Global rebels: terrorist organizations as trans-national actors.
Subject:
Terrorism (International aspects)
Author:
Richardson, Louise
Pub Date:
09/22/1998
Publication:
Name: Harvard International Review Publisher: Harvard International Relations Council, Inc. Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Business; Economics; Law; Political science Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1998 Harvard International Relations Council, Inc. ISSN: 0739-1854
Issue:
Date: Fall, 1998 Source Volume: 20 Source Issue: 4

Accession Number:
30455858
Full Text:
LOUISE RICHARDSON is Associate Professor of Government at Harvard University.

The widespread usage of the term terrorism, in many contexts, has rendered the word almost meaningless. Today, its only universally understood connotation is so pejorative that even terrorists don't admit to being terrorists anymore. A glance at current usage reveals child abuse, racism, and gang warfare all incorrectly described as terrorism. Thus, if terrorism is to be analyzed in any meaningful way, it must be readily distinguishable from other forms of violence, especially other forms of political violence. In this article, terrorism is defined as politically motivated violence, directed against non-combatant or symbolic targets and designed to communicate a message to a broader audience. The critical feature of terrorism is the deliberate targeting of innocents in an effort to convey a message to another party. This particular characteristic differentiates terrorism from the most proximate form of political violence: the irregular warfare of the guerrilla. While it could certainly be argued that states engage in terrorism, this article focuses on non-state actors: terrorist movements.

Although terrorism is most often targeted against domestic political structures to effect political change, this article focuses on the international connections between terrorists. Political scientists coined the term trans-nationalism when they realized that the prevailing state-centric paradigm could not adequately explain the extent and impact of international interactions. Trans-nationalism denotes the interplay between non-state actors--international interactions not directed by states. On the other hand, trans-governmentalism refers to relations between sub-units of governments not controlled by the national executives.

US Perceptions of Terrorism

The United States tends to see terrorism less as a trans-national force and more as an international one. More specifically, the United States generally perceives international terrorism as deliberately directed by governments, usually against US targets. In the 1980s, the notion of an extensive, covert Soviet conspiracy to undermine the West prevailed. Today, the prevailing image is that of the radical Islamic fundamentalist following instructions from Middle Eastern capitals. International terrorism, therefore, is seen as state-sponsored terrorism, and state-sponsored terrorism, like terrorism more generally, is something only the bad guys do.

In response to public concern about state-sponsored terrorism, the US State Department is required to report annually to Congress on the patterns of global terrorism and to list the states considered sponsors of terrorism. Congress then imposes trade sanctions on the designated states. Currently, there are seven states on the list: Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria. This list, of course, is a political instrument and reflects far more than the extent of state-sponsored terrorism. The economies of Cuba and North Korea, for example, ensure that neither government is in any position to promote, much less fund, international terrorism. Indeed, in 1995, the North Korean government repudiated terrorism and any support for it. The two governments remain on the list, ostensibly for providing a safe haven to terrorists, but more likely because domestic pressure from Cuban voters in Florida and alliance relations with South Korea make their removal politically difficult.

A more objective assessment of the evidence suggests that the use of terror as an instrument of foreign policy might not be the exclusive domain of expansionist communists or mad mullahs. Even impeccably liberal democracies might engage in such action. In the 1980s, however, the firmly held belief was that the United States faced a deliberate and dedicated cadre of communists under orders from Moscow to undermine the West. Among the staunch proponents of this view were President Reagan and his Secretary of State, Alexander Haig. There can be little doubt that terrorist movements did receive assistance from the Eastern bloc in the 1980s. Members of the German Red Army Faction clearly found refuge and financial support in East Germany. IN 1982, Congressional hearings revealed extensive Soviet-funded training facilities provided for liberation movements operating in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, the hearings failed to establish a definite link between the training facilities and Soviet bloc control over the liberation movements.

Generally speaking, financial support for a group may purchase influence but not control over its activities. The same holds true for relations between allies. The vast sums of money that the United States gives Israel translate into US government influence, not control, over Israeli policy. Similarly, in spite of all the aid given the mujahadeen in their fight against the Russians, the US government has precious little influence on the factious Afghan fighters.

