Until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia had been a major supporter of terrorists and rebels worldwide. With the Soviet Union gone Russia had lost the financial means and ideological justification for secretly supporting all these troublesome foreign organizations. That is changing and Russia is again supporting Islamic terrorists, leftist rebels and anyone who will further their new, more aggressive, foreign policy objectives. The most obvious examples of this are in Ukraine and the Caucasus. But Russia has also been supporting some Islamic terrorist groups with Cyber Warfare tools and training and well as turning loose Russia based contractors on foreign targets. This is all about reassembling the Soviet empire that fell apart in 1991. The neo-Soviets call these departed minions the “near abroad” and they want them, by any means necessary.
The Soviet Union got into the terrorism support business in a big way because of nuclear weapons. Before nukes Russia could use its traditionally huge military to bully neighbors and less frequently resorted to supporting local troublemakers. But after 1945, with too many neighbors having nukes, they resorted to indirect warfare. This is the practice of making war clandestinely, without letting your opponent know, or be able to prove, who is behind the attacks. In the past this was done by secretly supporting rebels or hostile neighbors of your victim. This would include espionage, sabotage, training and sanctuary as well. These days, there are even more options.
Once the United States had nuclear weapons in 1945, and the world was aware of how hellishly destructive nukes were, confronting America directly suddenly became much less popular. Thus, the large numbers of Russian supported "communist insurgencies" in Eastern Europe after 1945 (World War II) were portrayed by the Russian KGB (secret police/intelligence service) as "spontaneous pro-Russian rebellions." That was absurd on the face of it, as most of these nations historically hated and feared Russia. But after World War II most of these countries were occupied by Russian forces and full of KGB agents who were taking names (of pro and anti-Russian locals) and arranging for the disappearance of those opposed to their nation becoming a satellite state of the Soviet Union (in effect, a semi-autonomous part of the Soviet Union).
The Russians wanted control of Eastern Europe and the United States knew they did (as was made clear in talks between American, Russian, and British leaders towards the end of the war). But the Russians knew if they staged enough convincing (at least to foreign media) political theater as they installed pro-Russian dictatorships, the Americans would not be able to muster enough media and political support to oppose the Russians. Most Americans and Westerners in general, have now forgotten these tragic events but not East Europeans, who then had to endure over 40 years of Soviet rule before the nightmare ended. That’s why so many East European former “satellites” or parts of the Soviet Union wanted to join NATO after 1991.
These countries had a lot of bad memories, some of them quite recent. The Soviets kept at the police state terrorism in the 1950s, but were not as successful when they did not have troops and KGB agents in the area. Russia staged the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950, and that failed in a spectacular fashion. When the United States first got involved with Vietnam in the late 1950s, there was good reason to believe American assistance would lead to the defeat of the communist guerilla movement in South Vietnam. That was because the communists had not been doing so well with their guerilla wars. In the previous two decades there had been twelve communist insurgencies, and 75 percent of them had been defeated. These included the Greek Civil War (1944-1949), Spanish Republican Insurgency (1944-1952), Iranian Communist Uprising (1945-1946), Philippine Huk War (1946-1954), Madagascan Nationalist Revolt (1947-1949), Korean Partisan War (1948-1953), Sarawak/Sabah "Confrontation" (1960-1966), Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), and the Kenyan Mau-Mau Rebellion (1952-1955). The communists won in the Cuban Revolution (1956-1958), the First Indochina War (1945-1954), and the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949). The communists went on to lose the guerilla phase of the Second Indochina War (1959-1970).
Guerillas make great copy for journalists. You know, the little guy, fighting against impossible odds. What we tend to forget (and the record is quite clear and easily available), is that these insurgent movements almost always get stamped out. That does not make good copy and the dismal details of those defeats rarely make it into the mass media or the popular consciousness. The few that did succeed had a neighbor willing to provide sanctuary and support for the rebels. That’s why the communists in Greece failed while those in Vietnam succeeded (with the help of a conventional invasion in 1975).
