August 11, 2004 | The Weekly Standard
A Bad Relationship
Authored by Andrew Apostolou
One of the key findings of the 9/11 Commission is that al Qaeda was a terrorism innovator. Al Qaeda's “new terrorism,” as the commission calls it, is more than just using aircraft as weapons and turning hijackers into pilots, it's about transforming the relationship between terrorists and rogue states. Old-style terrorists, such as the Palestinian groups, have generally been surrogates of states. By contrast, al Qaeda redefined these connections following its expulsion from Sudan in 1996, all but taking over the state in Afghanistan while loosely cooperating with other states–yet refusing to be controlled by them.
For decades rogue states used terrorism as a form of low-level, low cost warfare. Gaddaffi's Libya and the Baathist dictatorships in Syria and Iraq knew that they could not win conventional battles against either the Americans or the Israelis. Instead, they sent terrorists to murder their opponents and extract concessions from them. For these regimes, terrorism was a standard tool of statecraft, a bloodier version of the old diplomatic note.
Saddam Hussein's Iraq was the classic terrorism sponsor. The ideologically promiscuous Iraqis assisted groups inimical to their Baathist regime. Saddam helped the Muslim Brotherhood fight against his fellow Baathists in Syria, even while repressing the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq.
The terms of the deal were that the terrorists remained under some sort of state control. Saddam supported Abu Nidal in the 1970s, touting him as an alternative to Yasser Arafat. The Iraqi regime then expelled Abu Nidal in 1983 as a condition for restoring diplomatic ties with the United States. Abu Nidal was brought back to Baghdad after 1991, but was then murdered by the Iraqis in 2002. Clearly, all relationships have their ups and downs.
There was a similar pattern to relations between al Qaeda and Sudan, where the organization was based from 1991 to 1996. The Islamic fundamentalist government of Sudan created a permissive environment for terrorists. When U.N.-imposed sanctions and the diplomatic and economic pressure grew too great, however, Sudan was willing to trade its terrorist friends. The Sudanese offered bin Laden to the Saudis on condition that he be pardoned. The Saudis declined.
Osama bin Laden's expulsion from Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996 was initially a setback. The country was in chaos and his position was precarious. Yet bin Laden soon latched onto the increasingly dominant Taliban, a militia of religious students backed by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. He won their confidence. From being their guest, bin Laden became the Taliban's partner and financier. Ties grew so close that Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, ordered the murder of some of his lieutenants who had disagreed with the hosting of bin Laden. Al Qaeda seemed to fuse with the Taliban. After September 11, Mullah Omar chose to risk war with the United States rather than surrender bin Laden.
Yet throughout his time in Afghanistan, bin Laden kept his options open. He ensured that he had other bolt holes available in the unlikely event that the Taliban turned on him. Al Qaeda collaborated with rogue states, but avoided becoming dependent upon them.
For al Qaeda's state friends, the connection brought benefits but no control, rewards seemingly without risk. In return, al Qaeda received travel facilitation–vital assistance for a terrorist group operating beyond its Middle Eastern recruiting base–and training in advanced terrorist techniques.
Al Qaeda was as open-minded about its liaisons as Saddam had been. Iraq and al Qaeda undoubtedly spoke to each other. Saddam was a terror master who liked to keep his contacts fresh. Bin Laden, despite having previously assisted some of Saddam's opponents and claiming to defend Muslims, was quite content to keep channels open to a mass murder of Muslims.
More remarkable, and possibly more fruitful, were al Qaeda's dealings with Iran. Iran apparently provided al Qaeda with suicide terrorism training, a technique pioneered by Hezbollah, Iran's terrorist ally in Lebanon. The Iranian authorities also allowed al Qaeda members to pass unhindered through their territory. Graduates from bin Laden's Afghanistan camps traveled through Iran to join an al Qaeda affiliate group, Ansar al-Islam, based in a remote corner of Iraq close to the Iranian border. According to the 9/11 Commission, 8 of the 19 September 11 hijackers traveled through Iran between October 2000 and February 2001.
Pakistan was similarly accommodating towards al Qaeda's travel needs, allowing scores of operatives to cross into Afghanistan. In return, Pakistan used al Qaeda camps to train terrorists for operations in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The arrangement allowed Pakistan to deny that it was training terrorists on its own territory, and pretend it had no connection to al Qaeda, even while it supported the Taliban.
Conveniently, these relationships–of cooperation but not control–were so fleeting that they left little evidence behind them. Unlike the 1989 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, there are no direct traces of any state helping to plan or execute the September 11 attacks. Deniability was part of the link, with Iran, Iraq and Pakistan able to disown rogue border officials.
For years the hands off links between al-Qaeda and its state friends suited both sides. From now on, such relationships have to come with a price attached.
– Andrew Apostolou has been a historian at St. Antony's College, Oxford, and was Director of Customised Research at The Economist Group's Economist Intelligence Unit. He is presently director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. He has interviewed prisoners from an al-Qaeda affiliate group.