When is a terrorist no longer a terrorist?

When is a terrorist no longer a terrorist?

The State Department’s decision to remove the Iranian exile group Mujahedin-e-Khalq from its Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list certainly looks depressingly cynical, coming after the group waged a years-long PR, lobbying, and advertising campaign, paying political VIPs including Rudy Giuliani, Howard Dean, Tom Ridge, and Ed Rendell tens of thousands of dollars to endorse their cause. The idea that a group blamed for the killing of six Americans in the 1970s, as well as dozens of deadly terrorist bombings against Iranian targets afte,r that is “the largest peaceful, secular, pro-democratic Iranian dissident group” — as its advertising boasts — doesn’t pass the laugh test.

But it’s also true that the group, despite its creepy cultlike behavior, hasn’t carried out a terrorist attack in years. As FP contributor Karim Sadjadpour tells the New York Times,  “I don’t think the world really looks that much different. U.S.-Iran relations will remain hostile, and the M.E.K. will remain a fringe cult with very limited appeal among Iranians.”

Under the PATRIOT Act, for a group to be included on the list, it’s required that the "terrorism of the organization threatens the security of United States nationals or the national security of the United States." But a quick glance at the most recent edition of the FTO list shows quite a few groups that don’t — or no longer — meet that standard either:

  • The Abu Nidal Organization — a PLO splinter group — was a major terrorist organization in the 1980s and 1990s, but has barely been heard from since Abu Nidal’s death in 2002. 
  • Aum Shinriyko, the Japanese cult that carried out the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, hasn’t carried out any attacks since.  
  • ETA — the decades-old Basque nationalist group, is thought to have fewer than 100 active members since hundreds were arrested by French and Spanich police, and hasn’t carried out a major attack since 2009.
  • The Continuity Irish Republican Army may have fewer than 50 members, and these days spends more time on political infighting than planning attacks.
  • Gama’a al-Islamiyya  was once Egypt’s largest terrorist group and it’s former spiritual leader, "Blind Sheikh" Omar Abdul Rahman is in jail in the U.S. for his part in the 1993 World Trade Center attack, but the group has largely renounced violence since the early 2000s and now has its own political party with seats in the Egyptian parliament. 
  • The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were decimated by a Sri Lankan army offensive in 2009 and despite reports of regrouping abroad, the Tigers haven’t been able to mount any major operations since. 
  • The Morrocan Islamic Combatant Group was one of the organizations implicated in the 2004 Madrid train bombings but hasn’t been heard from since. 
  • Revolutionary Organization 17 November,  a leftist Greek militant group that targed U.S. and NATO targets in the 1980s and ’90s, hasn’t carried out any attacks since 2002. 
  • United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia — a right-wing paramilitary anti-FARC group — was mostly demobilized in 2010 and the elements of it that remain are more of a drug trafficking organization than a terrorist militia. 

Some other groups, including the Real IRA and Jewish extremist organiztaion Kahane Chai, have been a bit more active recently, but have few members and can’t really be said to pose much a threat to U.S. national security. Some groups, such as the Libya Islamic Fighting Group, have been reconstituted, or are operating under different names than the ones on the list. 

According to the State Department website, before 2004, a group had to be redesignated every two years to appear on the list. But now, the onus is on the group to make its case — as the MEK did that it is no longer a terrorist:

IRTPA provides that an FTO may file a petition for revocation 2 years after its designation date (or in the case of redesignated FTOs, its most recent redesignation date) or 2 years after the determination date on its most recent petition for revocation. In order to provide a basis for revocation, the petitioning FTO must provide evidence that the circumstances forming the basis for the designation are sufficiently different as to warrant revocation. If no such review has been conducted during a 5 year period with respect to a designation, then the Secretary of State is required to review the designation to determine whether revocation would be appropriate. In addition, the Secretary of State may at any time revoke a designation upon a finding that the circumstances forming the basis for the designation have changed in such a manner as to warrant revocation, or that the national security of the United States warrants a revocation.

New groups, like Pakistan’s Haqqani network or Lebanon’s Abdallah Azzam Bridgades, are added with some regularity. Though as some of the names still on the list indicate, groups aren’t removed that often unless — like MEK — they are in a position to mount a public case for their delisting. (Thankfully, it’s hard to imagine Aum Shinriyko advertising on the Washington metro!)

Categorizing miltiant groups, which don’t always have one universally used name, or a fixed membership, is always a bit tricky. As Aaron Zelin, recently explained for FP, a surprising number of jihadi groups have emerged in different countries in recent months, all calling themselves Ansar al-Sharia.

Back in June, I noted that the State Department had decided not to list Nigeria’s Boko Haram — a group that is more active and arguably much more of a threat to U.S. economic and political interests than many of those on the list — though it did list some Boko Harma leaders as "Specially Designated Global Terrorists," a different category.

At the time, Reuters reported that Boko Haram as a whole had not been added to the FTO list so as "not to elevate the group’s profile."  That makes a certain amount of sense, but it also suggests a need for a larger housecleaning on the list. Their American FTO status is about all the militant credibility some of these groups have left.