Playing Politics with Terrorism List

Congressional Republicans continue to push Islamo-phobic bills, now seeking to put the mostly political Muslim Brotherhood on the foreign terrorist list, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Legislation introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Florida, to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) is regrettable on multiple counts. It represents a perversion of the FTO list and reflects an attitude that is likely to increase rather than decrease Islamist terrorism.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, then a presidential contender, addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on March 21, 2016, (Photo credit: AIPAC)

There was no official U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations until 20 years ago, and no need for one despite international terrorism having been a major official concern well before then. Notwithstanding the common practice in public discourse and the press of referring to how this or that government brands or designates a particular group as “terrorist,” any listing or branding by itself accomplishes nothing in combating such groups or reducing terrorism.

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 created the U.S. FTO list for a very specific practical reason. Other provisions in that law criminalized for the first time the provision of material support to foreign terrorist organizations. To make prosecution under this statute possible, there needed to be a precise way of defining what constitutes a foreign terrorist organization. Hence the creation of the list.

The 1996 legislation established a procedure in which the various departments and agencies involved participate in a lengthy review process to examine which groups should be listed as FTOs. The law spells out the criteria to govern the review, which basically are that the group must be an identifiable organization that is foreign and has engaged in terrorism that somehow affects U.S. interests. The review process has been thorough and laborious, including the preparation of detailed “administrative records” assembling the available information about each group under examination. The Secretary of State makes the final determinations regarding listing or delisting.

There has been some political manipulation of the list, though it has been to keep or move a group off the list rather than putting it on. The most salient case of this involved the Iranian cult and terrorist group known as the Mojahedin-e Khalq, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delisted in 2012. The group, which has killed American citizens in terrorist attacks and clearly met the criteria for being on the FTO list, had not changed its stripes. Instead, the delisting was a response to the group’s long-running and well-financed lobbying campaign to win favor in Washington and especially among members of Congress.

A Congressionally imposed listing of the Muslim Brotherhood would be the first time such politicization would involve putting an organization on the FTO list rather than taking it off. It also would be the first time a group was listed not because of terrorist activities but instead because of dislike for its ideology.

Such a Congressional imposition would be a political end-run around the well-established process for applying the best possible expertise and information to the question of whether a group meets the criteria under the law that governs the FTO list. Such a move would reduce further the credibility in foreign eyes of what the U.S. Government say about terrorism, and lend substance to charges that much of what the United States calls opposition to terrorism is really just opposition to politics and ideologies it does not favor.

Mostly Political, Not Violent

The Muslim Brotherhood is a predominantly Egyptian organization with origins that go back to the 1920s. Its establishment was partly a response to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and to the militant secularism of Ataturk and his abolition of the Istanbul-based caliphate. For most of its modern history in Egypt, the Brotherhood has been the principal peaceful manifestation of political Islam.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in July 2012. Morsi, a leader of Muslim Brotherhood, was imprisoned after a 2013 military coup in Egypt. (U.S. government photo)

During the rule of Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood was officially proscribed but in practice tolerated, being allowed to run candidates for office as independents or under the label of some other party. The extent of the Brotherhood’s popular support was demonstrated after Mubarak’s fall, when in a free election a Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi, was elected president. The Egyptian military coup of 2013 began a harsh crackdown that was aimed at political liberties in general but specifically at the Muslim Brotherhood.

The forms and practices of Brotherhood offshoots outside Egypt have depended on the extent of political liberty in each location. In Jordan, for example, the organization has had a status slightly freer than the Egyptian Brotherhood had under Mubarak. The group in Jordan runs candidates and wins parliamentary seats under the Brotherhood’s own party label, the Islamic Action Front. Where political liberty is lacking, something different evolves. In the Palestinian territories, for example, that evolution involved the creation of Hamas (which has its own place on the U.S. FTO list).

The habit of seeing previous Muslim Brotherhood ties in the violent and extreme activities of other groups disregards how participation in these groups, and especially the use of terrorism, is a rejection of the Brotherhood’s peaceful, gradualist path. Such groups are foes, not offshoots or extensions, of the Brotherhood. The groups that terrorized Egypt in the 1990s explicitly opposed the Brotherhood and thought that its peaceful ways were feckless. The leader of one of those groups, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is now the leader of Al Qaeda.

The Folly of Suppression

The fundamental mistake in suppressing groups such as the Brotherhood, or in effect condoning such suppression with a step such as the Cruz-Diaz legislation, is that closing peaceful channels for the expression of political Islam moves more people into the violent channels. We have seen this process playing out in Egypt since the coup, with the harsh practices of military strongman Abdul Fatah al-Sisi being followed directly by an upsurge in terrorist violence in Egypt.

