MESOPOTAMIA NEWS Research ArticleThe Limits of Ideologically-Unlikely Partnerships: Syria’s Support for Jihadi Terrorist Groups

Barak Mendelsohn – Received 10 Jun 2020, Accepted 12 Dec 2020, Published online: 04 Jan 2021


Why did Syria collaborate with al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch after 2003 and with ISIS during the Syrian civil war? States’ support for terrorist groups is risky, but cooperation with jihadi actors who see the Syrian regime as an enemy and wish to impose a radical Islamic rule in its stead is particularly dangerous. This paper argues that such ideologically-unlikely partnerships reveal the workings of the instrumental logic behind state-sponsored terrorism. Collaborating with terrorist groups is a rational strategy. States such as Syria will partner with ideologically-incompatible terrorist groups when they judge there to be a greater and more urgent threat from a third actor; when they believe the partnership would give them unique capabilities or produce special, otherwise unattainable effects; and when they believe they can shield themselves from the relationship’s potential adverse effects. The Syrian case also shows that such a pairing is likely to have limited utility. In order to have meaningful impact, the terrorist group must have a significant role, but the greater this role is, the higher the direct danger the group poses to its ally and the greater the likelihood of international action against the sponsoring state.


The author would like to thank the editor and the anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts. I also thank Aine Carolan and Nathaniel Kennedy for their immense help in conducting the research.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).


1 Keohane defines cooperation as actors’ adjustment of their behavior to the preferences of others, through a process of policy coordination, understood to benefit all the interests of all participating actors. See Robert Keohane, After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press). Although coordination carries the connotation of low-level cooperation, it is an element of cooperation nonetheless.

2 Security Council Resolution 1373, September 28, 2001, S/RES/1373 (2001).

3 Daniel Byman, Deadly Connections: States that Sponsor Terrorism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005)

4 Daniel Byman and Sarah Kreps, “Agents of Destruction? Applying Principal-Agent Analysis to State Sponsored Terrorism,” International Studies Perspectives 11:1 (2010), 1–18.

5 David Carter, “A Blessing or a Curse? State Support for Terrorist Groups,” International Organization 66 (2012), 281–312.

6 Byman, Deadly Connections.

7 Although jihadi groups share ideas such as the necessity of establishing Islamic rule, they may differ on other aspects such as who constitute legitimate targets. See, Thomas Hegghammer, “Jihadi Salafis or Revolutionaries? On Religion and Politics in the Study of Militant Islamism,” in Roel Meijer (ed.), Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 244–266.

8 Adam Gadahn (Azzam al-Amriki), “The Exploits of Muslims and Infamies of the Criminals,” al-Sahab, August 17, 2013.

9 Assaf Moghadam, Nexus of Global Jihad: Understanding Cooperation Among Terrorist Actors (NY: Columbia University Press, 2017), 195–221.

10 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “This is What Allah and His Messenger Had Promised,” SITE Intelligence Group, November 2, 2016.

11 Nada Bakos, The Targeter: My Life in the CIA, Hunting Terrorists and Challenging the White House (New York: Back Bay Books, 2019).

12 Jason Burke, Al Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror (London: I.B. Tauris, 2003).

13 Osama bin Laden, “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holiest Sites,” Combating Terrorism Center, 1996. AFGP-2002-003676.

14 Barak Mendelsohn, Combating Jihadism: American Hegemony and Interstate Cooperation in the War on Terrorism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009).

15 Security Council Resolution 1373.

16 For example, George W. Bush, “Address before a Joint Session of Congress,” CNN, September 20.

17 Barak Mendelsohn, Jihadism Constrained: The Limits of Transnational Jihadism and What It Means for Counterterrorism (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).

18 Francisco Gutierrez Sanin and Elisabeth Jean Wood, “Ideology in Civil War: Instrumental Adoption and Beyond,” Journal of Peace Research 51:2 (2014), 217–220.