For numerous reasons, a state might decide to sponsor terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy. Until the end of the Cold War, scholars widely maintained that the bipolar structure of the international system lent itself to the sponsorship of terrorism. According to the argument, the nuclear stalemate between the superpowers made direct conflict too costly to contemplate, but competition inevitable. Therefore, the superpowers sought indirect outlets for competition: arms races, proxy wars (as in Ethiopia), or sponsorship of terrorism (as in southern Africa). In light of the continuation of terrorism in the face of the transformation of the international power structure from a bipolar to a unipolar system, it is more difficult to argue that the international distribution of power determines the use of terror. Nevertheless, the attractions of sponsorship remain the same. The costs are low, and if the terrorists succeed, the benefits are high. However, if they fail, sponsors can easily and plausibly disavow the group's actions.

Seen in this light, it is easier to understand how US support for Chilean anti-Allende forces in the 1970s, the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s, or for anti-Castro forces throughout that period could be interpreted as the use of terror as an instrument of foreign policy--a more neutral concept than state-sponsored terrorism. The US government had many good reasons to undermine the regimes in Santiago, Managua, and Havana and certainly had the military prowess to do so. However, because overt action would have generated both an international and domestic uproar, the government sought to operate behind the scenes by helping local groups with the same goals. The US rationale was very similar to that offered by Eastern-bloc governments at the time, and it may explain the failure of communication between the right, which saw a Soviet-led, communist backed, terrorist conspiracy, and the left, which feared a US-led, anti-socialist, terrorist conspiracy. Terrorism, then, can be sponsored both by strong states reluctant to demonstrate their strength openly and by weak states that believe that they have no other effective weapons in their arsenal.

Five Degrees of Separation

Important distinctions exist between different types of terrorist-sponsor relationships. These ties range from full state direction at one end of the spectrum to simple support at the other end. The case of Iran, the country widely and rightly viewed as the primary state sponsor of terrorism at present, illustrates several of these distinctions.

First, at one end of the continuum--where state control is complete--is the murder of dissidents. The State Department accuses Iran (and Iraq) of state-sponsored terrorism in their killing of dissidents overseas: either leaders of domestic opposition groups or, as in the case of Iran, former officials of the Shah's regime. These individuals are invariably killed by members of Iranian or Iraqi intelligence services operating abroad. Among the more celebrated Iranian cases are the 1991 murder of the former Prime Minister Shahpur Bakhtiar and his aide in Paris and the 1996 discovery in Belgium of a massive mortar in a ship's cargo of pickles. The ship in question belonged to a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Iranian intelligence service, and the mortar was believed to have been intended for a prominent Iranian dissident.

The second stage along the continuum of control is the recruitment and training of operatives specifically for an overseas mission. While accurate information about these cases is extremely difficult to obtain, a good example is the three-year-long German trial of an Iranian and four Lebanese charged with the 1992 murder of Kurdish dissidents in Berlin. The trial revealed the long arm of Iranian intelligence. The four accused were convicted while the prosecutors charged that supreme leader Khamenei and President Rafsanjani approved the operation. The judge indicted the Iranian Minister of Intelligence for the crime.

The murder of dissidents, while reprehensible, does not constitute terrorism per se. It represents a strategy of illegal state repression rather than state-sponsored terrorism. The action is highly discriminating and is carried out against an intended target by what amounts to an arm of the government. Thus, assassinations of dissidents remain quite distinct from the random violence associated with terrorism.

The third step along the continuum is reached when a government closely controls and directs the actions of a terrorist group. Complete control exists in only a few cases and generally involves the use of intelligence services. Nevertheless, some Middle Eastern terrorist movements, albeit not many, appear to have very little independence from their sponsors. Two such examples are the Saiqa Palestinian Group and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PLFP-GC). Both organizations receive directions from their main sponsor, Syria. In the case of the PLFP-GC, its leader--Ahmad Jibril--is a former captain in the Syrian Army. Moreover, the movement has its headquarters in Damascus and is heavily dependent on Syria for financial and logistical support.

The fourth level of control is by far the most common. In this case, a government provides training, funds, and safe haven for an autonomous terrorist group. This relationship is common for most of the Palestinian groups which jealously guard their independence. They accept assistance from several sponsors, in part to avoid exclusive dependence on any one. Most groups, like Hamas, try to supplement their government funding--in this case from Iran--with support from Palestinian expatriates and private benefactors in places like Saudi Arabia. In some cases, groups even accept help from sworn enemies. For example, the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) accepts support from both Iran and Iraq, as well as from Syria.

When one of the these terrorist groups commits an atrocity, one of the sponsoring states is usually blamed. While the state may indeed be pleased by the action, it may not have had any prior knowledge of it. Thus, the sponsoring state may be responsible for the action in a moral sense, by supporting the perpetrators, but it is not directly responsible.

