States and its allies, especially in Europe. The United States worked to generate a coalition of support for its potential actions in Iraq, similar in many respects to the coalition it formed in 1990-91 for the Gulf War and to the coalition against terrorism formed in the wake of the September 11 attacks against the United States. The issues at hand and the discussions between the United States and Britain, a crucial and close ally on issues relating to terrorism and Iraq, were highlighted during a visit by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to President Bush in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002.

At a joint press conference on April 6, 2002, President Bush noted:

… [T]he Prime Minister and I, of course, talked about Iraq. We both recognize the danger of a man who's willing to kill his own people harboring and developing weapons of mass destruction. This guy, Saddam Hussein, is a leader who gasses his own people, goes after people in his own neighborhood with… chemical weapons …I explained to the Prime Minister that the policy of my government is the removal of Saddam and that all options are on the table.

Meanwhile, Tony Blair noted: " … [T]he President is right to draw attention to the threat of weapons of mass destruction. That threat is real. How we deal with it, that's a matter we discuss. But that the threat exists and we have to deal with it, that seems to me a matter of plain common sense."

Should the decision to use force against a state sponsor of terrorism be made, it will certainly change the position of all those listed on the state sponsors list.


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Hoffman, Bruce, "Recent Trends and Future Prospects of Iranian Sponsored International Terrorism," in Yonah Alexander, ed., Middle Eastern Terrorism: CurrentThreats and Future Prospects. New York and Toronto: G.K. Hall, 1994.

Kegley, Jr., Charles W., ed. International Terrorism: Characteristics, Causes, Controls. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.

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Satloff, Robert B., ed. War on Terror: The Middle East Dimension. Washington, DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2002.

Zimmerman, Tim, "The American Bombing of Libya: A Success for Coercive Diplomacy?," Survival, vol. 29, pp. 195-214 (May/June 1987).

Bernard Reich

Jennifer B. Reich

Michael Buczek


April 1, 1979 The Islamic Republic of Iran is declared.

November 4, 1979 American hostages are seized in theU.S. embassy in Tehran.

November 14, 1979 U.S. President Jimmy Carter freezes$12 billion in Iranian assets.

April 15-16, 1986 U.S. planes bomb Libya in reprisal for Libya's role in the bombing of a Berlin disco in which two American servicemen were killed.

October 29, 1987 U.S. president Ronald Reagan imposes the ban on Iranian imports.

July 1988 The United States mistakenly shoots down anIranian airliner over the Persian Gulf, believing it to be a military aircraft.

December 21, 1988 A bomb explodes on Pan Am Flight103 bound from London to New York. All 259 people aboard and 11 on the ground are killed as wreckage crashes on Lockerbie, a small town in Scotland. The United States first suspects Iran as having a hand in the explosion, then Syria.

November 13, 1991 Britain and the United States charge two Libyan agents, Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi, and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah with the Pan Am bombing.

January 21, 1992 UN Security Council Resolution 731 urges Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi to comply with requests for the extradition of suspects in the Lockerbie bombing.

March 31, 1992 The UN Security Council imposes an air travel and arms embargo on Libya, in an effort to pressure Libya to extradite the Lockerbie suspects.

February 26, 1993 An explosion occurs at the WorldTrade Center in New York City.

August 19, 1993 Sudan is put on the U.S. list of states supporting terrorism.

December 1, 1993 The UN Security Council adds sanctions on Libya, freezing its foreign assets and banning sale of oil industry equipment. Libya, however, continues its refusal to hand over the Lockerbie suspects.

August 5, 1996 Congress passes the Iran and LibyaSanctions Act (ILSA).

May 23, 1997 Mohammed Khatami, a moderate, is elected president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

August 24, 1998 The United States and Britain make a formal offer to Libya for a trial of the two suspects in the Netherlands under Scottish law. Libya later accepts the offer.

September 18, 1998 The Netherlands and Britain sign an accord allowing the trial to be held at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands.

April 5, 1999 The United Nations suspends sanctions against Libya.

January 2002 President George W. Bush identifies North Korea, Iraq and Iran as an "axis of evil."

April 1, 2002 U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld focuses on Iran, Iraq, and Syria as terrorism sponsors and supporters.


Al-Qaeda ("the base") is an international terrorist network that seeks to purge Muslim countries of Western secular influence and to replace their governments with fundamentalist Islamic regimes. Led by Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda operates worldwide and is the primary suspect in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon, near Washington, DC. It is believed to have cells in some 60 countries, with several hundred to several thousand members organized in underground cells.

Although its attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were its most spectacular attacks and resulted in the largest number of casualties, there were previous attacks on U.S. interests, including a car bomb outside the Saudi Arabian National Guard building in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1995, as well as the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, all of which are suspected to be linked to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda was formed, probably in 1988, in Afghanistan by Osama bin Laden and grew out of the anti-Soviet units that were formed in the 1980s. In the 1980s bin Laden and his colleagues recruited, trained, and financed thousands of mujahideen (holy warriors) from dozens of countries who opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Subsequently he sought a broader mission for his fighters and found it in war against the West.

In Afghanistan the Taliban established their control over the regime and the country. In Taliban-controlled Afghanistan there developed a symbiotic relationship between Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda on the one hand and the Taliban regime on the other. The Taliban-regime provided refuge for bin Laden and the al-Qaeda movement—as well as facilities for training personnel and for stockpiling equipment in preparation for terrorist actions worldwide. Al-Qaeda operated from Afghanistan from about 1996 until the collapse of the Taliban administration in 2001. Bin Laden and al-Qaeda are believed to have provided financial aid and political support for the Taliban until that time.

Terror Attempt at Heathrow

In 1986 Syrian agents participated in an attempted terrorist operation that marked Syria as a state sponsor. The event involved an Irish chambermaid, Ann-Marie Murphy, who attempted to board an El Al Flight from London to Tel Aviv, Israel, on April 17, 1986, with a powerful plastic explosive in a false bottom area of her bag. Murphy, who was unaware she was carrying an explosive, was ostensibly going to meet her Palestinian fiancé's family. Nizar Hindawi met and romanced the Irish woman, who had become pregnant. Hindawi proposed and suggested that she travel to the Middle East to meet his family.

Hindawi placed the explosive in her bag and prepared it to go off during the flight from London to Tel Aviv. The bomb was detected before she boarded the flight. Hindawi dropped Murphy off at the airport and then returned to London to a hotel room reserved for Syrian Arab Airlines personnel. After she was stopped he went to the Syrian embassy, where he was provided with a hiding place. He later confessed to his role in the matter and clearly implicated Syria in the effort. Syria's involvement clearly marked it as a sponsor of the event. The support Hindawi received is well-documented and was at the core of his British government trial.

In a statement on October 24, 1986, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, The Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Howe MP, announced that, in view of conclusive evidence of Syrian involvement in the attempt by Nizar Hindawi to place a bomb on an El Al aircraft at Heathrow airport, London, on April 17, 1986, the British government had decided to break diplomatic relations with Syria. In a statement to Parliament he noted:

There is conclusive evidence of Syrian official involvement with Hindawi …Certain facts are undisputed: Hindawi traveled on an official Syrian passport in a false name; Hindawi's visa applications were on two occasions backed by official notes from the Syrian Foreign Ministry; Hindawi met the Syrian Ambassador, Dr. Haydar, in his Embassy after the discovery of the bomb; …We have therefore decided to break diplomatic relations with Syria.

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