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

The unfortunate lesson being absorbed by many young men with Islamist inclinations is that all those years of forbearance by the Brotherhood were for naught. The lesson is that only a violent path has any chance of success.

The newly introduced legislation is bad not only as a politicization of counterterrorism but also as a counterproductive approach to Islamist terrorism in particular. Also unfortunate are indications of this approach becoming part of the new administration’s direction. A disturbing part of the testimony this week by the nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was his seamless lumping of the Muslim Brotherhood with “other agents of radical Islam, like al-Qaeda.”

Likely to be even more damaging is the entrenchment of indiscriminate Islamophobia at the center of national security decision-making in the White House.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 


24 comments for “Playing Politics with Terrorism List

  1. Fergus Hashimoto
    January 21, 2017 at 23:39

    The MB has dabbled in terrorism throughout its existence. Some branches are terrorist (like the Syrian branch until 1982 and after 2011) while others abstain, at least pro forma. The Egyptian MB was not overtly terrorist during its stint in power under Morsi. However Morsi appointed as governor of Luxor the terrorist boss of Gamaa al Islamiyya who had commanded the 1997 Luxor massacre. Hamas, an overtly terrorist organization, is officially part of MB. In other words, this whole article is simply a bunch of opportunist twaddle.

  2. Zachary Smith
    January 19, 2017 at 01:13


  3. Zachary Smith
    January 19, 2017 at 01:13


  4. William Heron
    January 16, 2017 at 20:56

    And there was me thinking this was a serious publication. ‘…Islamo-phobic bills,…’ anyone who uses the non word Islamophobic shows that they understand nothing about the subject matter they are discussing. It is the religious equivalent of the music term EDM. A phobia is an irrational fear, there is nothing irrational about fearing Islam. Those with any knowledge on the subject, -like the queen of Jordan- use the term Muslimophobic. About the only legitimate usage of the word comes from this quote, ‘Islamophobia is a word created by fascists and used by cowards to manipulate morons.’ I am not sure who said it originally but it is excellent.

    • evelync
      January 16, 2017 at 21:09

      Mr Heron,
      According to wikipedia
      “Islamophobia or Muslimophobia (see section “Terms” for related terms) refers to fear, prejudice, hatred or dislike directed against Islam or Muslims, or towards Islamic politics or culture.[1][2][3]”

      The council on American Islamic Relations also refers to the term:

      It does seem a reach to have a fear of a religion “Islam’ or the followers of that religion, “Muslims”. The mass hysteria we are witnessing is also, IMO, ridiculous……

      so there it is….


      • William Heron
        January 17, 2017 at 19:55

        My point was there is a difference between Islamophobia and Muslimophobia.
        To quote the link you provided on Wikipedia:
        There are a number of other possible terms to refer to negative feelings and attitudes towards Islam and Muslims, such as anti-Muslimism, intolerance against Muslims, anti-Muslim prejudice, anti-Muslim bigotry, hatred of Muslims, anti-Islamism, Muslimophobia, demonisation of Islam, or demonisation of Muslims. In German, Islamophobie (fear) and Islamfeindlichkeit (hostility) are used. The Scandinavian term Muslimhat literally means ‘hatred of Muslims’
        Wikipedia clearly splits the two which is exactly what I have done, I suggest that those, such as the author of the piece and yourself, who cannot differentiate between the rational fear of political Islam and the irrational fear of Muslims need to get better acquainted with the subject matter or give up altogether.
        With regards to CAIR who use the term Islamophobia, it’s then chairman -because I’m assuming a woman couldn’t do this job- perfectly sums up my problem with political Islam and why phobia is the wrong word as my fear is entirely rational.”…CAIR Chairman Omar M. Ahmad July 1998, “Islam isn’t in America to be equal to any other faith, but to become dominant. The Koran . . . should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on earth….”
        I have a problem with that attitude. I don’t think it is reasonable or healthy in any society. I do not want to be dominated by any religion.
        Cheers to you too.

    • John
      January 17, 2017 at 01:25

      Please, explain how fear of one of the largest religions on the planet, that teaches that “To kill a single person is as if you have killed the whole world, but to save even a single life is as if you have saved the whole world”, and “there shall be no compulsion in matters of religion”, is rational.

      I suspect, like most people with phobias, you have not even the slightest understanding of what you fear. (Full disclosure, I am not a Muslim, I just have known many, and been good friends with a few.)

