In a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine, Stephen D. Krasner presents a hypothetical scenario in which terrorists detonate nuclear devices in major cities around the world and he then discusses the likely impact that such a horrific event would have on the current international system.[2]  No doubt, Krasner is right to suggest that such an event would likely make quaint many of the notions of sovereignty that have guided the relations among states since the creation of the Westphalian system.  As powerful states faced the reality of tens or hundreds of thousands of dead citizens, they would likely not feel constrained by traditional barriers against intervention.  However, as it currently stands, and despite the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, those established notions of sovereignty still preside over the way that international politics are understood by nations around the world.  But, as 9/11 indicates, terrorism is perhaps, all ethical considerations aside, the ideal way to combat a powerful foe.  From the perspective of a terrorist group, there are a great many benefits to a terrorist campaign: you rarely have to fight regular military units, you need little of the infrastructure of a regular army, your organization can be diffuse and hide, and with minimal, if any, loss to you, you can coerce and frighten the population of a target state towards a desired goal.  Fortunately, either due to naked self-interest or to ethics in international relations, or perhaps a combination of both, recognized states rarely condone, let alone support, terror campaigns.  Unfortunately, not all states prosecute the export of terrorism and stateless terror groups have risen devoid of the moral qualms that make terror so ethically abhorrent.  As we all-too-frequently witness, these terror groups seek to affect change in the national policies of sovereign states through the use of indiscriminate violence.  By inciting fear in the civilian population, the terrorists hope to provide an impetus for change. 

Despite being stateless actors, international terror groups do depend, in large part, on host states where they can organize terrorist campaigns against civilian populations.  When the “host state” is the sole target of this violence, I believe that traditional classifications and distinctions about sovereignty, insurgencies, and terrorist movements (like those explored by Michael Walzer in Just and Unjust Wars) address these circumstances sufficiently.  However, when the host state is not the sole target of terrorist violence, or is not even a target at all, the situation changes, and other states are forced to take notice of the internal circumstances within other sovereign nations.  It is these sorts of circumstances that the current international system, the system that Walzer designates as the “legalist paradigm,”[3] fails to properly adjudicate.  Specifically, Walzer and others fail to address how a potential “target state” may interact with what I will call “host states,” or those states where terrorists take refuge, in order to effectively address terrorist threats.  Despite the reality that serious attacks by terrorists using Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) somewhere in the world would likely make moral arguments about preventive war take a back seat to serious questions of national self-interest in most peoples’ minds, the moral questions about intervention remain in the foreground for those of us who believe any legitimate policy must remain solidly rooted in ethical concepts.  For this reason, I intend to lay out an intellectual scaffolding to assist the moral discussion about any potential change in international norms and policies.  I propose creating a “Continuum of Complicity” to direct the actions that potential target states may take in dealing with the sovereignty of other nations.  I believe that the degree of complicity that a host state shows with a terrorist group is integral to determining the actions that a potential target state may take with another, sovereign host state.  This continuum has two poles: at one end of the continuum exist host states that unwillingly or unwittingly host terrorist groups, or “unwilling states” for ease of discussion; at the other pole exist host states that actively assist terrorist groups within their borders, or “accomplice states.”  A reasonable determination by states as to where a host state falls on this continuum helps to determine the level of action that may be taken against that host state to counter the threat of terrorism.  Importantly, this discrimination is not the sole determiner of action:  traditional just war criteria such as right intention, right authority, proportionality, and reasonable hope for success still apply.  However, the nature of the relationship between sovereign governments and the terrorist groups that operate within their borders does provide another category for states to appraise as they determine the justice of their potential actions in response to terrorism.

            Conceptually, it is important to begin any discussion of terrorist organizations by showing the similarities and differences between them and other stateless Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and then to define what a terror group is and how it affects the ethical considerations of international relations.  Like most NGOs, the goal of terror groups is to affect some form of political or policy change at the state level.  However, fundamental differences exist that preclude terror groups from interacting with states in the same way traditional NGOs do.  Of course, the crux of these differences lies in methodology.  At their core, terror groups seek to “destroy the morale of a nation” in order to achieve political change.[4]  By using “the random murder of innocent people,” terror groups have forfeited the rights and protections afforded NGOs.[5]  Terror groups seek to affect some sort of political or policy change in sovereign and recognized states by indiscriminately attacking the noncombatant population of that state.[6] However, terror groups lack territorial integrity of their own and, for this paper to be applicable to them, act independent of the directions (but not necessarily funding) of a state hierarchy.  Like traditional NGOs, terror groups possess the ability to exist in any state, with or without the consent of the host state.  By existing within the borders of a state, terror groups try to protect themselves against foreign attacks by exploiting the territorial integrity of the host state and other states’ prohibition against intervention.[7]  This parasitic relationship offers a de facto safe haven for terror groups since outside states are only authorized to intervene under the most exceptional circumstances, according to just war theory.[8]  While Walzer defines “terrorism” he fails to examine how the presence of a terror group within the territory of a state affects international relations and intervention.

