America, terrorists and Nelson Mandela

By Bernd Debusmann
January 15, 2010

berndforblog- Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own -

Woe betide the organization or individual who lands on America’s terrorist list. The consequences are dire and it’s easier to get on the list than off it even if you turn to peaceful politics. Just ask Nelson Mandela.

One of the great statesmen of our time, Mandela stayed on the American terrorist blacklist for 15 years after winning the Nobel Prize prior to becoming South Africa’s first post-Apartheid president. He was removed from the list after then president George W. Bush signed into law a bill that took the label “terrorist” off members of the African National Congress (ANC), the group that used sabotage, bombings and armed attacks against the white minority regime.

The ANC became South Africa’s governing party after the fall of apartheid but the U.S. restrictions imposed on ANC militants stayed in place. Why? Bureaucratic inertia is as good an explanation as any and a look at the current list of what is officially labelled Foreign Terrorist Organisations (FTOs) suggests that once a group earns the designation, it is difficult to shake.

The consequences of a U.S. terrorist designation include freezing an organisation’s funds, banning its members from travelling to the U.S. and imposing harsh penalties (up to 15 years in prison) on people who provide “material support or resources” to an FTO.

At present, there are 44 groups on the list, ranged in alphabetical order from the Palestinian Abu Nidal Organisation to the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia. The Abu Nidal group, according to the government’s own country reports on terrorism, “is largely considered inactive.” The Congressional Research Service, a bipartisan agency which provides research and analysis for Congress, has wondered why it is still on the list.

One can ask the same about the Colombian group, added to the list in 2001. The bulk of the paramilitary organisation demobilized years ago and the latest U.S. government report says its “organizational structure no longer exists.”

In between Abu Nidal and the Colombians are groups whose terrorist acts and future intentions are undisputed – al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad – as well as one which is waging a protracted legal battle to have its terrorist label taken off.

That is the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian resistance group on which the United States is out of synch with Britain and the 27-member European Union. After years of legal wrangling, Britain took the MEK off its terrorist blacklist in 2008 and the EU followed suit last year. In the last week of the administration of George W. Bush, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denied the  group’s petition that its terrorist label be taken off.

The MEK’s case came up again this week in a wood-panelled Washington courtroom where high-powered lawyers debated whether Rice had acted “reasonably” in doing so.

Yes, she had, the government’s lawyer, Douglas Letter, told the three-judge panel, given the MEK’s past history of violence. In his written brief, he scoffed at “claims that ‘the tiger has changed its stripes,’” a reference to the group’s contention that it had foresworn violent acts in 2001 in favor of peaceful change.

Rulings by foreign courts, the argument went, were not germane to the case in the U.S. Those decisions included one by Britain’s Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission (POAC), a body established to review disputes over terrorist designations. The POAC found it would be “perverse” to stick to that label and ordered the Home Office to remove the MEK from the terrorist blacklist.

When the Washington Court of Appeals will rule on the MEK’s latest (and fifth) petition is not clear but if the past is any guide, political rather than legal considerations will decide the fate of the group in the U.S. American administrations have been using the terrorist organizations list and a separate list of “state sponsors of terrorism” as political tools.

Washington added the MEK to the terrorist list in 1997, at a time when the Clinton administration hoped the move would facilitate opening a dialogue with Iran and its newly-elected President, Mohammad Khatami, who was seen as moderate open to better relations with the U.S. The MEK served as a bargaining chip but the hoped-for dialogue didn’t go anywhere.

Neither did President Barack Obama’s diplomatic overtures to the theocrats ruling Iran. There has been no apparent progress on negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and the government has turned deaf ears to international criticism of increasingly savage repression of anti-government dissent. Obama was guarded in his initial reaction to the crackdown on popular protests that erupted after Iran’s elections in June.

But he finally spoke out against the government in December: “For months, the Iranian people have sought nothing more than to exercise their universal rights. Each time they have done so, they have been met with the iron fist of brutality, even on solemn occasions and holy days.”

Despite the tough language, he has obviously not given up hope for negotiations. “We … want to keep the door to dialogue open,” Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said in January. Which probably means that the MEK, hated by Iran’s rulers, will retain its role as a bargaining counter and stay on the terrorist list.

