State Sponsors of Jihadism: Learning the Hard Way
By Kamran Bokhari
In the short period of time since some Muslim states began to employ jihadists to further their domestic and foreign policy objectives — in the late 1970s and early 1980s — none of these states has been able to quit the relationship and remain unscathed. For various reasons, the once-symbiotic relationships between the governments of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and their jihadist proxies have turned adversarial, while in Syria's case the storm is brewing. In essence, the jihadists have come back to bite the hand that fed them.
An examination of the development of these relationships reveals a similar path. The security and intelligence apparatuses in each of these countries played the lead role in supporting these militant Islamist entities — in some cases even helping to create them. Over time, these intelligence agencies developed a considerable degree of influence among such groups, though the groups enjoyed significant influence within the security establishment as well.
For domestic reasons, most of these governments aligned themselves with religious extremist forces to consolidate their power and counter challenges from mainstream opposition forces. But more important, the alignment served to further the geopolitical objectives of the state in its region. In the beginning, such relationships tended to go well — until the state ceased to have a major use for the jihadist group or the group became too powerful to manage.
Normally, despite the ups and downs in the relationship between a country and its allied terrorist entity, the state maintains the upper hand. This is because, although their ideology and interests differ from those of the state, the jihadist groups depend on the state for their survival and prosperity.
The Afghanistan Legacy
Such equilibrium, however, exists as long as the affair remains limited to a one-on-one relationship between the state and its proxy, or only one or two neighboring states get involved. Over time, however, the explosive cocktail of religion and geopolitics has allowed Islamist militant nonstate actors to seek help from other like-minded groups outside their areas of operation, which has helped them consolidate their positions at home.
It all began with the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, when the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia supported Islamist rebels fighting the Moscow-backed Marxist stratocracy in Kabul.
For its part, Washington provided weapons and training to the insurgents it called "freedom fighters," while Riyadh funneled money to them and Islamabad provided logistical assistance. Moreover, these countries made a concerted effort to unite a broad range of Islamist groups. In the process, these groups — which until then had limited horizons — got their first real taste of transnationalism. Not only did the decade-long Afghan experience connect the groups, it also laid the foundation for a transnational network — one that later emerged as a global jihadist network, with al Qaeda as its vanguard.
Although by empowering the jihadists the Afghan venture altered the nature of the relationship between Muslim states and their nonstate proxies, many states continued to do business with their proxies. Even U.S.-led international pressure on countries — mostly Muslim ones — to abandon their sponsorship of terrorist entities was not serious enough to force the states to shut down these operations.
The Saudis continued to bankroll Arab legions fighting in Central Asia, South Asia, the Far East, the Caucasus and the Balkans. Pakistan continued to back the Afghan and Pakistani militant Islamist groups, with an eye on securing the now-infamous objective of "strategic depth" in Afghanistan. Islamabad also aimed to counter Indian military superiority by backing Kashmiri separatist groups. Yemen sought the help of jihadist forces to defeat Marxists in the 1994 civil war.
Meanwhile, the 1991 Persian Gulf War played a key role in creating friction between many of these states and their jihadist proxies. The falling out between Osama bin Laden and the Saudi royal family is a classic case. Jihadist groups by then had gained sufficient strength to begin asserting their autonomy, especially in areas where their ideologies and objectives clashed with those of their state patrons.
The evolving relationship between Islamist groups and Muslim states also had a direct impact on the domestic sociopolitical conditions in the concerned countries, which led to the rise of religious conservatives, radical Islamists and other extremist forces. A situation developed in which the very religious ideology the ruling elites had used to consolidate their hold on power was beginning to undercut the state. Because the Islamist militants did not completely turn against the state, however, the situation remained tenable.
Then came 9/11.
The attacks against the United States completely altered the global geopolitical landscape and forced governments in Islamabad, Riyadh, Sanaa and elsewhere to act against their jihadist allies. In the beginning, these Muslim governments tried to make do by simply convincing the Islamist groups to lie low. Some complied, though many others did not — because by then they had established autonomous operating environments and, more important, they had been emboldened by al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks.
