Jason Blazakis, a professor at Middlebury College’s Institute of International Studies (MIIS), addressed a START audience virtually on the complex nature of terrorist designations.
Blazakis is the Director of the MIIS Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism. He was previously Director of the Counterterrorism Finance and Designations Office at the Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism. Blazakis’s research focuses on terrorist financing, special operations and domestic terror threats.
Blazakis has served in a variety of other State Department bureaus and at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. He previously held posts at the Congressional Research Service, the House of Representatives and the Department of Commerce. In addition to his role at Middlebury, he teaches at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland and is a Senior Fellow at the Soufan Center.
At the beginning of the lecture, Blazakis discussed the mechanisms through which extremist organizations are designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO). Within the U.S. Government, terrorism designations are determined by the Department of State, while the Department of the Treasury holds secondary authorities for sanctioning FTOs and other criminal organizations. These departments utilize two legal authorities to identify FTOs: Executive Order (EO) 13224 and Section 2919 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Despite the many violent extremist movements that exist across the globe, Blazakis emphasized that not all of these movements can be designated as FTOs. In order to be subject to a designation, organizations must be foreign entities that have a history or capability of carrying out violent attacks. Furthermore, any designated group must pose a threat to U.S. national security interests.
“The State Department isn’t in the business of sanctioning domestic entities as terrorist organizations,” Blazakis said. He also emphasized that a group’s rhetoric against the United States “wouldn’t be sufficient [for a designation] unless they also had the capability to carry out attacks.”
Blazakis said that FTO designations allow government agencies to take a number of important actions against violent extremists. Designated groups, for example, are shut out of the U.S. financial system, and members of the organization barred from entering the United States. Finally, American citizens providing material support to designated groups can be charged with federal terrorism crimes.
“This is perhaps the most important aspect of an FTO designation,” Blazakis said, about charging individuals with terrorism-related offenses. “This particular aspect of the counterterrorism toolkit is really important. If you go look at [statistics], over 50 percent of all U.S. counterterrorism-related prosecutions are for individuals that try to provide some kind of [support to a] designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.”
Blazakis also used the lecture to examine what he called “a tale of two designations”: the branding of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) as FTOs. Blazakis said that he believed the IRGC designation was “pointless and dangerous,” while also praising the decision to designate RIM.
“Sanctions are designed generally to be preventative, and not designed to be punitive,” Blazakis said. “As you think about the IRGC designation as an FTO...it’s important to think about the context of the impact and whether or not the action had some sort of preventative aspect to it. I would argue that it’s punitive.”
Blazakis said that the IRGC--and the Iranian government more broadly--had already been subject to a wide range of U.S. sanctions before the IRGC’s designation as an FTO. Additionally, while the Treasury Department targeted the IRGC’s finances for acting as a state-sponsor of terrorism, the group’s classification as an FTO itself was the first time that a state entity had been labeled a terrorist organization.
“I argued with [Daniel Benjamin] that the decision to add the [IRGC] to the list put U.S. soldiers, U.S. assets and our allies at risk because Iran would likely respond. If you look at Iran’s activities, I think you can argue that they became more belligerent shortly after the IRGC’s designation as an FTO,” Blazakis said. Following the IRGC’s designation, for instance, Iran was accused of perpetrating limpet mine attacks in the Strait of Hormuz and directing its proxies to besiege the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Following the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, a U.S. Department of Defense statement described the IRGC as a “U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.” However, Blazakis told attendees the implication that an FTO designation creates a license to kill is completely wrong.
“To me, it’s a really dangerous precedent that a sanction tool can be used in a manner that gives an impression to the public that it’s being used as a tool to kill individuals that may be associated with that FTO,” he said.
Conversely, Blazakis argued that the State Department’s recent sanctioning of RIM under EO 13224 was far more level-headed. RIM is a traditionalist far-right extremist movement advocating for the restoration of the Tsarist monarchy, and many of its members hold anti-Semitic and white supremacist views. The Department of State sanctioned the movement for providing training to neo-Nazis who later carried out attacks in Sweden.
Blazakis said the sanctions against RIM were notable because far-right and white supremacist groups are not traditionally targeted under counterterrorism designation authorities, but questions why the State Department did not go further in designating the organization an FTO.
“If you look at [the FTO list], you have 69 organizations on it, and none of those organizations on the list, unfortunately, have any connection to a white supremacy kind of movement. If you look at the radical right in the United States today, increasingly you are seeing that the radical right [organizations] have connections to foreign-based entities like RIM. There needs to be more effort put into the sanctioning of white supremacist groups using all the existing legal authorities the United States possess.”
More fundamentally, Blazakis said that sanctions have become overused and that when evaluating how to deter extremist organizations, it is important to let the deliberative process play out rather than applying terrorist designations haphazardly.
“All designations generally have to be examined for whether or not they meet the policy objectives of the United States government,” he said.
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