Up until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Russians continued to wage indirect warfare wherever it could. But the West was wise to the Russian playbook by then and, while these efforts were often noisy, bloody, and newsworthy, they rarely succeeded. These indirect wars, especially in Africa, led to enormous human suffering but were, as far as the Russians were concerned, successful in that Russia never really got nailed with the responsibility for all the misery they were sponsoring and instigating. In the 1990s, many former Soviet agents went public and provided details but this was old news and thus never big news.
Indirect warfare is an ancient practice that became more common because of how the threat of nuclear warfare intimidated the leaders of major powers, especially the communist ones, as nothing earlier had been able to. But then along came another new technology that made possible even more devastating indirect warfare. This was the Internet, developed from a U.S. military project to create a communications system that could survive nuclear war. By the 1990s, the military Internet had morphed into a commercial form of communications that changed everything. In particular, it made possible new forms of criminal behavior, including unprecedented opportunities to spy on other nations in a big way, without getting caught. Many major nations have only recently become aware of how vulnerable they are and how heavily they have already been plundered. The big winner in all this is China, who quickly took advantage of the vulnerability of major nations that had quickly adopted the Internet. The Chinese, who have a long history of indirect warfare, also took full advantage of the fact that it's much easier to hide your tracks when using Internet based espionage.
In less than a decade the rest of the world, especially the United States and Israel, followed. This was revealed after 2009 when Cyber War weapons like Stuxnet were released and eventually discovered. This stuff is like an iceberg, in that most of it is beneath the surface. While China got a head start, they are now on the receiving end of some very high quality software weapons. Indirect warfare, like other forms, works both ways.
A more ancient form of indirect warfare has proved to be a disaster for one of its most energetic post-Cold War practitioners: Pakistan. Back in the 1970s, the Pakistani leadership decided that Islamic terrorists would be a more successful weapon against India than the Pakistani military (which had always lost to India). The main target was the disputed border province of Kashmir. Two decades of Pakistani based (but always denied) terrorism left over 40,000 dead and India continued to control the Kashmir territory Pakistan claimed. Pakistan tried the same tactic against Afghanistan in the 1990s, creating the Taliban and then turning them loose to win the civil war in Afghanistan. But a decade later a Pakistani branch of the Taliban was at war with Pakistan as were several other Islamic terror groups.
Sponsoring radical terror groups is an ancient practice and it often backfires. This was particularly the case in the last fifty years as the Russians got into the business in a big way. In the Middle East terrorists have been around for a long time. The international terrorist organizations are nothing new either. They have existed since the 11th century. The first one, back when the world was a smaller place, was the Hassassins (or "hashasheen") of 11th century Iran. Back then, a minor noble with a grudge, and excellent organizational skills, created a network of suicide assassins that were used for many decades until the Mongols came along and destroyed their “impregnable” mountain fortress. The Mongols were annoyed, not frightened, by suicide assassins. Back then, annoying the Mongols was almost always fatal. Our current crop of suicide terrorists do not provide a single fortress to go after, so the Mongol approach of overwhelming force applied to one objective will not work. But the fearless Mongol attitude towards terrorism should be remembered.
For several decades the Soviet Union played the role of a modern impregnable mountain fortress for training and supporting international assassins. This was often in cooperation with Middle Eastern countries that had long supported terrorists (who operated against neighbors, not their hosts). Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Iran all became infamous for their habit of offering sanctuary, and work, for terrorist organizations. In the end, trying to use these outfits for indirect warfare proved much more expensive, and unpredictable, than expected. Nations will continue to try and control Islamic terror groups for their own needs but eventually all will understand this does not work. Only then will Islamic terrorism subside to its usual dormant state. A long term solution for Islamic terrorism is another matter, having more to do with cultural evolution than the nasty diplomatic and military tools nations have long used.