Seeking like a State: Hamas’ Relationship with its Government Sponsors

Pro Hamas Rally in Damascus scaled



Why do some terror organizations seek state sponsorship? Although the risks of cooperation for both terror organizations and states are significant, state sponsorship of violent, armed, non-state actors has occurred for decades. Notable partnerships include Iran with Hezbollah and various Palestinian groups,[1] Iraq and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) as well as Palestinian groups,[2] Syria and Hamas,[3] Saudi Arabia and Al-Qaeda,[4] Pakistan and the Taliban and Lashkar-e Tayyaba,[5] and Venezuela and FARC.[6] This paper focuses on Hamas’s relationship with two state sponsors, Iran and Syria. This case provides an interesting example of state sponsorship of terror, as Hamas is forced to balance the benefits it attains from these relationships with multiple sponsors, with the risks to its political and strategic interests. This case also shows how terror organizations will alter their relationships with states when partnerships conflict with their individual goals and needs, demonstrating terror organizations’ autonomy and agency. Finally, Hamas is not always ideologically and strategically aligned with its sponsors, demonstrating that there are multiple incentives for terror organizations to partner with states beyond ideological or identity-based affinity.

State sponsorship of terrorism is defined as a state providing a terror organization with various forms of assistance.[7] Material and physical support includes financial assistance, arms provision, military training, logistical support, and also a safe haven for members to live, train, and plot in relative safety. Additionally, through state sponsorship, terror organizations can increase their legitimacy in the eyes of local and regional actors, in some ways furthering their political goals. In these relationships, terror organizations have agency. They choose to carry out violent acts on the state’s behalf and overall help in furthering their patron’s interests both domestically and abroad— all for a host of rewards from their state partner. However, state sponsorship is not always beneficial for terror organizations, as cooperation with a state can have the opposite effect and decline in the group’s operational and organizational autonomy, decrease local and regional support for the group, delegitimize its mission, increase exposure to counterterrorism. Thus, terror organizations’ desires for state sponsorship creates a puzzle, as it might end up undermining the terrorist group’s own interests.

Investigating these relationships from the terrorist perspective fills an inherent gap in the existing literature, which mostly focuses on the interests of the state sponsors and the costs and benefits states accrue from the relationship. Questions, such as what the benefits of sponsorship for terror groups are or why would these groups work with states to which they are ideologically opposed, are not investigated frequently. An exploration of a terror group’s motivations for cooperating with states is important as it equips counterterror organizations with tools to      better mitigate these relationships. This investigation can also clarify a state’s considerations for engaging in these partnerships, as having a clear picture of their partners’ interests leads to a more comprehensive decision-making process. An analysis of Hamas’s relationships with its sponsors can also provide better insight on other religious nationalist groups who have sought state sponsorship in the past, such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, PKK, and other Kashmiri-focused groups. This insight includes both the inherent benefits that groups seek from sponsorship but also the risks they face as groups with a complex organizational structure that depend upon some local support and maintain political power.

Using the case of Hamas, I argue that as actors with agency, terror organizations seek to satisfy their strategic and organizational interests as well as maintain their internal cohesiveness and political reputation.  However, as in any relationship, conflict between partners can occur when the state’s and the group’s goals strongly conflict, and terror organizations may re-evaluate their engagement to determine if the benefits they receive truly outweigh the costs to its organizational and political standing. In many cases, terror organizations will implement several mechanisms to retain autonomy by avoiding complete control by one state or another  while also avoiding succumbing completely to a state’s orders that are not supported by key local leaders and internal members. 

In the rest of this paper, I first discuss the literature related to state sponsorship of terror, focusing on these organizations’ interests and the costs and benefits of sponsorship from the organization’s perspective. I then move into my argument regarding why terror organizations cooperate with states when they do and why these relationships may shift. Third, I discuss the methodology of the paper and move to my case study of Hamas’s relationships with Syria and Iran. Fourth, I discuss counterarguments to my work and finish with concluding thoughts and conjectures about the implications of my findings.

Overall, I argue that terror organizations seek state sponsorship to satisfy both their strategic and organizational interests, however these concerns can often conflict especially when it comes to maintaining a group’s political reputation. Thus, if they desire to continue their partnerships with states, terror organizations must develop strategies to mitigate principal control and preserve their autonomy.

Review of the Literature Discussing State Sponsorship of Terror

One of the most common underlying arguments discussed in the literature regarding state sponsorship of terror is the idea that armed non-state actors and states will only cooperate when there is a shared interest, such as ideology, countering shared opponents, or attaining valuable resources.[8] State sponsorship only occurs when there is a unique benefit for both sides, as cooperation is extremely risky for both groups. However, a majority of the literature discussing state sponsorship of terror exclusively focuses on the state perspective, examining the costs and benefits for states without looking at the constraints on armed non-state actors and the active choices they make when cooperating with states.