The state patrons, then, were finding that many of their former proxies were going rogue, and that a realignment of the jihadist universe was taking place. Whereas many jihadist groups and factions in the past had "special" relationships with the state, they now found an ally in al Qaeda and its band of transnational jihadists. This pursuit of transnational objectives brought the jihadists in direct confrontation with states whose past relationships with the jihadists were motivated by national interest. The jihadists, in other words, represented no more than instruments through which governments could pursue their goals. Over time, especially during the period following the invasion of Iraq by the United States and its allies, these Muslim governments increased the pressure on the jihadists.
That said, the break between the jihadists and their patron governments was neither quick nor absolute, which explains why it took some time before the jihadists redirected their actions against the states that were responsible for their initial rise. Despite their growing distaste for their former patrons, the jihadists still needed to maintain operational links with their contacts inside the states' security and intelligence networks.
In many cases, intelligence operatives and security officers who had managed the jihadist groups sympathized with the newly shunned nonstate actors, giving the jihadists significant access to resources that helped them continue to operate — even under the global counterjihadist regime being imposed by the United States. Although some of these officials were purged and others were transferred, still others managed to balance their official duties with their sympathies to the jihadists. The Pakistani intelligence directorates, particularly the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), continues to be plagued by this problem, which would explain the jihadists ease in staging attacks against Pakistani security forces since the Musharraf government began operations against Islamist militant interests in the country's northwest.
Even though the official policy in these states now is based on the conviction that Islamist extremists and terrorists represent a grave national security threat — and the governments are mobilizing resources to counter the threat — to varying degrees, the jihadists have sufficiently penetrated the state systems to the point that they still can conduct business.
The fatal mistake governments make is that they try to distinguish between "good" and "bad" jihadists. For the Pakistanis, the Taliban in Afghanistan constitute a resistance movement, though they want the Taliban operating in Pakistan wiped out. Similarly, the Yemenis hunt down some al Qaeda-linked jihadists, but not those who form a crucial support base for the government of President Ali Abdallah Saleh or those who make up an integral part of Yemen's intelligence services. In the same way, the Saudis have undertaken a massive counterjihadist effort in the kingdom, though they still support jihadists in Iraq as a means of containing the rise of the Shia there — and, by extension, Iran.
However, maintaining an ambivalent policy toward jihadism, while tempting, can be deadly. From a policy point of view, it is easy to box jihadists into the neat categories of good and bad. In reality, however, the jihadist goal is to overthrow secular governments and establish Islamist states, which is why these states cannot hope to do business with jihadists and expect to maintain internal security and stability. Of course, different governments faced with varying domestic and foreign policy circumstances will have different levels of success.
The Unique Situations
Despite having the social, political and economic environment that is most conducive to jihadist activity, Saudi Arabia has been the most successful in combating jihadism. In an effort to undercut the Islamist militants, the kingdom's General Intelligence Directorate has skillfully made use of the same religious, tribal and financial channels that the jihadists use to stage attacks. It is not surprising, then, that the Saudis have been ahead of the curve since June 2004 and have managed to thwart attacks and launch successful pre-emptive strikes against jihadist personnel and infrastructure.
Since the beginning of the jihadist insurgency in the country, Riyadh's security forces have eliminated some half-dozen successive commanders of the kingdom's al Qaeda node. Much of the Saudi success can be attributed to the government's handle on the various cross sections of society. Moreover, the Saudis have had sufficient experience in dealing with rogue Islamist militants.
