Chapter 3: State Sponsors of Terrorism

Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism
April 30, 2009

State sponsors of terrorism provide critical support to non-state terrorist groups. Without state sponsors, terrorist groups would have greater difficulty obtaining the funds, weapons, materials, and secure areas they require to plan and conduct operations. The United States will continue to insist that these countries end the support they give to terrorist groups.

Sudan continued to take significant steps towards better counterterrorism cooperation. Iran and Syria have not renounced terrorism or made efforts to act against Foreign Terrorist Organizations and routinely provided safe haven, substantial resources, and guidance to terrorist organizations. Cuba continued to publicly defend the FARC and provide safe haven to some members of terrorist organizations, though some were in Cuba in connection with peace negotiations with the Governments of Spain and Colombia.

On October 11, the United States rescinded the designation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) as a state sponsor of terrorism in accordance with criteria set forth in U.S. law, including a certification that the Government of North Korea had not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period and the provision by the government of assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.

State Sponsor: Implications

Designating countries that repeatedly provide support for acts of international terrorism as state sponsors of terrorism imposes four main sets of U.S. Government sanctions:

1. A ban on arms-related exports and sales.

2. Controls over exports of dual-use items, requiring 30-day Congressional notification for
goods or services that could significantly enhance the terrorist-list country's military
capability or ability to support terrorism.

3. Prohibitions on economic assistance.

4. Imposition of miscellaneous financial and other restrictions, including:

  • Requiring the United States to oppose loans by the World Bank and other international financial institutions;
  • Exception from the jurisdictional immunity in U.S. courts of state sponsor countries, and all former state sponsor countries (with the exception of Iraq), with respect to claims for money damages for personal injury or death caused by certain acts of terrorism, torture, or extrajudicial killing, or the provision of material support or resources for such acts;
  • Denying companies and individuals tax credits for income earned in terrorist-list countries;
  • Denial of duty-free treatment of goods exported to the United States;
  • Authority to prohibit any U.S. citizen from engaging in a financial transaction with a terrorist-list government without a Treasury Department license; and
  • Prohibition of Defense Department contracts above $100,000 with companies in which a state sponsor government owns or controls a significant interest.


Although Cuba no longer actively supports armed struggle in Latin America and other parts of the world, the Cuban government continued to provide safe haven to several terrorists. Members of ETA, the FARC, and the ELN remained in Cuba during 2008, some having arrived in Cuba in connection with peace negotiations with the governments of Spain and Colombia. Cuban authorities continued to publicly defend the FARC. However, on July 6, 2008, former Cuban President Fidel Castro called on the FARC to release the hostages they were holding without preconditions. He has also condemned the FARC's mistreatment of captives and of their abduction of civilian politicians who had no role in the armed conflict.

The United States has no evidence of terrorist-related money laundering or terrorist financing activities in Cuba, although Cuba has one of the world’s most secretive and non-transparent national banking systems. Cuba has no financial intelligence unit. Cuba’s Law 93 Against Acts of Terrorism provides the government authority to track, block, or seize terrorist assets.

The Cuban government continued to permit some U.S. fugitives—including members of U.S. militant groups such as the Boricua Popular, or Macheteros, and the Black Liberation Army to live legally in Cuba. In keeping with its public declaration, the government has not provided safe haven to any new U.S. fugitives wanted for terrorism since 2006.


Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism. Iran’s involvement in the planning and financial support of terrorist attacks throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Central Asia had a direct impact on international efforts to promote peace, threatened economic stability in the Gulf, and undermined the growth of democracy.


The Qods Force, an elite branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is the regime’s primary mechanism for cultivating and supporting terrorists abroad. The Qods Force provided aid in the form of weapons, training, and funding to HAMAS and other Palestinian terrorist groups, Lebanese Hizballah, Iraq-based militants, and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

Iran remained a principal supporter of groups that are implacably opposed to the Middle East Peace Process. Iran provided weapons, training, and funding to HAMAS and other Palestinian terrorist groups, including Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). Iran’s provision of training, weapons, and money to HAMAS since the 2006 Palestinian elections has bolstered the group’s ability to strike Israel. In 2008, Iran provided more than $200 million in funding to Lebanese Hizballah and trained over 3,000 Hizballah fighters at camps in Iran. Since the end of the 2006 Israeli-Hizballah conflict, Iran has assisted Hizballah in rearming, in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.

Iran’s IRGC Qods Force provided assistance to the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Qods Force provided training to the Taliban on small unit tactics, small arms, explosives, and indirect fire weapons. Since at least 2006, Iran has arranged arms shipments including small arms and associated ammunition, rocket propelled grenades, mortar rounds, 107mm rockets, and plastic explosives to select Taliban members.


