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Reality or Politics Shaping U.S.'Sponsors of Terrorism' Blacklist?

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On Dec. 29, 1979, the State Department released its “state sponsors of terrorism” blacklist for the first time. All four countries singled out at that time were radical Arab “rogue” nations: Iraq, Libya, South Yemen and Syria.

Today, nearly 30 years later, only one of the original four, Syria, remains on that list, along with three other bad boys: Cuba (added in 1982), Iran (1984) and Sudan (1993). South Yemen came off the list in 1990 after it merged with the Yemen Arab Republic, Iraq was dropped following the U.S. invasion of 2003, and Libya was quietly removed in 2006 after Col. Muammar Gaddafi renounced terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

But critics charge that the list “reeks with hypocrisy,” saying it has less to do with reality and more to do with political expediency. After all, it’s doubtful that the entire world’s terrorist acts are all planned and financed from secret bunkers in Damascus, Havana, Khartoum and Tehran.

For example, North Korea is no longer on the list, even though it’s still pursuing nuclear weapons in flagrant violation of numerous U.N. resolutions. And Pakistan, home of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan — widely believed to have supervised a clandestine international network of nuclear weapons proliferation involving Libya, Iran and North Korea — was never on the list to begin with, perhaps because from the beginning Islamabad has been considered an ally in Washington’s highly publicized war on terrorism

“I think the idea of identifying countries involved in terrorist actions against other countries does make some sense,” said Wayne Smith, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. “But when it gets to the point that some nations are on the list and there’s no evidence at all to support them being there, what sense does that make? It’s counterproductive.”

The State Department designates countries determined to have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism” pursuant to three laws: Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act, Section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act, and Section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act, according to its official Web site.

In simple English, this means that under U.S. law, such countries may not buy weapons, defense-related equipment and certain “dual-use” items from the United States. It also implies various financial and other restrictions aimed at punishing them for their support of international terrorism.

Every year on April 30, the State Department issues its annual list — a complex task, according to Col. Larry Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

“It’s a very thorough process,” Wilkerson recently told Voice of America. “It’s heavily vetted. It’s looked at from all ramifications, as you might imagine — political, financial, social and cultural. And it’s not a light decision to put someone on the terrorist list.”

The list though generally flies under the radar for the general public, but it made big headlines in October 2008 when the Bush administration removed North Korea after it agreed to verification of its nuclear weapons programs. The regime in Pyongyang had been branded a terrorist-supporting state in 1988 because of the bombing of a South Korean airliner, and also because it gave asylum to members of the Japanese Red Army Faction.

North Korea’s removal from the blacklist was a major triumph for its leader Kim Jong Il, but in hindsight, it may have been a major defeat for the United States.

Since the removal, Pyongyang has vacillated from conciliatory gestures such as releasing American and South Korean detainees to blatantly snubbing its nose at the West with claims of nuclear advances.

It conducted an underground nuclear test in May, and in early September, North Korea announced that it had nearly completed the reprocessing of spent fuel rods, from which plutonium is extracted to make nuclear weapons.

Victor D. Cha, a Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, says the announcement marked “the first public admission by the North — after seven years of denial — of its secret pursuit of nuclear weapons through a second type of program, i.e., uranium in addition to plutonium.”

It was certainly not the sort of talk the North was making while it was lobbying to get off the U.S. terrorism list, back when it promised to allow international inspectors to verify the dismantlement of its nuclear program — promises that have since vanished.

In retrospect, says Nicholas Szechenyi, a specialist in Northeast Asian affairs at CSIS, Bush’s decision to de-list North Korea was “extremely unfortunate.”

“It was an extraordinary gesture for which the United States got nothing in return,” Szechenyi told The Washington Diplomat. “Of course, as soon as we took them off the list, North Korea reneged on the deal and said they were not going to negotiate anymore. But I don’t sense that, even if the administration tried, they’d succeed in putting North Korea back on the list.”

That’s because doing so would be next to impossible from a legal standpoint.

“State would have to demonstrate to Congress that North Korea has engaged in some specific act of terrorism that warrants re-listing,” Szechenyi said, noting that Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) recently called on the Obama administration to do just that.

But there are also other considerations.

“We’re in a very sensitive period right now, where the North Koreans have shifted from bellicose behavior to conciliatory gestures. They’re trying to resume economic cooperation with South Korea and sending more positive signals,” Szechenyi explained. “This could be an opportunity to get them back to the negotiating table, to discuss ways in which they might abandon their nuclear ambitions.”

In the meantime, he says, the “Obama administration is applying very strict financial sanctions to pressure the regime to change its behavior while trying to prevent North Korea from proliferating its nuclear technology.”

