Afghan graveyard: Spc. Jon Saladin, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, walks past an Afghan graveyard during a U.S. – Afghan patrol April 30, 2012, Ghazni province, Afghanistan.
Image: Flickr/U.S. Army
By Simeone Miller
Twenty-two years ago, the United States initiated the Global War on Terror. Since then, the U.S. government has enacted significant reforms to develop a more robust counter-terrorism bureaucracy through the interagency process. The government designed these reforms not only to pursue Salafi-Jihadists responsible for 9/11 but to combat international terrorism more broadly. They have also been successful from a tactical level, with al-Qaeda becoming weakened by increased successive strikes against the organization’s leadership.
These strikes have pushed Salafi-Jihadist actors underground or toward local conflicts less relevant to U.S. interests. Nonetheless, this does not suggest that the international terrorist threat has dissipated or will remain a significant U.S. policy focus in this new era of strategic competition between great powers.
With strategic competition, there will be an increase in state-sponsored terrorism. Therefore, our security infrastructure must again reinvent itself to fight non-state actors backed by rising superpowers, who will capitalize on regional instability and geopolitical revisionism.
Terror during the Cold War
To understand the dangers of this concerning resurgence, we must remember that state-sponsored terrorism during strategic competition has important historical precedents dating back to the Cold War.
As part of its “active measures” strategy, the Soviet Union leveraged the global phenomena of anti-Americanism and the emergence of the New Left, which perceived America as a violent and rampant warmonger. This tactic effectively drew the Soviets closer to several armed militant groups, such as the Viet Cong in North Vietnam. As Soviet intelligence agencies provided these groups with funding and arms, they were able to launch attacks against civilians and military targets alike. In retaliation, the United States often responded by supporting similar armed groups in South Vietnam who kidnapped, tortured, and assassinated civilians without affiliation with the Viet Cong.
Of the many other armed militant groups that received Soviet support, the most proactive and well-known was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). With the support of the KGB, these organizations were responsible for high-profile plane hijackings and the raid on the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)’s office in Austria. Even though these groups were ineffective in weakening Israel, they sowed discord and inspired similarly-minded resistance groups, such as Hamas, which represents the current government in the Gaza Strip.
In South Asia, strategic competition did not strictly amplify state-sponsored terrorism. Instead, a mini-cold war that had existed between Afghanistan and Pakistan, whose support for a growing Pashtun nationalist movement, which Kabul increasingly saw as a significant threat, amplified it. In response to this, Afghan Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud Khan’s government leveraged the intelligence, military, and economic assistance of the U.S.S.R. to stage terrorist attacks in Pakistan. One of the most high-profile instances was a campaign of bombings initiated in northwestern Pakistan by the Afghan secret service in the 1980s. Some U.S. intelligence sources would later suggest that Russia’s KGB supported KHAD operatives, who were not allowed to operate without guidance from their Soviet counterparts.
These historical applications show that state-sponsored terrorism is not just used to diminish a state’s capabilities or afford plausible deniability, as is frequently asserted. More often than not, state-sponsored terrorism is a method for states to export their influence and avoid direct military conflicts.
State-Sponsored Terrorism Today
As the Cold War concluded, the frequency of state-sponsored terrorism had declined sharply with the emergence of the global jihadist movement in 1988 and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in the following year. The few states that allegedly continued to engage in these activities were countries such as India and Pakistan, which continuously employ them to diminish each other’s military capabilities and influence in Afghanistan. This pattern could return as the region wrestles with the consequences of the U.S. withdrawal from the now-Taliban-ruled country.
Although India and Pakistan have supported terrorism in the past, they are less often seen by Americans as terrorism sponsors in a post-9/11 world–despite Pakistani links to various major terror networks. In the last few decades, Americans have understood state-sponsorship of terrorism as a cornerstone of Iranian foreign policy. Within the Middle East, Iran has most prominently supported an array of Palestinian terror organizations, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shi’a militias in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion. Abroad, Iran, through Hezbollah, has allegedly supported narco-traffickers and militant groups in Latin America, including FARC. This support has likely become a heightened concern for U.S. policymakers with reports that Iran has increasingly formulated more brazen plans to assassinate former and current U.S. officials and initiate kidnapping campaigns, including against American journalists in the Western hemisphere.
However, while Iran has shown a commitment to sponsoring terrorist attacks in the West, it may no longer be alone in the coming years. Indeed, there has been renewed debate about the Russian Federation’s willingness to support international terrorism. As many analysts have pointed out, Moscow’s inability to militarily succeed in Ukraine has prompted concern among analysts that Putin has approved strikes against Western targets as a way to not only deter support for Kyiv but also draw Western attention to more direct threats. U.S. officials have similarly echoed these concerns that Russia may rely on proxies such as the Wagner Group to ramp up violence in Africa and Europe, where U.S. civilian and military personnel may increasingly come under threat and require additional support. Consequently, this is a significant threat that will further stretch U.S. capabilities beyond what it can commit.
High Risks, Few Rewards
Terrorism, no matter the variety, is not a new threat to the United States. It has spent years developing a strong counter-terrorism bureaucracy that has improved over time with lessons learned from engagements against terrorists worldwide.
This experience will continue to prove useful as the United States develops its over-the-horizon counter-terrorism strategy. However, at the same time, the United States must be wary of a one-size-fits-all approach to over-the-horizon if the terrorist threat in question is state-sponsored.
Simple drone strikes against terrorist leadership may not work to weaken such actors as they have with al-Qaeda. If anything, drone strikes may bolster local constituencies to support these actors in anti-Western resistances against U.S. troops stationed in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.
Arguably, we have observed this phenomenon in Iraq, where paramilitary organizations such as the Popular Mobilization Units have become increasingly hostile since their leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2020. This reaction indicates the potential for increased retaliatory attacks against U.S. personnel and civilians operating in Iraq and other parts of the world where Iran may have proxies. Crucially, this could include regions tied to clear U.S. national interests, such as Latin America.
In this new era of counter-terrorism, the United States must consider policies that avoid these retaliatory risks. Rather, it should focus on a law enforcement and intelligence dynamic, both domestically and internationally. Domestically, the United States should work with local law enforcement and strengthen its security infrastructure along the U.S.-Mexico Border, which has long presented an opportunity for terrorists to infiltrate the country.
Internationally, the United States must work closely with its allies and partners to weaken state-sponsored terrorist organizations by crippling their support networks. The United States can collaborate on policy reforms and international legal frameworks to combat illicit financing, organized crime, and smuggling.
In sum, as the United States faces strategic competition, it must be prepared to respond to the likely increase of state-sponsored terrorism in the coming years. In doing so, it must be cognizant of the blowback of responding to these threats with either unconventional or conventional military force as it has with Salafi-Jihadist terrorists. In lieu, it should be restrained and develop alternative means to engage in the return of state-sponsored terrorism through diplomacy, law enforcement, and intelligence cooperation.
Simeone Miller is a Social Sciences and Globalization graduate student at California State University, San Bernardino. He previously served as a researcher at the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism and a Marcellus Policy Fellow at the John Quincy Adams Society. Opinions reflected in this piece are those of the author and do not reflect any position by California State University, San Bernardino or the California State University system.