National Security

Think helping to fight ISIS will get you off terrorist list? Think again

A sign in the Qandeel Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan marks the headquarters of the PKK in 2008. The organization is listed as a terrorist organization in the United States.
A sign in the Qandeel Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan marks the headquarters of the PKK in 2008. The organization is listed as a terrorist organization in the United States. MCT

The role of Syrian Kurds in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State has prompted calls for the removal of an affiliated Kurdish guerrilla group from the U.S. blacklist, bringing fresh scrutiny to a terrorist-designation process that some critics call arbitrary and outdated.

So far, the U.S. government’s response to the fighters of the Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK, could be summed up as: Thanks for the help, but you’re staying on the list.

Shedding a U.S. foreign terrorist designation is a long and complicated undertaking – a feat accomplished by just a handful of the dozens of groups that have landed on the list since its inception in 1997. A designation means that a group has earned the dubious label – and economic sanctions – of being named a “tier-one” foreign terrorist organization. Tier-two members are banned from entry to the United States; tier-three groups are undesignated but closely monitored.

Several organizations have languished on the State Department’s tier-one list even though they’re essentially defunct, with their leaders killed, jailed or engaged in peace talks with the governments they once attacked. Others on the 59-member list have been weakened but are still considered threatening. And, of course, there are the active, high-profile groups that in American minds are synonymous with terrorism: the Islamic State, al Qaida and Hezbollah, for example.

Those three, as well as the PKK, are among a half-dozen U.S.-designated groups now involved in the conflict over the Islamic State’s cross-border fiefdom. The battle is stirring up an unprecedented soup of militants, with five tier-one terrorist groups – both Sunni and Shiite Muslim – on the same side as the United States against the Islamic State, itself a designee. The Obama administration’s unsavory de facto partners against the Islamic State include the Lebanese militants of Hezbollah and the Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al Qaida.

“It’s a fairly unique set of circumstances. The closest you have is Af-Pak,” said a State Department official involved in designations, referring to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He spoke on condition of anonymity so as to freely discuss the sensitive topic. “But even there the groups are mostly working cooperatively. Here, you see them at direct loggerheads.”

It’s that opposition to the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL, that the PKK is hoping to leverage in order to wriggle off the tier-one list. The group has waged a guerrilla war for Kurdish rights in Turkey for 30 years and was blacklisted in the United States more than a decade ago. The PKK is closely affiliated with the group known as the PYD, whose fighters are on the front line of the ferocious battle to keep the Islamic State out of Kobani, a Syrian Kurdish town on the border with Turkey.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson even used the group’s fight against the Islamic State recently to rebut claims from Republicans in Congress that terrorists had been caught crossing the Mexican border; Johnson said the four men in question had claimed membership in the PKK – “an organization that is actually fighting against ISIL and defended Kurdish territory in Iraq.”

U.S.-Turkish relations already are fraught, with Washington trying to nudge Ankara toward a more active role in the anti-Islamic State coalition. That task would become only more difficult were the United States to de-list a top enemy of the Turkish government. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear this month that he wasn’t pleased with recent American overtures to the Syrian Kurds, sowing anger in Washington as lawmakers demanded to know which side Turkey, a NATO ally, was on in the war against the Islamic State.

A U.S. diplomat met with a leader of the PYD for the first time last month, ending a longtime U.S. policy of steering clear of the group because of its PKK ties. The State Department has played down the meeting as exploratory and stressed that, under U.S. law, the PYD and PKK are separate entities, though “we’re certainly aware” of the connections, as a spokeswoman put it.

The State Department designations official said that tier-one groups are reviewed every five years and that the PKK was just reassessed in 2013, with a determination that it still belonged on the list. That makes it difficult, he said, to find legal grounding for a fresh assessment so soon. He said there was no de-listing effort under way, despite lobbying that notes the Syrian Kurdish fight against the Islamic State.

“The idea that ‘This group’s being very helpful against ISIL so we should remove the designation’ – that wouldn’t merit a sufficient case, in our view, for de-listing,” the official said.

The main criticism of the process is the seemingly arbitrary way that groups get on and, more rarely, off the list.

