Does non-state terrorism truly exist? Can a terror organisation that is designated as a non-state actor become big without some degree of state involvement?

While on a state visit to Pakistan in 2011, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had famously said, “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them to only bite your neighbours.” Never has a statement rung more true when seeking an understanding of the consequences a state faces when it uses terror proxies as an instrument of foreign policy.

During a discussion on “Terror Inc.: Combating State and Non-State Actors,” panellists stated that several states hold significant power and influence in the international system, given the multipolar nature of the world today. As a result, states look for approaches other than conventional methods to make gains against their adversary. This has allowed greater space for “non-state actors” to increase their clout.

Terrorist organisations such as the Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) occupy a global footprint, plotting and training for a terror strike somewhere and executing it elsewhere. They operate on a “franchise model” where ideological radicalisation no longer requires militants to train, learn and fight together. By virtue of existing transnational networks in the world, terrorist organisations have adapted to a global revenue model that allows them to acquire financial support from nation states and gradually develop methods of self-sufficiency.

In the second half of the 20th century, a number of countries began using terror as a tool to promote their state interests. Many international terror organisations today are either “puppets” acting on behalf of sponsor states to further the latter’s domestic and international positions or are “non-state actors” with already established terror networks. However, the case of non-state actors is a complex one, given the ambiguity in defining terrorism and non-state actors.

Does non-state terrorism truly exist? Can a terror organisation that is designated as a non-state actor, such as the IS, become big without some degree of state involvement? These were key questions raised during the panel discussion.

Today, a number of states make use of terror organisations, either established or state-created, to further their own foreign policy, panellists highlighted. American Central Investigation Agency’s use of Mujahideen in Afghanistan to combat the Soviet Union is a classic example of this. Major international terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda and the IS have been successful in creating a “terror inc” brand for themselves, with direct and indirect support of certain nation states. Therefore, the term “non-state actor” is a misnomer when describing a transnational terrorist organisation.

While a convincing argument can be made on the immorality of supporting such actors in the international arena, states chose to “outsource” their military power for a number of reasons. The high cost of modern, conventional warfare make using non-state actors an attractive choice. As Christine Fair, an associate professor at the Center for Peace and Security Studies in the US, pointed out, financing terror groups is a small portion of states’ much larger defence budget, making terror proxies a convenient and viable option. Further, use of terror organisations divorces the state from issues related to attribution, thereby ensuring that the state is not held politically or legally responsible.

It is for these reasons that states such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have chosen to support non-state actors. Saudi Arabia has long been accused of providing direct and indirect clandestine, financial and logistical support to the IS and other radical Sunni groups in the region. Turkish President Recep Erdogan, too, has been long accused of helping the IS and other extremist groups in Syria in their fight against President Bashar al-Assad and Kurdish rebels. Both India and Afghanistan have borne the brunt of Pakistani terror for decades. Groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Haqqani Network and the Taliban have repeatedly been used by Pakistan as instruments to help it achieve its foreign policy objectives in New Delhi and Kabul.

The use of terror groups as a means of achieving foreign policy objectives, however, has been highly ineffective. By empowering such non-state actors, states run a high risk of a “boomerang effect,” under which the terror states they support begin to threaten their own domestic stability and security. In Turkey, for example, as the government came under increasing international pressure to clamp down on the IS, the terrorist group responded by calling for attacks against Turkey.

David Phillips, a professor at Columbia University, had once rightly stated, “Turkey was the midwife that created IS. Now IS has turned on its creator.”


India’s real problem is: How does it compel the Pakistani state, and in particular the army and the ISI, to stop relying upon terrorism under its nuclear umbrella as a tool of foreign policy? — Christine Fair, Associate Professor, Georgetown University, USA


Similarly, the Afghan Taliban came together with the assistance of the Pakistan military to prevent the spread of Afghan jihad within its territory. Islamabad hoped that by supporting the Taliban, it would ensure its interests in Afghanistan were protected. However, unintended consequences of that resulted in Taliban ideology flourishing in Pakistani madrassas. Quite literally, the Monster of Frankenstein turned on its Creator.

By adopting a policy of distinguishing between “good and bad terrorists,” Islamabad has turned a blind eye to those non-state actors that threaten India, smaller factions and splinter groups of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Al-Qaeda. This has resulted in groups such as Jamaat-ul-Ahrar stepping up their offensive against the state, making perfect room for an old America adage that says: “If you lie down with dogs, you may end up with fleas.”

States supporting terror groups would do well if they took note of that adage.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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