      • William Heron
        January 17, 2017 at 09:34

        Perhaps you should reread what I have written. If you actually spent the time to read, and more importantly comprehend it, you would have realised that I differentiated between Islam and Muslims. Not all Muslims are Islamists. My accountant is a Muslim but he most certainly isn’t an Islamist.
        I would suggest that I probably have far more experience of Islam than you. I lived and taught for 23 years in East London, I have lived in Kuwait, travelled to Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, UAE and Syria.
        I won’t waste my time quoting various slaughter the non believers texts out of the Quran as they are as numerous and varied as they are in the Bible. You can look hard for some more love dovie quotes if you like.
        My advice to you, do the world a favour and head off to Raqqa and have a chat with IS they will set you straight on the matter. But, don’t forget, it’s not personal they kill far more Muslims than non Muslims. 13 countries where Atheism is punishable by death, 14 if you include the Caliphate. What do you think those 13 countries have in common?
        I have nothing against some self described radical Muslims, I love the writings of Mona Eltahawy.

  5. evelync
    January 16, 2017 at 20:16

    I appreciate Paul Pillar’s thoughtful essay. Here in Texas, many of us accept that Ted Cruz is an idiot who won his Senate seat by entering the primaries in an off year where a small turnout was expected and he got lucky. Now he’s just part of the quirky landscape.
    He is an opportunist. And has no shame apparently.
    The political pendulum seems to have swung wildly to where ideology and opportunism trumps reason, justice and fairness.
    The use of the nomenclature “Terrorist” to make ‘enemies” out of whole cloth for political gain has become common place with unfortunate unintended consequences as Mr. Pillar points out.

    I would prefer that we take a look at using criminal justice laws to deal with all crimes instead of calling some “terrorist acts” and others by the usual name law enforcement uses to define various crimes.
    A murder is a murder whether it is perpetrated by a bomb or something else.
    Let’s call it that and deal with it accordingly.
    ‘Terrorism” has taken on a life of its own down a path where it is used for propaganda and fear mongering and political manipulation.

    The anti Muslim fear mongering is wrong and dangerous.

    It sounds like Mr Pillar tried his best to deal fairly with determining who is on or off a list as best he could when he served.
    However our government should not be compiling lists. But should deal with crimes within the criminal justice system.

    just saying…..

  6. fledrmaus
    January 16, 2017 at 19:38

    Erdogan is proponent of the MB. Maybe this addition to the list is about Erdogan this time.

  7. Jeff
    January 16, 2017 at 19:05

    In my opinion, we are looking at this topic from the wrong direction, and a large part of the problem is the misconception that the extremist terrorist threat to USA is still exclusively or even predominantly foreign-based or FTO-based, as retired CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar sees the world. But the real fact is that our most pervasive enemies are already in our borders, and they do not need guidance from an FTO to act. We continue to believe this is the case, but we are deceiving ourselves especially as we move further into the 21st century. How many non-U.S. citizens/residents have been arrested for terrorist attacks or plots on the USA in the past 8 years? You can likely count them on one hand. We do need a war of ideas – but establishment figures focused on exclusively “foreign” threats, rather than extremist ideologies don’t get this. We need a sea change on the perspective in the USA, before too many Americans pay the price of this blindness.

  8. Nancy
    January 16, 2017 at 18:52

    Hmm, your take on the MB I believe maybe held in small circles – interesting?

  9. Ted Tripp
    January 16, 2017 at 17:54

    From my understanding of Syria, gleaned from “The Dirty War on Syria” by Tim Anderson, the Muslim Brotherhood was attacking the Syrian secular government as long ago as the 1950s. They may not be in the news, overshadowed by Al Qaeda and ISIS, and they may have had some political success (briefly) in Egypt, but they surely qualify as “terrorists”.

    • Peter Loeb
      January 18, 2017 at 08:37


      Thanks to Ted Trip for having done essential “homework”. Tim Anderson’s
      book, THE DIRTY WAR ON SYRIA” (2016) is vital reading .

      From the secular Syrian Government’s point of view, the Muslim Brotherhood
      is a terrorist organization because in Syria it is violent.

      A separate assessment of the Muslim Brotherhood in the context
      of Palestine may have different results. The primary difference would
      be the oppression of the Zionist government (see Thomas Suarez,
      STATE OF TERROR, 2017).

      —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  10. Gary Hare
    January 16, 2017 at 17:00

    It is quite simple really. The world is made up of goodies and baddies. The goodies are the US (of course, being indispensable, not just exceptional), and all its besties. The baddies are the rest. (You’re either with us, or against us). If we don’t have lists, we don’t know which team we’re on. Avoids confusion! So Cruz and Diaz-Balart are doing us all a favour. If we’re not on the baddies list, we know we’re goodies (at least for a while). You see Gaddafi. Sadam, Morsi and that Syrian bloke didn’t know which list they were on, and got confused. The onus will now be on Cruz et al to keep the list up-to-date. In today’s electronic age, that should be both easy and timely.