19 Vera Mironova, From Freedom Fighters to Jihadists: Human Resources of Non-State Armed Groups (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 31–36.

20 James Fearon, “Domestic Political Audiences and the Escalation of International Disputes,” American Political Science Review 88:3 (1994), 577–592.

21 A group chooses ideology from existing cultural and ideational repertoire and depends, at least in their earlier stages, on some genuine ideologues. See Barbara Walter, “The Extremist Advantage in civil Wars,” International Security 42:2 (2017), 11–12; Sanin and Wood suggest that the adoption of ideology produces strong path-dependency dynamics and is thus “sticky.” See Sanín and Wood, “Ideology in Civil War,” 213–226.

22 Daniel Byman, “How States Exploit Jihadist Foreign Fighters,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 41:12 (2018), 933–938.

23 Aryan Baker, “Why Bashar Assad Won’t Fight ISIS,” Time, February 26, 2015.

24 The radicalism of ISIS led al-Qaeda to formally severe links. See, Qaedat al-Jihad – The General Command, “Al-Qaeda Disassociates from ISIL,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 3, 2014.

25 See UN list of terrorist groups established and maintained pursuant to Security Council res. 1267/1989/2253.

26 Michael Findley, James Piazza, and Joseph Young, “Games Rivals Play: Terrorism in International Rivalries,” The Journal of Politics 74:1 (2012), 236–238.

27 Justin Conrad, “Interstate Rivalry and Terrorism: An Unprobed Link,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 55:4(2011), 529–555.

28 Though there are some exceptions such as al-Qaeda’s support of the Taliban regime against the Northern Alliance. See Anne Sterensen, Al-Qaida in Afghanistan (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

29 Findley, Piazza, and Young, “Games Rivals Play,” 235–236.

30 Byman and Kreps, “Agents of Destruction?”; Byman, Deadly Connections.

31 Export Administration Act, PL 96-72, 50 U.S.C. App. 2405 (6) (j) (1979).

32 Security Council Resolution 1373.

33 Security Council Resolution 1373.

34 Security Council Resolution 1368, September 12, 2001, S/RES/1368 (2001). Chantal de Jonge Oudraat, “The Role of the Security Council,” in Jane Boulden and Thomas G. Weiss (eds.), Terrorism and the UN: Before and After 9/11 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 158–161.

35 Mendelsohn, Combating Jihadism, 99–102 and 188–192.

36 See, for example, the relationships between Pakistan and its jihadi collaborators: Christine Fair, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014).

37 Idean Salehyan, Rebels Without Border (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008), 53–55.

38 Carter, “A Blessing or a Curse?”

39 On how shared identity and ideology foster cooperation, see, for example, Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Relations (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Michael Barnett, “Identity and Alliances in the Middle East,” in Peter Katzenstein (ed.), the Culture of National Identity: Norms and Identity in World Politics (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1996), 400–447; and Emanuel Adler and Michael Barnett, Security Communities. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Note however that shared identity could also restrict states’ ability to discipline the nonstate actor.

40 Idean Salehyan, “The Delegation of War to Rebel Organizations,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 54:3 (2010), 493–515.

41 Moghadam, Nexus of Global Jihad, 104–116.

42 Tricia Bacon, Why Terrorist Groups Form International Alliances (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), 44–51.

43 Afshon Ostovar, “The Grand Strategy of Militant Clients: Iran’s Way of War,” Security Studies 28:1 (2019), 159–188.

44 Mendelsohn, Combating Jihadism, 63–88.

45 Sterensen, Al-Qaida in Afghanistan. The Taliban were fully aware of the risk given the sanctions imposed on Sudan for its support for the jihadis that tried to assassinate the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia in 1995 and which ultimately led Sudan to rid itself from bin Laden’s presence

46 Kristin Bakke, “Help Wanted? The Mixed Record of Foreign Fighters in Domestic Insurgencies,” International Security 38:4 (Spring 2014), 150–187.

