The U.S. State Department is close to adding a group associated with Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement to its list of foreign terrorist organizations.
“If they’ve committed the actions they’ve claimed, they are definitely worthy” of the list, a State Department official said of the group, the Al-Aksa Brigades, which is considered Fatah’s military wing.
The terrorist designation would be a significant move by the United States, which took the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Palestinian Authority President Arafat off the terrorist list as part of the Oslo peace process.
Although President Bush has refused to meet with Arafat, the administration has been reluctant to issue new sanctions against Palestinian groups, despite congressional pressure, fearing it would hurt U.S. mediation efforts.
But State Department officials are currently reviewing whether the organization actually is responsible for the suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks against Israel for which it has taken credit.
It is also investigating exactly whom the organization is led by, where it receives its financial support and what affiliations it has to other terrorist groups.
An announcement could come as early as next month, when the State Department’s annual Patterns of Global Terrorism report is released.
The Al-Aksa Brigades would join several other Palestinian groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, on the State Department’s list.
Because of the organization’s close ties to the Palestinian Authority, some Jewish organizations view the potential designation as the first step toward designating the militia groups within the Palestinian Authority as terrorists.
“These are groups tied to Arafat very closely,” said Leah Odinec, senior foreign policy analyst for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“Designating Al-Aksa sends a strong message to Fatah that they could be next.”
Adding the group to the Foreign Terrorist Organization list would freeze the organization’s U.S. assets and make it illegal for the group to raise funds in the United States.
It is also expected to be designated as a terrorist group in a White House executive order, which would request foreign banks to freeze its assets or risk having the bank’s U.S. assets frozen.
That announcement is likely to come first, because it requires less of a legal bureaucratic process.
In November, the Martyrs of Al-Aksa was listed as a terrorist organization by Attorney General John Ashcroft, a move that increased the Justice Department’s ability to monitor members and prevent entry into the United States.
The State Department is currently investigating whether this group is the same as the Al-Aksa Brigades, which some Palestinian analysts have claimed.
The Justice Department and White House designations are part of the continuing crackdown on terrorist groups in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Al-Aksa Brigades has claimed responsibility for the death of 33 Israelis in the past week, according to AIPAC.
The group, which first gained attention in January 2001, has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks, including the death of six Israelis during a Bat Mitzvah this January and a roadside shooting that killed 10 people.
“It is impossible for the State Department not to act on them because they particularly target civilians,” Odinec said.
More than 200 lawmakers have signed a letter to Bush, urging him to place the Al-Aksa Brigades on the terrorist list.
It also asks the Bush administration to designate Tanzim, another Fatah militia group, and Force 17, Arafat’s presidential security force, as terrorist groups.
State Department officials say that while they have been considering including other groups, it is less likely that Tanzim and Force 17 will be included in the next list of foreign terrorist groups.