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Pompeo Escalates “Counterterrorism” Abuse on His Way Out

Counterterrorism tools have been misused for decades, but no administration has abused them more than Trump’s. Last week outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list to attack Cuba, Iran, and Yemen’s Houthis.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at President Trump’s announcement last October that Sudan will normalize relations with Israel.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at President Trump’s October announcement that Sudan will normalize relations with Israel. Trump promised to remove Sudan from the US list of countries that sponsor terrorism in exchange for its normalization pledge.,AFP / Alex Edelman

Years ago, especially before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, counterterrorism was taken seriously in the United States as a bipartisan concern. The mid-1990s were a time when that concern was high. Relevant events feeding the underlying fears included truck bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993 and of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, with the latter attack killing 168 and injuring hundreds more.

The U.S. Congress responded by enacting the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. This omnibus legislation incorporated several counterterrorist measures, including ones aimed at anyone providing financial or other support to terrorist groups. The objective was to subject such individuals to criminal prosecution, even if they believed that by writing a check to a group, they were advancing some other, more honorable, cause.

By criminalizing material support to terrorist groups, the law required a clear definition of what constitutes a terrorist group. Accordingly, the same law created for the first time an official list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The statute specifies criteria for listing, including that a group be engaged in terrorism that somehow adversely affects U.S. interests. Compiling the initial list of thirty such groups was a long process of assessing evidence, involving multiple departments and agencies. But the law gives the final say about listing and delisting to the secretary of state.

That the list of FTOs is supposed to be about facilitating prosecution of individuals supporting terrorism shows how much of a misuse it is to treat the list as a sort of general shaming device aimed at any entity that the administration of the day happens to dislike. No administration has abused the list more in this way than the outgoing Trump administration. The height of this misuse was its adding to the FTO list in 2019 Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — which, as part of the armed forces of a state, is not at all the sort of non-state organization that the list was intended to include. No one is going to be prosecuted for writing a check to the IRGC.

Something similar can be said about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s latest move along this line, which is to designate the Houthis of Yemen as an FTO. The Houthi movement is the de facto government of almost half of Yemen’s territory, including the capital city of Sanaa, and far more than half of the country’s population. It has been so for the past six years. It has at least as much claim to being the sovereign of Yemen as does the would-be president on the other side of the Yemeni civil war, who is propped up by the Saudis and spends most of his time in Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis are interested in power and resources in Yemen and have no interest in international terrorism. Their only cross-border activity has consisted of some aerial attacks aimed at Saudi Arabia as relatively small attempts to retaliate for the devastating Saudi air war against Yemen that has killed thousands of Yemeni civilians.

Pompeo’s designation statement claims to “recognize concerns” about the impact on the already awful humanitarian situation in Yemen and talks about licenses for humanitarian activities. But as the story of such licenses with Iran demonstrates, this will mean aid will be effectively stalled as long as would-be aid-givers fear the long arm of U.S. law, and in this case the fear of being branded a material supporter of a terrorist group. The move will exacerbate what the United Nations still considers “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” with “50,000 Yemenis …already living in famine-like conditions, with 5 million more just one step away” and made worse by the Trump administration’s own aid cuts intended to punish the Houthis.

In the same week that Pompeo has misused the FTO list, he also has misused the separate official list of state sponsors of terrorism by placing Cuba on that list. Cuba is not a state sponsor of terrorism. As I have discussed elsewhere, it has been decades since Cuba has engaged in the kind of overseas activities that could even, as a stretch, be interpreted as a basis for such listing. The justifications in Pompeo’s statement announcing the listing are exceptionally thin — mentioning, for example, Cuba’s providing a retirement home for a few fugitive criminals from the 1970s. It also mentions Cuba’s more recent relations with Colombian rebels, but that is overshadowed by Cuba’s cooperation with the government of Colombia in facilitating peace negotiations.

Pompeo’s move regarding Cuba is about domestic U.S. politics — rewarding a segment of the fervently anti-Castro Cuban American population in south Florida that kept the state in Trump’s column in the November election and that Pompeo hopes will support his own future run for national office. This motivation is no more noble that a manipulation by the Trump administration of the state sponsor list last month, in which Sudan was removed from the list. This was part of the administration’s program of giving gifts to the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu — in this case pressuring the government of Khartoum to initiate diplomatic relations with Israel. Again, nothing involving terrorism or counterterrorism was involved.

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To achieve a trifecta of abuse of the terrorism issue, Pompeo has picked this same week to foment a misbelief that Iran and Al-Qaeda are, in Pompeo’s words, an “axis” and “partners in terrorism.” If this sounds a lot like an earlier supposed partnership between Al-Qaeda and another Middle Eastern state starting with the letter “I” — as well as an earlier “axis of evil” — it should. The Iranian regime, Shia and Persian, is no more of a partner with Al-Qaeda than was the secular regime of Saddam Hussein. Iran and al-Qaeda have been on opposite sides of almost every political, ideological, military, and sectarian divide, as manifested in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.

The presence of some Al-Qaeda types in Iran, mostly under a kind of house arrest, has been known for years and reflects a modus vivendi between enemies rather than anything approaching a partnership — see Michael Hirsh’s fine summary of the issue. Pompeo is presenting nothing new.

Pompeo’s presentation of such misleading material now, as well as his other manipulations supposedly in the name of counterterrorism, is part of the Trump administration’s salting of the earth before giving way to the Biden administration. And this manipulation will indeed present immediate difficulties for the new administration on such matters as putting policy toward Iran, Yemen, and Cuba on more productive tracks than the highly unproductive ones they are on now.

But the misuse of counterterrorist tools, and the promotion of myths about such subjects as who is or is not allied with Al-Qaeda, also weaken counterterrorism over the longer run. The eventual price to be paid for such misuse and mythmaking will be deaths, including deaths of Americans, in future terrorist attacks.

[Paul R. Pillar is Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His books include Negotiating Peace: War Termination as a Bargaining Process (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World: National Experience and Roots of Misperception (2016).]