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Turning a Blind Eye: Passive Sponsorship of Terrorism

This meeting, jointly sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Division of International Studies, the RAND Corporation and the U.S. Army's Eisenhower National Security Series, was part of an ongoing series on terrorism and homeland security and featured Daniel Byman, Assistant Professor, Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University and Nonresident Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institute.

Date & Time

Oct. 28, 2004
12:00am – 12:00am ET


This meeting, jointly sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Division of International Studies, the RAND Corporation and the U.S. Army's Eisenhower National Security Series, was part of an ongoing series on terrorism and homeland security.

Dr. Byman noted that discussions of state involvement in terrorism have typically focused on the issue of sponsorship. But strikingly, the number of overt "sponsors" is becoming fewer and fewer. The U.S. State Department's annual list of "state sponsors" includes some countries, such as North Korea and Cuba, which have not been directly involved in terrorism in recent years. Of those so designated, only Iran and Syria are serious sponsors, while one state that meets the criteria – Pakistan – has been exempted on political grounds. The greatest problem, one accorded scant attention relative to the issue of overt sponsorship, is that of passive support. Byman argued that in contrast to state sponsorship, where regime support for terrorism is overt (through training, arming, organizing and directing), passive sponsorship denotes regime support that is tacit through inaction. A regime is engaging in passive support if it "knowingly allows" a terrorist group to raise funds, use the state's territory as a sanctuary, or operate without interference, but does not provide direct assistance to the group itself. Instead the support is channeled through political parties, charities, or other non-state actors with no formal link to the government. Byman stated that such passivity has permitted terrorist groups to thrive. The regimes have chosen either to "turn a blind eye" to these activities, or has chosen not to develop the capacity that would permit them to stop it.

Byman compared and contrasted three cases of passive sponsorship of terrorism: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United States itself.

Characterizations of Saudi Arabia's relationship to terrorism sharply diverge. Some depict it as a major part of the problem: In July 2003, 191 members of the House of Representatives supported a bill to officially designate the country as a state sponsor. A senior U.S. treasury official declared Saudi Arabia the "epicenter" of the financing of Al Qaeda. Others portray Saudi Arabia as the primary target of Al Qaeda. Former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia Charles Freeman has stated, "You can be damn sure that any Al Qaeda operative is on the Saudi wanted list."

Before 9/11, wealthy Saudi citizens and charities financially supported jihadist causes (e.g., Afghanistan and Chechnya). While much of this money went to humanitarian assistance, terrorist groups siphoned off some. The Saudi government's unwillingness to address the Al Qaeda threat prior to 9/11 stemmed from a fear of confronting important domestic interest groups and a belief that the threat was limited and would only be exacerbated if confronted. Not until the regime itself felt threatened, after Al Qaeda attacks within the Kingdom itself, did the Riyadh government begin to crack down on activities it had previously tolerated.

Pakistan was an active supporter of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and a passive supporter of Al Qaeda, which the Taliban government allowed to operate freely. The Islamabad government's motivations with respect to Afghanistan, as well as the terrorist activities of Kashmiri insurgents, were both strategic and domestic. Byman argued that these twin motivations were a function of the Pakistani government's weak legitimacy. After 9/11, Pakistan, under maximum pressure from the Bush administration, did break with the Taliban but did not fully do the same with the Kashmiri-focused groups. The logistical network that still exists to support those terrorist activities could also be employed for Al Qaeda. The United States, Byman concluded, is asking a lot of Pakistan with respect to Afghanistan and Kashmir. At the same time, Pakistan lacks the basic capacity to exert effective control over its own territory – a condition exemplified by the inability of the Islamabad government to operate in the tribal areas along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

Byman's third case – the United States – focused on the surprising willingness of U.S. administrations to tolerate the private fundraising and activities of Irish republican terrorist groups on American soil. Supporters in the U.S. diaspora community provided funding and arms to the Provisional Irish Republican Army (or "Provos") and helped Irish fugitives escape justice by fleeing to America. The turning point in shifting American public opinion and in prompting the U.S. government to crack down on these activities came in the late 1980s when the Irish Republic government in Dublin condemned the IRA and actively worked to undermine support for it in the United States.

Drawing on his comparative case analysis, Byman cited three key factors affecting the willingness of governments to engage in passive support of terrorism. First, when domestic sympathy for the group exists and its cause is viewed as legitimate. Second, when there is a belief by the acquiescing government that the group poses little threat to it and that a crackdown would generate a political backlash. And third, when the government believes that its tacit support has relatively low costs and even presents a strategic opportunity. Conversely, a change in government policies occurs when that calculus of decision has been altered by events – most notably, when domestic public opinion begins to turn against the terrorist group. (This happened, to some degree, in Saudi Arabia after the Al Qaeda attacks in the Kingdom, but has not occurred in Pakistan).

A major problem in addressing the passive sponsorship problem is the lack of effective institutionalized governmental capacity in the problem countries, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In part, this lack of capacity is a function of those governments' intentions; a lag in their recognition of the terrorist problem has affected their ability to respond.

Byman declared that the passive state sponsorship can't be stopped but can be diminished. The use of force (i.e., military preemption) is highly problematic because the United States is dealing with notional allies. Beyond providing military assistance to increase state capacity, the most important step the United States can take is to bolster domestic intelligence in the problem countries. As Byman observed, the best foreign intelligence is not as good as even mediocre domestic intelligence. He also pointed to the need for a new legal consensus on what passive sponsorship means, with the burden being on governments to know and take responsibility for what occurs on their territory. Likewise, non-governmental organizations should be held accountable for their actions when humanitarian assistance finds its way to terrorist groups. Finally, Byman concluded, it is important for Western governments to get their own houses in order and ensure that diaspora groups are not supporting violence in their countries of origin.


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