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That Mysterious Terrorism List

This jihadi's Russian, so he doesn't count
A few weeks ago the EurasiaNet website came up with an odd little story from the depths of the U.S. bureaucracy. (Hat tip to Joshua Kucera at the Bug Pit.) It turns out that the U.S. immigration service has a list of “Specially Designated Countries” that are considered to have links with terrorism.

Here’s how it works: If you’re a foreign national and you’re detained on immigration charges by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), there are two things that might happen to you. First they’ll check your name against a general terrorism watch list. But if you happen to be the citizen of one of those Specially Designated Countries, they’ll also run you through an additional screening to see whether there are any other government agencies that have been investigating you as a possible terrorist.

You can see the list of those countries here (see Appendix D, p. 18). The list is part of a report published in May by the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which took a look at whether ICE was performing all the checks it was supposed to be. As the EurasiaNet story pointed out, the list includes the Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. The former is a tightly run dictatorship that has never experienced a confirmed terrorist attack in its modern history. The second is a somewhat softer dictatorship that has no significant track record of terrorism at all (though that could be changing as we write). The Kazakhs have reacted to their inclusion on the list with considerable irritation.

Yet the list doesn’t include Russia or China, two countries that are currently battling Islamist groups within their own borders.

We were curious about this, so after a lot of telephoning around we finally managed to get ICE spokesperson Ross Feinstein to comment. In his emailed statement, he says that the screening procedure based on Specially Designated Countries “does not create or infer [sic] any terrorism designations on countries.” He also points out that the list has been in existence since 2005, and notes that “countries may have been included on the list because of the backgrounds of arrestees, not because of the country’s government itself.” In other words, individual conduct by one of its citizens is enough to get a country on the list.

Okay, fine. Yet this contradicts the text of the OIG report, which specifically says that the countries that make it onto the list “have shown a tendency to promote, produce, or protect terrorist organizations or their members.” Ah ha, so then it is about the countries themselves!

Or not. Take your pick.

Perhaps this is reading too much into it, but the whole story would seem to suggest a bit of conceptual confusion at the heart of America’s bureaucratic response to terrorism. How do we define terrorism? Does a terrorist only really count as one if he or she comes from a majority Muslim country? Will Norway now join the list of Specially Designated Countries?

Perhaps someone can figure this out for us.

- Christian Caryl