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Terrorism’s Dubious ‘A’ List

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: April 28, 2006

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At about this time each year, the U.S. State Department issues its Country Reports on Terrorism, listing groups the United States officially regards as "Foreign Terrorist Organizations," as well as those countries deemed to be "state sponsors" of terrorism. These lists are closely watched; placement on or removal from them bears political ramifications. A new edition of the report was released Friday.

The report includes a new chapter dealing with havens for terrorism, which are distinct from state sponsors. Iraq is not considered a haven, but the report explains terrorists view it "as a potential safe haven and are attempting to make it a reality." A somewhat unconventional location on the safe-haven list is cyberspace, which as this CFR Background Q&A explains, has been exploited by many terrorist organizations. Another surprise is the number of terrorist attacks reported in the last year, which more than tripled to 11,000 (Reuters). But responsibility for tallying attacks has shifted to the National Counterterrorism Center's new Worldwide Incidents Tracking System, which uses a different methodology than the U.S. State Department. The report also notes that al-Qaeda's strength has diminished substantially (AP).

Conspicuously absent from the report is the Taliban, which has adopted terrorist tactics since being driven from Kabul in 2001. Though the Afghan religious extremists have never been listed, the Afghan-Pakistani border was given the status of a haven. A new CFR Background Q&A examines the current resurgence of the Taliban and how the group is viewed in Washington.

History suggests the terrorist list is viewed as an important policy tool in Washington. New groups or state sponsors are added as attacks are attributed to them, and, sometimes, groups with a long history on the list can make their way off of it, as cfr.org's Michael Moran explains in this CFR Background Q&A. For instance, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was dropped from the terrorist list following the 1998 Good Friday Accords (BBC) and a cease-fire of several years. This year, Spain's Basque terrorists, ETA, declared their own cease-fire, but it was insufficient to warrant removal from the list of terrorist groups.

An Iranian group, Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK), which has been linked to terrorist attacks on the clerical regime in Tehran, has been the subject of an intense lobbying campaign in Washington to have it removed from the list. Advocates in the United States, like the Iran Policy Committee, argue the MEK's tips on Iran's nuclear program have proven invaluable, and say the group should be seen as an American ally (MSNBC). Bush administration officials have again rejected that argument, and the MEK are still listed as a terrorists. In fact, the only changes to the list of foreign terrorist organizations were two additions: the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group and the Uzbekistan-based Islamic Jihad Group.

Libya, a charter member of the state-sponsors list when it first appeared in 1979, had hoped its recent concessions would get it removed. Though Libya remains listed as a state sponsor, the latest report praises its cooperation on a range of issues, including providing evidence that helped shut down a massive black market in nuclear weapons technology run by Pakistani physicist A.Q. Khan.

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