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Distinguishing Politics From Terror


Monday, May. 13, 2002

The timing was stunning. On May 2, the same day that the European Union issued its official list of terrorist groups, a Colombian guerrilla organization omitted from the list fired a gas cylinder bomb into a crowded church. The attack, which killed 119 civilians, including 45 children, was possibly the single most violent event in Colombia's decades-long armed conflict.

Protesting the EU's decision to exclude the guerrillas from its list, Colombian President Andres Pastrana asserted that the omission sent the message "that Europe tolerates these terrible and cowardly attacks." He pointed out that the church attack was hardly the first act of terror committed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, who are responsible for a long series of kidnappings, car bombings, indiscriminate attacks, and other atrocities.

Over the ten days since the attack, the Colombian government has embarked upon a vigorous diplomatic offensive aimed at pressing the EU to reconsider its decision not to classify the FARC as a terrorist group. By all indicators, this effort is likely to successful: leading European diplomats such as Javier Solana, EU security chief, have already labeled the FARC terrorists, and the EU quickly issued a statement condemning the "FARC's newest terrorist action." Indeed, last Thursday Solana announced that the FARC would be added to the EU list within a few days.

Yet whether or not the FARC, in particular, merits inclusion on the European Union's list of terrorist groups, the case underlines the many political factors that are weighed in compiling such lists. And this is true not only for the EU list, but also for the corresponding U.S. list.

As a quick review of these lists and their history shows, the decision to classify a given group as "terrorist" is far from a mechanical one: it involves political calculations as well as a factual assessment of a group's actions.

The United States started drawing up an official list of terrorist groups a few years ago, pursuant to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. That law included a ban on fundraising in the United States by terrorist organizations designated by the Secretary of State, as well as provisions for deporting the members of such groups.

The legal criteria for inclusion on the list are threefold: the organization must be foreign; it must engage in terrorist activity as defined in Section 212(a)(3)(B) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), and its activities must threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security of the United States.

A Broad Definition of Terrorism

The relevant section of the INA is extremely broad, defining terrorist activity to cover hijacking, hostage-taking, violent attacks, the use of biological or chemical agents, and even the use of explosives or firearms "with intent to endanger, directly or indirectly, the safety of one or more individuals or to cause substantial damage to property." Besides covering the acts themselves, it also covers the threat, attempt or conspiracy to commit such acts.

Given the breadth of the law's definition of terrorist activity, there is no shortage of groups that can arguably be deemed to engage in it. A survey of the activities of the many armed factions around the world indicates, in fact, that the more obviously subjective criterion of posing a threat to U.S. nationals or U.S. national security is likely to filter out more groups than the criterion of engaging in terrorist activity.

The original 1997 list of foreign terrorist organizations named 30 groups, including the Philippine group Abu Sayaf, the Spanish group ETA, the Kurdish PKK, Hamas, Hizbollah, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The Irish Republican Army was not on the list, nor were any of its more radical splinter groups, such as the Continuity Irish Republican Army.

Both of Colombia's main rebel groups were listed, the FARC as well as the smaller National Liberation Army. Yet the country's umbrella paramilitary organization, generally considered more violent and abusive than either the FARC or the National Liberation Army, was not placed on the list.

In 1999, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright struck three groups from the list, while adding Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda, and in 2000 she added the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Under the Bush Administration, prior to September 11, two organizations were added to the list: the Colombian paramilitary group, known as the AUC, and the Real IRA.

On March 27 of this year, the State Department issued its most recent updated list of terrorist organizations, which included 33 groups. Notably, one of the three new groups added to the list was the Palestinian militia group al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

The State Department's list has been criticized from many sources, both for the groups it includes and those it leaves off. The Russians, for example, question the absence of any of the Chechen separatist factions implicated in abusive behavior. (Of course, it should be noted that the Russian's own activities in Chechnya would also easily fall within the U.S.'s legal definition of terrorism.)

Indeed, using the same legal definition, but applying different political criteria, one could come up with a very different list. Ask Cuban President Fidel Castro to come up with a list of terrorist groups, for example, and it would undoubtedly include Alpha 66, the Cuban exile group implicated in bomb attacks on Cuban hotels. Needless to say, Alpha 66 is not on the State Department's list, nor, unless Florida's demographic realities change radically, is it ever likely to be.

The European List

The European Union did not formulate an official list of terrorist organizations until after the September 11 terrorist attacks; the project came about as part of its effort to respond to the changed security context. (And indeed, press reports from late September 2001 indicate that initially the U.K. proposal to compile such a list was rejected.)

Before issuing the EU's first list, the member states of Europe had to agree upon a common definition of terrorism. The EU definition, issued in December 2001, differs somewhat from the U.S. definition, and is substantially narrower.

As a predicate requirement, for example, the EU definition says that terrorist acts are only those acts that "may seriously damage a country or an international organization." In addition, in order to fit within the EU definition, such acts must be committed with the aim of seriously intimidating population, unduly compelling a government or international organization to do something, or seriously destabilizing or destroying the political or other structures of a country or international organization.

As with the U.S. list, inclusion on the EU list has a negative financial impact on the groups chosen, whose funds and other assets are supposed to be frozen. In addition, inclusion on the list is meant to target a group for cooperative EU police and judicial action.

The initial EU terrorism list, issued on December 27 of last year, included twelve groups as well as thirty individuals. It immediately came under criticism, with the Israeli government pressing hard for the inclusion of Hizbollah and the PFLP, while Turkey pushed for extending the list to cover the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The revised list, made public on May 3, added several organizations, including the PKK, but not Hizbollah and the PFLP.

The Impact of Inclusion on the Lists

As the State Department emphasizes in its official position regarding terrorist groups, it is U.S. policy to "strike no deals" with terrorists. Instead, the United States has decided to "treat terrorists as criminals" and to "pursue them aggressively."

The principle that countries do not negotiate with terrorists is practically accepted as dogma. The appellation of terrorist thus has an extremely delegitimizing impact on whatever political cause the terrorist group purports to represent.

Stigmatizing a group or an individual as "terrorist" - as Ariel Sharon does with regard to the Palestinians, as Russia does with the Chechens, and as Turkey does with the PKK - is an effective means of excluding it from the political arena. You use the term with groups with which you do not want to negotiate. (The stigmatizing impact of "terrorist" is similar, but probably more effective, than that of "war criminal.")

And therein lies the difficulty the European Union faced in classifying the FARC. Although the Colombian peace process broke down in February - hence the Colombian president's renewed interest in labeling the FARC terrorists - the Europeans still had hope that the talks could be revived. Unlike the United States, the EU has always strongly supported a political as opposed to a military solution to the conflict in Colombia.

The difficult problem that the EU understood, at least in this instance, is that there are groups and people in the world that have political power that must be reckoned with, even though they may have committed acts of horrible violence. Some of them even have a meaningful public following, or represent a legitimate political cause.

Separating terrorists from political leaders is not easy when the two groups are not mutually exclusive.

Joanne Mariner is a human rights attorney practicing in New York. Her previous columns about human rights issues, including pieces discussing terrorism, Afghanistan, and other related topics, can be found in the archive of her pieces on this site.

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