IntelBrief: Behind the Scenes of the US Government’s Recent Delistings of Foreign Terrorist Organizations

Intelbrief / IntelBrief: Behind the Scenes of the US Government’s Recent Delistings of Foreign Terrorist Organizations

US State Department

Bottom line in front

  • On a single day last month, the US State Department removed five terrorist groups from its Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list, more than it has ever done before in a single action.
  • The State Department revoked the FTO designations of several groups now considered defunct, including Aum Shinrikyo, Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA), Kahane Chai, Gam’a al-Islamiyya and the Mujahidin Shura Council in the Jerusalem area.
  • Decisions to remove terrorist groups from FTO lists can be difficult, especially when these groups have killed many people over a long period of time while threatening the stability of countries and regions.
  • The removal of defunct groups from terrorism lists is important to ensure the vitality of the use of sanctions as a financing tool in the fight against terrorism.

In a little-noticed move in late May, the US State Department removed five defunct terrorist groups from its Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list. At the same time, the State Department deported six deceased individuals who were previously on the Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) list pursuant to Executive Order 13224. To minimize public scrutiny of the decisions, the State Department avoided a public relations campaign on social media. , but issued a press release detailing the revocations and the reasoning behind such an important decision. The groups remain designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorist Entities (SDGTs), subjecting them to a less stringent level of sanction. Prior to May 2022, since the FTO list was created in 1997, the State Department had only revoked the designations of 15 groups. The decision to remove five FTOs in one day was a major one – and accounted for 25% of groups ever removed from the FTO list. In fact, in less than two years, the Biden administration removed seven groups from the FTO list, matching the number of FTO removals the Obama administration has executed in eight years. Previously, the Biden administration revoked the designation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Ansarallah, popularly known as the Houthi movement.

The May 2022 State Department decision removed Aum Shinrikyo (AUM), Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA), Gam’a al-Islamiyya (IG), Kahane Chai (Kach), and the Mujahedin Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem (MSC) from the FTO list. AUM is best known for carrying out a deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo metro in 1995. ETA, a group that primarily fought for Basque independence and separation from Spain, is known for carrying out the one of the longest terrorist campaigns in Europe, from its founding in 1959 until the group decided to disband in a written announcement in 2018. Founded in the early 1990s, IG was responsible for a series of terrorist acts in Egypt that left hundreds dead. Most notably, the group was led by Omar Abdel-Rahman, the so-called blind sheikh who was behind the 1993 attack on New York’s World Trade Center that left six people dead and more than a thousand of injured. Kahane Chai was the only radical far-right Jewish group on the State Department’s FTO list. Kahane Chai and his later branch Kach have waged a campaign of terror against Palestinian Arabs for years. Finally, the State Department removed MSC from its FTO list, just eight years after it was added. Perhaps the least known of the delisted groups, the MSC, according to a 2014 State Department press release, carried out rocket attacks against Israel from the Gaza Strip.

The decisions to remove these groups from the FTO list were long overdue and the Biden administration’s decision to revoke these designations should not be interpreted as a sign of weakness on the counterterrorism front. Removing FTOs from the list is notoriously difficult as the risks of alienation from the countries and populations concerned can be quite high. To minimize diplomatic fallout, the State Department intentionally removed many deceased groups and individuals from the list at the same time. Thus, the United States can justify deletions to international partners as a routine accounting exercise to keep the list current. In this sense, explains the press release of the Department of State, “these actions are intended to reflect the determination of the United States to comply with legal requirements to review and revoke FTO designations when the facts dictate such action”. Additionally, the State Department went to great lengths to explain that the write-offs were also a reflection “of the success that Egypt, Israel, Japan, and Spain have managed to defuse the terrorist threat from these groups.”

Just as important as touting the success of the counter-terrorism operations that contributed to the demise of the five FTOs removed from the list is the decision to make the FTO list more credible by deleting the defunct groups. While these groups have been on the FTO list for far too long, the decision to revoke their designations now contributes to the overall credibility of the FTO list. Having defunct groups on terrorist lists, simply put, makes those lists less relevant. Moreover, keeping defunct groups and organizations on the lists that have avoided violence or moved away from violence in favor of political solutions is unnecessarily punitive and, some argue, entirely counterproductive. Instead, the removal of defunct or reformed groups from terrorist lists feeds into an important aspect of sanctions – to ensure that this all-important counterterrorism funding tool is used only for preventive purposes.

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