The kingdom's founder, King Abdel-Aziz bin Abdel-Rehman, successfully quashed the Ikhwan movement (not to be confused with the Muslim Brotherhood) when it began to threaten the interests of the state. The militant Wahhabi movement played a major role in King Abdel-Aziz's attempts to conquer most of modern-day Saudi Arabia in the early 1900s. But when the group wanted to expand its operations into Iraq (then under British control) — a move that threatened the interest of the king's British allies — and when it wanted to impose its own brand of Islamic law in the kingdom, King Abdel-Aziz had its members annihilated. Many decades later, in 1979, when the Kaba in Mecca was taken over by a militant Wahhabi group led by Juhayman al-Utaibi, the Saudis were again able to act against the group, even storming the Kaba to flush out the militants.
The situation in Yemen is not that bad either. Like Saudi Arabia, attacks still continue — most recently against energy-related targets — but what has helped the Yemenis is that a significant population in the country is Zaydi, an offshoot of the Shiite sect of Islam. Additionally, the Yemeni government is not supporting jihadists for foreign policy purposes, but to ensure domestic political stability. Thus, the jihadists do not engage in active combat. Nevertheless, the country sits on the crossroad of four major jihadist theaters — Iraq, Afghanistan/Pakistan, Somalia and Saudi Arabia — and the transnational elements from each arena could link up with the locals to create problems for Sanaa in the future.
By far, the most serious threat is that faced by Pakistan. There, the historic mullah-military alliance has fallen apart in recent months. In fact, in the wake of the operation against Islamabad's Red Mosque, the jihadists have taken off the gloves and declared war against the Pakistani state. While successive governments dating back to the country's creation in 1947 have used religious groups and the ulema class to standardize Pakistan's nationalism as one rooted in Islam, the 11-year rule (1977-88) of former military dictator President Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq played a crucial role in creating the Islamist Frankenstein. Though many governments before and after Zia flirted with Islamist actors to pursue foreign policy objectives, it was the Zia regime that empowered Islamists and mullahs at home.
In many ways, the current polarization of Pakistani society is the logical culmination of two competing views of the Pakistani state. Throughout their country's nearly 60-year history as a nation-state, Pakistanis have struggled over whether Pakistan was created to be an "Islamic" polity in which its majority Muslim population could live in accordance with its cultural norms as codified by state law, or whether its founders envisioned Pakistan as a secular state in which the Muslims of British India could safeguard their economic interests.
This situation continues to force the state's hand, and the government is attempting to gain control over the jihadists who are striking at the very security forces that nurtured them in the past. Therefore, given the magnitude of the problem, it is not surprising to see that many Pakistanis are beginning to wonder about the future survivability of their country. Pakistan is unlikely to become a failed state as a result of the social chaos and the weakening of the military-dominated establishment, but the country is headed for serious trouble. However, it is too soon to say whether Pakistan will face a situation like Algeria did in the 1990s, when some 200,000 people died before the government could contain the Islamist insurgency there, or whether it will encounter a more benign insurgency, like that in Egypt in the 1980s and 1990s.
Another state that has recently begun using jihadist elements to pursue its foreign policy objectives is Syria. The government not only has allowed jihadists to use Syrian territory as a conduit to Iraq, but also has in recent months redirected some of that traffic toward Lebanon in a bid to regain control of its smaller neighbor — control it lost in the storm that erupted after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
Syria in the 1970s became the first Arab state to face a serious challenge from homegrown jihadists, which is why former President Hafez al Assad decided to strike hard at Islamist forces in 1982 — an act that led to the killing of tens of thousands of people. The senior al Assad was motivated by the fact that his Alawite-Baathist regime was a minority government in a country where 85 percent of the population was Sunni. His son, President Bashar al Assad, however, is ignoring that statistic and is participating in a dangerous game of backing jihadists in Iraq and Lebanon. It will not be long before these same forces begin to threaten domestic security and stability in Syria, especially with Iraq exploding.
States that have exploited jihadists to further their own interests have derived some short-term benefits, but in the long run, these groups have come back to haunt their former sponsors — in some cases even threatening the security and stability of the state. In either creating or supporting these groups, the states tend to forget that their proxies will have their own agendas. Given their ideology and transnational links, jihadists groups have proven to be the most deadly proxies.