What good is a terrorism list?

Lionel Beehner, formerly a senior writer at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a writer in New York.

The State Department’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism” is one of the biggest farces of U.S. foreign policy. Started in 1979 for nations designated by the secretary of State “to have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” the rationale behind the list is far from any high moral purpose to rid the world of terrorism.

This blacklist exists solely to punish our enemies, not to cajole them to stop sponsoring terrorists. Landing on it places limits on the size and scope of arms, economic aid and other financial transactions a country can have with American citizens. By promising to remove a country from it, we dangle a carrot in front of the North Koreas and Libyas of the world to try to exact behavioral change and wrest concessions. Although that may be a useful tool in theory, it ignores the need to work with our international allies to apply pressure on these states and does not tackle the socioeconomic causes of why terrorism takes root in the first place.

The terrorism blacklist only reduces our foreign policy to the petty thinking of a clipboard-toting nightclub bouncer, who gets to whimsically decide who is allowed in and who is not. It fits snugly into our with-us-or-against-us view of world affairs, not to mention our one-size-fits-all preference to lump all terrorist groups under one umbrella.


“The very concept of a binary list, with countries either on it or off, is flawed and often does more harm to U.S. interests than good,” noted terrorism expert Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution in an analysis paper in May.

Washington, for example, only removed Iraq from the terrorism sponsor list in 1982 so the U.S. could supply military technology to Saddam Hussein in the early days of Iraq’s war with Iran. Iraq was put back on the list after it invaded Kuwait in 1990 -- which was an act of aggression, to be sure, but a move that had nothing to do with its support of terrorism.

Meanwhile, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia -- all allies of the United States -- never have landed on the terrorism list, despite mounds of evidence that elements within their governments at one time or another abetted terrorists.

And Eritrea, which had previously fought against foreign jihadists on the Horn of Africa, was nearly added to the list last year for funneling arms to Islamist insurgents in Somalia opposed to an invasion by Ethiopia, Eritrea’s archenemy. Washington’s threatened move was aimed more at appeasing Ethiopia, a U.S. ally, in its proxy war in Somalia than at punishing Eritrea for abetting terrorists.

The list’s membership, which has shifted over the years, is indeed puzzling. The inaugural members in 1979 were Libya, Iraq, South Yemen and Syria, and the current ones are Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria. Why is Cuba, whose sponsorship of terrorists has been dormant since the Cold War, on the list but not Venezuela, which actively supports the FARC, the leftist rebel group that seeks to overthrow Colombia’s government? Why is Sudan, which partially collaborated with Washington to weed out Islamic extremism in parts of Africa, on the list but not Somalia?

And North Korea was removed from the list earlier this month, not because it stopped its support of terrorists -- allegedly supplying nuclear technologies to Middle East countries such as Syria -- but because it cooperated with U.S. officials to again allow inspections of its nuclear facilities. This was a major breakthrough, but one unrelated to its sponsorship of terrorism, past or present. After all, Pyongyang was slapped on the list in 1988 for its role in the 1987 bombing of a Korean Air flight that killed 115 people, and for its support of Japanese communists.


Of course, some will stress the importance of the list as leverage during negotiations. But we have lots of other levers to pull for that purpose. And most countries fully understand how politicized the list has become, thus watering down its effectiveness. Slapping Syria and Iran on a terrorism list does little to deter those governments from funneling arms to Hamas or Hezbollah. It’s purely political theater -- the equivalent of Congress’ labeling Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a “specially designated global terrorist” organization.

Washington should knock off this charade and do away with its terrorism blacklist, which has little to do with stamping out suicide bombers and their ilk and everything to do with strong-arming countries for grievances unrelated to their support of terrorists.