Despite its pledge to support the stabilization of Iraq, Iranian authorities continued to provide lethal support, including weapons, training, funding, and guidance, to Iraqi militant groups that targeted Coalition and Iraqi forces and killed innocent Iraqi civilians. Iran’s Qods Force continued to provide Iraqi militants with Iranian-produced advanced rockets, sniper rifles, automatic weapons, and mortars that have killed Iraqi and Coalition Forces as well as civilians. Tehran was responsible for some of the lethality of anti-Coalition attacks by providing militants with the capability to assemble improvised explosive devices (IEDs) with explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) that were specially designed to defeat armored vehicles. The Qods Force, in concert with Lebanese Hizballah, provided training both inside and outside of Iraq for Iraqi militants in the construction and use of sophisticated IED technology and other advanced weaponry.

Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al-Qa’ida members it has detained, and has refused to publicly identify those senior members in its custody. Iran has repeatedly resisted numerous calls to transfer custody of its al-Qa’ida detainees to their countries of origin or third countries for trial. Iran also continued to fail to control the activities of some al-Qa’ida members who fled to Iran following the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Senior IRGC and Qods Force officials were indicted by the Government of Argentina for their alleged roles in the 1994 terrorist bombing of the Argentine Israel Mutual Association which, according to the Argentine State Prosecutor’s report, was initially proposed by the Qods Force.


Sudan remained a cooperative partner in global counterterrorism efforts. During the past year, the Sudanese government continued to pursue terrorist operations directly involving threats to U.S. interests and personnel in Sudan. Sudanese officials have indicated that they view their continued cooperation with the United States as important and recognize the benefits of U.S. training and information-sharing. Though the counterterrorism relationship remained solid, some hard-line Sudanese officials continued to express resentment and distrust over actions by the USG and questioned the benefits of the bilateral cooperation. Their assessment reflected disappointment that Sudan's counterterrorism cooperation has not resulted in its removal from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Nonetheless, there was no indication at year’s end that the Sudanese government will curtail its counterterrorism cooperation with the United States.

Al-Qa’ida (AQ)-inspired terrorist elements, and elements of both Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and HAMAS remained in Sudan. In light of the continuing hybrid UN-AU deployment to Darfur, various terrorist threats against this mission have emerged, and AQ leadership has called for “jihad” against UN forces in Darfur. In the early hours of January 1, 2008, attackers in Khartoum sympathetic to AQ shot and fatally wounded two U.S. Embassy staff members – an American and a Sudanese employee – both of whom worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Sudanese authorities cooperated closely with the USG in investigating this terrorist crime. On February 1, five alleged conspirators were arrested and put on trial for murder on August 31. Their trial was ongoing at year’s end. Other extremist groups also have threatened attacks against Western interests in Sudan. The July 14 request by International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo for an arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges related to atrocities committed in Darfur has further inflamed tensions. Therefore, the terrorist threat level remained critical in Khartoum and Darfur, and potentially other parts of Sudan.

Elements of designated terrorist groups remained in Sudan. With the exception of HAMAS, whose members the Sudanese government consider to be “freedom fighters” rather than terrorists, the government does not appear to openly support the presence of extremist elements. We note, however, that there have been open source reports that arms were purchased in Sudan's black market and allegedly smuggled northward to HAMAS.

The Sudanese government has prevented foreign fighters from using Sudan as a logistics base and transit point for extremists going to Iraq. However, gaps remained in the Sudanese government's knowledge of and ability to identify and capture these individuals. There was evidence to suggest that individuals who were active participants in the Iraqi insurgency have returned to Sudan and were in a position to use their expertise to conduct attacks within Sudan or to pass on their knowledge. There was also evidence that Sudanese extremists continued to participate in terrorist activities in Somalia, which the Sudanese government has also attempted to disrupt.


Syria was designated in 1979 as a state sponsor of terrorism. Syria provided political and material support to Hizballah and allowed Iran to use Syrian territory as a transit point for assistance to Hizballah. HAMAS, Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP), and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), among others, based their external leadership within Syria's borders. The Syrian government insisted these groups were confined to political and informational activities, but groups with leaders in Syria have claimed responsibility for deadly anti-Israeli terrorist attacks.

Over the course of the year, Syria's public support for the Palestinian groups varied, depending on Syrian national interest and international pressure. President Bashar al-Asad continued to express public support for Palestinian terrorist groups. HAMAS Politburo head and defacto leader Khalid Meshal and his deputies continued to reside in Syria. Syria provided a safe haven for Meshal and security escorts for his motorcades. Meshal's use of the Syrian Ministry of Information as the venue for press conferences this year could be taken as an endorsement of HAMAS's message. Media reports indicated HAMAS used Syrian soil to train its militant fighters. Though the Syrian government claimed periodically that it used its influence to restrain the rhetoric and activities of Palestinian groups, the Syrian government allowed a Palestinian conference organized by HAMAS, PFLP-GC, and PIJ to occur in January, and another HAMAS organized conference, reportedly funded by Iran, to take place in November.

