Are Terrorist Lists Doing Their Job?

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Date: 
April 12, 2010
Author: 
Suraj K. Sazawal

A March 18, 2010 policy analysis by Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, questions the purpose and efficacy of terrorist lists, such as the Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list.  Clawson says the credibility and effectiveness of lists are jeopardized when the foreign policy agenda supersedes national security concerns in determining who is added or removed. He joins others like the State Department’s chief counterterrorism official, Daniel Benjamin in promoting a more lucid and proactive process for delisting entities not engaged in terrorist activities.  

“If decisions about listing organizations as sponsors of terrorism are made based on general foreign policy considerations rather than on evidence about terrorist activities,” Clawson writes, “the list may well be seen as a political tool, in which case other governments will be less likely to cooperate in blocking material support to listed groups.”

He adds, “The law requires that a group be maintained on the list only if it "engages in terrorist activity." But Clawson says terrorist lists include groups and countries that “Washington simply does not like, often with little connection to terrorism.” He identifies an Iranian group that has been listed for years based on State Department reports containing “numerous nonterrorist allegations” and “without offering any indication that the group continues to engage in terrorism.”
 
According to the State Department’s website (and reiterated by Treasury’s Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing David S. Cohen speaking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy a few days after Clawson wrote this analysis)  the purpose of FTO designations is to reducesupport for terrorist activities”  and “pressuring groups to get out of the terrorism business." That stands in sharp contrast with how the U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, described the non-violent services the Humanitarian Law Project wanted to provide to a designated group in the Supreme Court case, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project
 
"Can you say to an organization, look, you guys really should lay down your arms?... Well, now you can't. Because when you tell people, here's how to apply for aid and here's how to represent yourself within international organizations or within the U.S. Congress, you've given them an extremely valuable skill that they can use for all kinds of purposes, legal or illegal."
 
Her comment, Clawson writes, “suggests that it is illegal to advise groups to abandon terrorism. And yet one struggles to see how such a position advances the objective of countering terrorism.” He adds, “surely it is appropriate to encourage groups to drop their terrorist activities, as the United States successfully did with some extremist Irish Republican groups and the Palestine Liberation Organization.”