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It’s time to rethink US terrorism designations

The State Department’s terrorist lists have become politicized and counterproductive.

Analysis | Global Crises

President Joe Biden has promised to “build back better” when it comes to the U.S. economy. The same should be true for foreign policy, and one smart step would be to rethink the way the State Department designates state sponsors of terrorism as well as foreign terrorist organizations.

These designations may have made sense when the United States began issuing them more than four decades ago. But many have long since become overly politicized and now amount to counterproductive expressions of disapproval for adversarial regimes and groups.

The Trump administration made these dynamics plain when it put Cuba back on the terrorism list a week before it left office and began the process of designating the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization. The Biden administration reversed the second step but has not yet done anything about the first — even though Cuba has not been implicated in violent activities in other countries for many years.

Only three other states remain on the list: Syria, the only original designee from the list’s inception in 1979; North Korea, taken off in 2008 but shoved back on in 2017 when leader Kim Jung Un’s nuclear ambitions proved resistant to Donald Trump’s summitry; and Iran, a long-time U.S. adversary that under the previous administration had agreed to a landmark non-proliferation deal.

Iraq was on the list for many years but the Reagan administration removed the designation in 1982 so it could help Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. The United States then totally confused the issue by selling arms to Iran — on the list since 1984 — during the Iran-Contra scandal, violating U.S. law and deceiving Congress. Iraq was put back on in 1990 after it invaded Kuwait and removed again in 2004, a year after the United States invaded and ousted Saddam Hussein.

Most recently, Sudan — a designee since 1993 — was taken off the list when it agreed after a bit of diplomatic arm-twisting to recognize the state of Israel and to pay compensation to relatives of American victims of terrorism.

Meanwhile countries such as Pakistan have never been designated despite harboring all manner of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists over the years, including al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden. Similarly, Saudi Arabia has gotten a pass despite the support jihadis have gotten from individual Saudis, in the past with the assistance of some Saudi officials.

Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have also gone undesignated despite their backing for a variety of unsavory groups that have killed civilians in regional conflicts from Libya to Yemen. Israel, too, has worked with nefarious actors including the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, or MEK, rumored to have carried out assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, as well as proxies such as the South Lebanon Army.

The Foreign Terrorist Organization list has also been politicized and has now ballooned to 70 groups. Many are offshoots of al-Qaida and the Islamic State, which are certainly guilty of terrorism. However, the Trump administration in 2019 added Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the first time the United States had so designated the military of another country. That step, on top of the U.S. unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, failed to curb Iran’s interference in its neighbors or the resurgence of its nuclear program but has certainly complicated U.S. diplomacy with Iran.

Others on the FTO list include Hezbollah and Hamas, which committed terrorist acts especially in their early days but are not adequately defined anymore by such labels. They both have deep roots in their societies and governments and would not disappear even if they lost support from their Iranian benefactors. The same goes for many Iraqi Shiite militias and for Yemen’s Houthis. By labeling them as terrorist, the Untied States makes it difficult if not impossible to engage these organizations and to reduce instability in the places where they are active.

As a journalist who has visited Iran nine times and North Korea three times and also met with members of Hezbollah, the IRGC and the Palestine Liberation Organization when it was still on the FTO list, I may have gained a more nuanced understanding of them than American diplomats and intelligence officers denied access because of the terrorist taint.

Does it really serve U.S. interests to continue this practice? Or is it just a way to placate domestic political opinion, please allies and feel morally superior while undermining the chances of reducing conflict? When one considers the tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed as a result of U.S. policies, such as the invasion of Iraq in search of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, the hypocrisy and counterproductive nature of these designations becomes even more apparent.

It may be appropriate to continue to brand al-Qaida, ISIS and their many offshoots as terrorists given their propensity to target innocents. However, the violent actions of other groups on the list, while reprehensible, in many cases are technically acts of war not terrorism. One example is the Marine barracks bombing of 1983, which landed Iran and later Hezbollah on the terrorism list. The Reagan administration sent U.S. Marines to Lebanon, after the Israeli invasion of that country in 1982, with a vague mandate and authorized their shift from a peacekeeping to a combatant role in Lebanon’s long and complicated civil war. While it is horrible that so many were killed in their beds after a suicide bomber breached the barracks’ perimeter, those Marines should not have been put in that position to begin with.

The same goes for some 600 Americans killed in Iraq as a result of Iranian provided IEDs after the U.S. invasion in 2003. The Bush administration chose to make Iran a charter member of the “Axis of Evil” in 2002 despite Iranian help in 2001 in overthrowing the Taliban regime that had harbored al-Qaida. The same administration declared war on all terrorism of “global reach” instead of concentrating on the Sunni fundamentalists — Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians — who killed 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001.

The United States rejected Iranian help in Iraq and warnings that Iraq would not be a “cake walk” despite the claims of war proponents in Washington. It also gave protection to members of the MEK in Iraq even though the group was still on the FTO list and refused to swap them for al-Qaida detainees in Iran. (The Obama administration took the MEK off the list when its remaining members in Iraq agreed to leave for Albania in 2012.)

At a time when the United States is menaced more by violent domestic extremists than foreigners, it should rethink these categories and designations. If the Biden administration hopes to reduce conflict in the Middle East and finally “pivot” toward Asia and our biggest economic competitor, China, it also needs to reduce the obsessive focus on Iran and its partners. Policymakers need to understand the grievances of these groups and not reflexively brand them as terrorists. That has done Americans — and the people of the Middle East — no good.

President Joe Biden gets briefed by Liz Sherwood Randall, Julie Rodriguez and participates in a conference phone call with governors affected by the snow storm in the middle of the country in the Oval Office, Feb. 16, 2021, in Washington. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
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