Principal-Agent (PA) theory is one of the more effective analytical frameworks for exploring the calculi of both states and armed non-state actors. According to this framework both parties use rational choice to engage in a relationship that best matches their preferences and goals. The theory describes the state’s role as the ‘principal’ while the armed non-state actor acts as the ‘agent,’ carrying out the principal’s requests.[9] In the relationships between states and terror organizations, states will delegate certain tasks to terror organizations, such as completing clandestine operations against enemy states that are illegal for states to carry out themselves. States will delegate to agents in order to improve efficiency, giving terror organizations an autonomous mandate and rules of engagement and behavior.[10]

In order to fully understand the relationships between states and terror organizations, it is important to briefly examine the motivations for states when they decide to sponsor a group. According to Daniel Byman, there are four arguments for why states choose to delegate to terror organizations: the terror group can pursue the state’s strategic objectives, help to promote political ideology, bolster a leader’s domestic position, and disrupt oppositional forces in the region.[11] One of the most important benefits for states is their ability to use terror organizations in order to carry out illegal actions or attacks, preventing backlash from counterterror organizations. As a secondary benefit, the state is able to obtain plausible deniability for such illegal acts, as the state’s authority over the non-state actor’s actions is unclear.[12] Finally, when the state more publicly supports an organization that shares ideology, religion, or ethnic identity with its citizens, its domestic popularity can increase, as some citizens could view this act as a state prioritization of their own ethnic or religious kin.[13]

Oftentimes the benefits of delegation outweigh the risk that agents will act against the principal’s preferences, however this is not always the case.[14] Ultimately, there is an inherent risk that cooperation will fail, potentially due to “agency slack,” or the risk that an agent will take an independent action to satisfy their own interests that opposes the state’s preferences.[15] In order to combat this challenge, states maintain certain mechanisms to either monitor or control unruly terror organizations by sanctioning funds or cutting off ties completely.[16]

Despite states’ ability to control their agents, terror organizations still maintain a significant amount of agency. Idean Salehyan argues that external support for rebel organizations is not solely the choice of the state but is a partnership between the principal and the agent. Because delegation to terror organizations inherently involves a “conditional grant of authority,”[17] these groups must work as an individual actor with its own agency and preferences. Before agreeing to engage in a state partnership, terror organizations must weigh the risks and benefits of engaging with a state, effectively performing a cost-benefit analysis in order to evaluate if the state’s preferences align with their own.[18] However, this theory oftentimes implicates terror organizations solely as gain-maximizers and assumes that these groups make clear-cut cost benefit analyses, avoiding analysis of their nuanced interests. Despite this deficiency, it is important to understand that cooperating with states satisfies terror organizations’ interests that can significantly improve chances for survival and increase their organizational and political power. 

Thus, what are terror organizations’ interests and how might terror organizations satisfy them? Peter Krause uses a two-level framework to explain the effectiveness of terror organizations and argues that these groups tend to pursue strategic goals that can benefit their broader social movements, as well as organizational interests that benefit the groups themselves.[19] Strategic objectives concern the actions that would promote the group’s mission, including inflicting mass damage through attacks, causing harm to enemy states, and commanding territory to establish a new caliphate or state. Strategic interests also involve political goals, such as improving a political reputation and increasing regional and local support. Furthermore, by increasing its tactical capabilities, terror organizations can more directly pursue their more long-term strategic goals. Conversely, organizational objectives include increasing recruitment, establishing effective training mechanisms, obtaining funding, and ensuring that the group remains cohesive.[20] Overall, I argue that state sponsorship of terror satisfies both terror organizations’ strategic and organizational interests. However, as Krause laments, these interests can conflict, forcing terror organizations to balance either the interests of the individual organization or those of the entire movement.[21]

Strategic Benefits of Cooperation for Terror Organizations

What are the strategic benefits that states must weigh when deciding to cooperate as an agent of a state? Bruce Hoffman suggests that state sponsorship of terror is ultimately more beneficial for terror groups than states, as it provides these organizations essential assets that allow them to not only survive, but function more effectively.[22] These assets oftentimes satisfy a group’s strategic interests, as states can provide terror groups with valuable material benefits, such as training and operations support, “money, arms, and logistics,” and sanctuary.[23] Armed non-state actors can also gain access to an established state’s diplomatic, military, and intelligence capabilities to advance its interests. [24] Because most militants are not trained soldiers, they need to be taught how to operate weapons and how to perform basic military exercises, surveillance, and recruitment.[25] Groups can also be provided with more advanced armaments and weapons systems; however, scholars argue that states are cautious not to offer supported terrorists weapons that could drastically threaten the state’s own security.[26] Overall, the benefits can improve a terror organization’s tactical capabilities that can serve to further its strategic mission of severely weakening an opposing state, commanding increased territory, or causing fear in enemy populations.

Byman argues that states can also help terror organizations carry out attacks by providing logistical support.  These benefits include providing passports to increase travel mobility, allowing terrorists to pass through a country’s territory to and from carrying out attacks, or funding a “front company” to provide terrorists legitimate documentation, allowing them to pass through domestic and international security apparatuses more easily.[27] Hoffman refers to the same forms of support as “unobtainable luxuries”[28], as they can provide an organization with a competitive strategic edge, overcoming “large power asymmetries” between states, rebels, and other organizations.[29] Furthermore, states can complete violent operations jointly with states, providing covert intelligence, such as the Iranian and Syrian provision of intelligence to Hezbollah to attack American forces in Lebanon in 1983. Intelligence regarding local politics and about a state’s enemies is also shared by terrorist organizations, increasing the incentive for states to give back to their agents. [30]  Increased capabilities can help to legitimize groups as a credible threat to a specific state, furthering a group’s strategic interest of destroying a certain enemy.