Having defined “terror group,” I must now determine how the presence of terror groups changes the ethical considerations of international relations.  In order to determine how a state may act towards a host state, the host state must be located on the “Continuum of Complicity.”  As I indicated earlier, this continuum measures, as its name suggests, the degree of complicity between a state and the terror groups it hosts.  In order to help visualize this continuum, three markers are needed.  At one extreme on the continuum is the unwilling host who actively and effectively pursues and prosecutes terror groups within its borders.  States like Great Britain, or the United States, both of which likely have terror groups operating within their borders that they actively pursue, are prime examples of unwilling hosts.  In the middle of the continuum are the ambivalent states.  These are states which do not provide material support to terrorists, but do not actively pursue or prosecute the terror groups that they host.  Despite recent counter-terrorism efforts, Saudi Arabia might be an example of this sort of ambivalent host, as they have historically taken little action against terror groups within their borders.[9]  The last marker is the accomplice state; the accomplice state essentially sponsors terrorism by providing material support to terror organizations within its borders.  Accomplice states like Iran, Hussein’s pre-invasion Iraq, Syria, and Libya (prior to recent events) are guilty of terrorism themselves, even if the terror groups they support are not formally part of their own government, and are the most susceptible to intervention by potential target states.[10]  As a matter of practice, some states will be harder to classify than others, and this is the delicate work that governments must diligently participate in as they navigate the murky waters of intelligence, diplomacy, and justificatory language.  No doubt, the greatest cause of uncertainty in classifying a state is opacity between its action and intent in the pursuit of terrorists; in other words, there can be a disconnect between what a state desires to do and what it actually can do.  When these two things converge, classification is greatly simplified.  But when these two things diverge one must be weightier than the other.  The target state government has a responsibility to its citizens to protect them, but it also needs to recognize the right to territorial integrity within the host state.  However, the target state’s responsibility to its citizens must, in this case, override the right to territorial integrity.  The cost of permitting terrorists to grow and strengthen in an incapable host simply to protect the territorial integrity of that host is too great.  Because a state has a moral obligation to defend its citizens, the action (or rather, inaction) of the host state must take precedence over the intent of the host state’s government.  To understand the implications of state location on the continuum it is useful to examine the three markers further.  These markers offer convenient means for examining how the continuum affects the host state’s role in the international community and the degree of influence target states may exert, up to and possibly including armed intervention, on a host state.

            While host states are often a target of the terrorists they prosecute, the export of terror forces these states to accept a role as an active member of the international community.  Not only do the terror groups operate in, and attack the host state, they use the host state to plan or stage terror attacks against other states.  As long as the unwilling host actively and effectively prosecutes the terror groups within its borders, intervention is only permitted at the request of the host state government.  By effectively prosecuting known terror groups, the host state maintains its right to political sovereignty and territorial integrity.  I will deal with how a target state may interact with an unwilling host who can not effectively prosecute the terrorists within its borders later in this paper.  Naturally, the definition of effective prosecution of terror groups is open to interpretation, but a reasonable and responsible judgment must be made in order to classify the host state.

            The next marker or range on the continuum is difficult to both define and identify practically.  The ambivalent state is one that allows terror groups to stage out of its territory, but does not provide actual material support of those terror groups.  Ambivalent states have clearly chosen to ignore the moral mandate to prevent the export of terror, and it is in this negligence that Walzer’s shortcomings are especially apparent in traditional accounts.  Intervening against the government, itself, would not be justified since the state does not provide material support to the terrorists, but the target state can not sit idly and allow terrorists a geo-political safe haven.  It would be a violation of the target state’s obligations to its people to ignore the very real danger that this circumstance presents.  I propose that in cases where we see ambivalent host states, all reasonable political means must be exhausted before any military intervention may be permitted.  Should peaceful means fail to convince the ambivalent host to cease the export of terror, then limited military strikes are permissible.  These strikes must be limited to terror groups and not state entities or agencies.  These military strikes must be limited in scope and specific in targeting.  Military strikes within the territory of a sovereign state that hosts terror are only permissible when all reasonable peaceful options have been exhausted and are an exception to non-intervention rather than a rule.

