Amid a historic thaw with Cuba and an unprecedented cyberattack blamed on the North Korean government, the White House this week said it was considering the first reshuffle of the U.S. ‘state sponsors of terrorism’ list since former President George W. Bush removed North Korea in 2008.
But the cases of these two countries have prompted fresh criticism of the state sponsor designation, which many say is inherently political and limited in impact by inconsistent, even arbitrary application.
According to the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism, a country can be added to the list if it has “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism” and can subsequently be removed only when there is a demonstrable shift in the government’s policies or leadership.
The reality is more political, however. From its Cold War inception, the list has targeted countries that tend to be antagonistic to U.S. interests. In the 1980s, that included several countries in the Soviet sphere of influence, including Cuba. Today only three other countries remain on the list: Iran, Syria and Sudan.
While countries added to the list tend to have track records of abetting attacks, the designation is more readily regarded as a tool for political leverage, said Martin Reardon, an analyst with the Soufan Group and a veteran of the FBI’s counterterrorism unit. “When countries are put on, there is a strong argument for them being sponsors of terrorism. But when they’re taken off, it's usually based on political reasons,” he said.
Sanctioned states universally reject the accusations, but there is strong incentive to shed the label nonetheless. Being branded as a terrorism sponsor comes with weighty consequences, including bans on U.S. financial assistance and defense exports and considerable banking restrictions that can effectively cut a country off from the U.S.-dominated global financial architecture. U.S. allies are also inclined — though not obligated — to respect these sanctions, compounding damage to a country’s international standing.
Libya, for example, agreed to dismantle its nuclear program in 2006 in exchange for being taken off the state sponsor list, among other concessions. Ironically, there was an imperative to remove Libya from the list because the country's dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, was being wooed as a potential ally in the U.S.-led “war on terrorism.”
A similar scenario seems to be playing out with Cuba, which has been on the list for 32 years despite minimal evidence it has had a hand in any recent activity that U.S. has deemed terrorism. The Castro regime’s support of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) — the original rationale for putting Cuba on the list — has long since dried up. In recent years, Cuba has even taken a role in peace efforts between FARC and the Colombian government. The State Department, in a 2013 report, said there was “no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”
Some experts say the possibility of removing Cuba from the list has emerged only because it is a political necessity for Barack Obama’s administration, which would find it untenable to restore diplomatic ties with a country that it formally accuses of supporting terrorism. Removal may also have served as an incentive for Havana.
Cuba, it should be noted, has lobbed accusations of its own at Washington. In particular, the Castro government has accused the U.S. of sheltering Luis Posada Carriles, the former CIA officer and Cuban national who was a mastermind of the 1973 Cubana Airlines bombing that killed 76 people, along with a string of hotel bombings in the 1990s. Syria and Iran have both accused Washington of sponsoring regional terrorist groups too.
Meanwhile, the fallout from the recent alleged North Korean hacking attack against Sony appears to underline the terrorism list’s limitations.
Though the dictatorship in Pyongyang has a rap sheet that includes the 1987 bombing of a Korean Air Flight 858 and a 1983 assassination attempt against the South Korean president in Myanmar, the Bush administration decided to remove North Korea from the state sponsor list in 2008 in exchange for its cooperation in scaling back its nuclear program.
Pyongyang has failed to do so, however, and if Washington is correct that North Korea was behind the Sony attack — which included improbable threats of 9/11-style attacks on U.S. soil — then the country hasn’t felt pressured to soften its aggressive stance either.
Experts say it isn’t clear whether the alleged North Korean hacking will end up restoring state sponsor sanctions. Traditionally, “terrorism” has been defined as physical acts of violence — not “cybervandalism,” as President Barack Obama described the Sony attack.
But many welcomed Obama’s threat as a moment of consistency for a policy they say has been followed unevenly at best. “Rewarding North Korea for transient adherence to diplomatic agreements it had already broken and when the nature of the regime had in no way changed, showed intellectual confusion and moral weakness on the part of the U.S. government,” wrote Michael Auslin for the conservative National Review.
He pointed to another inherent flaw of the list: It targets only countries that have limited ability or influence to retaliate against the U.S. He noted that North Korean hackers often operate out of Chinese territory using equipment obtained from or in China. If Beijing were therefore implicated in the terrorism threats, Auslin concluded, “intellectual consistency and moral clarity would require the United States to designate China a state sponsor of terrorism.
“That will never happen, of course.”