Moreover, diplomatic support of a group’s political wing can help to legitimize the organization, providing international support and recognition.[31] Increased legitimacy through both name recognition and publicly documented meetings can allow groups to become more dominant as compared to their competitors, increasing the group’s reputation and satisfying its political-organizational interests. These benefits can improve the group’s legitimacy with local supporters. Particularly if a group has entered a political arena within a certain state, such as Lebanese Hezbollah, the Taliban, or Hamas, it may be more dependent on local political support.[32] A group may seek the help of a state sponsor to increase both its legitimacy as a powerful actor with immense funding and also the capacity to unleash violence against popular enemies, such as opposing ethno-religious groups or governments.[33] Thus, state sponsorship can satisfy not only a group’s desire for increased tactical capability, but also provide important logistical support as well as increased political legitimacy, overall furthering its strategic goals for the movement it represents.

Organizational Benefits of Cooperation

Money remains one of the most important factors that motivates terrorist cooperation with states, as it can help them achieve organizational stability through increased recruiting and safer transnational movement through the use of safehouses and passports.[34] These material benefits help to strengthen the organization internally, as terror organizations oftentimes engage in fierce competition for new recruits with rival organizations, and money can help attract these individuals.[35]  Furthermore, these groups can utilize state funding to provide a range of social welfare benefits and also compensation, which allows fighters to solely dedicate themselves to the group. For example, both the Lebanese Hizballah and the Kashmiri group Hizb-ul Mujahedin took advantage of Iran’s and Pakistan’s financial support to provide social welfare for fighters and build support networks that outpaced other groups, helping them to achieve dominance.[36]

Because states have superior bureaucratic structuring and organizational capabilities, they can provide the expertise that enables a terrorist group to develop its own recruitment network and hierarchical structure. Thus, in times of organizational infighting or competition among lower-level leaders, groups may turn to states to broker agreements or help unify multiple groups to become a more powerful force. Byman cites how Iran helped to organize Hezbollah through uniting Shiite militants under one powerful banner.[37] Similarly, Hemming Tam argues that sponsorship can also cement the power of a particular leader, as recognition of his actions by an outside powerful actor can increase his importance, and also decrease the power of his rivals, securing the leader’s power and group cohesion.[38] While name recognition by states can improve a group’s standing with local and regional competitors, the provision of material resources can also increase internal respect of leadership, improving group cohesiveness as members increase their trust in the organization.

Ideology as a Potential Motivation for Cooperation

Finally, terror groups may be motivated to cooperate with states on ideological grounds. While groups may not be aligned to specifically spread their shared ideology, this common denominator can help states and their agents to increase trust and work more effectively together.[39] Thus, terror organizations may seek state sponsors that are ideologically aligned, as they believe this could increase trust with the principal, which can elevate their autonomy as the state trusts the group’s values and ideals. However, evidence suggests state-terrorist      cooperation also exists between actors that are not ideologically aligned,[40] and therefore resting this paper’s explanation on simply ideological grounds may not be effective.

The Risks for Terror Organizations

As one of the largest aspects of the agent’s dilemma when engaging with principals, however, terror groups are additionally interested in maintaining independence in order to control their own actions, as well as identity and reputation. Salehyan argues that PA theory suggests that terror organizations face a balance between benefiting their resource base and their organizational autonomy.[41] State sponsors may attempt to impose its own vision and demands,[42] which may threaten the group’s individual evolution and later independent decision-making ability.[43] Similarly, since states maintain mechanisms to punish or control organizations, such as increased monitoring of activities as well as sanctioning of funds, they can effectively weaken the group’s freedom to carry out policies that would satisfy its own preferences that may conflict with the state’s interests.[44] Carter also argues that sponsorship can leave groups more exposed to counterterrorism, especially if safe haven is provided, as the state maintains a unique insight to a group’s own organizational structure and capacity, which could be supplied to international counterterrorism forces, threatening a group’s survival.[45]

As a risk to a group’s potential strategic goal of becoming a dominating political force, the group can also be viewed as simply a state’s puppet or a “gun for hire,” carrying out a wealthy state’s demands instead of accomplishing its own mission, especially if it is fighting for liberation against foreign powers.[46]  This reputation can cause a decrease in popular support for the cause as well as decreased trust in the leaderships’ integrity and legitimacy, threatening the group’s bureaucratic structure and overall effectiveness. Additionally, state sponsorship can cause a group to become desensitized from the desires of its most important supporters and constituents, as the state can influence a terror organization to develop a political and military strategy that does not incorporate the realities of the population that the group represents.[47]

Strategies to Balance the Costs

Because terror organizations maintain a significant level of agency with respect to their state sponsors, these groups are able to employ certain strategies to increase their autonomy or circumvent the costs of sponsorship. Using PA theory, Hawkins and Jacoby argue two strategies that can apply to agents such as terror organizations: remaining permeable to multiple sponsors and interpreting and reinterpreting a sponsor’s demands.[48] Remaining permeable to a diverse range of sponsors decreases the severity of potential state sanctions and also cushions against sudden termination of support.[49] Salehyan adds that maintaining multiple sponsors makes it more difficult to inflict coherent, effective sanctions, as coordination between states is difficult and groups could turn to sponsors that don’t support the sanctions.[50] Furthermore, terror organizations can first interpret a sponsor’s demand directly correlating to the state’s preferences, however over time they can reinterpret them to match the agent’s preferences if they conflict with the state’s.[51]

Overall, Byman argues that state support is a “devil’s bargain,” and requires a trade-off between a more independent terror organization and a stronger overall movement.[52] Thus, both states and terror organizations face important trade-offs between the highly valuable assets provided by these relationships and the significant risks they pose to both the state’s reputation and the group’s autonomy and identity.