    Oops! I almost forgot that Putin might hack the lists. I hope their Bill takes that into account. Perhaps Cruz et al should delegate to the CIA the task of keeping the lists current. They could then hack a bogus list into Putin’s iPad, to confuse the hell out of him.

    Fun, isn’t it?

  11. Zachary Smith
    January 16, 2017 at 15:48

    Legislation introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas…..

    I don’t know a thing about the Muslim Brotherhood, but my default position is that if Canadian Ted Cruz advocates something, it’s safer to automatically take an opposite stance until further notice.

  12. Mark Thomason
    January 16, 2017 at 14:53

    That is just “any Muslim enemy of Israel is a terrorist.”

  13. Bill Bodden
    January 16, 2017 at 14:11

    Legislation introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Florida, to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) is regrettable on multiple counts.

    We probably have more to fear from the likes of Ted Cruz and Mario Diaz-Balart and their political associates than we do from the Muslim Brotherhood.

  14. Sally Snyder
    January 16, 2017 at 13:17

    Here is an interesting look at how a person ends up on America’s terrorist watchlist:

    Some of the same players who provided the faulty information that led to the never-ending conflict in Iraq are still responsible for providing America’s security apparatus.

  15. turk151
    January 16, 2017 at 12:26

    This was a very confusing article, until I read the author’s bio. and realized I was reading Fake News.

    The Muslim Brotherhood is the instrument in which the CIA uses to destabilizes secular governments in the Middle East and attack Russia.

    A broken clock is right twice a day, and in this case, I agree with Senator Cruz.

    • Stefan
      January 16, 2017 at 12:38

      You are right, but Cruz is most likely not pulling this off for the same reasons you(or I) might think it belongs on that list.

      MB, although a very old CIA asset, is tarnished after the failure to hold power in Egypt, the failure of the Arab “Spring”[sic; Sting], the defeat in Syria(where MB elements (under multiple names, changing weekly) where injected into Syria by US and its allies).

      MB can still be a useful asset, by placing it on a list that can be used for for many decades as the source and inspiration of pretexts for more neoconned actions and legislations.

      There is no loss on the other side as well, there is no shortage imagination and resources to conjure up new organisations (or resurrect old ones) to fill its void.

      Lastly, I would just like to add, that for me Paul R. Pillar rarely writes something that does not feel suspicious. I always read him with great caution and extremely critical eyes.

  16. Chris Chuba
    January 16, 2017 at 12:20

    Just as bad is the ‘state sponsor of terrorism’ list which has about a dozen members which is basically a list of countries that we don’t like. You can’t even make a coherent argument for more than one or two of these countries. The problem is that once a country makes it on the list it would take a Secretary of State with brass balls to remove them even if it’s obvious that they don’t belong on it.

    Okay, we don’t like Cuba and N. Korea but what terrorist groups do they sponsor? But if you remove them from the list the Howler Monkey’s will say that you are rewarding bad behavior and getting nothing in return.

    Why is Syria on the list? Allegedly they assisted Al Qaeda in Iraq but that was a load of you know what. Syria is currently fighting the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq tooth and nail for survival while we are giving weapons to rebels aligned with AQI. Hmm… maybe we should put ourselves on the list. The real reason is that they are on good terms with Iran and anyone who receives help from Iran is targeted for extinction which is psychotic.

    The problem with this list is that it has legal entanglements. It should be abolished altogether. If we have a beef with a specific country then we can still deal with them without being legally constrained by this monstrosity of a list.

    • rosemerry
      January 17, 2017 at 16:23

      When will the IDF (Israel “defense” Force) be recognized as a terrorist organization? For some reason, Iran is called a “State supporter of terrorism” when it supports resistance movements like Hamas in Gaza which is fighting illegal IDF attacks on its remaining land, while Israel can never even be called to order for terrorizing whole populations in the WB, annexed (illegally) East Jerusalem, or overflying and attacking Lebanon and occupied Syrian Golan Heights.
      The word terrorism has become meaningless-even attacking soldiers is called that by the USA if the soldiers are its own.

  17. January 16, 2017 at 12:06

    The true threat to Anglo-American hegemony in the middle east is secular Arab republicanism, which is anathema to the Salafist Saudi kingdom. The Saudi royals rule the kingdom under a strict sharia code all are expected to adhere to, all except the royals who travel abroad indulging in wild woman, music and drugs. Playing carelessly on western streets in million dollar supercars with impunity.
    If the whole of Arabia became a secular federation of publicly governed democratic states they would still sell Europe and America as much oil as they can handle.

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