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Political Considerations: The Motives and Implications of Lifting Five Foreign Terrorist Organizations off US Terrorist List

On 20 May, the US Department of State announced removing five terrorist organizations (Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiyya, Mujahidin Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, Kahane Chai, Basque Fatherland and Liberty, and Aum Shinrikyo) from its list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTO) under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). According to the Department, these revocations come within its quinquennial review of the FTO designations to determine whether the circumstances that formed the basis of this designation have changed in such a manner as to warrant a revocation. 

The move raises several questions about the nature of these organizations, outlines of the resolution, mechanisms for its implementation, as well its motives and implications.

The Quiddity of Terrorist Organizations

The quiddity of these terrorist organizations can be revealed through a review of their history and activity, which can be clarified as follows: 

1- Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiyya: A terrorist movement that was founded in the early 1970s. Over the 1980s and periods of the 1990s, it expanded in killing the Egyptian security forces and planned several attempts at assassinating some ministers and government officials, including primarily assassination of late President Mohamed Anwar Al-Sadat. Owing to the successive strikes against Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiyya, the security forces’ managed to dismantle its structure.

2- Mujahidin Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem: A jihadist organization that was founded in 2012 and is based in the Gaza Strip. Several times, the Mujahidin Shura Council claimed responsibility for rocket attacks on Israel, most notably the 2013 attack where several rockets were fired at Sderot on the border with Gaza during former US President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel.

3- Kahane Chai: An extremist Jewish movement that started its activity in Israel in 1971 and aims at expelling the Palestinians from their lands and deporting them to other Arab countries. Its members have attacked Palestinians and some Israeli government officials and carried out the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre in Hebron in 1994.

4- Basque Fatherland and Liberty: A Spanish armed movement, founded in the 1950s with the aim of winning independence for the Basque region in northern Spain to become an independent state. Over the course of four decades, the Basque Fatherland and Liberty led a bloody campaign that resulted in 800 killings and thousands of casualties. However, in 2011, it declared a ceasefire and gave up its weapon arsenal in 2017.

5- Aum Shinrikyo: A Japanese organization that was founded in 1987, drawing on a mix of Buddhist and Hindu beliefs. Gradually, the group turned to extremist views. In 1995, it carried out a sarin attack on the Tokyo subway, which resulted in 13 killings and hundreds of casualties. Some of its members were prosecuted and its top leaders were executed.

Notably, four of these organizations were designated in 1997 as FTOs and they have remained on the US terror list for the past 25 years. Only the Mujahidin Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem was designated a FTOs in 2014.

Multiple Features

The US decision to revoke the FTO designations of the aforementioned organizations is characterized by several features, which can be detailed as follows:

1- The Nature of the Decision: Notwithstanding the US State Department’s revocation of the five organizations from the FTOs list, the decision stipulated that these organizations will remain designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT) entities under Executive Order 13224, meaning sanctions on their property and assets will remain in place to support law enforcement action.

Noteworthy, the Executive Order 13224, issued by former US President George W. Bush on 23 September 2001, after the September 11 attacks was aimed at impeding terrorist funding through mandating the US Department of State, along with Departments of Treasury and Justice, to identify the foreign assets of individuals and entities who commit, or pose a significant risk of committing, acts of terrorism..

2- Implementation Mechanisms: The US State Department pointed out that its review of the FTOs designations comes every five years to determine whether the circumstances that constituted the basis of this designation have changed in such a manner as to warrant a revocation under the INA. However, the law itself sets out three possible basis for a FTO designation, namely 1) if there is a change in the circumstances that formed the basis of the designation in such a manner as to warrant a revocation, 2) if the national security of the United States warrants a revocation, and 3) if the Secretary of State deems a revocation justified.

In view of these criteria, it can be said that the decision to revoke the FTO designation of these organizations is governed by several political considerations and discretionary powers and is not based on clear objective criteria that can be measured. Likewise, the United States decided to revoke the designation of Ansar Allah (Houthis) as a FTO in February 2021, in light of political understandings aimed at a diplomatic solution to the Yemeni crisis. Despite this step from the United States, it did not pave the way for a political settlement, particularly in light of the Houthis’ continued terrorist attacks, both inside and outside Yemen.

3- The Context of the Decision: This decision comes amid a highly turbulent international and regional situation, where countries worldwide are still suffering from the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, which cast a shadow on various economic, political and social aspects, let alone its repercussions for the Russian and Ukrainian war that reverberated throughout Europe and extended to various countries of the world, giving rise to a severe economic crisis that hit the global economy and caused strategies of the major powers to shift from combating terrorism to focusing on internal issues. As such, this context creates a stimulating environment that allows terrorist organizations to resurge, capitalizing on these highly confusing and complex circumstances.

Potential Repercussions

There are several repercussions associated with the revocation of five FTO designations and these can be identified as follows:

1- Undermining Counter-Terrorism Efforts: This decision may contribute to undermining counter-terrorism efforts, particularly it comes at a time the international and regional situation is highly turbulent, with the major powers preoccupied with the repercussions of the Russia-Ukraine war on the one hand and the economic crisis on the other. Thus, this decision has negative implications for counter-terrorism efforts.

2- Resurgence of Terrorist Activity: The decision to revoke the FTO designation of the aforementioned organizations may enable these groups to restore their viability, particularly with the lifting of restrictions on their members and their sense of freedom of movement. The dismantling of terrorist organizations and the temporary interruption of their activity don’t necessarily mean the abandonment of their extremist ideas. In this respect, terrorist organizations may resort to recruitment as an initial step against the current variables.

3- Diluting Washington’s Image: The US decision reveals several shortcomings about Washington’s counter-terrorism policy. Despite Washington’s emphasis on pursuing policies that would combat terrorism, it has taken several decisions that runs counter to these policies, foremost of which was the US withdrawal from Afghanistan that resulted in the fall of the Afghan state and Taliban’s takeover, its decision to remove Ansar Allah from the terror list, and finally the revocation of five organizations from the FTOs list. These decisions undermines Washington’s image, being the key international actor entrusted with combating terrorism.

In short, while the media note of the US Department of State on the revocation of five FTO designations asserted that the United States will remain committed to combating the activities of terrorists worldwide, further consideration of this decision raises many questions about Washington’s seriousness in pursuing an effective policy that undermines the influence of terrorist organizations.

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