In the following section, I present the case study of Hamas’s relationship with two of its most active sponsors, Syria and Iran. Although many terror organizations cooperate with states, this case will provide verified examples of benefits groups seek from states and also the ways in which they must balance these demands with the requirements states employ to achieve their own goals. Hamas’s relationship with both Syria and Iran is interesting as Hamas is not extremely ideologically aligned with either state, Hamas faced a severe risk of Syrian constriction of its operations and of becoming an Iranian puppet, much like Lebanese Hezbollah. Specifically, I focus on the benefits of Syrian and Iranian sponsorship for Hamas and how it has helped to further its strategic and organizational interests. I also evaluate the strategic and political costs for Hamas in the context of events in Israel, Palestine, as well as the Arab world. Finally, I highlight strategies it has employed to balance its strategic and organizational interests in order to maintain political support and survive.

Iranian and Syria Sponsorship of Hamas:

Established in 1987 as the militant political bureau of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood during the first Palestinian Intifada, Hamas, or Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya,has become one of the most powerful terror organizations and political actors in Palestine as both an Islamist and nationalist organization. Following the creation of its Charter in 1988, Hamas designated Palestine as an Islamic “waqf” or an area designated for Muslims by God in order to legitimize its violence as “defensive Jihad” in the name of Islam. Following the signing of Oslo Accords in 1993, by both the Palestinian Liberation Organization (Fatah) and the Israeli government, Hamas’s extremist opposition to a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians increased, and it began to cite its main mission as the complete liberation of Palestine from what they regard as so-called Israeli occupation.[53] Thus, Hamas straddles both an Islamist and nationalist identity, allowing the group to create ties with diverse range of populations, non-state organizations, and state actors.

This nationalist-political viewpoint of the organization conflicts with the analysis of many scholars that Hamas is inherently a religious fundamentalist group that is unable to accept peace with Israel due to its strict Jihadist beliefs that remain unchanged overtime.[54] Ultimately, Hamas must be understood as an organization that implores strategic choices within the context of political events and social movements, and thus can change its calculi to reflect the broader movement on the ground.[55]  

History of State Sponsorship

Within the Palestinian territories, the alternative to Hamas is Fatah, as the chief, mostly non-violent competitor, it views Hamas as ultimately weak and disloyal to the cause of complete liberation, as it has sought compromise and make peace with the Israeli government. Thus, Hamas’s alternative forms of actions are essentially diplomacy and negotiation without the threat of violence, which the organization refuses to accept.[56] In order to increase its leverage over Israel and other secular groups, as well as enhance its military capabilities and political legitimacy, Hamas sought external forms of state support from several sponsors, most notably Iran and Syria.  

The peak periods of Iranian and Syrian support began in the mid-1990s and continued through the beginning of the Arab Uprisings in 2011. While Syria has a long history of sponsoring Palestinian groups in the name of Pan-Arabism, its main motivation for sponsorship of groups like Hamas comes from gaining strategic leverage over Israel. Much like its strategic partner in Syria, Iran has also sought to expand its regional influence and damage its enemy in Israel. Iranian support began in 1990, when Hamas and other militant groups were invited to Tehran for an Islamic conference on the Palestinian cause. Furthermore, support heightened during the 2004-2008 period, when Iranian leverage in the region increased as the Iraqi Shiites took power following the American invasion, causing the state to look to the entire region to increase its influence.[57]

 It is important to note that ideologically, Hamas was not fully aligned with either of these sponsors. While Hamas is an Islamic organization, it identifies as Sunni Muslim, which competes across the region with Shiites, whose center of power is based in Iran. Besides, Iran is not officially an Arab country, and therefore Hamas does not maintain domestic leverage with Iranian citizens, who do not adopt the Palestinian cause is their own.[58] Additionally, while the Syrian regime under Hafez al-Asad promoted ideals of Pan-Arab nationalism, it still identifies as a secular Ba’athist state, and thus opposes the Islamic governance vision.[59] Because Hamas and its main sponsors during this period were not ideologically compatible, there was not an influx of trust between Hamas and its principals; however, it is unclear if this added benefit was needed to maintain the relationships. Moreover, it is difficult to argue that one of the main benefits for Hamas, in seeking state sponsorship, is its desire to spread its Islamic ideology, as there is limited evidence that it has attempted this through any of its state sponsors.

Iranian Provision of Financial Support

According to Canadian, Israeli, British, American, and Palestinian Authority intelligence, Iran has provided large amounts of state funding directly to the Hamas organization and the al-Qassam Brigades. Thus, unlike some sponsorship Hamas has obtained from Saudi Arabia, funding does not arrive from Iran through the charitable organizations in the Islamic dawa, but directly to operational units.[60] According to some reports, Iran provided twenty to fifty million dollars annually to Hamas.[61] Following a 2004 crackdown by the Saudi Arabian state on the financing of terror due to American pressure which ceased Hamas funding from Islamic charitable organizations in the Gulf, Hamas was forced into a state of emergency and turned to Iran for help, which in turn entered its peak period of support. Up until the severing of relations between the state and its agent in 2012, Iran had been providing Hamas with approximately twenty-three million dollars monthly.[62] However, it is difficult to trace exactly how Hamas sought to use these funds and thus it could have been used to benefit both its strategic and organizational interests. I mention where these funds may have been used throughout the discussion of the benefits of state sponsorship below.