            The last state is often the most difficult to deal with in the diplomatic world, but rather simple to deal with ethically.  The willing host provides not only geo-political sanctuary to terror groups, but it also provides material support.  This support constitutes a sponsorship of terror and incurs the obvious responsibility for the actions of those terrorists that the state sponsors.  State-sponsored terror is a direct and real threat to other sovereign states and must not be tolerated.  In these cases, states have gone beyond ignoring the obligation to prosecute terror groups within their borders and have accepted responsibility for the outcome of the actions of the terrorists, both planned and realized.  Clearly accomplice states are rarely, if ever, subject to attacks by the terror groups they sponsor.  This near immunity from attack, however, does not absolve them from the repercussions of terror attacks elsewhere.  If a state provides material support to a known terror group, then that state must be party to actions committed by the terror groups while sponsored by the host state.  This responsibility opens the accomplice state up to the possibility of unilateral preemptive intervention.  Afghanistan provides a convenient example of how sovereign states can deal with these other, recalcitrant states.  Naturally, a peaceful resolution is preferable, but not always possible, and when it is not possible this framework provides a guideline for moral intervention.  These three definite points on the continuum do not define all instances or possibilities; rather they provide us a vocabulary that we can use to define three ranges; where to locate states within these ranges is, like most things, a product of informed judgment. 

            While these three defined points on the continuum serve as a guide to placing a state on the continuum, they are not the only possible positions a state can hold.  Yet, the three markers all have relatively consistent traits.  In other words, they are all easily classified and placed. 

Unfortunately no state in the world is so easily defined.  Perhaps the most immediate example of this, and of particular import to the United States, is Pakistan.  President Pervez Musharraf claims to be fighting Taliban and Al Qaeda groups in his country.[11]  Indeed, he may be earnestly attempting to do so.  Unfortunately, especially for the United States, Musharraf does not lead a unified government and can not control his internal security forces as well as his counterparts in other countries can.[12]  This lack of control presents an interesting dilemma to the continuum:  does the target state have a right to intervene if an unwilling host state is also unable to expel terrorists?  In this case the target state does have the right to intervene because the ineffectiveness of the host state presents a real threat to the target state, but other factors, such as proportionality, override the continuum.  In the Pakistan example, it is possible that future US involvement could induce tribal violence in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region where most of these terrorist groups currently organize and operate.[13]  Not only, then, would unwanted intervention violate Pakistan’s right to autonomy (a claim based on its desire to prosecute terrorists), it would destabilize the government, with possible implications for a nuclear conflict with India or another state, or result in the very real possibility of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Al Qaeda sympathizers.[14]  Furthermore, strife in this region would likely influence the fragile situation that now exists in Afghanistan.  Clearly this dichotomy between unwilling-to but unable-to-prevent hosting terrorism presents challenges not to the continuum itself, but in placing states on the continuum.

            As a matter of course, challenges to the continuum will rise, and must be addressed for the continuum to hold any validity.  The strongest argument against the continuum is that target states can never have perfect knowledge of the relationship between terrorists and their host state, nor can the target states ever divine, with perfect clarity, the intent of the terror groups it seeks to prosecute.  The argument goes that this imperfect knowledge would allow target states to attack terror groups based on circumstantial evidence and possible coincidence. Naturally this would increase violence and unwarranted intervention which most ethicists accept as bad.  And it is true that, in a vacuum, the continuum could be used to validate almost any intervention.  Conceivably a target state could act based on misinformation or flawed logic, and do so repeatedly.  However, the continuum does not exist in a vacuum.  Far from it, the continuum is merely one simple tool with which the target state may analyze potential actions.  It is entirely possible that the continuum will indicate that intervention is permissible, but that a target state, cognizant of its own imperfect knowledge and its calculations of proportionality, will decide that, overall, intervention is not warranted.   I feel it important to note here that Walzer’s principles defining prevention and preemption still apply, and any preemptive intervention must abide by his standards for anticipation.  Another criticism of the continuum might revolve around the ambivalent state.  While the willing support of terrorism clearly constitutes a threat to the target state, and unwilling states actively combat terrorism, the ambivalent host presents a more perplexing ethical dilemma:  the question rises of why an ambivalent state gains greater protection against intervention than does the willing host, yet less merits protection than the unwilling host.  Ambivalent hosts certainly present less of a threat than willing hosts, but intervention is still permitted.  Intervention is permitted because of the threat terrorism presents to not only the target state’s government, but to its civil society.  While imperfect knowledge would permit the continuum to be used in almost any situation, and abuse of the continuum is possible, other factors, such as right intent, reasonable chance for success, proportionality, and competent authority that still apply to intervention in general mitigate the danger of this.  That is not to say that states do not need to gain knowledge prior to acting.  Indeed, I feel that they must do so to the fullest reasonable extent of their abilities.  Consequently, the continuum must be viewed as a piece of a whole and can not simply replace just war theory, but must augment it.

