Almost till his death, Mandela remained on the US terrorism watch list

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Mandela was arrested the following year. Two decades later the United States would designate the imprisoned Mandela and his African National Congress as terrorists. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell was asked about the decision today by the BBC.

Colin Powell: The political movement wasn’t working so he began to undertake terrorist activity. And during those times when the ANC was bombing things and doing other violent acts, a case could be made that it was appropriate to put him on a terrorist list and that’s what the United States did at that time.

Werman: Mandela renounced violence while in prison. But as the leader, still, of a group conducting a low level guerrilla war amazingly it was only in 2008 that an embarrassed Congress finally removed Nelson Mandela from the US terrorism watch list. I spoke earlier about this with Andrea Dew, a terrorism expert with the US Naval War College in Rhode Island. Is it odd for you Andrea, that we’re even sort of talking about Nelson Mandela and, say, the dead Muslim cleric Anwar Al-awlaki in the same breath?

Andrea Dew: I think one of the interesting things about Nelson Mandela is the complexity of his legacy. And it brings up this question of, what do our groups have to do in order to be taken seriously by a state? What lengths are they willing to go to in order to get into power? And then the very serious question of how do you then reconcile those actions once you’re in power, once you become the government and you have to look back and say, wow I did this. I attacked these people, these people died. How do we deal with that legacy? And I think Nelson Mandela is obviously a fantastic icon for dealing with the legacy after you come into power.

Werman: How does an individual or organization find its way onto one of these lists?

Dew: It’s who you attack. It’s the tactics that you use. It’s the extent to which you’re challenging the stability and security of the state. And then there is a political aspect of this which is, it may have to do with the politics between the United States and that other state itself.

Werman: I would imagine back when Mandela was on the terrorist list, it kind of falls into the category, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, doesn’t it? I mean, are we seeing any cases like Mandela’s today?

Dew: That’s a really interesting question. I was looking yesterday at a petition by moveon.org to take a group called Boko Haram, which is in Northern Nigeria, off the foreign terrorist organization list. And it was a very recent designation in November by the State Department. And this petition says, you need to take them off the list. But not because there is a potential Nelson Mandela in there that we need to reach out to. But because it’s such a heavy tool. The people who are arguing, please take this group off say, if you put them on the watch list the only thing we can do is use legal tools or use military tools and then we can’t use diplomacy. SO we can’t reach into this organization and find a potential Mandela because we’re not allowed to talk to them.

Werman: So in the case of Nelson Mandela and the ANC, they were not removed from the FTO until 2008. Why did it take so long and what does it take to get off the list?

Dew: I think one of the things you have to realize, there is an enormous amount of Congressional bureaucratic inertia. And we’re looking at the end of Nelson Mandela’s life and saying, why wasn’t this done sooner? If you look back into the late 1980’s, late 1990’s perhaps there was nobody who was really pressing for that.

Werman: Right. In the case of Nelson Mandela it took some effort from Condoleezza Rice.

Dew: Yes. Condoleezza Rice, she is on record of saying, I’m embarrassed. I’m embarrassed as she’d be speaking to this icon of reconciliation and tolerance in a multinational, multiracial country such as the African National Congress and realize that we still have the label on him. And it’s more than time for us to move on from this. And, in fact, that’s one of the critiques of using that designator. It’s a very, very big clunky tool and perhaps interacting with groups that come into power, you need something more nuance to more flexible to do so.

Werman: Andrea Dew, a terrorism expert at the US Naval War College. Thanks so much for unpacking the label for us.

Dew: Thank you Mark (?), fascinating questions.