Satisfaction of Strategic Interests through Cooperation

In order to satisfy its strategic interests, Hamas had to enhance its operational and logistical capabilities, obtain valuable financial resources, evade Israeli counterterrorism forces, and establish its reputation as a legitimate regional and local actor. Hamas has sought and received most of its material benefits through its Iranian partner, while achieving some political benefits from Syria.

Through its military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas has inflicted many forms of violence, including assassinations, suicide bombings, rocket launches into Israeli territory, and the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers and civilians.[63] With the provision of arms from its Iranian partner, the organization has been able to increase its operational capabilities that help the group to achieve its strategic goals. These weapons included a marine vessel and fifty tons of weapons sent to Gaza in 2002 (e.g., force multiplier weapons systems, rockets, mortars and mortar bombs, land mines, Faj-5 rockets, and other smaller arms). Additionally, the provision of funding reportedly enhanced Hamas’s ability to launch suicide attacks, as Iran transferred $400,000 dollars directly to the al-Qassam Brigades to support military activities in Israel.[64]

While the U.S. Department of State has claimed that Hamas has not received funding or arms directly from Syria, Syria has allowed the group to fundraise and obtain arms within the state and smuggle them directly to Palestinian cells. Despite this, a 2002 report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz claims that Syria offered Hamas direct aid if it were to restart its suicide bombing programs,[65] suggesting that Hamas could improve its tactical capabilities and its strategic goals through Syrian assistance. Although this may be pure conjecture, suicide attacks in Israel peaked in 2002, potentially representing Syrian influence during this period.[66] Thus, Iranian provision of funding and arms, as well as Syrian provisional aid and territory for smuggling, has helped Hamas carry out these attacks as well as to reduce the power differential between itself, Israel, Fatah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad—all actors that receive foreign financial support, either legally or illegally.[67]

Moreover, because most Hamas fighters are not trained soldiers, members of the IRGC provided training in various camps across Syria and Lebanon, as well as in Tehran to learn various field tactics and weapons technologies. According to his own omission, Hassan Salameh, the Hamas commander who orchestrated several suicide bus bombings in Israel in 1996, stated that he received all of his military training from Iranian forces. Overall, due to its fighters’ lack of advanced military training, its demand for advanced weapons systems, and its limited fundraising sources, Hamas turned to state sponsors to provide these necessary materials in order to ensure not only their survival but further success. Furthermore, Syria also provided significant safe haven to Hamas leadership, allowing them to plot attacks inside of the state without government interference, helping to improve the organization’s tactical fluidity.[68] As an additional benefit, by partnering with Iran, Hamas gained access to the state’s existing alliance network between other groups sponsored by the states, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has helped carry out a significant number of Hamas attacks and smuggle weapons across the border.[69] These forms of support allowed Hamas to improve its operational logistics and efficiency, furthering its strategic interests.

 Hamas also established political offices in Tehran and Damascus (1999), increasing its access to both governments’ resources as well as decreasing its chances of counterterrorism as the main political leaders were based outside of Gaza in another sovereign territory. From these offices, leaders could meet with foreign leaders and speak with the media in order to raise a higher profile to garner regional and, potentially, local support.[70] Additionally, Hamas was able to achieve public recognition from both Iran and Syria in the 1990s and early 2000s, increasing its regional reputation.[71] For example, Hamas was included in an alliance of mostly secular organizations created by the Syrian state who rejected negotiations with Israel, and Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam and Hafez al Asad shared veiled statements praising Hamas.[72] Byman argues that this recognition is particularly essential for nationalist groups as their goal is eventually to take power over a state, which requires international support.[73]  Both public recognition and establishing political offices in Iran and Syria enhanced Hamas’s reputation as an influential political regional actor and also its threat to the West and Israel, as it was potentially able to harness government resources. Also, offices outside of Palestine helped Hamas more effectively coordinate its operations as well as protect its important political leadership.[74] 

Satisfaction of Organizational Interests

Hamas cooperated with Iran and Syria in order to advance its organizational and political interests, such as maintaining its base of fighters together, increasing its legitimacy with local populations, and effectively coordinating and planning operations. Because of its access to the Iranian logistical network, Hamas was able to spread its influence further across the Levant region, establishing a presence in Lebanese refugee camps, from which it was able to significantly increase its recruiting capacity.[75] Funding also could have been used to increase recruiting both within the Palestinian territories as well as refugee camps. Additionally, Hamas was able to adequately compensate its militants, deterring members from defecting to other organizations or seeking other sources of employment.[76] This compensation also increased loyalty to the organization, improving organizational cohesiveness and support for leadership. What’s more, in times of organizational distress, such as the decapitation of important leadership, Hamas reportedly increased Iranian financial and material support to limit the damage to the organization due to the deaths of Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi and Ahmed Yassin in 2004, which left the group with no clear internal leadership.[77] Thus, state sponsorship increased legitimacy of Hamas leadership within the organization through the provision of essential resources to the group’s members and maintained cohesiveness during times of distress.

Conflicts Between Satisfying Strategic and Organizational Interests

Although Hamas sought both material, logistical, and regional political benefits from its state sponsors, the conflict between its strategic and organizational interests occurred when its sponsors’ demands posed significant threats to the group’s domestic political reputation. As a nationalist group, Hamas was somewhat dependent on local support for its organization and its actions and was forced to reckon with popular opinion on the ground. One such ideal is the belief that an “Independent Palestine” is the strongest version of the state, and thus Hamas and its competitors are held to a standard of independent decision-making that is tied to its legitimacy in the region it seeks to control.[78] Thus, by engaging with powerful state sponsors, Hamas risked appearing as if it was no longer committed to its mission of achieving an independent Palestinian state and instead only sought to carry out Syria and Iran’s foreign policy goals.

