The State Department's decision to remove the Iranian exile group Mujahedin-e-Khalq from its Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list certainly looks depressingly cynical, coming after the group waged a years-long PR, lobbying, and advertising campaign, paying political VIPs including Rudy Giuliani, Howard Dean, Tom Ridge, and Ed Rendell tens of thousands of dollars to endorse their cause. The idea that a group blamed for the killing of six Americans in the 1970s, as well as dozens of deadly terrorist bombings against Iranian targets afte,r that is “the largest peaceful, secular, pro-democratic Iranian dissident group” -- as its advertising boasts -- doesn't pass the laugh test.
But it's also true that the group, despite its creepy cultlike behavior, hasn't carried out a terrorist attack in years. As FP contributor Karim Sadjadpour tells the New York Times, “I don’t think the world really looks that much different. U.S.-Iran relations will remain hostile, and the M.E.K. will remain a fringe cult with very limited appeal among Iranians.”
Under the PATRIOT Act, for a group to be included on the list, it's required that the "terrorism of the organization threatens the security of United States nationals or the national security of the United States." But a quick glance at the most recent edition of the FTO list shows quite a few groups that don't -- or no longer -- meet that standard either:
Some other groups, including the Real IRA and Jewish extremist organiztaion Kahane Chai, have been a bit more active recently, but have few members and can't really be said to pose much a threat to U.S. national security. Some groups, such as the Libya Islamic Fighting Group, have been reconstituted, or are operating under different names than the ones on the list.
According to the State Department website, before 2004, a group had to be redesignated every two years to appear on the list. But now, the onus is on the group to make its case -- as the MEK did that it is no longer a terrorist:
IRTPA provides that an FTO may file a petition for revocation 2 years after its designation date (or in the case of redesignated FTOs, its most recent redesignation date) or 2 years after the determination date on its most recent petition for revocation. In order to provide a basis for revocation, the petitioning FTO must provide evidence that the circumstances forming the basis for the designation are sufficiently different as to warrant revocation. If no such review has been conducted during a 5 year period with respect to a designation, then the Secretary of State is required to review the designation to determine whether revocation would be appropriate. In addition, the Secretary of State may at any time revoke a designation upon a finding that the circumstances forming the basis for the designation have changed in such a manner as to warrant revocation, or that the national security of the United States warrants a revocation.
New groups, like Pakistan's Haqqani network or Lebanon's Abdallah Azzam Bridgades, are added with some regularity. Though as some of the names still on the list indicate, groups aren't removed that often unless -- like MEK -- they are in a position to mount a public case for their delisting. (Thankfully, it's hard to imagine Aum Shinriyko advertising on the Washington metro!)
Categorizing miltiant groups, which don't always have one universally used name, or a fixed membership, is always a bit tricky. As Aaron Zelin, recently explained for FP, a surprising number of jihadi groups have emerged in different countries in recent months, all calling themselves Ansar al-Sharia.
Back in June, I noted that the State Department had decided not to list Nigeria's Boko Haram -- a group that is more active and arguably much more of a threat to U.S. economic and political interests than many of those on the list -- though it did list some Boko Harma leaders as "Specially Designated Global Terrorists," a different category.
At the time, Reuters reported that Boko Haram as a whole had not been added to the FTO list so as "not to elevate the group's profile." That makes a certain amount of sense, but it also suggests a need for a larger housecleaning on the list. Their American FTO status is about all the militant credibility some of these groups have left.
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