In its years at the forefront of the Western alliance, the United States has reacted with frustration when its enemies have exaggerated its influence over its allies. The United States can only try to persuade its allies but cannot dictate to them. In the same fashion, the United States tends to exaggerate the influence of other states on the actions of the terrorists they sponsor. Certainly the states have the ability to hurt the movements by denying them support, but they are rarely in a position to dictate. In February 1996, for example, the Iranian vice president met with Hamas leaders in Damascus immediately after several bombings in Israel, and he praised their successful efforts. A week later, Hamas claimed responsibility for two more bombings. There is no reason to believe that Hamas was following explicit Iranian instructions. They did not need to. As both Iran and Hamas share a virulent antipathy to the State of Israel, one does not need to direct the operations of the other.

At the final step on the continuum of state control, the actions of a terrorist movement merely serve the ends of a sponsoring state. The state then offers financial support because it identifies its interests with that of the group. The support of the Libyan leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, for the Irish Republican Army (IRA) can be seen in this light. Qaddafi actually knew very little about the situation in Northern Ireland or about the campaign waged by the IRA. He nevertheless provided the organization with training facilities, financial support, and several ships full of weaponry, simply because he knew that they were operating against Britain. His goal was to punish Britain for its collaboration in the US bombing of Tripoli, and his support of the IRA was a means to that end. IRA acceptance of Qaddafi's support, however, in no way led them to alter their military strategy.

An undifferentiated view of statesponsorship of terrorism--one which fails to appreciate these different types of relationship--is unlikely to facilitate an understanding of the motivations underlying trans-national terrorism. Hence, an effective counter terrorist strategy would be difficult to develop.

Exporting Revolution

Another aspect of state-sponsored terrorism differentiates Iran from other countries on the US government's list of state sponsors: Iran's efforts since the successful 1979 revolution to export its revolution overseas. Religion has long been a powerful trans-national force in international relations. It does not respect national boundaries and has generated centuries of jurisdictional disputes between secular and clerical leaderships. The Ayatollah Khomeini, a Shiite Muslim cleric who led the Iranian revolution, provided a theological justification for fundamentalist terrorism. He argued that Islam was threatened with destruction and that Shiite believers were obliged to fight in its defense.

It is important to bear in mind, however, that Iranian-sponsored terrorism is not solely or even primarily directed against the West; rather, it is directed against surrounding Gulf states, particularly Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. The Western victims of Iranian-sponsored terrorism have often been incidental. They were either caught in the embassy at the onset of the revolution, were kidnapped by the Iranian-backed Hezbullah group in Lebanon, or were victims of Iranian-backed terror in Israel. The rhetoric denouncing the United States as "the Great Satan" notwithstanding, Iran has not, in fact, led a terrorist war against the West.

Iran's support for terrorism is closely linked to support for Shiite opposition groups in nearby Gulf states. In 1987, when a Kuwaiti Shiite bombed a Kuwaiti oil installation and a Bahraini engineer tried to sabotage Bahrain's oil refinery, Iran sanctioned both incidents. In the late 1980s, there was a wave of terrorist activity in Kuwait backed by Shiite terrorists groups, which in turn, were supported by Iran. At one point, a Kuwaiti airplane was hijacked in an effort to secure the release of seventeen members of an Iranian-backed terrorist group. This type of activity, of course, is precisely the kind to which the West has been exposed for years, but it is clearly a mistake to think that such hostility is directed solely against the West. In 1988, Iran adjusted its sights and began to focus on Saudi Arabia after the death of 257 Iranian pilgrims making the hajj. Iran publicly called for the overthrow of the Saudi ruling family. Shiite Muslims were recruited and trained by Iran, and they carried out a wave of attacks directed against Saudi officials and the Saudi airline. Harsh repression by the Saudi authorities could not eliminate the terrorist incidents.

The widely held view that Middle Eastern terrorism exclusively targets the West is misplaced. Iranian-backed groups have sought to export the Iranian revolution to surrounding states, while radical Islamic groups such as al-Gama'at al-Islamiyya and al-Jihad in Egypt have tried to overthrow the secular leadership of their own government.