Ultimately, an important change in Hamas’s strategic calculus occurred when it transitioned between 2002 to 2006 from complete rejectionism of Israel and devotion to total violence to a political party that utilizes violence in addition to functioning with a pseudo-democratic government to achieve its goals.[79] On January 25, 2006, Hamas officially transformed into a legitimate political actor after the organization won 76 out of the 132 seats in the Palestine National Authority government. [80] This strategic change was in many ways driven by popular desire for democratic governance in Gaza, which forced Hamas to alter its strategic calculus and maintain a balance between political sensibility and armed resistance.[81] Thus, Hamas’s reliance on local political support increased, forcing it to reexamine its relationships with its sponsors in order to further align its actions with the demands of its newly expanded base.  Without public support, Hamas not only faced the loss of political power to its rival, Fatah but also important recruiting and other smaller financial streams that are not externally sponsored by other states. In fact, in 2007, Hamas faced significant criticism from rival Fatah leaders inside the PLO, with one senior official stating “when I talk about Hamas, I cannot say they are Palestinians, because they are implementing a mandate for Iran, or Syria.”[82] As a result, state sponsorship sometimes backfired on Hamas; while the group obtained foreign assistance to achieve its strategic goals and improve the organization, their political reputation as a nationalistic actor was damaged, representing the inherent conflict between strategic interests and political goals.

As a secondary risk, Hamas potentially faced a decrease in both operational and organizational autonomy, as Iran and Syria could have dictated all of the group’s actions or implement its monitoring and sanctioning capabilities. While there is limited evidence of this loss of operational independence, especially since Hamas and its principals shared similar foreign policy goals in relation to Israel,[83] Hamas was surely concerned about this loss of autonomy especially when looking at Iran’s puppet, Hezbollah.[84] In order to avoid a complete loss of autonomy and also the risk of losing political support, Hamas had to develop other strategies to limit either sponsors control over their agency.

Strategies to Balancing Interests

One of Hamas’s most effective strategies in reducing both Iranian or Syrian control was maintaining multiple sponsors. By opening communication with Iran and Syria, as well as Egypt, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq (pre-U.S. invasion), Hamas was able to extract a large diversity of resources from multiple sponsors. Furthermore, the sponsors’ preferences did not always align, and thus they were largely unable to use collective action in order to pressure or sanction Hamas into following their demands. This strategy also helped Hamas avoid total and complete organizational failure, as following its refusal to support the Asad regime in Syria, the group faced a significant loss of funding, safe haven, and political capital; though, it was able to turn to other sponsors such as Qatar and Egypt to further their organizational and tactical capabilities.

Additionally, in order to maintain positive relations with local supporters, Hamas obtained third-party funding from wealthy donors in the Gulf, the West Bank, and Gaza to fund its social aid network which provided efficient, high-quality service to Palestinians. Strategically, this part of the organization was able to further establish its credibility and give it an edge over its Fatah rivals, who were unable to provide equally beneficial resources to its struggling citizens.[85] Although the proportion of citizens that were dependent on these resources was quite small,[86] the image created by these acts allowed Hamas to balance potential reputation damage due to state sponsorship with the idea that Hamas was overall more legitimate and credible than its rival.

When faced with state demands that conflicted with broader Palestinian public opinion, Hamas attempted the risky strategy of “walking a middle line” through neutral public statements. These actions ultimately cost the group its strongest sponsor: Iran. This strategy proved successful in the beginning of Hamas’s development when it made a neutral public statement during the First Gulf War, in which it neither supported Iraq nor the rest of the Arab world. In comparison to the PLO, who supported the Iranian enemy in Iraq, Hamas’s neutral stance did not negatively impact its relationship with either state. More importantly, Iran viewed Hamas as a more preferential option for sponsorship than its rival.[87] Thus, this strategy proved beneficial to Hamas as it allowed the organization to obtain new highly beneficial support.

However, during the beginning of the Arab Uprisings and the Syrian Civil War, Iran demanded that Hamas publicly support the Syrian state, which directly conflicted with Palestinian public opinion at the time as most of the population supported the mass movements. Initially, Hamas attempted to “reinterpret” Iran’s demands and again make neutral statements regarding the protests. In the end, the group faced significant domestic backlash and threats to its reputation, as it was viewed again as a foreign agent of Iran and Syria.[88] In order to save its political reputation, Hamas refused to promote the Assad regime and put itself in the Sunni block on the side of protestors.[89] In response, Iran severed its financial support and Hamas was forced to move its political offices from Syria to Qatar, officially ending cooperation with either state.[90] Thus, when Hamas decided that its sponsor’s demands posed an extreme threat to its political interests, as well as the organization’s legitimacy, it decided to take an action that eventually ended the relationship, despite its strategic benefits. Ultimately, broader political events can strain alliances between states and terror organizations, and in order to support its long-term strategic interests, terror organizations may dissolve a previously beneficial partnership that supported its organizational goals.