47 Jeni Mitchell, “The Contradictory Effects of Ideology on Jihadist War-Fighting: The Bosnia Precedent,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 31 (2008), 808–828.

48 Bush, “Address before a Joint Session of Congress.”

49 CNN, “Bush Announces Opening of Attacks,” October 7, 2001.

50 Colin Powell, “Remarks to the United Nations Security Council,” The Department of State Archives, February 5, 2003.

51 Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Flight (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017); Robert Windrem, “Al-Qaeda Finds Safe Haven in Iran,” NBC News, June 24, 2005.

52 Charles Lister, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015), 53.

53 Der Spiegel, “Turkey’s Failed Anti-Extremism Strategy,” January 15, 2016; Aaron Stein, “The Islamic State in Turkey: A Deep Dive Into a Dark Place,” War on the Rocks, April 6, 2016.

54 Walter, “The Extremist’s Advantage in Civil War,” 28–29.

55 I assume that the overwhelming majority of states can assert themselves against terrorist groups, let alone avoid cooperating with these groups. This is so especially if the state is willing to embrace external help. That some regimes prioritize domestic constraints does not mean lack of ability but a choice these regimes find safer.

56 Intriguingly, states cooperating with white nationalists are less likely to suffer external consequences compared to those collaborating with jihadi groups.

57 Byman, Deadly Connections.

58 See also Daniel Byman, “Understanding, and Misunderstanding, State Sponsorship of Terrorism,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, DOI: 10.1080/1057610X.2020.1738682

59 Such cooperation conforms to what Assaf Moghadam calls “low-end cooperation. Moghadam, Nexus of Global Jihad, 97–120.

60 Al-Sahab, “The Reality Between the Pain and the Hope: Seventh Interview with Ayman al-Zawahiri,” May 2, 2014.

61 Sam Dagher, Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019), 209–212.

62 Gaith Abdul-Ahad, “Outside Iraq but Deep in the Fight,” Washington Post, June 8, 2005; Roy Gutman, “Assad Henchman: Here’s How We Built ISIS,” The Daily Beast, December 1, 2016.

63 Abdul-Ahad, “Outside Iraq but Deep in the Fight.”

64 US Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Designates Members of Abu Ghadiyah’s Network Facilitates Flow of Terrorists, Weapons, and Money from Syria to al Qaida in Iraq,” February 28, 2008.

65 Sean Naylor, “Killing Abu Ghadiya,” Foreign Policy, August 31, 2015.

66 Muhanad Mohammed, “Iraq al Qaeda Militant Says Syria Trained Him,” Reuters, August 30, 2009; Gutman, “Assad Henchman.”

67 Michael Gordon and Wesley Morgan, “The General’s Gambit: Petraeus Tried to Warn Assad about the Foreign Fighters in Iraq. Now They’re Coming for Him,” Foreign Policy, October 1, 2012.

68 Martin Chulov, “ISIS: The Inside Story,” The Guardian, December 11, 2014.

69 Naylor, “Killing Abu Ghadiya.”

70 James Denselow, “Iraq’s Ho Chi Minh Trail: The Syrian-Iraqi Border Since 2003,” CTC Sentinel 6:1 (2008).

71 Gutman, “Assad Henchman.”

72 It should be noted that even when the regime demonstrated interest in reducing the flow of foreign fighters through its border and into Iraq, the corruption plaguing Syrian society undermined the effort. Syrian officers and regular soldiers were susceptible to bribes which enabled continued (though weaker) border crossing.

73 Lister, The Syrian Jihad, 38–39.

74 Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman, “Becoming a Foreign Fighter: A Second Look at the Sinjar Records,” in Brian Fishman (ed.), Bombers, Bank Accounts & Bleedout: Al-Qa’ida’s Road In and Out of Iraq (West Point: Combating Terrorism Center, 2008); Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman, Al-Qa’ida’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records (West Point: Combating Terrorism Center, 2007). The number of fighters must be higher when also including other entry points into Iraq and all the years in which cooperation took place.

