State Sponsors of Terrorism

“What are our global obligations? To give terrorists no support, no sanctuary.”

­ President Clinton, speaking before the United Nations on terrorism in 1998

“We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”

­ President Bush, September 11, 2001

Ostensibly, the United States is fighting a “war on terrorism”, of which Iraq is just “the latest battlefield”, where we are “hunting down the terrorists” who “hate freedom” and whose “aim is to remake the Middle East in their own grim image of tyranny and oppression by toppling governments, driving us out of the region and by exporting terror.” The irony of such talk about remaking the Middle East in one’s own image by toppling foreign governments temporarily aside, it may be observed that mention of “terrorists” is often spoken of in the same breath as “insurgents”, and the distinction between the two are often blurred or discarded altogether. Moreover, the standards applied against those the U.S. considers terrorists, terrorist organizations, or state sponsors of terrorism, are instructive, particularly if one is inclined to apply the same standard to the U.S. as it applies elsewhere.

Cuba provides a useful case study. The State Department “Patterns of Global Terrorism” for 2003 explains succinctly why Cuba remains on the list of state sponsors of terrorism: “Cuba remained opposed to the US-led Coalition prosecuting the global war on terrorism and actively condemned many associated US policies and actions throughout 203” ­ a crime that clearly must not go unpunished.

That’s not Cuba’s only crime, of course. The Cuban press was also “consistently critical of the United States” and “alleged US involvement in violations of human rights.” Further, Cuba “said terrorism cannot be defined as including acts by legitimate national liberation movements” while asserting that “acts by states to destabilize other states is a form of terrorism.”

Cuba, furthermore, is home to “dozens of fugitives from US justice” ­ none of whom are wanted for any connections to terrorism, apparently (the only example given is a fugitive wanted for the murder of a state trooper in 1973).

But the reasons given for why Cuba remains on the list are not totally without relevance to actual terrorism. Cuba “continued to provide support to designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations” and “refuses to return suspected terrorists” over to other countries (no examples are given). Cuba is also accused of harboring members of Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA), the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army (ELN). With regard to the latter two, the report notes, “Bogota was aware of the arrangement and apparently acquiesced” and “has publicly indicated that it seeks Cuba’s continued mediation with ELN agents in Cuba.” The presence of ETA members “arose from a request for assistance by Spain and Panama”, according to Cuba, which also maintained that “the issue is a bilateral matter between Cuba and Spain.”

A recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on Cuba provides some further insight. “Supporters of keeping Cuba on the terrorism list,” the CRS report notes, “argue that there is ample evidence that Cuba supports terrorism. They point to the government’s history of supporting terrorist acts and armed insurgencies in Latin America and Africa. They stress the government’s continued hosting of members of foreign terrorist organizations and U.S. fugitives from justice.”

Cuba was added to the list of state sponsors of terrorism by the Reagan Administration, on March 1, 1982, but “no explanation for the addition was given.” It was sufficient to simply declare that Cuba “has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.”

The State Department has since provided “further explanation of why Cuba was designated a state sponsor of terrorism.” For instance, they cite a CIA report published in 1981 that states: “Havana openly advocates armed revolution as the only means for leftists to gain power in Latin America, and the Cubans have played an important role in facilitating the movement of men and weapons into the region. Havana provides direct support in the form of training, arms, safe havens, and advice to a wide variety of guerilla groups. Many of these groups engage in terrorist operations.” The distinction between “armed revolution” and “terrorist operations” is not abundantly clear.

The distinction was also blurred by Reagan in his 1982 State of the Union address: “Toward those who would export terrorism and subversion in the Caribbean and elsewhere, especially Cuba and Libya, we will act with firmness.”

A 1982 State Department report stated that Cuba has “encouraged terrorism in the hope of provoking indiscriminate violence and repression, in order to weaken government legitimacy and attract new converts to armed struggle.” Again, it is impossible to tell where “armed struggle” ends and “terrorism” begins in such declarations, or even whether or not a distinction is intended at all.

“Those who concur with the Administration’s current rationale for keeping Cuba on the state sponsor of terrorism list”, the CRS report observes, “point to strong anti-American statements made by Fidel Castro”, who “stated that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States were in part a consequence of the United States having applied ‘terrorist methods’ for years.”

Presumably, Castro’s statement ­ clearly scandalous, if not criminal ­ would include the war against Nicaragua, in which the U.S. funded, armed, and trained the Contras in a war “aiming to destroy,” writes author William Blum, “the progressive social and economic programs of the government, burning down schools and medical clinics, raping, torturing, mining harbors, bombing and strafing” ­ by any definition, a campaign of terror. The Contras, observes Blum, “were the charming gentlemen Ronald Reagan liked to call ‘freedom fighters'”. The adage “One man’s ‘terrorist’ is another man’s ‘freedom fighter'” would seem to apply.

