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The State Department issued its 2020 Country Reports on Terrorism just as 2021 is coming to an end. The document is required by law and contains several interesting insights into the direction of U.S. counterterrorism policy. It also serves as an odd time capsule, as it includes no information since the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, which occurred in August of 2021.

The document continues to emphasize the current obsession among the U.S. government with “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism” (REMVE) or “white-identity terrorism.” The State Department was directed by Congress to include “white identity terrorism” in the 2020 Terrorism Country Report, based on an amendment to the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.

No other terrorist threat is categorized or broken down by ideological motivation. Despite the special carve out for “white-identity terrorism,” the included information is less than extensive. The document includes a short list of extremist groups banned by other countries, several of which have only a dozen members or are described as already having been dissolved.

Despite focusing on “white identity terrorism,” the State Department report cannot help but make abundantly clear that jihadist terrorism remains the primary counterterrorism concern in nearly countries across the globe. It is the primary focus for countries in every region. The 2020 report also confirms the trend of jihadist growth in Africa. The report also continues to expose the role of Iran in supporting Al Qaeda, describing it as the “core facilitation pipeline” for Al Qaeda. Regarding Afghanistan, as Long War Journal’s Thomas Joscelyn noted on social media, “The State Dept touts the role of Afghan security forces (ANDSF) in some passages. Although the report is intended to cover events in 2020, it is still odd to read these parts, given the ANDSF crumbled in 2021.”

On a positive note, the report highlights the growing success in a campaign to recruit European and Latin American countries to designate Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Another interesting development is the State Department acknowledgement of the decision of the Austrian government to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. While the State Department does not praise the decision, neither do they overtly criticize the Austrian decision. Earlier efforts by the Trump Administration to designate the Muslim Brotherhood were met by extensive bureaucratic hostility.

While the State Department does not have a categorization for “left-wing” terrorism, the report does record notable left-wing terrorism concerns in Colombia, Cuba, Peru, Venezuela, Nepal, Turkey, Spain, France, Germany, Greece, and Italy.

The report highlights the increase in left wing extremists in Germany based on an extensive German Interior Ministry Report from 2019. Curiously, the State Department insists that the 2019 report is the latest available, despite the fact that, as the Center for Security Policy has reported, the 2020 German Interior Ministry Report has been available in English for the general public since at least September.

The State Department acknowledges that the number of crimes committed by right-wing extremists in Germany declined in 2019, while the total number of left-wing extremists has increased. There were slightly more identified left-wing extremists in Germany than “right-wing” in 2019 but the State Department draws no conclusions from these statistics. Unlike U.S. counterterrorism, German intelligence has significant concerns about a growth in left-wing anarchist and autonomist groups in 2020 and is willing to identify such groups.

Confusingly, the State Department insists on applying the “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists” jargon to describe what German intelligence labels “right-wing,” even though the German report makes clear that not all extremists listed under this category are racially or ethnically motivated. This is yet another example of how the U.S. insistence on using vague categorizations is unhelpful, compared to simply identifying organizations and ideologies by their correct name.

In conclusion, the State Department country reports on terrorism continues to reflect the U.S. government’s growing confusion about the nature of terrorism and how it is distinct from other forms of violence. It refuses to acknowledge the overarching ideology which guides jihadist terrorism, downplays or ignores the growing threat of left-wing terrorism while playing up “right wing” terrorism under the unhelpful REMVE moniker.  In order to improve the usefulness of its annual report, the State Department should be permitted to return to a traditional model of counterterrorism reporting, emphasizing designated terrorist groups and not invented categories of extremism.

Kyle Shideler

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