Washington has removed five extremist groups, all believed to be defunct, from its list of foreign terrorist organizations. In notices published in the Federal Register on Friday, the State Department said it had removed the groups after a mandatory five-year review of their designations.
Al-Qaida, which was also up for review, was kept on the list, which was created under the federal Immigration and Nationality Act, or INA.
“Our review of these five FTO designations determined that, as defined by the INA the five organizations are no longer engaged in terrorism or terrorist activity and do not retain the capability and intent to do so,” the State Department said in a statement. “Therefore, as required by the INA, these FTO designations are being revoked.”
Several of the removed groups once posed significant threats, killing hundreds if not thousands of people across Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The decision was politically sensitive for the Biden administration and the countries in which the organizations operated. It may draw criticism from victims and their families.
The organizations removed are the Basque separatist group ETA , the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, the radical Jewish group Kahane Kach and two Islamic groups that have been active in Israel, the Palestinian territories and Egypt.
“These actions are intended to reflect the United States’ resolve to comply with legal requirements to review and revoke FTO designations when the facts compel such action,” the State Department said. “These revocations do not seek to overlook or excuse the terrorist acts each of these groups previously engaged in or the harm the organizations caused its victims, but rather recognize the success Egypt, Israel, Japan, and Spain have had in defusing the threat of terrorism by these groups.”
The AP reported on Sunday that the removals would be coming this week, based on notifications sent to Congress on May 13.
Removing the groups from the list has the immediate effect of rescinding a range of sanctions that the designations had entailed. Those include asset freezes and travel bans as well as a prohibition on any Americans providing the groups or their members with any material support. In the past the material support provision has been broadly defined to encompass money or in-kind assistance, in some cases even medical care.
All but one of the five groups was first designated a foreign terrorist organization in 1997 and have remained on the list for the past 25 years.
The groups removed from the list are:
— Aum Shinrikyo (AUM), the Japanese “Supreme Truth” cult that carried out the deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 that killed 13 people and sickened hundreds more. The group has been considered largely defunct since the executions of its top echelons, including leader Shoko Asahara, in 2018. It was designated a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.
— Basque Fatherland and Liberty, or ETA, which ran a separatist campaign of bombings and assassinations in northern Spain and elsewhere for decades that killed more than 800 people and wounded thousands more, until declaring a cease-fire in 2010 and disbanding after the arrests and trials of its last leaders in 2018. It was designated a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.
— The Mujahidin Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, an umbrella group of several jihadist organizations based in Gaza that has claimed responsibility for numerous rocket and other attacks on Israel since its founding in 2012. The council was first designated in 2014.
— Gama’a al-Islamiyya, or Islamic Group–IG, an Egyptian Sunni Islamist movement that fought to topple Egypt’s government during the 1990s. It conducted hundreds of deadly attacks against the police and security forces as well as tourists. The group was first designated in 1997.
— Kahane Chai, or Kach. The radical Orthodox Jewish group was founded by ultranationalist Israeli Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1971. He led the group until his assassination in 1990. Members of the group have killed, attacked or otherwise threatened or harassed Arabs, Palestinians and Israeli government officials, but the organization has been dormant since 2005. The group was first designated in 1997, US Department has removed the ultranationalist Israeli group Kahane Chai from its list of “foreign terrorist organizations” (FTO), in a move that US advocates had warned could embolden supporters of the Israeli far-right.
In a statement on Friday, the department said it was delisting five groups, including Kahane Chai, as part of a routine procedure to remove inactive organizations from the FTO database in accordance with the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
“Our review of these five FTO designations determined that, as defined by the INA, the five organizations are no longer engaged in terrorism or terrorist activity and do not retain the capability and intent to do so.”
“As required by the INA, the Department reviews FTO designations every five years to determine if the circumstances that were the basis of the designation have changed in such a manner as to warrant a revocation,” the State Department said.
President Joe Biden’s administration had confirmed its plans to revoke the “terror” designation of Kahan Chai – originally known as Kach – last week after media reports revealed that the State Department had notified Congress of the decision.
While critics acknowledge that the group – founded by ultranationalist, US-born Israeli politician Meir Kahane – officially has been inactive, they say adherents who embrace its anti-Arab ideology are still operating both in the United States and Israel.
Before establishing Kach in Israel, Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League (JDL) in the US, a hardline pro-Israel organisation linked to several violent attacks on US soil, including the assassination of Palestinian-American organiser Alex Odeh in California in 1985.
“Kach and Kahane Chai splintered into various groups and political parties that continue to espouse, inspire and carry out acts of violence against Palestinian civilians,” said William Lafi Youmans, an associate professor at George Washington University who is working on a documentary about the assassination of Odeh.
“Rather than removing the designation, the State Department should have updated and expanded it. Simply dropping these groups from the list is going to be seen as the United States continuing its light approach towards right-wing violence against Palestinians,” he told Al Jazeera earlier this week.
But on Friday, the State Department emphasised that the move is strictly bureaucratic, not political.
Alongside Kahane Chai, the other delisted groups are Basque Fatherland and Liberty, Aum Shinrikyo, Mujahidin Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, and Gama’a al-Islamiyya.
The State Department also removed six deceased individuals from the US list of “specially designated global terrorists” (SDGT).
“Revoking FTO designations and the delisting of deceased individuals ensures our terrorism sanctions remain current and credible and does not reflect any change in policy towards the past activities of any of these terrorists or of the organizations in which they were members,” it said.
Still, Palestinian rights advocates have voiced concern about the political implications of the decision to delist Kahane Chai.
Kahane, who was elected to the Israeli Knesset in 1984 on a platform that openly advocated for Palestinians to be expelled from their homeland, was killed in New York in 1990. But long after his death, his followers continued to carry out violent attacks.
In 1994, a US-born member of both the JDL and Kach gunned down dozens of worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in the occupied West Bank. And in 2001, JDL leaders plotted to blow up a mosque in California, as well as the office of Lebanese-American Congressman Darrell Issa.
Kach has been banned in Israel, but rights activists say the group’s supporters still operate under different far-right organisations in the country – and some of its adherents have gone on to hold public office.
The State Department said Kahane Chai and the other four groups will retain their SDGT designations to “ensure frozen assets are not released to still active individual terrorists”.
The US added Kahane Chai to the FTO list in 1997. As a domestic US group, the JDL is separate from Chai, but both are part of the same Kahanist movement.