The Forgotten Concept of State Sponsored Terrorism

After federal prosecutors charged that Iranian officials were behind a plot to pay a gang of Mexican drug dealers $1.5 million to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador in Washington D.C., American officials expressed incredulity that the Iranian government would “cross the line” by sponsoring such a plot. Despite prima facie evidence of state sponsorship — including monitored telephone calls that traced directly back to officials of the covert action branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and state banking arrangements for the $1.5 million transfer — a “senior law enforcement official” (often code used for the FBI Director) told the New York Times that such a plot was inconsistent with Iran’s previous modus operandi and suggested that it might be a rogue operation not approved by the Iranian government. Anything is possible, but such a tortured explanation shows how far the concept of state-sponsored terrorism has fallen out of fashion in America.

That was not always the case. During the Cold War, the US government routinely assumed that the Soviet Union and other adversaries engaged sponsored covert actions including political assassination, embassy bombing, and airplane hijackings and hypothesized they used terrorist groups and criminal gangs to camouflage their sponsorship. The extent to which their intelligence services covertly employed terrorists from the Red Brigade, Baader-Meinhof Gang, and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine is now a matter of record. How these false flag operations worked is made abundantly clear in the brilliantly-researched miniseries on “Carlos The Jackal.” For two decades, Carlos (nee Ilich Ramerez Sanchez) was able to carry out dramatic terrorist operations because he had hidden state sponsorship for them.

Consider, for example, his kidnapping of the OPEC ministers in Vienna in 1975. The operation was conceived of and backed by Saddam Hussein. Iraq provided him with the weapons, explosives, and other equipment by using its diplomatic pouch to transport them to its Embassy in Vienna, as well as the false documentation and money he needed. It also arranged his escape to Algeria with his hostages. In other operations, he was assisted by Syria, Yemen, the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Sudan. Only when he lost this state sponsorship was he extradited from Sudan to France and arrested.

State sponsorship of terrorism did not end with the Cold War. As late as April 2001, the US designated seven governments — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, North Korea, and Sudan — as “state sponsors of international terrorism.” The US also cited Pakistan for its “support to terrorist groups and elements active in Kashmir,” as well as the Taliban, which it noted “continues to harbor terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda.” One reason that Iran headed the list was the FBI had concluded in 1999 that it used local Saudi terrorists to mask its role in killing 19 Americans with a giant truck bomb to blow up the US military residences at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996.

Bin Laden didn’t operate without state sponsorship prior to 9-11. In his jihad against Russian forces in Afghanistan, he was supported by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. After the Saudi broke with him in 1990, he was backed by Sudan and then, after 1996, by Afghanistan. In Taliban-run Afghanistan, he was able to used its Ariana Airlines to move weapons and personnel to the Emirates and Pakistan (which were staging bases for his terrorist operations). He may have also had a covert cooperation from Iran. The 9-11 Commission learned from CIA documents (only a few days before its report was due to be published) that the international travels of at least 8 of the hijackers who took part in the 9-11 attacks were “apparently facilitated” by Iran. These men were allowed to transit through Iran without their passports being stamped and without obtaining transit visas. If their passports had been stamped by Iran they may not have been permitted entry to the US. The Commission was unable to investigate the extent of Iranian support since its Report had to be shipped to the printers.

In light of the discovery of the Iranian false flag plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador, it may be useful to reconsider the concept of state sponsored of terrorism.

Editor’s note: you can get Epstein’s superb new e-book book here.


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