75 Gordon and Morgan, “The General’s Gambit.”

76 Lister, The Syrian Jihad, 33–34.

77 Lister, The Syrian Jihad, 40–41.

78 Gutman, “Assad Henchman.”

79 Gordon and Morgan, “The General’s Gambit.”

80 Gordon and Morgan, “The General’s Gambit.”

81 Bill Roggio, “US Strike in Syria “Decapitated” al Qaeda’s Facilitation Network,” Long War Journal, October 27, 2008.

82 Roggio, “US Strike in Syria “Decapitated” al Qaeda’s Facilitation Network.”

83 Alex Kingsbury, “Syrians ‘Clearly Have Harbored’ Al Qaeda in Iraq, Says U.S. General,” U.S. News & World Report, October 27, 2008.

84 Naylor, “Killing Abu Ghadiya.”

85 Ian Black, Martin Chulov, and Julian Borger, “We Will Defend Territory Against Attack, Vows Syria,” The Guardian, October 27, 2008.

86 Chulov, “ISIS: The Inside Story.”

87 Lister, The Syrian Jihad, 46.

88 Gutman, “Assad Henchman.”

89 Naylor, “Killing Abu Ghadiya;” Joel Rayburn, “Blowback” – Iraq Comes To Syria,” The Caravan, Hoover Institution, February 23, 2012.

90 Anonymous, “U.S. Cross-Border Raid Highlights Syria’s Role in Islamist Militancy,” CTC Sentinel 1:12 (2008).

91 Anonymous, “On the Ground from Syria to Iraq,” in Fishman (ed.), Bombers, Bank Accounts & Bleedout, 81–89.

92 Kingsbury, “Syrians ‘Clearly Have Harbored’ Al Qaeda in Iraq.”

93 Andrew Phillips, “How al-Qaeda Lost Iraq,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 63:1 (2009), 64–84.

94 Lister, The Syrian Jihad, 32–33.

95 Byman, Deadly Connections, 117–153.

96 Lister, The Syrian Jihad, 33.

97 Byman, Deadly Connections, 117.

98 Dagher, Assad or We Burn the Country, 136.

99 Gutman, “Assad Henchman.”

100 Dagher, Assad or We Burn the Country, 113, 190.

101 Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Build Nuclear Weapons (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016), 196–217.

102 Amos Harel and Aluf Ben, “No Longer a Secret: How Israel Destroyed Syria’s Nuclear Reactor,” Haaretz, March 23, 2018.

103 Dagher, Assad or We Burn the Country, 127.

104 Gutman, “Assad Henchman.”

105 Gordon and Morgan, “The General’s Gambit.”

106 Dagher, Assad or We Burn the Country, 128.

107 Dagher, Assad or We Burn the Country, 423–441.

108 Lister, The Syrian Jihad, 53.

109 Dagher, Assad or We Burn the Country, 337.

110 Roy Gutman, “How Assad Staged al Qaeda Bombings,” The Daily Beast, December 2, 2016. See also Dagher, Assad or We Burn the Country, 311–313.

111 Baker, Why Bashar Assad Won’t Fight ISIS.”

112 Roy Gutman, “How ISIS Returned to Syria,” The Daily Beast, December 5, 2016. ISIL was the name U.S. officials’ used instead of ISIS.

113 Gutman, “How ISIS Returned to Syria.”

114 Dagher, Assad or We Burn the Country, 430–431.

115 Dagher, Assad or We Burn the Country, 374, 416.

116 Dagher, Assad or We Burn the Country, 404–434.

117 Dagher, Assad or We Burn the Country, 397.

118 Alexander George and Richard Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy: Theory and Practice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974).

119 Moghadam, Nexus of Global Jihad, 195–221.