Terrorist Watch

Who Makes The U.S. Government’s Terrorist Watch List, And Why?

 After the sad demise of Nelson Mandela, the news that the U.S. government considered him a terrorist until 2008 came as a shocking surprise. It also raised a question: Who else does the U.S. government label a terrorist, and why?

How does the U.S. define terrorism? 

The United States Department of Defense defines terrorism as the unlawful use of violence or threat of violence to instill fear and coerce governments or societies. Any person or state engaging, indulging, or supporting such activities against people or property is branded as a terrorist entity.

Further, the definition of terrorism in the U.S. Code includes violent acts to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.

Global Leaders and Countries on the Terrorist Watch List

In 1988, the Reagan administration sided with Britain and South Africa’s ruling apartheid party in declaring Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) party a terrorist group. The decision was justified by the violent activities used as a way of putting up a resistance against South Africa’s then ruling National Party, and Nelson Mandela was put on the Terrorist Watch List.

Mandela wasn’t the only international political leader to receive this treatment. In fact, Gaddafi’s Libya, Hussein’s Iraq and Arafat’s Palestinian liberation organization Fateh have all been on and off the State Department’s lists of “state sponsors of terrorism” and “foreign terrorist organization”.

Image courtesy of Freedom House via Flickr. Modified by Curiousmatic.

The State Department’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism” that was started in 1979 to highlight countries that repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism in form of funds, weapons, materials, and secure areas, once also included South Yemen and North Korea. The present day list features Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria.

However, the State Department has also been criticized, as detailed by the LA Times, for its rationale behind short-listing the countries. It is alleged that some allies of the United States were never included in the list despite strong evidences of abetment of terrorism against them.

Terrorist Organizations

Among the various non-United States-based organizations around the world labeled as “foreign terrorist organization” because of their involvement in terrorist activities, Hamas is presently operating in a governing role in the Palestinian territories. Israel alleges that Hamas acts as a perpetrator for violent activities against its people and property, which also endangers the U.S. interests there.

One legal criterion for an organization to be included in the State Department’s “foreign terrorist organization” list is that its terrorist activity must threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security of the United States.

In 2001, President Bush signed an Executive Order that gave the U.S. Government a powerful tool to disrupt the financial support network for terrorists and terrorist organizations. Any organization that commits or incites to commit, prepare or plans, gathers information on potential targets for and provides material support to further terrorist activity is placed on the Terrorist Exclusion List (TEL) by the Secretary of State.

Terrorist Lists and The Fallout

Image courtesy of Dov Harrington via Flickr. Modified by Curiousmatic.

As part of its efforts against terrorism, the United States government’s Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) also maintains a No Fly List, which includes the names of more than 21,000 people who are not permitted to board a commercial aircraft for travel in or out of the United States. However, not all think of them as terrorists.

The same goes for the Terrorist Watch List that has more than 875,000 names, which include sex offenders and drug trafficking suspects, besides at large or convicted terrorists. There is growing criticism that these lists even include harmless innocent citizens who have no relation with terrorism whatsoever.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) believes that America’s watch list system is grossly bloated and unfair as well as not effective as a security measure. New York Times (NYT) reports that even those cleared of crimes stay on F.B.I.’s watch list.

With this understanding of America’s terrorist lists and its criticism, it is not surprising that Nelson Mandela remained on the Terrorist Watch List until 2008, more than a decade after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace and became the President of South Africa.


Harleena Singh


About the author: Harleena Singh is a freelance writer. She’s also a blogger, who blogs at the personal development blog, Aha!NOW.

Images from Matt Lemmon and symphony of love via Flickr. Modified by Curiousmatic.  Updated.

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Harleena Singh