By examining Hamas’s relationship with its most important sponsors, I argue that terror organizations seek state sponsorship to satisfy their strategic and organizational interests. However, these interests can oftentimes conflict, especially when a sponsor provides important organizational benefits but their demands threaten a group’s political reputation and strategic long-term interests. Through the provision of arms, training, safe haven, and funding, Iran and Syria helped to improve Hamas’s tactical capabilities and furthered its strategic goals of targeting Israel and gaining domestic political power in Palestine. Furthermore, Hamas sought involvement with Iran’s international logistical network, which later provided the group with training and other forms of support. Hamas benefited from Iranian funding and both private and public legitimacy provided by Iran and Syria that served to strengthen the internal organization and increase member support. However, Hamas’s strategic-political interests of maintaining local support and becoming the dominant political faction in the Palestinian territories ultimately conflicted with its desire to seek sponsorship, as state demands conflicted with local popular opinion, particularly seen during the 2011 Arab Uprisings in Syria.

 Thus, I argue that when a group’s strategic and organizational interests conflict, the terror organization must find ways to balance the two in order to maintain important sources of sponsorship, or must conclude that the relationship no longer suits their needs. These differential mechanisms include diversifying the amount of state patrons, “walking a middle line” by making neutral public statements or reinterpreting a state’s demands, allowing terror organizations to increase their autonomy, preserving their reputation as an independent actor, and maintaining relationships with states that satisfy their strategic and organizational interests. However, terror organizations may choose to prioritize their strategic interests and political reputation, and therefore will sever relationships if they no longer match the group’s preferences. Despite their subservience in these relationships in exchange for highly valuable state benefits, we can still learn from studying terror organizations’ preferences,as they are an essential aspect of the principal-agent relationship. Overall, by examining state sponsorship from the terror organization’s perspective, we can derive serious lessons about these group’s agency and autonomous decision-making processes.

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[1] Marc R DeVore, “Exploring the Iran-Hezbollah Relationship: A Case Study of How State Sponsorship Affects Terrorist Group Decision-Making,” Perspectives on Terrorism 6, no. 4/5 (October 2012): pp. 85-107,

[2] Daniel L Byman, “The Changing Nature of State Sponsorship of Terrorism,” The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution, no. 16 (May 2008): 14,

[3] Matthew Levitt, “State Support for Hamas,” in Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 171-202,

[4] Daniel L Byman, “The Changing Nature of State Sponsorship of Terrorism,” 19.

[5] Jonah Blank, “Lashkar-e Taiba and the Threat to the United States of a Mumbai-Style Attack,” RAND Corporation Testimony Series, June 12, 2013, pp. 1-9,;“Who Is Responsible for the Taliban?” The Washington Institute (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 1, 2002),

[6] “Venezuela – United States Department of State,” U.S. Department of State (U.S. Department of State, December 1, 2020),

[7] Daniel L Byman, “Understanding, and Misunderstanding, State Sponsorship of Terrorism,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, November 2020, pp. 1-19,

[8]Barak Mendelsohn, “Strange Bedfellows: Syria’s Support for Jihadi Terrorist Groups and the Limits of Ideologically-Unlikely Partnerships,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism (forthcoming).

[9] Daniel Byman and Sarah E. Kreps, “Agents of Destruction? Applying Principal-Agent Analysis to State-Sponsored Terrorism,” International Studies Perspectives 11, no. 1 (2010): pp. 1-18,

[10] Darren G. Hawkins and Wade Jacoby, “How Agents Matter,” in Delegation and Agency in International Organizations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 202.

[11] Daniel Byman, “Why Do States Support Terrorism?” in Deadly Connections: States That Sponsor Terrorism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 36-44.

[12] Byman, “Why Do States Support Terrorism?” 22.; Alex Wilner, “The Dark Side of Extended Deterrence: Thinking through the State Sponsorship of Terrorism,” Journal of Strategic Studies 41, no. 3 (February 3, 2017): pp. 410-437,

[13] Byman, “Why Do States Support Terrorism?” 33.

[14] Jacob N. Shapiro, “The Terrorist’s Dilemma ,” in The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 27,

[15] Idean Salehyan, “The Delegation of War to Rebel Organizations,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 54, no. 3 (July 2010): 495,

[16] Shapiro, “The Terrorist’s Dilemma ,” in The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations, 31.

[17] Byman and Kreps, “Agents of Destruction? Applying Principal-Agent Analysis to State-Sponsored Terrorism,” 3.

[18] Salehyan, “The Delegation of War to Rebel Organizations,” 495.

[19] Peter Krause, “The Political Effectiveness of Non-State Violence: A Two-Level Framework to Transform a Deceptive Debate,” Security Studies 22, no. 2 (2013): pp. 259-294,, 261.

[20] Krause, “The Political Effectiveness of Non-State Violence: A Two-Level Framework to Transform a Deceptive Debate,” 272.

[21] Ibid, 292.

[22] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006), 267.

[23] Daniel Byman, “The Nature and Impact of State Support,” in Deadly Connections: States That Sponsor Terrorism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 54.

[24] Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, 267.

[25] Byman, “The Nature and Impact of State Support,” 59.

[26] Byman, “Why Do States Support Terrorism?” 52.

[27] Byman, “The Nature and Impact of State Support,” 61.

[28] Hoffman, “Terrorism Today and Tomorrow,” in Inside Terrorism, 259.

[29] Salehyan, “The Delegation of War to Rebel Organizations,” 507.

[30] Byman, “The Nature and Impact of State Support,” 59.

[31] Ibid, 73.

[32] Byman, “The Nature and Impact of State Support,” 62.

