The US Department of State’s Foreign Terrorist Organization Classification Process, the procedures for identifying and designating FTOs, is operating effectively, according to a recent audit report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Secretary of the Treasury and Attorney General, has the authority to designate FTOs. Designation allows the US to impose criminal and civil penalties, as well as financial and immigration consequences on designated FTOs and those who supportthem.
“US agencies reported enforcing FTO designations through three key legal consequences—blocking assets, prosecuting individuals, and imposing immigration restrictions—that target FTOs, their members, and individuals that provide support to those organizations,” GAO said. “The restrictions and penalties that agencies reported imposing vary widely.”
As of June 1, 2015, 59 organizations were designated as FTOs. The number of FTOs varies annually, with 20 designated FTOs in 1997 and 59 as of December 31, 2014.
With Congress recently expressing concerns over the FTO designation process, GAO was requested to review the State Department’s six-step process for designating an FTO by looking at the legal requirements for designation and the legal authorities granted to the department to designate FTOs, as well as the documents outlining the designation process.
The six-step process includes:
- Equity check – CT consults stakeholders to see if anything will prevent designation for proposed target;
- Administrative record – CT generates an administrative record detailing how the organization meets the necessary criteria for designation as FTO;
- Clearance process – The Department of Justice and Department of Treasury review the administrative record, and if they are in agreement, then a signed letter is presented, confirming the administrative record’s legality;
- Secretary of State’s decision – Materials supporting the proposed designation are forwarded to the Secretary of State for final approval. The department then has the ability to designate the organization as FTO, making sure all proper legal processes are in place;
- Congressional notification – The State Department informs Congress seven days before official designation is made; and
- Federal Register notice – Designation announcement published by the State Department in the Federal Register and official designation is considered in effect.
During this process, the State Department collaborates with other US agencies. According to GAO, “During our review of the 13 FTO designations between 2012 and 2014, officials from the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, and the Treasury, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence reported the department considered their input when making designations.”
Overall, for the State Department to designate an organization as an FTO, the organization must meet three criteria: it is a foreign organization, it engages in terrorist activity, and the activity threatens the security of the United States.
Once an organization is officially designated an FTO, various consequences can be imposed. Key consequences include a freeze on any assets the organization holds in a US financial institution, criminal prosecution and immigration restrictions.
“Such consequences help US counterterrorism efforts isolate terrorist organizations internationally and limit support and contributions to those organizations,” GAO said.
“Terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda and its affiliates, Boko Haram and the Islamic States, continue to be a threat to the United States and its foreign partners,” GAO added. “The designation of FTOs, which can result in civil and criminal penalties, is an integral component of the US government’s counterterrorism efforts.”
GAO did not offer any recommendations in the report.