Trouble from the US ‘Terrorism List’

Over the years, the U.S. “terrorism list” has become less an objective assessment of groups that use violence against civilians than an ideological battlefield littered with blatant hypocrisies and outdated hatreds. The list has even complicated strategies for reducing political violence, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The common American tendency to view the outside world in starkly divided Manichean terms between friends, allies and good guys on one side and adversaries and evil-doers on the other side arises in many circumstances but seems especially marked in discussions of terrorism.

The tendency is most visible in how the lists that have become mainstays of counterterrorist policy are widely perceived. The U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations had an almost mundane purpose when it was established by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

In Afghanistan, U.S. Army Pfc. Sean Serritelli provides security outside Combat Outpost Charkh on Aug. 23, 2012. (Photo credit: Spc. Alexandra Campo)

One of the principal features of that legislation was to criminalize the provision of material support to any foreign terrorist organization. This made necessary clear definitions not only of material support but also of foreign terrorist organizations. Hence the creation of the list, entries on which are determined by the secretary of state with the participation of other executive departments and according to criteria specified in the statute.

Notwithstanding this purpose, support to the enforcement of a criminal law, the list of foreign terrorist organizations gets regarded as if it were a more general act of condemnation that embodies what overall U.S. policy toward a given group is or ought to be. It is taken as a declaration of who is in the bad guys’ camp and who is not.

Listing or delisting of a particular group gets promoted by those with an agenda that has nothing to do with enforcement of a criminal statute. This has been seen most obviously with the well-financed campaign to delist the Iranian cult-cum-terrorist group the Mujahedin-e Khalq. Or pushing for a particular group’s listing is a way of making a statement, as has most recently been the case with the question of  whether to list the Haqqani group of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This way of looking at the list has several disadvantages. It constitutes pressure to politicize what is supposed to be an administrative and legal decision. It increases the potential negative consequences of listing a group because non-Americans follow the American lead in looking at listing as a general act of condemnation.

Listing of the Haqqani group, however much it may be legally warranted under the terms of the relevant statute, might complicate not only U.S. relations with Pakistan but also any future efforts to negotiate an Afghan peace with the Taliban.

Sharply dividing groups into ones that get the terrorist label and thus are to be condemned and those that are not so labeled and condemned does not correspond to the messy reality of what groups do and don’t do.

Lebanese Hezbollah is perhaps the foremost example of a group that is known (and listed) in the United States as a terrorist group but is also much more than that. Instead of exploring different options in intelligently dealing with this multifaceted group, more attention gets devoted in a simplistic way to U.S.-European differences on whether Hezbollah “is” a terrorist group, i.e., is officially listed and branded as such.

A related problem is how putting a group on the bad side of the good guys/bad guys divide reduces one’s policy flexibility because this one act of branding tends to preclude any engagement with the group, no matter how much such engagement would make sense. Probably the premier example is Hamas. The International Crisis Group recently observed that the ostracism of Hamas may entail yet another costly missed opportunity in the Middle East.

The rigid perceptual division of friends and enemies and the tendency to associate bad behavior such as terrorism only with the enemies does not correspond to actual behavioral patterns. It means, for example, overlooking in the Middle East Jewish terrorism until it occurs frequently enough to make it impossible to overlook entirely.

In the United States it means a tendency to consider all terrorism worth worrying about to be Islamist and to discourage attention to other varieties that, based on what has been happening inside the United States, are worth worrying about at least as much [i.e., cases of terrorism by white right-wing extremists].

We would be better advised to remember that terrorism is a tactic, not a fixed set of protagonists who are the only ones ever to use it. We should also remember that good and evil are pretty widely distributed in the world and not just confined to different parts of it.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post  at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

4 comments for “Trouble from the US ‘Terrorism List’

  1. September 7, 2012 at 05:29

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  2. Revo
    September 4, 2012 at 20:36

    Keep up the good work by bringing the truth out.

  3. incontinent reader
    September 4, 2012 at 17:03

    This is a welcome article.

    One way to begin to wind down the “war on terror” might be to challenge the legislative and administrative findings, both with regard to the various military invasions, and the groups that have been included on the State Department’s “terrorist list”- i.e., the legal predicates for the “war on terror”. While reinvestigating 9/11, and forcing the declassification of documents that Congress and the prior Administration suppressed would make a huge difference, it may be enough just to reevaluate the facts and specifics of the various wars we have been engaged in-i.e., facts that already in the public domain. This however would require a huge groundswell of popular support and a broad-based demand for rational discourse, together with pressure on both parties that their worst members of Congress would be closely scrutinized and targeted for defeat. A peace policy is something that David Swanson and Coleen Rowley have addressed in their recent articles (and is something Richard Perle and other neocons are currently challenging).

    If Obama is reelected, he would have an opportunity to rehabilitate his Presidency. Whether he has the courage and vision to do so is a real question, given his record to date and his obeisance to AIPAC and his AIPAC mentors. If he is not reelected, such an outcome would seem less likely under a Romney Presidency, given Romney’s hardline foreign policy team, his ties and debts to persons like Adelsohn and image makers like Ronn Torrosian (who is, incidentally, also a lobbyist for the Marriott Corporation) and his flat-out ignorance and bias toward China, Russia and the Islamic world.

    Talk may be cheap, but we are now at a threshold where, if we continue to breed chaos in Syria, Iran and the rest of the Middle East, and Central, South and East Asia, we could trigger WWIII, especially if we let fanatics with a “masada complex” like Netanyahu dictate or influence our foreign policy Alternatively, we could move to a relaxation of tensions with China and Russia and adopt a policy of coordinated and peaceful development, which could trigger an explosion of infrastructure investment overseas and jobs at home. Trade and cross cultural exchanges between the Third World and the West, would lead to greater prosperity for all parties, and increase the prospects for peace and global stability.

  4. September 4, 2012 at 16:12

    Has MEK Become Rehabilitated?
    History of MEK goes back to almost half century. And before the revolution, Shah’s government identified them as Marxixt-Islamist Terrorists. After Khomeini regime started massacring and executing them in the prisons by the hundereds, they turned on that regime and fled to Iraq for protection. Around 3,500 lived in Camp Asharf, and were supplied with variety of arms and weapons, including training.
    After US invasion of Iraq, US tried to rehabilitate MEK leadership, in order to utilize their military skills, excellent knowledge of the region, and language skills in Farsi, Arabic, English or French. Most of these group memners were college graduates.
    Hundreds pledged to help the west, specifically in order to go back and topple Khomeini regime.
    Few western intel agencies which were convinced that these volunteers have been rehabilitated and honor their pledge to hepl the west, then recruited them. And now are using these group in the whole region to combat terrorism and anti western groups.

    Because of this reason Mr. Bolton and many in the US Congress and even State Department support MEK now. They strongly believe that after thirty years, they have indeed been rehabilitated.

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