Why, for example, is Nusra Front designated when Ahrar al Sham, another militant jihadist group in Syria with alleged al Qaida connections, is off the list? Or take the case of Iranian-backed Shiite militias that once waged a deadly insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq – Kata’ib Hezbollah was designated, but an equally egregious group, Asaib Ahl al Haq, wasn’t.

In both cases, officials have said that designation possibilities were floated but vetoed because national security officials determined that it was more useful to keep them off the list. In the case of Asaib Ahl al Haq, the Iraqi and Western authorities released more than 400 members – including the leader – in negotiations that resulted in the release of British hostage Peter Moore in 2010.

While the State Department official wouldn’t address Asaib or other specific cases, he acknowledged that adding a group to the list is “an extremely interagency process,” with an element of horse trading as national security officials weigh the benefits and costs of a designation. The final step is the personal approval of the secretary of state.

“There could be any number of reasons a designation is denied,” the official said. “Sensitive law enforcement equities, intel equities and diplomatic priorities – those can all be reasons a designation doesn’t go forward.”

Though Americans are most familiar with the Arab and Muslim factions on the list, the roster is diverse and truly global, including the Japanese religious cult behind a deadly chemical attack on the Tokyo subway and two separate splinter groups from the old Irish Republican Army, or IRA.

Latin America’s longest-running war involves another longtime member of the terrorist list – the FARC, a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group that’s been weakened considerably in recent years and is now engaged in peace talks with the Colombian government under the auspices of Cuba.

Also on the list is Shining Path, the Peruvian communist guerrillas who launched a string of massacres, bombings and assassinations in the 1980s. Another perennial is ETA, the Basque separatists who for more than four decades have targeted Spain’s political class and tourism industry with bombings and assassinations.

The LTTE, better known as the Tamil Tigers, remains on the list, even though the guerrilla organization that gained notoriety for its suicide attacks was defeated by Sri Lankan government forces in 2009 and has been declared finished.

Europe’s second-highest court ruled this month that the European Union’s decision to place the Tamil group on a list of terrorist organizations was procedurally flawed and must be annulled, according to news reports. The Tamil Tigers had challenged the EU’s decision in 2006 to blacklist the group and freeze its assets, perhaps the harbinger to a similar campaign in the United States.

That was the path taken by the Mujahedin e Khalq, or MEK, a deep-pocketed Iranian dissident group that ran by far the most ambitious campaign to get off the terrorist list. After legal victories in Europe, the group hired top lawyers and paid high-profile speakers tens of thousands of dollars a pop to raise awareness of the MEK cause in the United States.

A Washington lobbying firm received nearly $1 million to work on getting the MEK off the terrorist list, according to an investigation of the group’s payouts by the British newspaper The Guardian. The MEK cultivated an image of a pro-democracy, Western-friendly supporter of the ouster of Iran’s theocratic government; detractors describe it as a cult-like militant group with only fringe support among ordinary Iranians.

Over time, so many retired generals, politicians and Cabinet members began agitating for the MEK’s removal from the blacklist that the Treasury Department investigated whether the officials were providing illegal support to designated terrorists.

In the end, the group’s litigation forced the hand of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In 2012, she faced a court-imposed deadline: Either justify keeping the group on the list or approve a removal. She chose to de-list the group.

By then, officials have said, the MEK no longer met the key criteria for designation and, more importantly, removing the label gave the United States more room to intervene to protect the group’s Iraq encampment from the crackdowns of the Iran-friendly government in Baghdad.

But the official line that lobbying played only a small role in the MEK’s de-listing rings hollow when that case is compared with other designees who slipped from the headlines years ago. One seemingly outdated presence is Abu Nidal, the Palestinian guerrilla group whose eponymous founder was shot and killed in muddy circumstances in Iraq in 2002. Even the State Department’s annual terrorism review calls the group “inactive.”

Abu Nidal was last reviewed in 2009, so it’s due a fresh assessment, the State Department official said. Without speaking to specific cases, he added that groups that might appear benign to the general public sometimes are still engaged in activities that the U.S. monitors through classified channels.

“There’s a rationale for keeping on groups that might seem defunct,” he said, “and it’s not just based on unclassified information that’s available to the public.”

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