I believe that this continuum provides us with a conceptual framework that we can use to help evaluate when it is permissible to intervene against terrorism in other states.  As I stated before, this continuum is not intended to replace just war theory but provide us with an additional ethical tool.  Location on the continuum does not exclusively determine whether or not military intervention against terrorism is permissible, but it does provide us a moral vocabulary to assist in discussions to determine this permissibility.  Without the other established just war criteria, it is certainly possible that governments could abuse the continuum and use it to justify nearly any action, or to knowingly provide false evidence that would support intervention based on the continuum.  In short the imprecise nature of the continuum makes it far too vulnerable to be used as the sole discriminator in determining the ethical propriety of intervention.  We must be vigilant to ensure that the continuum is not abused, and we must be circumspect and as objective as possible in examining evidence and placing a state on the continuum.  However, I believe that almost all states can be placed, with varying degrees of difficulty, on the continuum, and that this placement will help us in determining proper state placement and intervention.



Corera, Gordon “’Loose Nukes’ fear spurs US-Russia Action.” [Webpage and database].  BBC News, 17MAR04.  Available from <>.  Accessed 06JAN05.


Rashid, Ahmed “Musharraf’s Bin Laden Headache.” [Webpage and database].  BBC News, World Edition, 17MAR04.  Available from <>.  Accessed 06JAN05.


Rashid, Ahmed “Musharraf’s Power Play” [website and database].  BBC News, World Edition, 12DEC04.  Available from <>.  Accessed 06JAN05.


Scott-Joynt, Jeremy. “Terror Funding Brings Saudi Mixed Messages” [website and database]. BBC News, World Edition, 22JUL04.  Available from < 3877755.stm>. Accessed 06JAN05.


Stephen D. Krasner, “The Day After,” Foreign Policy, January / February (2005), No. 146: 68-71.


Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical Illustrations, 3rd ed. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000.


“Washington Accuses Syria of Terror Role” [website and database]. BBC News, World Edition, 01APR02.  Available from <>.  Accessed 06JAN05.




[1] The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

2 Stephen D. Krasner, “The Day After,” Foreign Policy (January / February, 2005), 68-71.


[3] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical Illustrations, 3rd ed., (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000), 61-63.


[4]  Ibid. 197


[5]  Ibid. 197


[6]  Ibid. 57


[7] Ibid. 86


[8] Ibid. 197


[9] Jeremy Scott-Joynt, “Terror Funding Brings Saudi Mixed Messages” [website and database] (BBC News, World Edition, 22JUL04); available from <>; accessed 06JAN05.


[10] “Washington Accuses Syria of Terror Role” [website and database] (BBC News, World Edition, 01APR02); available from <>; accessed 06JAN05.


[11] Ahmed Rashid “Musharraf’s Bin Laden Headache.” [webpage and database] (BBC News, World Edition, 17MAR04); available from <:>; accessed 06JAN05.


[12] Ahmed Rashid “Musharraf’s Power Play” [website and database] (BBC News, World Edition, 12DEC04); available from <>; accessed 06JAN05.


[13] Ahmed Rashid “Musharraf’s Bin Laden Headache.” [webpage and database] (BBC News, World Edition, 17MAR04); available from <:>; accessed 06JAN05.


[14] Gordon Corera “’Loose Nukes’ fear spurs US-Russia Action.” [webpage and database] (BBC News, 17MAR04); available from <>; accessed 06JAN05.