The Dangers of Cozying Up to Terrorists

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Fellow

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Fellow

This past February, the New York Times reported on a love affair gone sour. For months, Algeria had courted an Islamist warlord in Mali. The Algerians knew, as the Times put it, that he was “the leader of one of the militant Islamist groups holding northern Mali captive,” but they thought he was someone they could do business with. So they hosted him in one of Algiers’ best hotels and “closed their eyes” when members of his group entered Algeria to procure vital supplies.

But Iyad Ag Ghali didn’t repay the favor: Instead, he joined his fellow jihadis in an effort to conquer the rest of Mali, thereby sparking international intervention. That was exactly what Algeria had hoped to avoid, fearing, as one expert put it, that intervention would “create a mess” on its southern border. A few days later, the “mess” penetrated Algeria itself, when another radical Islamist group attacked a gas field, killing 48 people, in what it termed retaliation for Algeria’s decision to let French forces use its airspace.

Algeria is far from the first country to discover that cozying up to terrorists doesn’t pay. Indeed, the news in recent months has been one long string of object lessons in this truism. Consider just a few examples:

  • Pakistan for years nurtured various terrorist groups to wage a proxy war on India and bolster its position in Afghanistan. But in recent years, these groups have increasingly turned their fury on Pakistan itself, perpetrating hundreds of terror attacks that claimed thousands of victims. The situation has become so bad that even the Pakistani army, long the terrorists’ patron, has been forced to acknowledge reality: In its latest official doctrine, it for the first time lists Pakistani terrorists rather than India as the country’s greatest threat.

  • Hezbollah was once wildly popular in Syria, admired for its valiant “resistance” against Israel. Two years ago, a recent article in Al-Monitor noted, “Posters of Hassan Nasrallah, the organization’s charismatic secretary general, were everywhere. To many Syrians, he was ‘The Inspirer’.” But Nasrallah didn’t return the love: When the Syrian uprising began, he sent his fighters to join President Bashar Assad’s forces in slaughtering the opposition. Now, Syrians are burning his picture, and the Free Syrian Army is threatening to attack Hezbollah bases in Lebanon.

  • Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has a natural affinity for the Brotherhood’s Palestinian wing, Hamas. Thus one of its first acts after gaining power was to reopen the Gaza-Egypt border, which had been kept sealed by former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But in August 2012, just days after the grand opening, jihadis attacked an Egyptian army outpost in Sinai, killing 16 Egyptian soldiers. Egypt charged that some of the terrorists came from Gaza via Hamas-run smuggling tunnels while Hamas turned a blind eye, and demanded the extradition of three Gazan Palestinians whom it accused of abetting the attack. Angry Egyptians denounced the government for reopening the border, which was promptly resealed. Today, Egypt is working to shut down the smuggling tunnels by flooding them with sewage – a tactic Mubarak never dreamed of.

Nor are examples from farther back in time hard to find. In the 1980s, for instance, the United States spent billions of dollars arming the mujahideen in a successful bid to oust Soviet forces from Afghanistan. But by partnering with Islamic radicals, it ended up facilitating the creation of al Qaeda. The experience and contacts a young Osama Bin Laden gained recruiting and fund-raising for the mujahideen’s war allowed him the necessary contacts and money to create al Qaeda while the civil war that erupted in Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew culminated in the Taliban seizing power and providing sanctuary to Bin Laden.

Similarly, Israel’s 1993 agreement with Yasser Arafat allowed the PLO to set up self-governing enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza and import massive quantities of arms, ostensibly to crush Hamas, as then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin famously asserted. Instead, the autonomous Palestinian areas became hotbeds of anti-Israel terror. Within 30 months, Palestinians had killed more Israelis than they had in the preceding decade – and during the second intifada (2000-2005), Israel suffered more casualties from Palestinian terror than it had in the entire preceding 53 years.

That embracing a terrorist organization is like clasping a viper to one’s breast shouldn’t be surprising. People who are willing to indiscriminately murder men, women and children in support of their goals have clearly proven that the goal is more important to them than the identity of the victims; thus they aren’t likely to balk at murdering their erstwhile allies if doing so furthers these goals. And because the terrorists’ goals rarely coincide completely with those of the countries that support them, this can easily happen.

Pakistan, for instance, had an interest in fomenting violence in Kashmir as part of its longstanding rivalry with India, and this dovetailed nicely with Pakistani terrorists’ desire to slaughter infidels. But to Sunni terrorists, a Shi’ite, Ahmadi, Christian or secular Pakistani is no less an infidel than, say, an Indian Hindu. Hence the countless sectarian attacks Pakistan has endured in recent years may serve the terrorists’ goals no less than attacks on India do, even though they don’t serve Pakistan’s interests at all.

Similarly, Hezbollah’s main goal is serving Iran’s interests. That goal conformed well with Syrian popular sentiment as long as Iran’s interests consisted mainly of attacking Israel and keeping Lebanon under Syrian control. But today, Iran’s interests require keeping Assad in power, while Syrian rebels want him deposed. Thus Hezbollah’s goal is now best served by slaughtering the same Syrians who used to cheer it on.

In short, supporting terrorist organizations is a dangerous game, entailing a risk that their guns and bombs will someday be turned on you. Yet most of the world still hasn’t learned this lesson. Very few countries shun all terrorists without exception; most crack down on some terrorist organizations while maintaining good relations with others.

The European Union, for instance, declared Hamas a banned terrorist organization but so far refuses to do the same for Hezbollah, even as the latter has stepped up attacks on European soil: At most, it is considering blacklisting the organization’s military wing, a move with little practical impact, since the political wing would still be free to fund-raise and mobilize support in Europe.

Russia, despite an uncompromising war on Islamic terrorists at home, maintains warm relations with both Hezbollah and Hamas. Turkey wages war on the PKK but supports Hamas; it also supports radical Islamist groups among the Syrian opposition – a particularly dangerous gamble given that Syria is Turkey’s neighbor. Saudi Arabia has cracked down ruthlessly on al Qaeda at home, but joined with Qatar to arm the most extremist elements of the Syrian opposition.

America, to its credit, has generally been more consistent in opposing terrorists than most other countries. Yet it makes little effort to press its allies to join it in this policy: Turkey’s embrace of Hamas, for instance, hasn’t even elicited lip-service protests, while Europe’s stance on Hezbollah has provoked nothing beyond occasional rhetorical urgings that it reconsider its position.

Recent history, however, offers a good opportunity to make the case more forcefully, by making it clear that banning terrorist groups isn’t a favor to Washington, but in its allies’ own interests. As recent history amply demonstrates, those who work with terrorists may end up becoming their next victims.

Evelyn Gordon, JINSA Fellow, is a journalist and commentator writing in The Jerusalem Post and Commentary. For more information on the JINSA Fellowship program, click here.