Highlighting Syria's ties to the world's most notorious terrorists, Hizballah Operations Chief Imad Mugniyah, perished in a February 12 car bombing near Syrian Military Intelligence (SMI) headquarters in the Damascus neighborhood of Kafr Sousa. Among other atrocities, Mugniyah was wanted in connection with the 1983 bombings of the Marine barracks and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, which killed over 350. Despite initial attempts to cover up the incident, the Syrian government reluctantly acknowledged some days later that one of the world's most wanted terrorists had been present and died on Syrian soil.

Syrian officials publicly condemned some acts of terrorism, while continuing to defend what they considered to be legitimate armed resistance by Palestinians and Hizballah against Israeli occupation of Arab territory, and by the Iraqi opposition against the "occupation of Iraq." Syria has not been directly implicated in an act of terrorism since 1986, although an ongoing UN investigation into the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri continued to investigate Syrian involvement.

Syria itself was the location of at least one major attack. On September 27, the car-bombing of a Syrian government facility reportedly injured 14 and killed at least 17 individuals, marking the first significant attack against regime institutions in nearly 20 years. Not since the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the early 1980s had Syrian institutions been targeted by terrorists. Regional media reports indicated this bombing was directed at the Palestinian Branch of the Syrian Military Intelligence; the perpetrators remained unknown at year’s end.

Throughout the year, Syria continued to strengthen ties with fellow state sponsor of terrorism, Iran. Syria's Minister of Defense visited Tehran in May and initiated a Memorandum of Understanding on defense cooperation. Syria also allowed leaders of HAMAS and other Palestinian groups to visit Tehran. President Asad repaid a 2007 visit to Damascus by Iranian President Ahmadinejad with a visit of his own to Tehran in early August, his third visit since 2005. Asad continued to be a staunch defender of Iran's policies, including Iran's "civil" nuclear ambitions.

Syria increased border monitoring activities, instituted tighter screening practices on military-age Arab males entering its borders, hosted two Border Security Working Group meetings with technical experts from the Iraqi Neighbors group, and expressed a desire to increase security cooperation with Iraq. At the same time, Syria remained a key hub for foreign fighters en route to Iraq.

The USG designated several Iraqis residing in Syria and Iraqi-owned entities, including Mishan Al-Jaburi and his satellite television channel Al-Ra'y, under Executive Order 1348 for providing financial, material, and technical support for acts of violence that threatened the peace and stability of Iraq. The United States also designated known foreign fighter facilitators based in Syria, including members of the Abu Ghadiyah network, that orchestrated the flow of terrorists, weapons, and money from Syria to al-Qa’ida in Iraq, under Executive Order 13224.

Despite acknowledged reductions in foreign fighter flows, the scope and impact of the problem remained significant. Syria continued to allow former Iraqi regime elements to operate in the country. Attacks against Coalition Forces and Iraqi citizens continued to have a destabilizing effect on Iraq's internal security. Though Syrian and Iraqi leaders met throughout the year both publicly and privately to discuss border enhancements and other measures needed to combat foreign fighter flows, there were few tangible results. While Syria has taken some positive steps, the Syrian government could do more to interdict known terrorist networks and foreign fighter facilitators operating within its borders.

Syria remained a source of concern regarding terrorist financing. The Commercial Bank of Syria remained subject to U.S. sanctions. Industry experts reported that 70 percent of all business transactions were conducted in cash and that nearly 90 percent of all Syrians did not use formal banking services. Despite Syrian governmental legislation requiring money-changers to be licensed by the end of 2007, many money-changers continued to operate illegally in Syria's vast black market, estimated to be as large as Syria's formal economy. Regional "hawala" networks remained intertwined with smuggling and trade-based money laundering, facilitated by notoriously corrupt customs and immigration officials, raising significant concerns that Syrian government and business elites are, at the very least, complicit in illicit financing schemes.

Syria's government-controlled press continued to tout Syrian regime efforts to combat terrorism. The Syrian government, using tightly-controlled press outlets, was quick to blame a Lebanon-based, al-Qa’ida-affiliated group, Fatah al-Islam, for the September 27 attack against a prominent military intelligence installation. Syrian TV broadcasted a November 7 program featuring the confessions of some 20 Fatah al-Islam members, including the daughter and son-in-law of Fatah al-Islam leader Shakr al-Absy, of their involvement.

It remained unclear why Fatah al-Islam would have launched an attack against Syrian security elements, but media reports suggested Absy's disappearance inside of Syria as a possible motive. In response to the September 27 bombing, the Syrian security services conducted at least one reported raid on an alleged terrorist cell residing in the Damascus area, killing and arresting several suspected militants and confiscating a cache of weapons and explosives.