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Trivializing Terrorism


Call it a politically convenient coincidence of timing. Or else be blunt, connect the dots, and call it a political favor. In the wake of Spain’s support for the war in Iraq, and with Spanish elections upcoming, the State Department recently announced the addition of three Basque nationalist groups to an official U.S. list of terrorist groups subject to financial sanctions.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar welcomed the designation and implied that it was linked to Spain’s backing of the U.S. war plan. Addressing the question of whether Spain has benefited from its relationship with the United States, Aznar stated that the naming of the three groups had given a needed boost to Spain’s fight against terrorism.

“What are the fruits of our relationship with the United States?” Aznar asked rhetorically. “This is one of those fruits.”

Prime Minister Aznar no doubt believes that the reward was well-earned, given his willingness to run significant political risks in backing the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Despite strong opposition to the Iraq war from the Spanish public, Aznar was among the most steadfast supporters of the U.S. plan.

Taking advantage of Spain’s membership in the U.N. Security Council, the Aznar government assisted the United States in pressing for a U.N. resolution in support of the Iraq war, before the effort to obtain a resolution was abandoned. More recently, Spain cosponsored a resolution, together with the U.S. and the U.K., which would lend U.N. sanction to the U.S. and British occupation of Iraq. Spain is also planning to send a contingent of 1,500 troops to Iraq to assist in the occupation, putting it among only nine countries that have agreed to contribute military forces to the effort.

It could be that none of these developments influenced the U.S. government’s decision to name the three Basque groups to the terrorism list. But one would have to be blind, as well as willfully obtuse, not to notice the political factors surrounding last week’s decision. And when the Spanish case is considered in light of past terrorism designations, whose timing has, in several instances, been equally fortuitous, then the political manipulation of the designation process seems all the more probable.

Naming Terrorist Groups

What does it mean for a group to be placed on a U.S. terrorism list? To begin with, it depends on which list. The U.S. now has several official lists of terrorists and terrorist groups, each of which has somewhat different implications. In general, inclusion on a list may entail immigration sanctions, may result in financial sanctions such as the freezing of assets, or may mean that persons who fund such groups are subject to criminal prosecution.

The two most important lists cover the categories of “Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” or FTOs, and “Specially Designated Global Terrorists,” or SDGTs.

The FTO list, which currently includes Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and thirty-four other groups, is the shorter of the two. FTOs are foreign organizations that the Secretary of State finds engage in terrorist activity and whose terrorist activity threatens the security of U.S. nationals or the national security of the United States. The definition of terrorist activity, as defined in the relevant laws, is extremely broad.

The penalties for inclusion on the FTO list are serious. U.S. banks must freeze the funds of groups on the list; U.S. residents are barred from providing them with funds, and members of such groups are barred from traveling to the United States.

The SDGT list is similar, but much more extensive, and was created by executive order in the immediate wake of September 11. Again, using an extremely broad definition of terrorism, it blocks the assets of designated terrorists and terrorist organizations, and bars people from conducting financial transactions with, or giving charitable donations to such individuals or groups. All FTOs are also included on the SDGT list.

Neither of the two lists has more than negligible due process safeguards, which leaves them extremely vulnerable to political misuse.

Making Friends by Naming Enemies

Now consider a few of the most recent terrorist group designations, made as additions to the SDGT list.

In late August 2002, during a visit to Beijing, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage announced the terrorist designation of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a little-known group of Muslim separatists active in western China. “The listing was a sop to the Chinese,” asserted an expert on Chinese Muslims interviewed by The New York Times.

The Times, which noted that the United States was anxiously seeking to neutralize Chinese opposition to a possible attack on Iraq, said that the State Department had supplied little hard evidence to support the designation. It also cited several unnamed diplomats from allied nations who agreed that the U.S. decision was apparently based on unproven Chinese assertions. As expected, the Chinese government lauded the designation decision.

The timing of another recent terrorist group designation is equally suspect. Russia has long been pressing the United States to name several Chechen rebel groups as terrorist. The U.S., favoring a political solution to the conflict in Chechnya, has long resisted these requests.

In late February 2003, however, as a heated debate over war in Iraq was raging at the U.N. Security Council, the Secretary of State designated three rebel groups in Chechnya as terrorist groups linked to Al Qaeda. The designations were widely viewed as a concession to Moscow at a time when Russian acquiescence to the Iraq war was one of Washington’s top priorities.

Zaindi Choltayev, a Chechen political scientist, decried the likely impact of the designation decision on the conflict in Chechnya. He noted that the decision “bolsters the Kremlin’s refusal to negotiate.” As he explained, “The announcement lends international credibility to Moscow’s claim that the war in Chechnya is part of the global war on terrorism, and one doesn’t negotiate with terrorists.”

And now, most recently, the designation of three Basque nationalist groups: Batasuna, Euskal Herritarrok and Herri Batasuna. The Spanish government outlawed the groups last year, alleging that they were linked to the Basque terrorist organization ETA.

But Prime Minister Aznar, who advocates a tough, no-negotiations approach to terrorist groups, needs political help. Spanish public opinion polls show that Aznar has paid a high price for his public backing of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, with 78 percent of those surveyed in April by the newspaper El Mundo continuing to believe that the war was unjustified. With the recent designation, Aznar received a concrete reward for Spain’s show of support.

Even White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, discussing the May 7 meeting between Aznar and President Bush, suggested a possible connection between the war and the designation decision. The way he put it was this: “I think the State Department may have something to say today in regard to designation of terrorist organizations in Spain. The United States and Spain have a very strong relationship and the president is very grateful to Spain for the leadership they took in helping to free the world from the threat of the Iraqi regime.”

Politicized Choices

It may be that all of the groups discussed above are linked to terrible crimes. But there is no dearth of violent groups in the world that the United States has not decided to name as its terrorist enemies.

Allowing political influences to taint terrorist designations trivializes the terrorist threat. The decision to name a group to any of the U.S. terrorism lists should be based on strict and objective criteria, not awarded as a diplomatic favor.

JOANNE MARINER is a human rights attorney and regular CounterPunch contributer. An earlier version of this piece appeared in FindLaw’s Writ. She can be reached at:


JOANNE MARINER is a human rights lawyer living in New York and Paris.

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