Designation of Foreign Terrorist Organizations: An Effective National Security Tool, or Symbolic Action?

The United States formally designated the Nigerian militant groups Boko Haram and Ansaru as Foreign Terrorist Organizations as of this past Wednesday, November 13th, bringing the total number of Foreign Terrorist Organizations officially recognized by the State Department to 53. While it is undisputed that Boko Haram and Ansaru both have lengthy records of engaging in terrorist activities, making the designation an appropriate classification of their activities, this designation is largely symbolic and will have little effect on the group’s activities and power.

While it is understandably important that the United States recognizes the violent acts these terrorist organizations have perpetrated against the country and its citizens, there is little indication that the designation will change how the United States attempts to combat their actions and ultimately weaken and/or abolish these organizations. Several terrorist organizations are added to the list each year, and this particular designation appears to largely be a symbolic gesture to assure Americans that combatting terrorism is still on the forefront of the government’s consciousness and remains a priority, despite the plethora of other issues competing for its resources.

The power to designate specific groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations is given to the State Department via section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. This statute states that the Secretary of State is permitted to designate an organization as a foreign terrorist organization if he finds that (1) the organization is a foreign organization; (2) the organization is engaged in terrorist activity; and (3) the terrorist activity or terrorism of the organization threatens the security of United States nationals or the national security of the United States. Upon reading the statute, it is clearly reflective of the United States’ aggressive stance on terrorism, despite the fact that it was codified years before September 11th and the United State’s commitment to the War on Terror. The requirements of the statue, particularly the third element, were likely intentionally left vague, effectively granting the Secretary of State a wide range of discretion in determining what activities threaten the security of our country and nationals. When analyzed broadly, nearly any violent action adversely affecting the United States or one of its citizens qualifies an organization for designation as a terrorist organization.

According to the Department of State, once an organization is designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, there are numerous legal ramifications:

1) It is unlawful for any American, or person subject to the United States’ jurisdiction, to provide material support or resources to a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.

2) Representatives and members of a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization are inadmissible to, and in certain instances removable from, the United States.

3) Any U.S. financial institution that becomes aware that it has possession of or control over funds in which a designated FTO or its agent has an interest must retain possession of or control over the funds and report the funds to the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

The Department of State specifically articulates that their goals, with regards to these designations, are to:

1. Support its efforts to curb terrorism financing and to encourage other nations to do the same.

2. Stigmatize and isolate designated terrorist organizations internationally.

3. Deter donations or contributions to and economic transactions with named organizations.

4. Heighten public awareness and knowledge of terrorist organizations.

5. Signal to other governments its concern about named organizations.

In reality, however, these goals do little more than to spread awareness of the existence (and potential dangers of) the organizations named by the Secretary of State. Even then, however, most of these organizations are well-established, and their powers/penchant for violent acts is already known globally by the time there is enough of a case against them to qualify as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. While it is a somewhat powerful sentiment for the United States to formally state that there is enough evidence against the group to offer this designation, it does very little in terms of spreading global awareness about the dangers of terrorist organizations. Again, this seems to be yet another example of the United States attempting to appear tough on terrorism, without actually taking any substantive action that will affect our national security in the long-term.

Similarly, while cutting off the economic resources of these organizations is a noteworthy goal, it is questionable just how effective this is at limiting the financing and economic power of these groups. First, while simplistic, it is necessary to note that this is the ideal situation in which to apply the maxim “where there’s a will, there’s a way”- if an American, or someone subject to the U.S.’s jurisdiction, is looking for a way to fund terrorism, they will find a way to do it. It is generally safe to assume that parties seeking to aid and abet terrorist organizations are not concerned with the potential legal ramifications of their actions; threatening legal consequences doesn’t seem to be an effective deterrent to this population.

Thus, while the State Department offers spreading awareness of the organization as well as efforts to cut off the organizations’ funding as the primary motivators for making these classifications, this is little more that a thinly veiled attempt to appear that the government is actively pursuing organizations that pose a threat to the United States. Until the designations begin to truly mean something, there are far better ways to use government resources than to pursue a lengthy process whose sole effect is to make what is already an open secret (the existence of these terrorist organizations) official public knowledge.

Kelly Ann Taddonio, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

One thought on “Designation of Foreign Terrorist Organizations: An Effective National Security Tool, or Symbolic Action?

  1. Pingback: How much should the US be doing to "Bring Back Our Girls"?

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