Puppet Masters

Reviewed by Gary Sick
Sunday, January 22, 2006


States That Sponsor Terrorism

By Daniel Byman

Cambridge Univ. 369 pp. $30

From Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent to The 9/11 Commission Report , Amazon.com advertises more than 5,500 books dealing with terrorism. What could possibly remain to be said on the subject?

Quite a bit, actually. In Deadly Connections , Daniel Byman has carved out a topic that apparently has not received a major book-length treatment: the relationship between terrorist groups and states that support them. In an age where the transnational al Qaeda network has proven deadlier than terrorist organizations sponsored by such rogue countries as Syria, Iran and Iraq, this provides an opportunity for some original analysis. It also imposes some very confining boundaries.

This is a serious book, aimed primarily at those who study terrorism or work at trying to stop it. Byman, a Georgetown professor and Brookings Institution fellow, writes in a clear, readable style, with the barest minimum of jargon. But his book has all the charm of a Rand Corp. report (which is where at least some of the ideas originated).

The great strengths of Deadly Connections are Byman's careful, systematic dissection of the phenomenon of state-supported terrorism and his sober and reflective conclusions, drawn directly from the evidence. He offers no silver bullet but outlines a range of tactics -- including air strikes, economic sanctions, political isolation and backing for a regime's domestic foes -- that can be mixed and matched as needed, noting sensibly that "it is easier to stop state support for terrorism before it starts than to halt backing after it begins." But there is no original research here -- no personal interviews with terrorists or new investigative revelations about the inner politics of, say, Hezbollah, the radical Lebanese militia backed by Iran and Syria. Instead, Deadly Connections depends entirely on secondary literature, which Byman uses judiciously and with great intelligence.

When one writes about the notoriously elusive topic of terrorism, definitions are important. Byman doesn't want to glibly conclude (as Rand's Brian Jenkins put it) that "terrorism is what the bad guys do." He adopts a definition of terrorism -- politically motivated violence by subnational groups deliberately targeting noncombatants, designed to produce far-reaching psychological effects -- that is rigorous but in some ways more interesting for what it excludes. He does not consider actions by agents of the state itself to be terrorism. Nor does he include attacks on military or government officials engaged in counterterrorism.

Of course, there are good reasons to distinguish between Hezbollah's attacks on Israeli civilians and its guerrilla strikes against Israeli military forces. But Byman has a hard time sticking to his own definition. He adopts the State Department position that Iran is today "the most active state sponsor of terrorism," above all for backing Hezbollah. Yet he offers not a single piece of evidence of a terrorist act (i.e., excluding attacks on military targets) launched by Hezbollah after 1994. Nor does he attempt to square this decade-long silence with then deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage's 2003 claim that Hezbollah was the "A Team" of terrorism, in some ways more capable than al Qaeda.

Similarly, Byman writes that state-sponsored terrorism, despite its changing dynamics, "has become perhaps more important" over time. But every case study in the book concludes that rogue states have found support for terrorism exorbitantly costly and reduced or terminated their sponsorship of terrorist groups. Indeed, one could write a very different book using the same material to argue that the international community has succeeded remarkably well over the past several decades in reducing state-sponsored terrorism.

Obviously, states do support -- and will continue to support -- terrorist activities by one group or another, particularly if one includes passive backing by a government that looks the other way as a terrorist group uses its territory to raise money or recruit (a syndrome Byman tackles in his valuable chapter on Saudi Arabia's ties to al Qaeda, Greece's connection to the far-left Nov. 17 organization and the U.S. experience with the Provisional Irish Republican Army). So Deadly Connections , which assembles an impressive array of information on this important dimension of terrorism today, will have reason to be consulted as the most complete reference handbook on the subject. ยท

Gary Sick, a former National Security Council staff member for the Persian Gulf, directs the Gulf/2000 Internet project at Columbia University.

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