Supreme Court's hard line on supporting terrorists is the right line
The court’s Holder ruling was a crucial victory in the fight against terrorism.
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This is critical in light of how modern terrorist organizations actually operate. Many run active business, media, charitable, and political arms – often hiding the true purpose of those operations. Groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) use such operations to build support among communities, raise money, and move operatives. The now defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) infiltrated Tamil diaspora communities to extort funding and to obtain lethal weaponry.Skip to next paragraph
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For terrorists, money is fungible. Firewalls between their branches are porous. Political and peaceful tactics are often covers for terrorist activity or relief from pressure. It is relatively simple for terrorist groups and their supporters to shield and portray their activities as purely innocent political or social activity.
No one would argue seriously that an American citizen should be allowed to provide Al Qaeda with political advocacy training. It is more complicated, though, to apply this policy to FTOs engaged in political or charitable activities but that also purport to represent an oppressed minority. The line between a terrorist organization and a movement of national liberation can be a thin one – especially with groups like those chosen by the plaintiffs – the PKK and LTTE, which putatively represent Kurdish and Tamil minorities, respectively.
This line is defined and crossed, though, by the groups’ willingness to use terrorist tactics to achieve their political purposes. The ultimate political cause may be just, but the resort to terrorism taints the entire organization.
The essence of the US counterterrorism policy undergirding the material support law is to delegitimize terrorism and thus relegate it to the category of international crimes like slavery and piracy.
The US approach is consistent – applied to terrorist groups of all types around the world – and the State Department’s FTO list has moral weight and consequences FTOs want to avoid. Other countries like Turkey and Spain apply this approach to terrorist organizations within their borders, the PKK and ETA, respectively. They have a different approach when dealing with terrorist groups outside their borders, like Hamas and Hezbollah. The consistent US approach keeps us in good stead with our allies, even if they disagree with us in particular instances.
We built our counterterrorism approach on this bedrock policy. In this case, the Congress, the Executive, and now the Supreme Court have the law just right.
Juan C. Zarate, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is the former Deputy National Security Advisor for Combating Terrorism (2005-2009). A former federal prosecutor, he became the first Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes.