What is the point of listing terrorist groups?

Of all the counter terrorism tools we have the exercise of listing groups seems the most political and least effective.

Of all the counter terrorism tools we have, the exercise of listing groups seems the most political and least effective.

In all the years since 9/11 we collectively have taken many measures to counter terrorism. Some were dictated by the events of that day, such as increased airline security: does ANYONE enjoy boarding a plane these days? Interestingly, airlines were long the target of terrorist groups – remember the ‘take this plane to Cuba days? – but it took the horrendous act of directing fully-laden civilian aircraft into buildings to really lower the boom on security.

The other big shift since that fateful day was the decision to declare ‘war’ on terrorism. I have long spoken and written against this move, seeing it as overkill and not very effective, as going into battle against a noun never seems to end well (war on drugs? war on poverty?). This is not, of course, to state that there is no role for the world’s militaries to play in neutralising terrorism. Rather the part played by armies, navies and air forces should never have become our primary response.

Another questionable ‘tool’ in our counter terrorism arsenal is that of ‘terrorist listings.

This mechanism seeks to identify actual terrorist groups and place them on a register, publicly available, for all to see. But for what end?

Well, according to the Canadian effort – it is the model I am most familiar with – here is what this policy does:

  • The listing of an entity is a public means of identifying a group or individual as being associated with terrorism. The definition of an entity includes a person, group, trust, partnership or fund, or an unincorporated association or organization. The Anti-Terrorism Act¬†provides measures for the Government of Canada to create a list of entities. It is not a crime to be listed. However, one of the consequences of being listed is that the entity’s property can be the subject of seizure/restraint and/or forfeiture. In addition, institutions such as banks, brokerages, etc. are subject to reporting requirements with respect to an entity’s property and must not allow those entities to access the property.¬†These institutions may not deal or otherwise dispose of the property. It is an offence to knowingly participate in or contribute to, directly or indirectly, any activity of a terrorist group. This participation is only an offence if its purpose is to enhance the ability of any terrorist group to facilitate or carry out a terrorist activity.
Listen to me – I know what a terrorist looks like.

I may be a layperson when it comes to the law but this description seems to me to apply mostly to the financial end of terrorism, not solely to actually joining a group. Don’t get me wrong: this is indeed a noble effort as terrorists need funds to carry out large scale attacks and maintain activity over time (but not for low scale ones: any idiot can do those). Any legislation that turns the tourniquet on terrorism financing gets my vote.

And yet there is a political angle to this process that strikes me as unfortunate and which detracts from what governments are trying to do to stop terrorism. No, I was not born yesterday and I know that most things governments do are political in nature, but the short history of terrorist listings seems to me to rife with bias. Here are four examples:

  • the Harper government in Canada ‘delisted’ the Iranian terrorist group Mujahideen-e-Khlaq (aka the Mujahideen-e-Khalq Organisation or the People’s Mujahideen Organisation) in 2012. In fairness, it was following the US and EU lead in this matter, but the MeK did not suddenly stop being a terrorist group. The move was made because these states saw Iran as a bigger problem, a kind of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ decision;
  • Ivory Coast authorities arrested a key opposition leader amid a wave of detentions targeting politicians who face terrorism and murder charges over their calls for a civil disobedience campaign and a transitional government;
  • Canada only listed far right terrorist groups – and only two at that, Blood and Honour and Combat 18, not the two biggest threats out there – in 2019, despite the fact that white supremacist and neo-Nazi organisations have been active for a very long time, well before 9/11; and
  • The US has decided to delist the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist entity. This group may be ‘murky’ according to some but this smacks more of punishing the PRC for its moves in Xinjiang province in its mass incarceration of Uyhgur Muslims than any flash of insight into the threat ETIM poses.

I may have missed something, but I cannot recall a single terrorism charge or prosecution in Canada tied to the listing regime (if I have I am sure someone will let me know).

The whole exercise may be a waste of time.

I remember the hectic days after 9/11 and the precipitous passing of Canada’s Anti-Terrorism Act. I was also part of the initial drafting of the terrorist listings while at CSIS. It was all very, very rushed.

Furthermore, in those early days, a lot of nations jumped on the listing bandwagon and proposed all kinds of dodgy groups as terrorist entities. These efforts were more in line with sidelining troublesome opponents than true terrorist outfits (see Ivory Coast above). In other words, the whole shebang has been fraught with problems since day one.

Would we be less able to counter terrorism without a list of purported entities? No: we have enough other weapons in our arsenal to do the job. Perhaps it is time to get rid of this political football.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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