When Nicaragua responded by bringing its case against the U.S. to the International Court of Justice (rather than by, say, bombing Washington, D.C., which would have been a legitimate response by the U.S.’s own standard-not that Nicaragua was capable of doing so), it was judged that “by training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying the contra forces” and “by laying mines in the internal or territorial waters of the Republic of Nicaragua”, among other offenses, the U.S. had “acted, against the Republic of Nicaragua, in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to intervene in the affairs of another State” and called upon the U.S. to “cease and refrain” from its violations of international law.

In one interesting finding, the Court said that the U.S., “by producing in 1983 a manual entitled Operaciones sicologicas en Guerra de guerillas, and disseminating it to contra forces, has encouraged the commission by them of acts contrary to general principles of humanitarian law”. The manual, translated “Psychological Operations In Guerilla Warfare”, stated that “A guerilla armed force always involves implicit terror because the population” recognizes that “the weapons may be used against them.” While discouraging “explicit” terror, it says “positive results can be expected” from “implicit” terror. Excerpts: “Destroy the military or police installations Cut all the outside lines of communications Set up ambushes Kidnap all officials or agents of the Sandinista government Establish a public tribunal Shame, ridicule and humiliate If a guerilla fires at an individual, make the town see that he was an enemy of the people It is possible to neutralize carefully selected and planned targets, such as court judges, mesta judges, police and State Security officials The target groups for the Armed Propaganda Teams are not the persons with sophisticated political knowledge, but rather those whose opinion are formed from what they see and hear.”

The war against Nicaragua is ­ it should hardly be necessary to point out ­ highly instructive, in light of the standard applied against Cuba.

Those who oppose the rationale for keeping Cuba on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, the CRS report continues, point out that the presence of U.S. fugitives in Cuba “has nothing to do with terrorism”. On the other hand, the U.S. harbors fugitives wanted by Cuba who are actually connected to acts of terrorism. In particular, Cuba “would like to see the extradition of Orlando Bosch, a Miami resident, and Luis Posada Carriles”, both of whom “are accused of bombing a Cuban airliner in 1976.”

Orlando Bosch, who was the head of a known terrorist organization, returned to the U.S. in 1988. At that time, writes Blum, “the Justice Department condemned him as a totally violent terrorist and was all set to deport him, but that was blocked by President Bush, the first, with the help of son Jeb Bush in Florida.” The New York Times recently acknowledged that “The Justice Department called Mr. Bosch ‘a terrorist, unfettered by laws or human decency, threatening and inflicting violence without regard to the identity of his victims’ The first Bush administration overruled the deportation in 1990; Mr. Bosch remained in Florida.” Bosch still lives in Miami.

In the same article, aptly entitled “Cuban Exile Could Test US Definition of Terrorist”, The New York Times reported that Posada had snuck back into Florida “to seek political asylum for having served as a cold war soldier on the payroll of the Central Intelligence Agency”, but that Venezuela wanted him extradited to retry him for the Cuban airline bombing. The Bush administration “has three choices: granting him asylum; jailing him for illegal entry; or granting Venezuela’s request for extradition.”

While Posada has since been arrested for illegal entry, the administration has so far refused Venezuela’s request for extradition. Moreover, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a statement, according to The Miami Herald, which “indicated that Posada would not be deported to Cuba or Venezuela”.

While The New York Times mentioned in passing ­ almost as a footnote ­ that Posada had been a CIA agent, further details were not forthcoming. Declassified documents obtained by the George Washington University National Security Archive shed some more light on the matter. For instance, a 1976 CIA report confirms that “Posada is a former agent of the CIA”, claiming that contact was terminated in July 1967, but re-established in October, after which the CIA “continued occasional contact with him” until June 1976. Another CIA document reports that Posada had “been of operational interest to this Agency since April 1965”. A 1966 FBI document also notes the CIA’s “operational interest” in Posada, adding that “Posada is receiving approximately $300 per month from CIA.”

The CIA was also in contact with Bosch, who assisted the CIA in 1962 “in formulating operational plans for infiltration (into Cuba) teams.” Similarly, shortly after his arrival in the U.S. in 1961, Posada “received paramilitary training in Guatamala under Agency auspices in preparation for the Bay of Pigs invasion”. While there, he “received at least rudimentary familiarization training in demolitions”. Posada also received training from the U.S. Army in 1963 and 1964. He served in a Ranger battalion, where he “would very likely have received demolitions training”, and was considered to be a “demolitions expert” by the time he was formally “recruited by the Agency” in 1965.

