I’ve always been puzzled by the State Department list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. It supposedly designates countries aiding terrorist organizations. But it includes countries that don’t support terrorism and excludes countries that do.
Currently the list consists of North Korea, Syria, and Iran. Missing from the list are US allies that actually do sponsor terrorist groups: Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
In an email exchange, linguist and activist Noam Chomsky decries the hypocrisy of the list.
"Either eliminate it, or make it honest," he tells me.
That hypocrisy becomes clear looking at the listing of Cuba. Ronald Reagan put Cuba on the list in 1982, falsely claiming Cuba was supporting terrorist movements in Latin America. In 2015, President Barack Obama removed Cuba from the list as part of normalizing diplomatic relations.
Cuba didn’t change its policies on terrorism; Washington, D.C., changed its policies on Cuba.
Now the Trump Administration is threatening to put Cuba back on the list during Trump’s final weeks in office. The maneuver is not based on a sudden surge in Cuban support of terrorism but is part of a wider effort to stop the Biden Administration from reestablishing normal relations with Cuba.
In reality, Cuba has never been a state sponsor of terrorism. It supported armed insurgents in Latin America and sent troops to Angola to beat back a South African invasion of that country. But it never supported intentional attacks on civilians practiced by such groups as Al Qaeda.
Paul Pillar, a retired 28-year veteran of the CIA and former deputy chief of the CIA Counterterrorism Center, tells me that keeping Cuba on the State Department list was a reward to conservative Republicans in Florida.
Cuba "stayed on the list much longer than any others," he says. "It was clearly political."
Chomsky notes that the State Department listing was just one component of a 60-year war against Cuba. "As the case of Cuba reveals, ‘terrorism’ means resistance to massive US terrorism and refusal to bow down to the master," he says.
Graham Fuller, a retired operations officer and analyst who worked for the CIA for twenty-five years, puts it another way: "Hell hath no fury like a declining superpower."
What is terrorism?
According to the State Department, "Terrorism means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience."
By that definition, the people who blew up the US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 were terrorists. Although the group attacked soldiers in a conflict zone, the marines were "noncombatant targets," not soldiers fighting in the field.
By contrast, the 2019 US military drone strike that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and Iraq militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was not terrorism because it was carried out openly, not by "clandestine agents."
How convenient! Insurgent groups can only kill soldiers in the battlefield whereas the Pentagon can create battlefields anywhere in the world so long as it assassinates people openly.
The State Department uses gobbledygook to lump together Al Qaeda, ISIS, Marxist guerrillas, and Palestinians who are engaged in armed struggle. Its "terror list" has always reflected Washington’s drive for hegemony rather than a fight against terrorism.
Never about terrorism
When Congress created the list in 1979, the State Department designated Libya, Iraq, South Yemen, and Syria – all countries allied with the USSR at the time. Among other sins, Washington accused those countries of supporting armed Palestinian groups that it designated as terrorist.
Over the years, the State Department has added North Korea, Sudan, Cuba, Iraq, and Iran.
Somehow Pakistan never made the list, despite its security service supporting the terrorist group that seized a Mumbai hotel in 2008 and killed 160 people. And don’t forget that Osama bin Laden was living for years in Abbottabad, Pakistan, 100 yards from a major Pakistani military academy.
"The US won’t put allies on the list even though they engage in terrorist behavior," says Pillar.
He adds one more example. Saudi Arabia’s leaders ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
"The Khashoggi killing was as blatant as you can get," says Pillar. "It was terrorism by any definition."
Hypocrisy knows no bounds
Washingtonian hypocrisy also extends to how it removes countries from the list. The George W. Bush Administration pulled North Korea off in 2007 as part of negotiations to limit that country’s nuclear program. Donald Trump relisted Korea in 2017 after talks on nuclear weapons fell apart.
In neither case did North Korea change its policies on terrorism. In fact, Washington has not removed a single country from the list because it ceased sponsoring terrorist activities.
"In practice the list isn’t used to combat terrorism," says Pillar.
The State Department list is one component of what became known as the War on Terror. The struggle against terrorism "became a huge cottage industry independent of foreign policy," says former CIA analyst Fuller.
The war against terrorism allows for virtually no dissent, he explains. "If you invoke terrorism, that closes the argument."
As a CIA analyst, Fuller saw firsthand how US policy makers rarely consider the reasons behind the terrorist acts. Most international terrorism is deeply political, he explains.
"We pride ourselves as the world’s only superpower," says Fuller. "Yet the US rarely considers itself as having a major impact on actions of other states."
For example, Washington policy makers say Syria supports terrorism. But for the past 50 years, the US has tried to overthrow Syrian regimes. Is it little wonder that Syria has armed and funded militias opposed to the US?
"But our actions are never seen as relevant to other countries’ actions," says Fuller.
Abolish the list
Washington should abolish the State Department list altogether. There’s no need to wait for Congressional action. The Biden administration could remove all the current designees and not add any new ones. Presto, the list disappears.
Republicans and some Democrats would strongly oppose such action, of course. Fuller says many would fight to keep Iran on the list in part because Washington has been "obsessed with Iran for defying us for 40 years."
Taking Iran off the list, on the other hand, "would suggest we understand the nuances, such as our role in overthrowing former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh," Fuller says. "It would be a major statement that we want to deal with Iran in a rational way."
Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. Erlich is an adjunct professor in International Studies at the University of San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.