A proxy war is one that is instigated by a major power, but, that power does not itself become involved. Proxies, and the consequence of proxy wars, have presented serious dangers in our modern world. Intelligence agencies must learn to understand the implications of post-Cold War support for insurgents. Proxies and their support for insurgencies have transformed into a process of sponsorship for terrorism. Although it is understood that great powers were seeking spheres of influence in the global arena during the Cold War, and used proxies to advance their influence, it is less understood that this practice slowly transformed into state-sponsored terrorism.
For instance, it is understood that Iran sponsored Hezbollah in Lebanon, and in response Pakistan supported al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan to destabilize regional powers politically, economically, and militarily. It is understood that the United States of America sponsored anti-Baathist groups in Iraq and Syria, while Russia, on the other hand, provided support to opposition groups in the wider Middle Eastern region. It is less understood that these situations worsened when state-sponsored insurgencies around the world became monsters against their own masters. To illustrate, during the Cold War, the world’s strongest democracy, the United States of America, armed, trained and funded Osama bin Laden, who led the Afghan-Mujahedin to fight against the Soviet Union. Eventually bin Laden turned against the United States and transformed into the enemy. A similar analogy appears when the world’s largest democracy, India, armed, trained and funded Veluppillai Pirabhakaran, who led the Tamil Tigers to fight against the Sri Lankan government. Eventually, Pirabhakaran made a “U-turn” and ordered his cadres to fight against the Indian troops. India lost over 1000 troops as a result. Moreover, this culminated in the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. All in all, insurgencies transform into terrorist organizations as a result of the support and sponsorship of their proxy masters.
Proxies are particularly concerning because interference is often motivated by a nation’s self-interest, absent a regard for future implications. For example, the Tamil Tigers were armed, trained, and funded by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s foreign intelligence agency in the early 1980s. India’s proxy-rationale was governed by the hope that, in controlling the insurgency, they would be able to pressure the Sri Lankan government into making concessions for the Tamils and be able to pressure the Tamil militants into accepting the concessions (Richards, 2014:15). Later, the Tamil Tigers were trained by the Israeli secret service Mossad. Mossad’s nexus to the Tamil Tigers was further corroborated by ex-Mossad intelligence officer Victor Ostrovsky and his book, “By Way of Deception.” Richards, in her paper, “An Institutional History of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)”, provides a detailed account for the historical institutionalization of the Tamil Tigers as one of the most sophisticated groups ever assembled.
The present day Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) is an offspring of al Qaeda; and al Qaeda is an offspring of the Afghan Mujahedin and Taliban. As noted earlier, the United States of America, as a proxy sponsor, created the Afghan Mujahedin to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Therefore, what happened on 9/11 and the subsequent wars on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq are interconnected and ultimately a devastating byproduct and extension of the post-Cold War proxy wars.
According to various defectors and seized al Qaeda documents, all terrorist organizations have learned their tactics and techniques from their masters. Waldman (2010), from Harvard University, explains that the relationship between nations’ security agencies and insurgents moves far beyond contact and co-existence. In fact, nations’ support and sponsorship sustains and strongly influences the movement. (Waldman 2010: 1)
The following is a more recent example of how nation-state support for insurgencies produces terrorist organizations. The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism at George Mason University reported that the “Emni”, the intelligence apparatus of the present day Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), learned its modus operandi and inner workings from the former Iraqi Security forces of Saddam Hussein. The report explains that “one of the many things that multiple defectors described were the many Iraqi Baathists leading the organization, even in Syria, who had brought with them the tradecraft and totalitarian intelligence operations they had practiced in Saddam Hussein’s government.” (2016: 3) This illustrates the degree of threat and danger involved in training insurgents.
Intelligence-gathering is, by its very nature, a difficult task, but of utmost importance. Terrorist organizations are extremely cautious when recruiting their agents and informants. Most of the time they tend to cultivate personnel from the same religious or ethno-nationalist groups who show potential for accessing enemy targets. For every member hired, each must undergo an extensive background check. The organization focuses on the individual’s profile, including his/her character, vulnerabilities, and motivation to assess if he/she is the right person for the job.
Recruits must go through a special training period to acquire the skills necessary to perform assigned tasks. These include specific techniques in espionage, called “tradecraft,” and could include such specialties as agent-handling, covert communication, counter-interrogation, reconnaissance, coding and decoding, drawing maps, photography, martial arts, and linguistic skills. Once a recruit completes the tradecraft and skill-training period, the handlers assess each recruit, keeping the individual’s potential and background in mind, to confirm whether he/she is fit to become an agent or informant. This recruitment process greatly resembles that of professional military and intelligence agencies, thereby illustrating how terrorist organizations adopt and apply the training and intelligence they have received from nation-states’ formal intelligence cadres.
Before spies and informants are assigned to a mission, they are instructed on every single detail of the target. Informants must learn about the specific physical environment beforehand so that they can easily provide updates on selected targets. To make this task easier, many organizations prefer to hire refugees, students, and government employees working in the area, selecting them carefully after identifying and confirming their potential usefulness, because they have already spent years within that environment and have become an integral part. Their social and human capital is recognized as a valuable human resource. Thus, in conclusion, global powers, including but not limited to America, Russia, China, India and their intelligence agencies, have always supported insurgencies around the world as a method of proxy war to achieve their own supposed national and international interests. Unfortunately, not enough attention has shown how the sloppiness of how those proxy wars tend to end often leads to insurgencies transforming into terrorist organizations. Even more disturbing, these newly born terrorist organizations are focused not on old enemies but on their former proxy masters. Therefore, global powers should be held accountable and learn from their mistakes by not engaging in state-sponsored insurgencies in the future. The cost far outweighs the benefits.