The United States recently took the step of naming Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the more extreme groups operating against the Assad regime in Syria, as a terrorist organization. It comes at a curious time, as the war in Syria is raging on and Jabhat al-Nusra is providing some of the most dedicated fighters to the cause.
Naming groups as terrorist organizations is a tricky political business. At the most basic level, it cuts American support, financial and otherwise. In practical reality, it means the organizations is cut off from the support of the international community. As long as the groups operate as purely malicious, violent institutions standing opposed to a legitimate and peaceful government, this is the best possible outcome. But, as we know, the world rarely works like that.
Alex Thurston at the Sahel Blog put up an interesting post yesterday concerning the problems inherent in naming Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in Nigeria. He notes that the nation itself seems divided as to the proper course of action. He further notes that if these judgements came from a purely legal standpoint, Boko Haram would probably qualify as an FTO. But he points out that there are complications inherent in this, complications I wish to elaborate on.
First, in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra is one of the most well armed and well funded groups. Those supplies flow out through the resistance. That material support from radical organizations is not an uncommon occurrence: Ansar al-Sharia, the organization that was responsible for the Benghazi attacks, also helped keep the doors open at a hospital. In Gaza, Hamas provides extensive social services and is seen as more honest than the Palestinian Authority. In the eyes of the West, these groups are often painted with a broad brush. The reality is much more nuanced.
American history provides a similar model for analysis: early street gangs. The prototypical gang in early American history was from one of the ethnic ghettos, and was generally racially homogenous. Irish gangs were from Irish neighborhoods, Germans from Germans. They drew from the lower classes by providing a means of social mobility. These gangs were predatory, without a doubt. But they also provided necessary services where none existed, acting as a proto-public safety department. In time, the social infrastructure of these gangs became more legitimate and formed political machines (Boston and New York are prime examples of this), giving a sense of legitimacy and social mobility to a previous marginalized group. (There is more behind this than Gangs of New York, I promise).
This brings me to a second point: when groups are given an official designation as an FTO, international organizations are by-and-large stay away from them. That is a good thing. It keeps them from getting their hands on money and weapons they would use to carry out attacks. It also has the effect of making the organizations pariahs in the international community. Again, generally good, for similar reasons. However, there is a flip-side to this coin: a designation as an FTO almost always means that these organizations are exempted from the peace process.
In places that have been home to long periods of conflict, peace does not come about overnight. It also rarely comes without cooperation from people with blood on their hands. Because the peace process inherently involves people who had been fighting in the past, the nitty-gritty focus relies on the process of reconciliation. That means establishing that both parties have legimitate redress, giving them a forum to voice those issues, and working with both parties to find a solution.
When an organization is labeled as a terrorist group, they lose all legitimacy. If they are a governing authority in a region or are providing services of some kind, this can hurt the people that they are helping as well as the organization itself. If they are a governing authority, it ruins any chance they have of working with other actors in the region to create peace.
Finally, labelling an organization as a FTO opens them up to civil rights abuses. As weak an argument as it may sound to some, violence begets violence. If the dominant power in a region is accustomed to using a heavy hand to quell unrest, this designation only reinforces their sense of purpose. The designation tacitly supports continued violence against the group, which may not always be strictly defined. When, for example, does a someone sympathetic to a cause become a member of the organization? If a teenager goes to a meeting, is he become a legitimate target?
The Boko Haram case presents an interesting middle path. The US named three individual leaders of the group as terrorists, which seemed to be a solid compromise for a little while. The designation removed support for the individuals, while allowing parties a wide range of options for finding a solution.