The United States is cracking down on perceived terrorist threats at home. Attorney General John Ashcroft has recently requested that 46 international groups be designated as "terrorist groups," thereby banning their members or supporters from entering the U.S. But as RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports, the move is diplomatically delicate and worries some civil rights advocates.
Washington, 5 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Under newly passed antiterrorism legislation, the United States is set to designate 46 international groups as "terrorist organizations" -- a status that automatically bans their members and supporters from entering the country.
The measure, announced by Attorney General John Ashcroft on 31 October, is the latest effort by President George W. Bush's team to make it harder for foreign terrorists to strike the U.S. again following the September attacks on New York and Washington.
The 19 hijackers who are believed to have been involved in the attacks were all foreign-born. Fifteen held Saudi Arabian passports and four Egyptian.
Ashcroft recently told a news conference in Washington that the U.S. will not allow terrorists to use "our hospitality as a weapon against us."
The attorney general's move came as the State Department announced new steps to make it harder for foreign citizens to obtain U.S. visas at consulates abroad. The consulates will soon have access to the databases of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to conduct more thorough background checks on visa applicants.
The terrorist designation, which will come into force once it is approved by the State Department, includes names of charities and businesses suspected of supporting terrorist activities. Most are based in the Middle East, but some are located in Europe.
Ashcroft said the 46 groups were chosen from three lists: an original list of 27 groups and individuals whose assets were frozen by President George W. Bush on 24 September; a second list of 39 entities whose assets were blocked on 12 October; and a State Department compilation of terrorist groups issued last April.
Of the entities on these three lists, Ashcroft said that 46 fit a new definition of terrorist organization set out in the "Patriot Act," an antiterrorism bill Bush signed into law on 26 October. The new bill defines a terrorist organization as a group that has been proven either to engage in or fund terrorist activities.
Officials say the new definition is broader than a previous definition dating to 1996 that required that the foreign group specifically target U.S. interests.
The new list features two Yemen-based honey makers -- the Al-Nur Honey Center and the Al-Shifa Honey Press for Industry and Commerce. Treasury Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos tells RFE/RL the honey firms are believed to have funded terrorist groups: "Among the 39 names that we released on 12 October, that did include some honey shops that were believed to be connected with funneling funds to [Osama] bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda organization."
Other names on the list appear more obviously linked to terrorist activities, including the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and the Pakistan-based Army of Mohammed. Among the groups based in Western Europe are the Italian Communist Red Brigades and the French Breton Resistance Army, which claims responsibility for bombing a McDonald's restaurant in the northern French region of Brittany.
With the release of the new material, U.S. officials say the list of terrorist groups now totals 74, and they expect it to grow. Scolinos says: "In the weeks and months to come, you will see additional lists being generated from the Treasury Department that will be listing additional individuals, additional businesses, other entities, other charity organizations that will be coming out."
Scolinos expects the U.S. to take further steps to freeze the assets of groups and individuals with alleged terrorist ties: "To this point, we can confirm that there's been $24 million frozen both here in the United States and also abroad since 11 September, and there's many more millions too that are still being looked at, and we're in the process of confirming additional figures as well."
Ashcroft's list does not overlap with a list announced by the State Department on 2 November. That list contains 22 entities previously recognized as terrorist organizations, such as the Palestinian groups Hamas and Hezbollah. These groups were re-designated under Bush's presidential order of 24 September, thus allowing law enforcement to freeze not just their assets, but also the assets of their members.
Civil rights activists have voiced concern that the entry ban is too broad. They say that it may unfairly affect people unrelated to terrorism.
Another question that is diplomatically more delicate is the alleged ties of some Saudi charities to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network of Saudi-born bin Laden. The Saudi government is sensitive about linking its citizens or groups to terrorism.
The latest list contains no groups based in Saudi Arabia, but it does mention Rabita Trust, based in Peshawar, Pakistan. Rabita Trust, which has denied the charge, is part of the Saudi-based Muslim World League (MWL).
No one was immediately available for comment at MWL's New York office, but the group's website says Rabita is a global charity that enjoys recognition in a number of top international organizations, including observer status at the United Nations.
"The Wall Street Journal" reported on 2 November that U.S. intelligence services are investigating one of the leading Saudi banking concerns, the Dallah al Baraka Group. The newspaper said the U.S. believes the Al-Qaeda terrorist group used the bank's services at subsidiaries in the Middle East and Asia. The bank strongly denied the allegations.
Still, it's clear that the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism is keen not to upset Saudi Arabia.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on 31 October, sought to make a distinction between Saudi groups and citizens linked to terrorism and the government itself. He made the following remark to the Middle East Broadcast Corporation: "I don't think that anybody believes that Saudi Arabia itself supports terrorism. On the contrary, Saudi Arabia is a strong supporter of the international coalition against terrorism. And we very much welcome the strength of that support from Saudi Arabia. They've responded positively to all the requests for assistance and help."
The U.S. has received significant police and intelligence assistance from European countries, in particular Germany. Three of the 11 September hijackers lived for some time in Hamburg, Germany.
The list of alleged terrorist groups includes a Hamburg-based firm called the Mamoun Darkazanli Import-Export Company.