How dangerous does a group have to be to get included on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list? In the wake of the Times Square attack, the omission of the Pakistani Taliban from the FTO list revealed a gap in understanding of the threat posed by a violent Islamist network that consists of al-Qaeda franchises and affiliates. But there are other cases where terrorist groups that pose a clear threat to American interests have been omitted from the list. For example, according to a recent report, the State Department will not include the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus (IEC), a group based in the North Caucasus region of southern Russia, on the FTO list. Why not?
To be classified as an FTO, a group must (1) be foreign, (2) “engage in terrorist activity” (which, according to this section of U.S. Code, can include any activity involving a firearm or explosive not undertaken for monetary gain), and (3) “threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security . . . of the United States,” where “national security” includes defense, economic, and foreign-policy interests. The third requirement is critical to a group’s potential designation, since the first two conditions apply just about any group of thugs.
What explains the IEC’s absence from the FTO list? It could stem from the notion that the group is essentially local, representing a response to regional tensions and long-simmering conflicts between Chechens (and other ethnicities in the Caucasus) and the Russian government. The conflict in the region does date back hundreds of years, and includes such events as Imam Shamil’s insurgency against the Russian empire in the 1830s and Stalin’s deportation of Chechens in the 1940s. Modern-day grievances, including those arising from the autocratic reign of pro-Moscow Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (whom reports recently connected to the murder of a Chechen human-rights activist), also figure into this perception of the IEC.
Yet while the IEC may act locally, it is thinking globally. The presence of legitimate local grievances should not obscure the threat that the IEC poses to U.S. interests through its role in the international al-Qaeda and Associated Movement (AQAM) network. AQAM elements use local grievances as force multipliers to advance their global campaign, allowing the network to manipulate entrenched local conflicts to its advantage. The current FTO list includes many al-Qaeda groups and affiliates that have implemented such a model: Somalia’s al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, to name just a few.
The IEC has focused its attacks on Russian territory, as in the recent Moscow subway bombings. But rhetoric and other ties align it with the AQAM network, which seeks to harm American interests. IEC leader Doku Umarov stated during the formation of the IEC in November 2007:
. . . after expelling the kuffar [infidels] we must reconquer all historical lands of Muslims, and these borders are beyond the boundaries of Caucasus . . . Today in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Palestine our brothers are fighting. Those who have attacked Muslims, wherever they are, are our enemies, common enemies. Our enemy is not Rusnya [Russia] only, but also America, England, Israel, and anyone who wages war against Islam and Muslims. And they are our enemies because they are the enemies of Allah.
Al-Qaeda returned the rhetorical favor in April 2008 when Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was detained briefly in the Caucasus in the 1990s, identified the Caucasus as one of the three primary fronts of al-Qaeda’s international campaign against the West. This followed a December 2007 message from the al-Qaeda-linked al-Fajr Media Center that called Doku Umarov an “Emir of the Believers.” Signifying Umarov’s importance within the al-Qaeda network, the message also used that title for the Taliban’s Mullah Omar and al-Qaeda in Iraq’s late Omar al-Baghdadi, two individuals revered within the AQAM network.
Both Doku Umarov and al-Qaeda’s central leadership view the Caucasus as a significant front in a conflict that goes far beyond Russia. IEC’s activities provide propaganda material that the broader al-Qaeda network can leverage in its recruiting and fundraising network. The North Caucasus conflict also facilitates the training and flow of personnel. Chechen militants have been seen traveling alongside Arab and Uzbek fighters in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region as recently as April 21, and several Chechens were reportedly killed in a March operation in Pakistan’s Bajaur agency. In past years, Arab fighters have played a role in the Caucasus insurgency, specifically through the Shamil Basayev–led Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade. The IEC’s active assistance to the AQAM network, along with their shared global ideology, threatens American interests and should qualify the group as a candidate for an FTO listing.
Another failure to strictly apply the FTO criteria came to light in January, when the State Department finally placed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) on the list — almost a full month after the Christmas Day attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab for which the group claimed responsibility, and almost a year after its formation. The delayed decision to designate AQAP as an FTO suggests that the administration did not consider AQAP’s rhetoric threatening to American interests until the Christmas Day attack. Yet in November 2009 the leader of AQAP, Nassir al-Wahayshi, called on his followers to attack airports and trains in the West using homemade bombs. A Saudi commander of the group told AQAP militants that same month, “Your first enemy is the Crusaders, among them America and NATO.”
In fact, though, AQAP’s rhetoric should have been irrelevant to its designation as an FTO, since AQAP is an official al-Qaeda franchise. Thus every condition and measure that applied to FTO-listed al-Qaeda should have automatically applied to AQAP. As for the IEC, it does not have official franchise status, but its leaders and the leaders of al-Qaeda have identified it as part of the global militant Islamist movement led by al-Qaeda, which qualifies it for the FTO list.
The IEC and AQAP cases reveal a gap in understanding AQAM, as the does the continuing absence of the AQAM-linked Taliban from the FTO list. Franchises and affiliates often use local grievances to garner popular support and attract recruits, making them seem remote from U.S. concerns, but they adhere to a global ideology and actively assist one another in an overall campaign against American interests. Regardless of whether they directly target Americans in their operations, AQAM-affiliated groups are members of a broader network that threatens U.S. interests and security, and they should be recognized and treated as such by the State Department.
– Charlie Szrom is senior analyst and program manager for AEI’s Critical Threats Project. Chris Harnisch is an analyst and Gulf of Aden team lead for the Critical Threats Project.