This was despite the fact that it was known within the agency that Posada was connected to terrorist activities ­ in which he applied the training in demolitions he received from the CIA and Army. An FBI memo from 1965 reported that Posada had been paid by a group known as the Cuban Representation in Exile (RECE) “to cover the expenses of a demolition operation in Mexico”, and that he was planning to blow up “either a Cuban or Soviet vessel in the harbor of Veracruz”.

The RECE officer who paid Posada was Jorge Mas Canosa, who boasted about one of his agents planting a bomb in the Soviet Library in Mexico City, noting that upon his return to Miami, “he was not bothered by U.S. authorities, although his activities were common knowledge in exile circle,” which was interpreted by Mas “to mean U.S. tacit approval to the operation” (the FBI memo makes no attempt to correct this perception). Posada had also joined another anti-Castro group, Junta Revolucionaria Cubana (JURE), with whom he “built a military training camp on property belonging to Mr. Weir Williams. Posada “had not been told they had the support of the U.S. Government, but they did believe they had U.S. Government tolerance by the very fact they had not been bothered by anyone while they conducted their military training activities.” The owner of the property “was led to believe it was in accord with the Government’s desireand on one occasion the Sheriff of Polk County, Florida, told Williams he had checked with the Federal Government and verified it was operating with U.S. Government approval.”

Furthermore, the declassified documents reveal that the U.S. intelligence community had foreknowledge of the plan to bomb a plane in 1976. In a CIA report dated June 21 of that year (the bombing occurred in October) entitled “Possible Plans of Cuban Exile Extremists to Blow up a Cubana Airliner”, it was reported that “A Cuban exile extremist group, of which Orlando Bosch is a leader, plans to place a bomb on a Cubana flight traveling between Panama and Havana.”

During the mid-1980s, Posada found himself once again in the employment of the United States government ­ as part of an operation headed by Oliver North to supply the Contras in the war against Nicaragua.

But let us return to Iraq. The Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK) is listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. In the early stages of the war in Iraq, MEK bases were bombed by U.S. forces, which was followed by the signing of a ceasefire, “the first such agreement between the United States and a terror group”, observed the Council on Foreign Relations, in a fact sheet on the group. Under the agreement, in the words of one New York Post article, the MEK could “keep its weapons and use them against Iranian regime infiltrators”, a deal which “infuriated the State Department”, and which resulted in U.S. troops surrounding MEK camps, “disarming its fighters and taking up positions to protect them.” The CFR fact sheet also notes that the MEK was disarmed due to “pressure from the State Department”, but adds that the group has “enjoyed the support of some members of Congress for several years”. Some members of Congress have sought to get MEK removed from the list of terrorist organizations. The reason the group has such support within the U.S. is simple: “Because it opposes Iran”. The U.S. has refused requests from Iran to turn over MEK terrorists in Iraq.

Indeed, overthrowing the Iranian regime is the group’s primary purpose. The group, which espouses a Marxist philosophy, participated in the 1979 revolution that resulted in the overthrow of the Shah, as well as the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, but was at odds with the new Islamic regime and was expelled from the country. The group relocated to France for a time, and then to Iraq, where it found support during the Iran-Iraq war. Iraq has been the group’s base for its operations against the regime in Iran ever since.

By May of 2003, ABC News reported, the Pentagon was “advocating a massive covert action program to overthrow Iran’s ruling ayatollahs”, a proposal “which would include covert sponsorship of a group currently deemed terrorist by the U.S. government”, the MEK, although the proposal “has not won favor with enough top officials to be acted upon.”

That may have since changed. The Guardian reported in January this year that “the Pentagon was recently contemplating the infiltration of members of the Iranian rebel group, Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) over the Iraq-Iran border, to collect intelligence.”

An article by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker magazine caused a stir that same month. Hersh quoted a former intelligence official as saying, “Next, we’re going to have the Iranian campaign” and wrote that “The President has signed a series of findings and executive orders authorizing secret commando groups and other Special Forces units to conduct covert operations” throughout the Middle East, a decision that “enables [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld to run the operations off the books-free from legal restrictions imposed on the C.I.A.” Hersh reported that “an American commando task force has been set up in South Asia” and is working with Pakistan to penetrate eastern Iran to gather intelligence. In return for its cooperation, the U.S. has assured President Pervez Musharraf that “Pakistan will not have to hand over A.Q. Khan”, the nuclear scientist “linked to a vast consortium of nuclear-black-market activities.”

