Modern Islamic terrorism was invented on September 9, 1970, when Palestinian hijackers blew up a commercial jet in Jordan. Very quickly, an alphabet soup of militant Islamic groups sprang up throughout the Middle East, particularly in areas housing Palestinian refugees. For the most part, these militant groups attacked either Israel, or Arab states that were not deemed sufficiently Islamic in the eyes of the insurgents.
War cannot be conducted without land. Each radical Islamic group established armed bases and safe houses within specific nations. Hamas and Hezbollah, for example, moved into Lebanon and parts of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Hamas was supported by Saudi Arabia; it also had financial sponsors in the United States and several other Western countries. Hezbollah was supported exclusively by Iran.
A Two-Layered Template
These terrorist cells thus became a virtual community of political groups layered on top of the community of nations: radical Islamic groups comprised the upper layer (Layer 1); the nations of the world comprised the lower (Layer 2). Some of the nations in Layer 2 were sponsor states: they supported one or more terrorist groups in Layer 1. At various times between 1970 and the present, the most important state sponsors of terrorism have been:
7. Saudi Arabia
This two-layer template was a good model for many years; but during the latter part of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union began to support insurgencies in the Middle East, too. (We did not refer to our clients as “terrorists,” but the Soviets may well have seen them as such.) Neither side wanted to be unmasked as a sponsor state. So both began to use other states as their proxies. These intermediate states then funneled money, weapons, and supplies from the United States and the Soviet Union to the insurgent groups.
A Three-Layered Template
We now had a world that was best understood with a three-layer template: At the lowest layer, Layer 3, the United States, the Soviet Union, and later Europe and China played the role of world powers. Directly above them, in Layer 2, were the sponsor states. Layered upon them, in turn, in Layer 1 were the terrorist groups.
It is well known that the world powers in Layer 3 competed with each other, and that often, the terror groups in Layer 1 competed, too. What escaped attention for a long time was that the sponsor states in Layer 2 were also competing; at stake was political leadership of the entire Islamic world. This rivalry was particularly intense among the Arabs: before radical Islam went global, it was known as Pan-Arabism. Its first aspiring leaders were:
• Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser.
• Libya's Mohmmar Qadaffi.
• Syria's Hafiz al-Assad.
• Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
Each of these heads of state attempted to seize leadership of the Arab world by armed aggression against Israel or other Arabs. None of them succeeded. (Israel defeated the combined Arab armies three times: in 1948, in 1967, and again in 1973.) By 1979, only big oil-rich nations could sponsor large Islamic terrorist groups in other lands. The only candidates for this role were Saudi Arabia and Iran. But Iran was ruled by the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was friendly to the West and cordial to Israel.
Therefore, before the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Saudi Arabia was the world's biggest sponsor of Muslim terrorism; it was the Saudis who funded the rise of fundamentalist Islam. The Saudi Arabians even payed to create dangerous radical mosques within the United States.
However, when Iran became a Muslim theocracy in 1979, it began to compete with the Saudis as the chief sponsor of Islamic terrorism. In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened to follow suit with Saudi Arabia, the Saudis had no choice but to call upon America. The royal family bankrolled the First Gulf War. (It cost $55 billion; we didn't pay a cent.) However, by inviting Western troops onto Arab soil, the Saudis alienated fundamentalist Muslims everywhere, and lost their control of Islamic terror. (It is likely that the Saudi government is still supporting Muslim terrorism, albeit to a lesser degree.)
In effect, then, the second layer of our three-layer template got swapped out, and replaced with a new version. In the old version, Saudi Arabia was the dominant state sponsor of terrorism; in the new one, it is Iran. (The other sponsor states have remained in the game, but in a greatly diminished role. So, for example, Syria is still supporting Islamic terrorists in Lebanon and Iraq; but increasingly, Syria is taking its orders from Iran.)
Iran, for all practical purposes, is now running Islamic terrorism world-wide. On September 15, 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accused Iran of being the world's largest exporter of terror; but she didn't quantify Iran's influence. In my view, Iran is now driving 90% of the world's Islamic terrorism.
The inhabitants of each layer of the three-layer template have their own bureaucracies and management structures, much like American corporations. These inhabitants are subject to friendly or hostile take-overs, mergers and acquisitions, and long or short-term alliances. This is especially true of the terror groups in Layer 1.
What has escaped attention for a long time is that once a state begins to sponsor a terrorist group, it can commandeer the activities of that group at will. This is usually counterproductive, since the whole point of the relationship is to mask the sponsor's identity; active participation by the sponsor in a terrorist plot leaves behind telltale evidence that can indict the sponsor later. However, from the viewpoint of the sponsor state, sometimes a project comes along that is irresistible.