(You can contact the author at (Editing by Samia Nakhoul)


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good article,

One must ask himself/herself, is this the american definition of “justice for all”.

it feels like, it doesnot matter what the organization was or is, as long as the appeassment of the ruling mullahs is the main policy, this organization will be named as a terrorist. In Europe justice prevailed over shameful hourse trading. Would it be the case in US too? Lets hope so.

Posted by juergista | Report as abusive

A simple question Mr Dobusmann, I’m an italian with residence in Cairo, Egypt. In the case I want to visit Manhattan flying from Cairo I’m arrested on the JFKennedy Airport on the spot? or are the police ask me if I prefere to go to Cuba, Guantanamo? just to know, because I don’t like the cold of Down Town Manhattan being an “aficionado” to the warm climate. You suggest me to stay quite in Cairo or what? Thanks

Posted by magdin | Report as abusive

this a good article, your analyse regarding the reasons for keeping the mek in the black list are really well explained. they have been put in the black list to satisfy iranian regime. the mek relay the voice of iranian people. the amercian government should stop keeping hope in this regime since this regime will never make any concessions; as you said mek have always been used by the US or EU as the bergainning chip with the iranian regime.

Posted by eliott | Report as abusive

The central point not brought up by the article is that the U.S. definition of whether you are a “terrorist” or “freedom fighter” depends largely on whether you are serving Washington’s agenda or not.

There has been some marginal improvement in this regard in recent years — with for example Columbian right-wing paramilitary groups making the list. But this is essentially window dressing to fend off accusations of hypocrisy.

And that hypocrisy is rife.

The rebels in Darfur have not been labelled “terrorists” — because the U.S. wants to overthrow the government of Sudan. The rebels in Sri Lanka were labelled “terrorists” because the U.S. doesn’t want to overthrow that government. They have nearly identical motivations and tactics.

Mr. Debusmann’s focus on the Iranian opposition MEK is due to a simple point: efforts are being ramped up to overthrow the Iranian government with a “colored revolution” — and the U.S. bureaucracy is interfering with a quick switch to supporting the MEK as a tool of this.

What is lacking from the U.S. system is any clear, universal definition of what is the right of a minority region to wage a war of independence, what is the right of people in an occupied territory to resist occupation, what is the right of people under a dictatorship to take up arms. And what defines dictatorship, along a continuum from open dictatorship like China, to blatantly fraudulent democracy like Kazakhstan, to seriously flawed democracy like Iran, to carefully managed democracy like the United States itself?

For example under international law, Hamas has every right to shoot at occupying Israeli soldiers — but the U.S. calls this “terrorism”. And the French Resistance shooting Germans? Oh, well that’s a different story. Somehow. Not defined how.

And that “notorious murderous terrorist gang leader” — George Washington?

Posted by robert_john | Report as abusive

Truth in advertising: until they can be reformed under more enterprising leadership than President Barack Obama, these lists should be renamed the “We Don’t Like You – Don’t Ask Us Why” lists. All they really seem to be is brown icing on the urinal cake of sinecure known as The War On Terror.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

I would not mention Nelson Mandela and the latest Nobel Prize for Peace Speech in one breath. HBC, while talking about propaganda and using this exciting week as a crude example:

What is the similarity between the Golden Globe Awards and yesterday’s ‘Attack’ in Kabul:

1. It was staged;
2. No one actually knew how to get to the stage;
3. The winners applauded themselves;
4. The losers looked happier than the winners;
5. The advertising/drug breaks were extremely irritating.

The camera work was shocking.

The differences:

1. The most consistent petty drug offender in the US made the best speech, ‘or not’;
2. The MC was better in the US;
3. The MC insults were more subtle in the US;
4. The Taliban gets better botox treatment;
5. Kabul needs a facelift.

America is great at putting on a ‘show’. That’s about it…

Who cares about blacklists ? Really, traveling has become a financial hazard in/to any event.

Posted by Ghandiolfini | Report as abusive

during the court proceeding,some of the information about MEKm`s activities declassified by state department.
according to these information the group has not ended its military operation,still intenends to use violence to achieve its political goals and trained females to be suicide also said that much of the information the group has provided on iran`s nuclear program has been wrong.
( rticle/2010/07/16/AR2010071605881_pf.htm l)
therefor MEK exatly is a terrorist group.

Posted by khorzo | Report as abusive