[33] Krause, “The Political Effectiveness of Non-State Violence,” 272.

[34] Byman, “The Nature and Impact of State Support,” 60.

[35] Ibid, 61.

[36] Byman, “The Nature and Impact of State Support,” pp. 60-61.

[37] Ibid, pp. 63.

[38] Henning Tamm, “Rebel Leaders, Internal Rivals, and External Resources: How State Sponsors Affect Insurgent Cohesion,” International Studies Quarterly 60, no. 4 (August 22, 2016): pp. 599,

[39] Barak Mendelsohn, “Strange Bedfellows: Syria’s Support for Jihadi Terrorist Groups and the Limits of Ideologically-Unlikely Partnerships,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism (forthcoming), 6.

[40] Mendelsohn, “Strange Bedfellows,”.

[41] Salehyan, “The Delegation of War to Rebel Organizations,” 507.

[42] Ibid, 507.

[43] David B Carter, “A Blessing or a Curse? State Support for Terrorist Groups.” International Organization 66, no. 1 (2012): 129–51.

[44] Byman and Kreps, “Agents of Destruction?” 10.

[45] Carter, “A Blessing or a Curse? State Support for Terrorist Groups,” 130.

[46] John Worman, “Abu Nidal: Chameleon of Change, A.K.A. Terrorism’s Free Agent.” Global Security Studies 4:1 (2013), 64; Salehyan, “The Delegation of War to Rebel Organizations,” 507.

[47] Ibid, 507.

[48] Hawkins and Jacoby, “How Agents Matter,” in Delegation and Agency in International Organizations, 208.

[49] Ibid, 205.

[50] Salehyan, “The Delegation of War to Rebel Organizations,” 509.

[51] Hawkins and Jacoby, “How Agents Matter,” 206.

[52] Byman, “The Nature and Impact of State Support,” 78.

[53]Mohammed M Hafez and Marc-André Walther, “Routledge Handbook of Political Islam,” in Routledge Handbook of Political Islam (Abingdon, Oxon: Taylor & Francis Group, 2011), pp. 63-64,

[54] Hafez and Walther, “Routledge Handbook of Political Islam,” 65.

[55] Glenn E. Robinson, “Hamas as Social Movement,” in Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach, ed. Quintan Wiktorowicz (Indiana University Press, 2003), pp. 112-137,

[56] Thomson, “The Ties that Bind: Iran and Hamas’ Principal-Agent Relationship,” 8.

[57] Khaled Hroub, “Hamas and ‘International Islamism’,” in Hamas: A Beginner’s Guide (New York: Pluto Press, 2010), pp. 93-103, doi:10.2307/j.ctt183p4vc.12.

[58] Thomson, “The Ties that Bind: Iran and Hamas’ Principal-Agent Relationship,” 125.

[59] Daniel Byman, “Syria and Palestinian Radical Groups,” in Deadly Connections: States That Sponsor Terrorism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 139.

[60] Levitt, “State Support for Hamas.”

[61] “Iran, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” Wilson Center, accessed December 20, 2020,

[62] Harriet Sherwood, “Hamas and Iran Rebuild Ties Three Years after Falling out over Syria,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, January 9, 2014),

[63] Hafez and Walther, “Routledge Handbook of Political Islam,” in Routledge Handbook of Political Islam, 64.

[64] Levitt, “State Support for Hamas,” 174.

[65] Ze’ev Schiff, “Sources Say Syria Pushing Hamas to Renew Attacks,” (Haaretz, January 11, 2018),

[66] Ora Szekely, “Hamas,” in Politics of Militant Survival in the Middle East: Resources, Relationships, and Resistance (Palgrave MacMillan, 2017), 211.

[67] Thomson, “The Ties that Bind: Iran and Hamas’ Principal-Agent Relationship,” 8.

[68] Szekely, “Hamas,” in Politics of Militant Survival in the Middle East: Resources, Relationships, and Resistance, 217.

[69] Ibid, 215.

[70] Ibid, 215.

[71] Ibid, 214.

[72] Szekely, “Hamas,” 212.

[73] Byman, “The Nature and Impact of State Support,” 62.

[74] Byman, “Syria and Palestinian Radical Groups,” 132.

[75] Byman, “The Nature and Impact of State Support,” 66.; Szekely, “Hamas,” 215.

[76] Thomson, “The Ties that Bind: Iran and Hamas’ Principal-Agent Relationship,” 116.

[77] Levitt, “State Support for Hamas,” 174.

[78] Thomson, “The Ties that Bind: Iran and Hamas’ Principal-Agent Relationship,” 118.

[79] Fawaz A. Gerges, “The Transformation of Hamas,” The Nation, June 29, 2015,

[80] Hafez and Walther, “Routledge Handbook of Political Islam,” in Routledge Handbook of Political Islam, 62.

[81] Gerges, “The Transformation of Hamas.”

[82] Szekely, “Hamas,” 217.

[83] Ibid, 217.

[84] Levitt, “State Support for Hamas,” 174.

[85] Szekely, “Hamas,” 226.

[86] Ibid, 228.

[87] Thomson, “The Ties that Bind: Iran and Hamas’ Principal-Agent Relationship,” 30.; Szekely, “Hamas,” 213.

[88] Thomson, “The Ties that Bind: Iran and Hamas’ Principal-Agent Relationship,” 119.

[89] Tareq Baconi, “Regional Misfortunes,” in Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018), 186.

[90] Szekely, “Hamas,” 218.