State sponsorship of terrorism: a blessing or a curse?

This week, the United States put a $10 million bounty on Hafiz Saeed, the founder and leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). When it comes to state sponsorship of terrorism, LeT takes the biscuit. As Christine Fair explains:

[A]fter the Mumbai attack of 2008, the Punjab provincial government began managing the organization’s substantial assets in the Punjab and has even placed many LeT/JuD workers employed in various purported charitable activities on its official payroll. In addition, the Punjabi government has made substantial grants to the organization … for Pakistan, LeT is an existential asset in the same way that it is an existential enemy for countries like India and even the United States. (p25)

Seemed a good time to read A Blessing or a Curse? State Support for Terrorist Groups [PDF of draft], an article in  the most recent International Organization by David Carter. His theory is that, far from being beholden to their proxies,

[state] sponsors [of terrorist groups] avoid costs, physical and political, from target military operations by providing information to the target about the groups they sponsor. Sponsors have the greatest incentive to do this when the group is based within their territory because an attempt to forcefully eliminate the group necessitates military operations in the sponsor’s territory. Thus, sponsorship can be a curse to groups when they rely on their patron for a safe haven … On the one hand, sponsors want to provide enough aid to the group to facilitate successful attacks. On the other hand, they also want to minimize potential military or economic costs they will incur from target reactions to group attacks. (pp130, 133)

Carter argues that the experience of the Jammu  and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) is typical:

The JKLF, who had come to rely on a privileged basing arrangement and support from Pakistan, suffered considerably from actions taken by Pakistan that undercut the group. In fact, the group’s leadership even accused Pakistan of providing information about its whereabouts to Indian security forces. The group was successfully eliminated by Indian forces in 1996. (p130)

One of the most interesting arguments:

Cooperating by providing information can help avoid a military strike or can even increase the precision of target military strikes and decrease the physical, economic, or political damage the sponsor experiences. (p134)

This seems persuasive, until you see the example supplied (an excerpt from the New York Times):

Increasingly, the Americans say, senior leaders in Pakistan, including the chief of its army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, have gradually come around to the view that they can no longer support the Taliban in Afghanistan. (p134)

Those tracking the US-Pakistan relationship will find this interpretation … unpersuasive.

Anyway, how does the model hold up when tested against the data? Carter looks at 648 groups, of which 244 were still active as of 2006, 377 eliminated, and just 27 ‘victorious':

In contrast to the results for sponsorship without safe haven, sponsorship with a safe haven does not significantly decrease the probability of failure by internal dissolution in either model … Furthermore … sponsorship without safe haven does not significantly affect the probability of target elimination. The results provide considerable evidence that receiving sponsorship with safe haven is not helpful to a group’s prospects. (p145)

So, two things: groups do benefit from safe havens – just not ones actively provided by a sponsor; and groups do benefit from sponsorship – just not when it’s supplemented with safe havens.


Does military action help in eliminating a group?

The finding that target initiation of a MID [militarized interstate dispute i.e. belligerent act] against the sponsor increases the risk the group is eliminated by 176 percent suggests that target states enjoy some measure of success in putting pressure on sponsored groups. Conversely, target states that are embroiled in civil wars are 90 percent less likely to forcefully eliminate a group. (p147)

Curiously, India is cited as an example of a state embroiled in civil wars on the basis of its multiple internal insurgencies.


All in all, I’m not persuaded by the causal mechanism. The US-Pakistan case actually suggests something completely different: if the client is important enough, the sponsor will carefully calibrate the quantity and nature of the information they provide so as to stave off pressure on themselves but ensure long-term group integrity.

And, in fact, the intelligence relationship can be subverted by the sponsor for their own ends. Matthew Aid, in Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror, describes this pattern in great detail:

Beginning in the fall of 2007, several of the joint CIA-ISI intelligence operations in the FATA went horribly wrong. Sensitive intelligence information that the CIA was giving to the ISI on al Qaeda and the Taliban activities in the FATA was found to be somehow leaking to the enemy, resulting in a number of CIA clandestine intelligence collection operations being compromised and agents either being killed or disappeared without a trace … CIA officials were convinced that the targets of the [drone] strikes had been compromised from the inside, with the leaks appearing to come from the very top of the ISI.  (pp108-9)

In fact:

Only in the past three years has the US intelligence community somewhat reluctantly come to the conclusion that the Pakistani government’s unwillingness to help the United States combat the Taliban was a deliberate act of national policy. (p110)

But you can’t argue with the numbers:

when a group relies upon its sponsor for safe haven the probability of target elimination is 114% greater than if the group does not (and has never had) sponsorship. (p145)

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