Zakaria is wrong – Al Qaeda was state-sponsored

Fareed Zakaria mixes up his arguments in Newsweek (via Noah Shachtman) when he says “the danger is less that a state will sponsor a terror group and more that a terror group will sponsor a state—as happened in Afghanistan”

Stepping away from the partisan screaming going on these days, the 9/11 commission hearings and—far more revealing—the panel’s staff reports paint a fascinating picture of the rise of a new phenomenon in global politics: terrorism that is not state-sponsored but society-sponsored. Few in the American government fully grasped that a group of people without a state’s support could pose a mortal threat.

…Afghanistan housed Al Qaeda, and thus it was crucial to attack the country. But that was less a case of a state’s sponsoring a terror group and more one of a terror group’s sponsoring a state. [Newsweek]

The Taliban was supported by the Pakistani state, through its ‘state within a state’ intelligence organisation. The Taliban-state in turn provided safe haven, training facilities, manpower and support for Al-Qaeda. One would have expected someone with Zakaria’s background to point out that the Taliban was at best a surrogate for the Pakistani military establishment. Saudi Arabia’s government did play role in supporting the Taliban but in less obvious ways. (See Ahmed Rashid’s excellent book, The Taliban). The September 11 attacks were clearly a result of state-sponsored terrorism.

I asked an American official closely involved with counterterrorism about state sponsorship. He replied, “Well, all that’s left is Iran and to a lesser extent Syria, and it’s mostly directed against Israel. States have been getting out of the terror business since the late 1980s. We have kept many governments on the list of state sponsors for political reasons. The reality is that the terror we face is mostly unconnected to states.” [Newsweek]

Not only that, the United States kept many governments off the list of state sponsors for political reasons. Therein lies the biggest mistake in American counter-terrorism policy throughout the last decade. If the Clinton and the second Bush governments had honestly drawn these lists up 9/11 may have been averted. Everyone knew about Pakistan and the Al Qaeda connection – see for example Jessica Stern’s excellent article Foreign Affairs magazine in November 2000 – but no one confronted the challenge with the honesty it demanded.

Since 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan and the pressure on Musharraf, Al-Qaeda has been isolated from its erstwhile sponsors. However it is still in business, and until it has been completely defeated and the apparatus that nurtured it dismantled, it is too early to conclude that states have stopped sponsoring terrorism.

Related Links: Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had offered to assist American forces to get Bin Laden, but the plan was undermined by Musharraf. Subsequently, under American pressure, Musharraf himself met Mullah Omar in April 2000, but failed to convince him to expel Bin Laden, as did Prince Turki, the Saudi intelligence chief. But these gentlemen only put in kind words on behalf of the Americans. Kind words alone are not known to have observable effects on the behaviour of hardened terrorists.

Aziz Poonawalla agrees with Fareed Zakaria’s thesis, but using Iraq or the Axis of Evil nations to support the argument is misleading. There is no convincing argument yet to suggest that Al Qaeda was not a product of state-sponsorship of terrorism.