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Could Lebanon end up on U.S. terror list?

By Michael B. Kraft, Special to CNN
  • Michael Kraft: Lebanon's prime minister-designate Najib Mikati backed by Hezbollah
  • U.S. regards Hezbollah as a terrorist group, he writes; Lebanon given a pass on this
  • Kraft: If Hezbollah builds up more arms and threatens Israel, Lebanon could join terror list
  • Same could happen if Palestine is established with Hamas in government, he writes

Editor's note: Michael B. Kraft, counterterrorism consultant and writer, is a retired State Department Counterterrorism Office senior adviser who helped draft the terrorism list legislation and 1996 foreign terrorist organization legislation. He is the co-author of "The Evolution of U.S. Counterterrorism Policy."

(CNN) -- Although overshadowed by the demonstrations in Egypt, a problem continues to simmer for U.S. policymakers in Lebanon.

A 32-year-old law enacted in reaction to threats against Egypt and Lebanon by their Arab neighbors could result in the State Department's designation of Lebanon and perhaps an independent Palestine as state sponsors of terrorism. Such a designation could cut off U.S. foreign assistance and impose other sanctions.

The issue with Lebanon is that its president has appointed Najib Mikati as the new prime minister, and Mikati is backed by Hezbollah, which the U.S. regards as a terrorist group. Hezbollah's future actions could determine whether Lebanon faces those sanctions.

The long history of strife in the Middle East still reverberates in U.S. counterterrorism legislation, which dates to a time when rogue states were the main actors in international terrorism, long before the emergence of al Qaeda and related Islamic militant fundamentalist groups. The Export Administration Act (EAA) of 1979 established the so-called terrorism list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The 1979 congressional initiative was intended to force the administration to scrutinize more closely export licenses for equipment or services that might enhance the military capabilities of those nations designated as supporters of international terrorism.

Over the years, Congress enacted "piggy back" amendments that required the cutoff of military and economic assistance to the designated countries and imposed other sanctions, such as prohibiting financial transactions and denying U.S. tax credits for income that U.S. individuals and companies earned in terrorism list countries.

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  • Lebanon
  • Middle East
  • Hezbollah
  • Terrorism
  • Foreign Policy

Two events in the late 1970s triggered the EAA counterterrorism provision, and both involved threats to Arab states.

The Commerce Department had approved export licenses for a U.S. company to sell 400 heavy duty trucks to Libya, ostensibly for carrying oil rigs. But these were the same kind of trucks the U.S. and Canadian armies used to transport tanks, and Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi was threatening border incursions against Egypt.

I was a young foreign policy staffer then to the late Rep. Millicent Fenwick, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Middle East Subcommittee. A State Department official unofficially approached me to discuss ways to block the sale.

At the same time, the Syrians were shelling the Christian suburbs of Beirut in their intervention in the Lebanese civil war. Despite that, the Commerce Department and a midlevel State Department Near East Bureau official had approved the export of six "civilian versions" of the C-130 military cargo plane for Syria.

Rep. Edward Derwinski, who had American-Lebanese constituents, was upset with the proposed sale. Both Derwinski and Fenwick thought the two sales -- trucks to Libya and cargo planes to Syria -- had major foreign policy implications and Congress should have been informed in advance.

The end result was the Fenwick amendment, which required the executive branch to notify Congress 30 days before such licenses were issued. The law required such licenses to be approved at the highest levels of the State Department, and perhaps the White House, instead of midlevel officials or licensing clerks making the decision. Syria and Libya were original members of the terrorism list.

The Anti-Terrorism and Arms Export Amendments Act of 1989 included language that the State Department worked out with Congress.

The Senate and House report language laid out virtually identical illustrative criteria for designations, saying it "...should include, but not be limited to, whether the country provides to terrorists: sanctuary from extradition or prosecution; arms, explosives and other lethal substances; logistical support; safe houses or headquarters; planning, training or other assistance for terrorist activities; direct or indirect financial backing; and diplomatic facilities such as support or documentation intended to aid or abet terrorist activities."

Until now, Lebanon has received a pass from Republican and Democratic administrations, partly based on the view that the weak Lebanese government did not really control its territory, especially the Bakaa Valley, where many secular terrorist groups had bases, and the southern regions dominated by Hezbollah.

But Najib Mikati's appointment could change that, especially if Hezbollah continues building up its huge stock of advanced missiles and again launches large numbers at Israeli civilians or conducts other forms of terrorism. Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Hezbollah are on the U.S. government's list of foreign terrorist organizations. They and dozens of other groups are designated under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act 1996.

The Palestinian Authority is making a big effort to get other nations to recognize a Palestinian state. The campaign is even getting support in Latin America.

But, if a Palestinian state is officially established and Hamas becomes part of the government, or even if the Palestinian Authority allows terrorists to enjoy sanctuary, the Republican-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee is likely to be watching very carefully and perhaps press for designation.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Kraft.