Richard Sale, a correspondent with United Press International, reported that the U.S. Air Force was “flying American combat aircraft into Iranian airspace in an attempt to lure Tehran into turning on air defense radars, thus allowing U.S. pilots to grid the system for use in future targeting data” and is relying heavily upon “Israeli-trained teams of Kurds in northern Iraq and on U.S.-trained teams of former Iranian exiles in the south to gather the intelligence” which could be used for strikes against Iran. The exiles referred to are members of the MEK, who have been used in “covert operations against Iran” since shortly after their disarmament by U.S. forces. “Both groups are doing cross border incursions into Iran, some in conjunction with U.S. Special Forces”. According to former CIA counterterrorism chief, Vince Cannistaro, the MEK has “been active in the south for some time.” Sale also reported that Pakistan has “granted permission for the MEK to operate” from within its territory.

Shortly thereafter, the Inter Press Service reported that the Iran Policy Committee (IPC) had released a paper that “appears to reflect the views of the administration’s most radical hawks among the Pentagon’s civilian leadership and in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney”, and which calls for the U.S. to adopt “regime change” as official policy. The IPS endorses efforts to destabilize Iran by using “the largest and most organized Iranian opposition group”, the MEK. According to former CIA officer Philip Giraldi, U.S. Special Forces have been working with the MEK to gather intelligence in Iran to identify targetts for possible military strikes.

In February, Newsweek reported that “the administration is seeking to cull useful MEK members as operatives for use against Tehran, all while insisting that it does not deal with the MEK as a group”; one MEK member told the magazine, “They [want] to make us mercenaries”. Some “hard-liners in the Defense Department” are “quietly pushing for regime change by making use of exiles like former MEK members.”

In a March 16 news conference, President Bush alluded to the MEK, saying that Iran’s nuclear program had been revealed by a “dissident” group (notably avoiding the alternate appellation of “terrorist” group).

On June 12, a series of explosions shook Iran just days before their elections were to be held. Blasts struck government buildings in Ahvaz, followed by two more bombs in Tehran. Nine people were reported killed with 86 injured. An Interior Ministry spokesman said, “Whoever is responsible for this, the target of the blasts is to undermine Friday’s presidential elections.” Reuters reported that a crowd of demonstrators had gathered in Ahvaz “waving Iranian flags and chanting ‘Death to the hypocrites’-a term used for the exiled opposition People’s Mujahideen Organization.” A spokesman for the Supreme National Security Council said, “Based on intelligence we received, a network was trying to create problems before the election.” He also suggested that “The terrorists of Ahvaz infiltrate Iran from the region of Basra”, in southern Iraq. “The calls for a boycott of the vote had failed, so terrorist groups based in Iraq were trying to use the attacks to disrupt the election and prevent a strong voter turnout. These terrorists have been trained under the umbrella of the Americans in Iraq. We call on the Americans and the British to condemn these attacks and to hand over the terrorists in Iraq.”

According to the Iranian intelligence chief, several suspects “linked to elements abroad” were later detained in connection with the bombings in Ahvaz. Speculation about who was responsible for the bombings varied, but centered upon the MEK. According to one scholar at Tehran’s Center for Scientific Research and Middle East Strategic Studies, “This could be a joint operation between the MEK and former Iraqi intelligence agents aimed at sabotaging the elections. In Teheran, it’s only the MEK who have the operational power to launch something like this.”

Scott Ritter, former U.S. Marine intelligence officer and U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, has written that “The reality is that the US war with Iran has already begun. As we speak over flights of Iranian soil are taking place, using pilotless drones and other, more sophisticated capabilities.” President Bush has authorized covert offensive operations inside Iran, he writes, adding that “The most visible of these is the CIA-backed actions recently undertaken by the Mujahedeen el-Khalq, or MEK”. But, according to Ritter, “the CIA-backed campaign of MEK terror bombings in Iran are not the only action ongoing against Iran.” The US is using Azerbaijan, to the north, to prepare “a base of operations for a massive military presence that will foretell a major land-based campaign designed to capture Tehran.” From bases in Azerbaijan, military aircraft “will have a much shorter distance to fly when striking targets in and around Tehran.”

Whatever the Bush administration may have in store for Iran, it remains abundantly clear that by the government’s own standard, if the weights and measures applied against Cuba may be applied according to the principle of universality (that is to say, without hypocrisy), the United States itself easily qualifies as a state sponsor of terrorism. But while terrorism is a grave and serious crime, the greater crime of “aggression” should not be lost upon us. Defined by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg as “the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”, this greater context should remain in perspective in any serious analysis of the Bush administration’s so-called “war on terrorism.”

JEREMY R. HAMMOND can be reached at: