Fighters from the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) look on during the funeral of a comrade in the Kurdish-majority town of Afrin in northern Syria.
As Turkish troops continue their offensive against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, a legal technicality underlines differences between Ankara and Washington over the Kurds’ role in the Syrian civil war. For Turkey, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), constitute an international offshoot of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Meanwhile, the United States has viewed the militia as one of Syria’s most effective anti-ISIS forces and has previously equipped fighters with American arms.
Such disagreements underscore the fluid and ever-shifting conception of what constitutes a terrorist group in the international collective consciousness.
Such disagreements underscore the fluid and ever-shifting conception of what constitutes a terrorist group in the international collective consciousness. Yet the increasingly global nature of extremism makes it ever more important for countries to strive towards common definitions of terrorism, to ensure that the international community can speak with one voice in calling out organisations with destructive ideologies.
The US State Department’s list of designated foreign terrorist organisations recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Over the past two decades, the list has become a crucial piece of geopolitical real estate. US allies have jostled to have their worst nonstate adversaries proscribed, to delegitimise these groups’ causes, cripple their finances and restrict their travel. Equivalent lists maintained by the UK and EU are also argued over and influenced as key pillars of international diplomacy.
Turkey, the most significant contributor of military personnel to NATO after the United States, has expended significant diplomatic effort on convincing the international community to recognise the equivalence between the PKK and Islamist forces such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. This has largely succeeded. The PKK is considered a foreign terrorist organisation by the US State Department, is deemed a proscribed group by the UK Home Office and is on the EU’s terror list (despite opposition from some EU bodies). Ankara is now pushing for this definition to include what it considers international affiliates of the PKK as well as some Kurdish political factions in Turkey—designations that Ankara’s allies are unwilling to grant.
Such trends are part of a broader international dispute about the terrorist proscriptions of organisations perceived to have both military and political wings.
Such trends are part of a broader international dispute about the terrorist proscriptions of organisations perceived to have both military and political wings. Hamas, founded in 1987 as a Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, is banned in its entirety as a terrorist group by Israel, the US and EU. The UK instead lists the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, as a proscribed terrorist organisation.
Some have suggested that such distinctions are arbitrary. There was strong condemnation from across the political spectrum of the UK government’s recent refusal to close a legal loophole that permitted demonstrations in support of Hizbullah, amid a stipulation that only the group’s military wing was banned in the country.
Exploring how governments designate terrorist organisations provides insights into policymakers’ perceptions and priorities over time. However, shifting conceptions of global terrorism also reveal changes in the ideologies that underpin extremist violence. Over recent decades, lists of proscribed terrorist groups have become increasingly dominated by Islamist extremism, reflecting the ever more pronounced globalisation of this terrorist threat.
Analysis of the US State Department’s list of designated foreign terrorist organisations shows the relative ideological makeup of the global terrorist threat over time. During the period from 1997 to 2007, two-thirds of organisations held Islamist or Salafi-jihadi ideologies—the worldview of groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. However, over the following decade to the present (2008–2018), this proportion rose to 90 per cent. Of groups that have subsequently been delisted from proscription, because they have either been broken up or engaged in a political process, only a minority (23 per cent) are Islamist. The rest comprised revolutionary Marxist and nationalist organisations.
This general trend is echoed elsewhere. The proportion of Islamist organisations in the EU’s designation list is generally lower than in the US list, partly reflecting Europe’s more substantial contest against far-left and nationalist militant groups. But the changing profile of the list over time is telling, not least because it constitutes the joint view of the European Council, and is less representative of the priorities of a single administration. In a 2001 list compiled just after the 9/11 attacks, 15 per cent of newly proscribed organisations were Islamist or Salafi-jihadi groups. By 2017 this number had risen to 38 per cent of the total.
In the UK Home Office’s list of designated terrorist organisations, the proportion of Islamist and Salafi-jihadi organisations has remained consistently high, at almost 90 per cent of groups added between 2001 and 2017. However, other broad developments in terrorism are also reflected in countries’ designations. In December 2016, National Action became the UK’s first domestic far-right group to be proscribed.
As well as reflecting global terrorism’s ideological makeup, designations reveal other significant trends. The fragmentation of the global jihadi movement is characterised in the separate listing of Somalia’s al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria (now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham). All of these groups sprang from al-Qaeda’s relative decline after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the group’s move towards a ‘franchise’ model of terrorism. This trend is likely to further increase with ISIS’s territorial demise in Iraq and Syria: the US State Department has already designated the group’s Afghanistan and Sinai ‘Provinces’ as separate terrorist organisations due to their relative independence.
Given the increasing globalisation of the extremist threat, it is essential that nation-states move towards greater alignment, rather than disagreement, in their definitions and conceptions of terrorism.
How governments define terrorist groups provides a window onto states’ security policies and priorities, both domestic and international. But it also helps establish global consensus and collaboration on shared challenges. Given the increasing globalisation of the extremist threat, it is essential that nation-states move towards greater alignment, rather than disagreement, in their definitions and conceptions of terrorism. This, together with closer coordination on a framework for engagement and non-engagement with alleged terrorist groups, is necessary to avoid politicising a crucial mechanism for international security.