On Dec. 29, 1979, President Jimmy Carter gave Congress a list of four countries that “have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” They were Iraq, Libya, South Yemen, and Syria. Carter was complying with recently passed legislation requiring extra scrutiny of exports to countries where the goods being exported could “enhance the ability of such country to support acts of international terrorism.” The list got little press coverage at the time. The Washington Post took note of it in July when the president’s brother, Billy, was accused of facilitating business deals with Libya. And the New York Times first reported on it in August, when the Carter administration held up the sale of five Boeing jets to Iraq.
Over the next four decades and six presidential administrations, the list, whose members are now formally designated by the secretary of state and is now known as the state sponsors of terrorism list, took on a significance far beyond its original intention, becoming a blunt tool in the arsenal of U.S. foreign policy, often employed for purposes having little to nothing to do with terrorism. And in 2017, the list provided a convenient starting point for Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban.
No one could have anticipated the travel ban (or Trump) when the list came into being in 1979, though then, as now, fears of terrorism and Islamic extremism dominated public discourse. It was the year of Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the bloody seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca. Terrorist attacks in the United States itself were far more frequent during the 1970s than they are today. So it likely seemed entirely reasonable when an amendment was added to the Export Administration Act in 1979, taking into account a nation’s attitude toward terrorism before approving exports.
“There are times and situations in which the United States should be very cautious about selling equipment of potential military use to countries which aid terrorism,” said New Jersey Republican Rep. Millicent Fenwick, who sponsored the amendment, to the Associated Press.
It’s not entirely clear why these four countries, in particular, were the ones Carter chose. It’s probably not a coincidence that all were fairly pro-Soviet at the time. But the trade restrictions placed on them became stricter under a number of subsequent bills, and after 9/11, Congress expanded the list’s target from countries that provide support for terrorism to ones whose territory is used “to carry out terrorist activities.”
The countries on the list have changed over time too, often for reasons that seem to have little to do with terrorism. Syria is the only country with the honor of having been on the list, without interruption, since the beginning. Iraq was removed in 1982, when the Reagan administration was supporting Saddam Hussein’s government in its war against Iran. It was relisted in 1990, the year of the first Gulf War, then taken off again in 2004, following the U.S. invasion and Saddam’s overthrow. South Yemen was taken off in 1990 when it ceased to exist as an independent country—it merged with the north to create the Republic of Yemen. Libya was taken off in 2006, after the Bush administration restored diplomatic relations with Muammar Qaddafi’s government and lifted sanctions on the country’s economy.
Four other countries have spent time on the list: Iran was added in 1984 and remains on there to this day over its support for a number of groups, notably Hezbollah. North Korea was listed in 1988, largely because of its role in the bombing of a South Korean airliner the previous year. The Bush administration delisted it in 2008, not because of any assurances on terrorism, but because it agreed to halt its nuclear program and allow inspections. Sudan was added by the Clinton administration in 1993 for its hosting of a number of international terrorist groups. (Osama Bin Laden lived there from 1991 until he was expelled in 1996.) It’s still on the list, despite the fact that the State Department acknowledges it has ceased its support of al-Qaida and that in recent years, “The United States and Sudan worked cooperatively in countering the threat posed by al-Qa’ida and ISIL.”
The most obvious example of the list’s lack of purpose and consistency is Cuba, which was added by the Reagan administration in 1982 for its support of left-wing guerrilla movements in Central America. It was finally removed by the Obama administration in 2015, as part of the larger diplomatic opening to Raul Castro’s government. Cuba’s continuing presence on the list had been a strange Cold War anachronism, kept alive by the Castros’ foes in Washington. The State Department’s last desultory report on Cuba’s sponsorship of terrorism pointed only to its support of the largely defunct Basque group ETA and Colombia’s FARC rebels, who have been in internationally supported peace talks with the Colombian government since 2011, partly facilitated by Cuba. Irate members of Congress predictably responded to Obama’s move with a bill, still in committee, that would put more restrictions on the president’s ability to take countries off the list.
The double standards are glaring. Despite evidence of past government support, or at least tolerance for militant groups including the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Pakistan has never been on the list. Neither has Saudi Arabia, which has, at the very least, turned a blind eye toward the financing of terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, in the past. Qatar, which has supported Hamas and jihadi groups in Syria, has never been listed. As a number of observers have pointed out over the years, the list seemed to reflect the U.S. government’s overall attitude toward a country, much more than whether that country actually supports terrorism.
But the worst abuse of the list was still to come. In 2015, Congress passed, and Obama signed, legislation restricting visa-free travel for people who are citizens of or had recently traveled to Iraq, Syria, or any country on the trusty old state sponsors of terrorism list. By this point, the only countries left on the list were Iran, Sudan, and Syria.
The bill, passed by Congress in the wake of the San Bernardino, California, shooting, was widely seen as a response to that attack, even though it would have done nothing to stop the two shooters: a U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent and his Pakistani Saudi wife. Obama, who supported the bill, said, “We should put in place stronger screening for those who come to America without a visa so that we can take a hard look at whether they’ve traveled to war zones,” which doesn’t explain why Iran, not a war zone, was included. In 2016, the Department of Homeland Security expanded the visa restrictions to people who had been to Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.
And then Trump showed up. Trump’s own response to San Bernardino during his campaign had been to call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” This was never going to fly as an actual policy: In addition to being blatantly unconstitutional, it would be unenforceable. Most people don’t have their religion listed on their passports. So the administration changed its approach and began to talk about restrictions on people from countries where terrorism is a problem. Luckily, a list of such countries already existed.
On Jan. 27, the Trump administration issued an executive order that completely barred entry, for 90 days, to citizens of the seven countries already identified under the visa-waiver restrictions: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. Ironically, given the high level of turnover on the state sponsors of terrorism list, the four countries originally named by Carter (with Yemen substituting for South Yemen) all eventually found their way onto Trump’s ban list. Though the state sponsors of terrorism list wasn’t explicitly mentioned in the original Jan. 27 order, it was specifically cited in the revised version issued on Monday, which was meant to clear up the legal flaws in the first one.
This is a complete perversion of a list that was originally drawn up to enact trade restrictions on governments that supported terrorist organizations, not target their people. The state sponsor designation was never intended to suggest that a country’s citizens posed any particular threat. At this point, it barely even suggests the government is a threat. When Iran is called a state sponsor of terrorism, for instance, that doesn’t mean it is sending out its own citizens to blow themselves up. It means it provides support to foreign groups such as Hezbollah, which comprises mostly Lebanese citizens. State Department spokesman Mark Toner was tripped up by this point when it was raised in a press briefing earlier this week, pointing repeatedly, and irrelevantly, to Iran’s official status as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The Trump administration appears to have simply grabbed the nearest available, already existing list of problematic Muslim countries. (It’s tempting to wonder if it would have still used this criteria if Cuba and North Korea were still listed.) Among its many flaws as a counterterrorism tool, the list reflects a 1970s mindset that views terrorist groups as cohesive organizations acting on behalf of national governments. (This same outdated mindset, by the way, is partly responsible for the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq.) It is ill-suited to an era when terrorist organizations such as ISIS are nebulous, global nonstate actors, and people plotting violence in the United States are more likely to receive training and inspiration over the internet than in a physical training camp in a hostile state.
The list is a classic example of Washington mission creep and the unintended consequences that can result when misguided policies refuse to die. It’s certainly not what Carter intended 38 years ago.