Yet the case of North Korea clearly demonstrates the politics that come into play when deciding who gets blacklisted — as does Cuba, according to many experts.

“The notion that North Korea is no longer designated a state sponsor of terrorism, while Cuba remains on the list, is absurd,” charges the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a liberal think tank focusing on Latin America. Even the State Department itself has had difficulty justifying Cuba’s inclusion on the list, acknowledging in its most recent report last April that the Castro regime “no longer actively supports” armed struggle beyond its shores.

“The Cuban government continued to provide safe haven to several terrorists,” said the report, pointing out that members of the Basque separatist group ETA and two Colombian rebel groups — FARC and ELN — remain free in Cuba.

But it noted that last July, former President Fidel Castro urged FARC to free the hostages they were holding without preconditions. And Castro “has also condemned the FARC’s mistreatment of captives and of their abduction of civilian politicians who had no role in the armed conflict.”

The State Department said it has “no evidence of terrorist-related money laundering or terrorist financing activities in Cuba,” but noted that Havana still allowed members of U.S. militant groups like the Boricua Popular, or Macheteros, and the Black Liberation Army to live on its territory, even though they were fugitives from U.S. justice.

By that line of reasoning, perhaps the United States should appear on its own list, since it is holding several fugitives of Cuban justice. The most famous of them is Luis Posada Carriles, an anti-Castro militant who bragged to the New York Times that he masterminded the 1976 bombing of a Cubana de Aviación jet off the coast of Barbados, killing 74 innocent civilians.

Posada, a former CIA agent, is also linked to a series of 1997 bombings in Havana and an assassination attempt against Fidel Castro in 2000. Washington has refused repeated Cuban and Venezuelan requests for his extradition, claiming that Posada would face torture in these countries, despite assurances to the contrary.

“This list is often employed by Washington as a political lever, a carrot or a stick to be used on a country that abjectly follows or definitely renounces U.S. policies, and not as a legitimate measure of a country’s attitude toward international terrorism,” says Brandon Bloch, research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

And the case of Libya only bolsters this argument, he said, recalling that the Libyan government refused to conform to U.S. counterterrorism standards until 2003, when Gaddafi agreed to let U.N. inspectors oversee the dismantling of Libya’s nuclear weapons program and accepted legal responsibility for the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie that killed 270 people.

“When Libya opened its arms to the West and endorsed Washington’s unilateral counterterrorism policies, it received a prize. When Cuba fails to do so, it remains blacklisted,” Bloch charged. “Yet despite this, Cuba certainly is no more a terrorist state than Libya. While Libya renounced its former policies in 2003, Cuba renounced its support of terrorist revolutionaries in 1992, and has not been shown to fund them since.”

The Syrians are also quite eager to make their case that the State Department list is a work of politics. Like Iran, Syria officially remains a state sponsor of terrorism because of its outspoken support for Hamas and Hezbollah — both of which are committed to Israel’s destruction. In addition, these groups actively operate and train militants on Syrian territory, often with the tacit approval of the Assad regime in Damascus.

Ahmed Salkini, press attaché at the Syrian Embassy, disagrees and says his country has remained on the list for 30 years “because unfortunately, U.S. policy is based on Israel’s interests.”

Salkini told The Diplomat that “far from supporting terrorism, Syria is the forefront of the war” against terrorism. “For a long time, we have fought groups such as al-Qaeda that try to wreak havoc in our region. In fact, we were fighting these groups when the U.S. was supporting them in Afghanistan, during the Soviet invasion,” he pointed out. “It’s quite ironic that Colin Powell sent a letter to Congress thanking Syria for its cooperation in fighting terrorism and for helping save American lives, yet we remain a state sponsor of terrorism. You can see the contradiction here.”

Salkini justified Syria’s actions on its position as the only Arab country (not including the Palestinians) whose territory — in this case the Golan Heights — is still occupied by Israel.

“What Syria backs is any legal and moral resistance around the world that fights illegal and immoral occupation no matter where it is. Syria does not apologize for that,” he said. “This is pure politics. Those groups aren’t even targeting the United States. They target Israel.”

In the meantime, U.S. trade relations with Syria have suffered tremendously as a result of the designation — and despite tentative diplomatic rapprochement between Washington and Damascus recently, Salkini said he has no idea how much longer his country will remain on the hated list.

“We’ve been on it for a long time, and it’s definitely had a negative impact on our economy. But we’ve managed to sidestep this list in our relationship and focus on the real issues,” he told The Diplomat. “What really needs to be done is not just for Syria to be removed from the list, but to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict as we have continuously called for. Once we remove the Israeli occupation, there won’t be any resistance, and Syria won’t be on the list anymore.”

Indeed, getting off the list is just as important as having sanctions removed because both forms of punishment come with severe economic consequences. “The terrorism list is more than a symbol of an anachronistic policy,” said Bloch. “In an era when the lifting of the trade embargo appears to be a real possibility, Cuba’s designation as a terrorist state has practical implications for the potential extent of trade between the two nations.”

Bloch explained that even if Washington’s 47-year-old embargo against Cuba were lifted tomorrow, “there would still exist significant impediments to full bilateral trade and other links between the two countries. The United States would be forced to deny tax-free treatment of imported goods coming from Cuba; U.S. citizens wanting to trade with Cuba would first need to seek a license from the Treasury Department; and the U.S. would be forced to oppose any World Bank or IMF loans to the country. These stipulations would stall the country’s economic development and the growth of meaningful U.S.-Cuba trade relations.”

In addition, sanctions imposed against countries on the State Department’s blacklist not only affect their governments, but also multinational corporations that deal with those countries.

In July, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) slapped a .75 million fine on Australia and New Zealand Banking Group for transactions that allegedly benefited Cuba and Sudan through U.S. bank accounts. OFAC says the alleged violations occurred between 2004 and 2006.

According to OFAC, the Melbourne-based bank “actively manipulated the SWIFT messages related to the Sudanese transactions by removing references to Sudan or the names of entities subject to sanctions in the United States, thereby concealing the identities of the target of U.S. sanctions and impeding the ability of U.S. banks to detect these violations.”

Sudan, which backed Iraq in its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, gave sanctuary throughout the 1990s to well-known terrorists such as Carlos the Jackal, Osama bin Laden and Abu Nidal — all of whom resided in Khartoum. In October 1997, the U.S. government also imposed comprehensive economic, trade and financial sanctions against Sudan, and a year later — in the wake of the East Africa embassy bombings — it launched cruise missile strikes against Khartoum.

Akec K.A. Khoc, Sudan’s chargé d’affaires in Washington, couldn’t be reached for comment, though the State Department — noting that the United States hasn’t had an ambassador in Khartoum for more than 10 years — says “the embassy continues to re-evaluate its posture in Sudan, particularly in the wake of the Jan. 1, 2008, killings of a U.S. Agency for International Development employee and his Sudanese driver in Khartoum.”

Yet as bad as Sudan may be, in Washington’s eyes the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism is Iran.

Specifically, its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Ministry of Intelligence and Security were “directly involved in the planning and support of terrorist acts, and continue to exhort a variety of groups, especially Palestinian groups with leadership cadres in Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah, to use terrorism in pursuit of their goals,” according to a recent State Department document.

Iran has no diplomatic relations with the United States and its interests section in Washington — technically an annex of the Pakistani Embassy — regularly declines to speak to The Diplomat and other media outlets.

Just as well, because if there’s one country that deserves to be on that list, it’s probably Iran.

For one thing, Iran openly provides financial support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah as well as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. It’s also been accused of playing a destabilizing role in neighboring Iraq by helping Shiite militants carry out attacks against U.S. troops there.

Israeli officials claim that following the 2006 Lebanon War, Iran decided to step up its involvements in the Hezbollah decision-making process and has recently instituted a number of structural changes to the group’s hierarchy, under which leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah must receive Iranian permission prior to certain operations.

“Sheikh Nasrallah’s authority is somewhat restricted,” according to an unnamed Israeli defense official. “Nowadays, most of the control over the group is from Iran.”

And last month, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad aroused international outrage after he chose Ahmad Vahidi to be his defense minister. Vahidi is wanted by Interpol for his role in planning the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina that left 85 people dead.

Given Ahmadinejad’s defiant stance toward the United States and his latest speeches calling the Holocaust a lie and demanding Israel’s destruction, it’s unlikely Iran will be coming off the list anytime soon. If anything, Iran may face additional U.N. sanctions for its nuclear program, especially if Tehran continues to diplomatically sidestep Obama’s offer for direct engagement.

Yet due to ongoing domestic turmoil in the wake of Iran’s disputed elections, it’s unlikely that Washington and Tehran will be talking seriously anytime soon, says Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow of Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The problem with the dialogue is that there is no Iranian interlocutor that is sincere and serious about solving the issues at this point,” according to Takeyh. “The Iranian domestic situation is very much unsettled and probably domestic problems are the primary preoccupation with many in the Iranian political establishment. This makes Iran a very difficult negotiating partner.

“Second of all, the Iranian regime’s behavior during the election and its aftermath limits the political space that one would need to have a dialogue,” he added. “Everything that has happened makes the policy of engagement much more arduous.”

About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 7, 2014