The Use of Terrorism Designation in the U.S. Foreign Policy

Terrorism Designation
United Airlines Flight 175 crashes into the south tower of the World Trace Center complex in New York City during the September 11 attacks. Photo by Robert J. Fisch

By Cagil Albayrak

A Powerful Tool

The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has raised important questions about the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy when it comes to defending Eurasian peace and security through sanctions. One of the most controversial proposals has been to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. There has also been a multinational effort to classify the Wagner Group, a proxy private military company (PMC) and effectively a pro-Russian government militia, as a foreign terrorist organization.

Terrorism designation is a powerful tool in the fight against terrorism. By designating individuals and groups as terrorists, the US government sends a strong signal that terrorism will not be tolerated while taking concrete steps to disrupt terrorist financing, recruitment, and operations. Additionally, by designating nation-states as sponsors of terrorism, the US government can impose economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation on those countries that support terrorism. While terrorism designations can be an effective tool to combat terrorist groups and hold state sponsors accountable, they can also be used as a political tool to advance broader foreign policy goals.

Terrorism Designation

My dissertation research seeks to understand terrorism designations as reflections of a government’s foreign policy preference, as well as its perception of threat. The decision to designate a group as a terrorist organization is influenced by several factors, including the reputation of the terror group, domestic interests, and foreign policy considerations. The U.S. designation regime in particular uses listing as a foreign policy instrument because designated actors are exclusively foreign organizations. Moreover, designations “signal to other governments our concern about named organizations.”

Research has demonstrated that the United States’ Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation is especially potent in curbing attacks carried out by groups operating in countries allied with the U.S. However, there is evidence to suggest that FTO listings have become more symbolic and politically motivated in recent years. As the calls for listing the Wagner Group as an FTO and designating the Russian Federation as a state sponsor of terrorism grow louder, it is increasingly important to understand the role of terrorism designations in foreign policy and their effectiveness.

One of my collaborative working papers examines whether regime type affects the effectiveness of terrorism designations. The designator profile matters for the success of the designation regime, a premise overlooked in academic research. To address this gap, my co-authors and I presented some of the preliminary findings at the Peace Science Society meeting in Denver on what I call a “democracy advantage” in the effectiveness of terrorism designations in reducing terrorism by violent non-state actors. Compared to other regime types, terrorism designation in robust polyarchies significantly attenuates terrorism output. Understanding whose designations are effective can help identify the conditions under which foreign policy decisions will have an impact.

Credible Signals

Democracies send credible signals in designating groups as terrorists because they follow a relatively more transparent and objective process in making these designations compared to autocracies. The U.S. government, for instance, has a well-established legal framework that outlines the criteria for designating groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs), which includes periodic reviews and procedures for revocation. This process involves extensive scrutiny of the group’s activities and typically includes consultations with intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Aimed at addressing the global spread of terrorism, the U.S. government’s FTO designations have been widely accepted by other democracies and international organizations, such as the United Nations and the European Union, which have similar legal frameworks for designating terrorist groups.

Democratic countries also have the potential to be effective partners in collective defense against terrorism as they share intelligence and can establish cooperative relationships. For example, the U.S. designated the PKK as an FTO in 1997 and shared critical intelligence with Turkey, then an electoral democracy, to locate and capture the group’s founder, Abdullah Ocalan. In 1999, two years after the U.S. designation, Ocalan was captured by Turkish special forces officers in Nairobi, Kenya with U.S. assistance,

A Tool for Repression

In contrast, autocracies are more likely to use terrorism designations as a tool for political repression or to quell their domestic threats. They may use vague or arbitrary criteria to designate groups as terrorists. Their designations also often lack transparency and accountability. As a result, other countries and international organizations may be less likely to accept these designations or to cooperate with autocratic governments on counterterrorism efforts. For example, in Turkey, now an electoral autocracy, it has become a common practice of the current government to label virtually any opposition as terrorists. A hallmark of autocratic repression, labeling legitimate political opposition, let alone college students, as “terrorists” is at the very least a disservice to counterterrorism.

Ironically, pro-Kurdish campaigns to get the PKK delisted take advantage of Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian regime. They claim that removal would promote democratization and peace in Turkey. Therefore, autocracies not only damage their credibility through their abuse of terrorism designations, but they also risk losing the battle of legitimacy to terrorist groups. In the case of the PKK, the European Court of Justice, in December 2022, rejected the petition seeking its removal from the European Union’s terrorism list; a fact the Turkish government likes to advertise to compensate for its lack of democratic credibility.

Credibility in Terrorism Designation

The credibility of a democracy in designating terrorist groups depends on the transparency, objectivity, and accountability of its institutional processes for making these designations, as well as the government’s commitment to upholding these principles in practice. The robustness of the U.S. system adds legitimacy to democracies and their designation regimes so long as it upholds these principles. The effectiveness of the U.S. designation regime lies both in its credibility and influence to garner cooperation from other nations and global institutions, particularly the world’s robust democracies. This is especially important considering the fact that democracies may have diverse political concerns and their designation mechanisms produce divergent outcomes depending on bilateral negotiations and foreign policy priorities.

Therefore, in the case of recent calls to designate the Russian state and its pro-government mercenaries, the so-called ‘Wagner Group’, the United States must garner the support of strong democratic nations around the world. While proponents and opponents of designating the Russian state raise strong points on the consequences of implicating Russian atrocities in Ukraine, U.S. foreign policy considerations will likely prevent it from being listed. However, the FTO designation of the Wagner Group would be a strong case based not only on the group’s violent reputation of indiscriminate violence but also on listing as a product of foreign policy politics. The United States has used terrorism designation as an instrument in its foreign policy, listing groups to strengthen alliance ties (Israel, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the Philippines) and target rival states (Iran). A chorus of democratic designations would signal credible condemnation of the Russian proxy’s political violence and effectively throw a wrench into Russia’s foreign policy machinery.

About the Author

Cagil Albayrak is a Political Science Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kansas. He has taught courses on terrorism, global security, Middle Eastern politics, and U.S. foreign policy. His research interests include religiously motivated and state-sponsored terrorism, the politics of terrorism designation, and cyber threat intelligence. Having a military background, he is also a certified cyber security analyst.

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