January 19, 2018

America, terrorists and Nelson Mandela

Jan 15, 2010
Bernd Debusmann

Woe betide the organization or individual who lands on America’s terrorist list. The consequences are dire and it’s easier to get on the list than off it even if you turn to peaceful politics. Just ask Nelson Mandela.

One of the great statesmen of our time, Mandela stayed on the American terrorist blacklist for 15 years after winning the Nobel Prize prior to becoming South Africa’s first post-Apartheid president. He was removed from the list after then president George W. Bush signed into law a bill that took the label “terrorist” off members of the African National Congress (ANC), the group that used sabotage, bombings and armed attacks against the white minority regime.

The ANC became South Africa’s governing party after the fall of apartheid but the U.S. restrictions imposed on ANC militants stayed in place. Why? Bureaucratic inertia is as good an explanation as any and a look at the current list of what is officially labelled Foreign Terrorist Organisations (FTOs) suggests that once a group earns the designation, it is difficult to shake.

The consequences of a U.S. terrorist designation include freezing an organisation’s funds, banning its members from travelling to the U.S. and imposing harsh penalties (up to 15 years in prison) on people who provide “material support or resources” to an FTO.

At present, there are 44 groups on the list, ranged in alphabetical order from the Palestinian Abu Nidal Organisation to the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia. The Abu Nidal group, according to the government’s own country reports on terrorism, “is largely considered inactive.” The Congressional Research Service, a bipartisan agency which provides research and analysis for Congress, has wondered why it is still on the

One can ask the same about the Colombian group, added to the list in 2001. The bulk of the paramilitary organisation demobilized years ago and the latest U.S. government report says its “organizational structure no longer exists.”

In between Abu Nidal and the Colombians are groups whose terrorist acts and future intentions are undisputed – al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad – as well as one which is waging a protracted legal battle to have its terrorist label taken off.


That is the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian resistance group on which the United States is out of synch with Britain and the 27- member European Union. After years of legal wrangling, Britain took the MEK off its terrorist blacklist in 2008 and the EU followed suit last year. In the last week of the administration of George W. Bush, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denied the group’s petition that its terrorist label be taken off.

The MEK’s case came up again this week in a wood-panelled Washington courtroom where high-powered lawyers debated whether Rice had acted “reasonably” in doing so.

Yes, she had, the government’s lawyer, Douglas Letter, told the three-judge panel, given the MEK’s past history of violence. In his written brief, he scoffed at “claims that ‘the tiger has changed its stripes,’” a reference to the group’s contention that it had foresworn violent acts in 2001 in favor of peaceful change.

Rulings by foreign courts, the argument went, were not germane to the case in the U.S. Those decisions included one by Britain’s Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission (POAC), a body established to review disputes over terrorist designations. The POAC found it would be “perverse” to stick to that label and ordered the Home Office to remove the MEK from the terrorist blacklist.

When the Washington Court of Appeals will rule on the MEK’s latest (and fifth) petition is not clear but if the past is any guide, political rather than legal considerations will decide the fate of the group in the U.S. American administrations have been using the terrorist organizations list and a separate list of “state sponsors of terrorism” as political tools.

Washington added the MEK to the terrorist list in 1997, at a time when the Clinton administration hoped the move would facilitate opening a dialogue with Iran and its newly-elected President, Mohammad Khatami, who was seen as moderate open to better relations with the U.S. The MEK served as a bargaining chip but the hoped-for dialogue didn’t go anywhere.

Neither did President Barack Obama’s diplomatic overtures to the theocrats ruling Iran. There has been no apparent progress on negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and the government has turned deaf ears to international criticism of increasingly savage repression of anti-government dissent. Obama was guarded in his initial reaction to the crackdown on popular protests that erupted after Iran’s elections in June.

But he finally spoke out against the government in December: “For months, the Iranian people have sought nothing more than to exercise their universal rights. Each time they have done so, they have been met with the iron fist of brutality, even on solemn occasions and holy days.”

Despite the tough language, he has obviously not given up hope for negotiations. “We … want to keep the door to dialogue open,” Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said in January. Which probably means that the MEK, hated by Iran’s rulers, will retain its role as a bargaining counter and stay on the terrorist list.

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com) (Editing by Samia Nakhoul)