Terrorist Networks

The relationships between states and terrorist movements do not correspond directly to the pure form of trans-nationalism because they include a state as part of the equation. These relationships do not correspond to trans-governmentalism either, as they are not connections between subgroups of governments. Rather, they reflect an under-theorized, hybrid type of transnationalism between a state and an autonomous movement. The traditional state-centric paradigm sufficed to explain the cases where a sponsoring government directly controls terrorist movements. However, the cases in which movements remain independent or quasi-independent of any particular state suggest yet another level of international interaction.

Terrorist movements demonstrate a purer form of trans-national interaction in the relationships they form with each other. Insofar as terrorist movements coalesce and form linkages to operate together and have an independent impact on state policy, they are indeed trans-national actors. Given the clandestine nature of most terrorist groups, it is difficult to find evidence to demonstrate the extent of these linkages. Nevertheless, the evidence that exists shows that connections between groups occur for a variety of reasons: a shared ideology, a shared enemy, or simply, shared training facilities.

The left-wing social revolutionary movements that operated in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s--the German Red Army Faction (RAF), the Italian Red Brigades, and the French Direct Action--had much in common. Their members came from a similar social strata--the disaffected children of privilege. These men and women were motivated by a desire to destroy the corruption of contemporary capitalism and to replace it with a new, but illdefined order based on Marxist-Leninist principles. The European revolutionaries formed linkages based on ideological affinity, establishing anti-imperialist fronts facilitated by their geographic proximity.

Other less-likely groups formed trans-national links for the simple reason of a shared enemy, usually the United States. The cooperation between several Palestinian and European groups provide a fitting example. Palestinian groups offered financial support to groups like the Italian Red Brigades if they, in turn, would intensify their attacks on US and NATO targets. These linkages were driven less by ideological affinity and more by the imperatives of the age old political dictum, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Members of disparate terrorists groups often made initial contact during sessions in Middle Eastern or North African training camps. Shared operating procedures and training with particular weapons both facilitated the formation of personal contacts and the execution of future joint operations.

A simple examination of the personnel involved in several celebrated terrorist escapades unearths dramatic evidence of trans-national collaboration. Members of the German Red Army Faction and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine have exhibited a particular adroitness at forming international terrorist teams. The RAF participated in the 1975 kidnapping of eleven OPEC oil ministers in Vienna. The following year, the group participated in the Palestinian hijacking of an Air France airliner to Entebbe, Uganda, and in 1977, collaborated again in a hijacking of a Lufthansa plane to Mogadishu. The Lod massacre of 1972 also demonstrated the extent of international connections. The attack in a Tel Aviv airport was executed by members of the Japanese Red Army which had earlier joined with the PFLP in a "Declaration of World War." Members of the JRA subsequently took refuge in North Korea.

Trans-national relations between terrorist movements are not confined to Europe and the Middle East. A 1993 explosion under an auto repair shop in Managua, Nicaragua, revealed what one diplomat at the scene deemed "a one stop shopping center for Latin terrorists." Aside from the extensive arsenal which included tons of explosives, hundreds of assault rifles, and tens of surface to air missiles, the cache revealed an extensive filing system documenting the collaboration of Argentinean, Basque, Canadian, Chilean, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, and Uruguayan terrorists. Besides the treasure trove of hundreds of passports and identification papers, the files provided detailed documentation of observations on scores of wealthy Latin American businessmen, ten of whom had already been kidnapped. Those convicted in the kidnapping of the Brazilian supermarket chain owner Abilio Diniz included a multinational group of Argentinians, Canadians, Chileans, and a Brazilian.

Historically, shared support from Cuba served to forge international links between terrorist groups in Latin America. The Managua explosion demonstrated that groups also cooperated without Cuban support. Moreover, it is important to note that even with their massive arsenal and documentation, these groups are only known to have succeeded in kidnapping ten wealthy Latin Americans. Like most terrorists, they have not, in fact, posed a vital security threat to the countries in which they operate.

International links between terrorist movements take many forms. Some groups are directed by states, some are independent of states, some have state involvement. The trans-national links between terrorist groups are so varied that any one power cannot possibly orchestrate the entire network even at a regional level, much less a global one. These findings have implications both for policy makers and for academics. For academics, insofar as many of these links reflect a hybrid form of interaction between trans-nationalism and trans-governmentalism, they suggest an under-theorized area of international interaction. For policy makers, the fear of the specter of state sponsored terrorism replacing the global Soviet threat to US interests is clearly misplaced. Policy-makers as well as academics would do well to draw critical distinctions between the relationships of movements and those who assist them because the most effective counter-terrorist strategy will be one directed to the source of terrorism.
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Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.