Decades before email, electronic banking, and online social networks could facilitate the coordination of terrorist attacks on a global scale, the US Department of State created a list of countries it accused of supporting terrorism.
Established during the Cold War, the United States’ list of State Sponsors of Terrorism originally included Libya, Iraq, South Yemen and Syria when it began in 1979. Cuba was added in 1982, Iran in 1984, North Korea in 1988 and Sudan in 1993. Today, the list still contains four countries: Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria.
“Many of these countries have been on the list since the ’90s or earlier,” said David Gewirtz, executive director of the US Strategic Perspective Initiative and a cyber-warfare adviser for the International Association of Counterterrorism & Security Professionals. “Geopolitics changes on a weekly, if not daily, basis – not on a multi-decade basis.”
Experts agree these four countries are not the only ones in the world the US says is currently supporting, engaging in, or ignoring acts of terrorism, but say they are ones from which the US can most easily disengage without repercussions.
“Countries that wind up on that list are countries we don’t like,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. “Other countries and outside powers support terrorism, and objectively speaking are terrorists, and the ones we don’t like are on the list, and the ones we’re allied with are not on the list. It’s all about double standards.”
The State Sponsor of Terrorism designation comes with a variety of sanctions, such as a ban on arms-related exports and sales and prohibitions on economic assistance. While the State Department issues the reports on terrorism that lead to the designation, the US Department of Commerce is responsible for managing the sanctions, and the Department of Treasury doles out penalties to US individuals and companies who violate the sanctions.
Putting a country on the list is like flicking a switch that determines US behaviour towards a nation.
Half of the countries listed over the past several decades have since been removed. A spokesperson at the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism told Al Jazeera a country’s status changes when there has been either a fundamental shift in the leadership and policies of the government concerned, with no recent history or intention of committing terrorist acts, or the existing government has not provided support for terrorism in the previous six-month period, and has provided assurances it will not.
“Putting a country on the list is like flicking a switch that determines US behaviour towards a nation. It’s coded into the DNA of how we do our commerce in regards to these countries,” said Gewirtz. “It’s like anything else in government: Once you do it, it’s difficult to undo.”
Cuba is perhaps the best example of the difficulties in shedding the controversial designation. Only Syria has been on the list longer than Cuba’s 32 years, and many experts say Cuba’s designation is no longer warranted.
Even the State Department, in its 2012 Country Report on Terrorism, stated: “There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”
“Increasingly, it’s an unsustainable designation,” Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group in Washington, DC, recently told Al Jazeera. “It becomes increasingly difficult to justify the inclusion of Cuba. What happens in the political debate is that defenders of the status quo are savvy enough that they can equate bad country/bad actor/bad government with state sponsors of terrorism.”
‘No longer really useful’
Aside from the issue of Cuba’s inclusion, critics say the list itself is unsustainable – that in the lightning-fast environment of modern terrorism, the State Sponsors of Terrorism list is almost arbitrary.
“The State Sponsors of Terrorism list was a tool intended to drive a certain set of behaviours that is no longer really useful,” said Gewirtz. “It is not keeping up with the pace of the threat realities we’re looking at.”
Other tools may be more useful in today’s climate, including the Specially Designated Nationals list issued by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. This list takes a more nuanced approach, issuing sanctions directly on the individuals or groups owned, controlled by, or acting on behalf of countries engaging in terrorist activities. It also can issue sanctions on people or groups that aren’t country-specific. Placement on the list blocks all assets held in US entities, even when operating abroad.
“I think we’ll eventually move to a place where countries aren’t designated, but specific actors are designated,” said Bilbao. “I think that’s farther down the line. But I do think one could be optimistic that in the next few years, Cuba could be removed. It’s the one that’s been on the longest, and when you look at countries that have been removed – Libya, North Korea, Iraq – you have to scratch your head and wonder exactly how that happens that Cuba is still on the list. The only justifications that remain are very weak.”
Nevertheless, removing a country from the list would likely have political consequences. Both Oppenheimer and Gewirtz said a US politician who suggests downgrading a country or abolishing the list altogether in favour of newer tools could face charges by their opponent of being soft on terrorism.
“From my point of view, the list is going to sit around until nobody notices it anymore,” said Gewirtz. “It’s much easier to let the thing sit there, with all these countries that everyone agrees we don’t like, than it is to get rid of a ‘terrorist tool.'”
While the list is still in play, however, it can serve as a valuable negotiating tool. In the case of Iran, Oppenheimer said, “Evidentially, their listing will be a bargaining chip, where we take them off as part of process of alleviating sanctions against Iran in exchange for what we’re asking for in the nuclear agenda.”
The State Sponsors of Terrorism list is but one tool in an arsenal. It might eventually be entirely replaced with a more focused tool like the Specially Designated Nationals list, or another designation yet to be determined in a dynamically changing environment. However, there will always be a need to identify and track terrorist activity and the people and countries who wage it.
“Just because we have some bureaucratic things that don’t provide any value, or have any effect, doesn’t mean terrorism isn’t something that we have to pay attention to,” said Gewirtz. “Just because we manage the fight wrong, doesn’t mean we’re not fighting.”