Washington, D.C.- On Apr. 24, Charity & Security Network (C&SN) participated in a panel discussion about how U.S. material support laws prohibiting engagement with U.S. designated foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) impede First Amendment activities, peacebuilding, and aid work around the world. The webinar was hosted by the American Bar Association (ABA) and titled Corporations, Peace-builders & Activists: The Growing Coalition Opposing U.S. Material Support Laws

Panelists included: 

The webinar covered the current state of material support laws, their history and anti-Palestinian roots, and the consequences of FTO designations on peacebuilding work across the globe. Panelists also gave examples of how the vague and overbroad material support framework is weaponized against pro-Palestinian speech in the U.S. and its impact on other First Amendment-protected activities. Finally, panelists discussed what an alternative and more just legal framework might look like for material support laws. 

C&SN’s Katherine Tomaszewski highlighted that the U.S. material support laws are among the broadest of Western democracies which has a particularly counter-productive impact on civil society work, especially those with programs in conflict zones and areas controlled by designated FTOs. 

The laws themselves have not evolved over the years to match current conflict contexts and national security threats. For example, the Anti-Terrorism Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), has not been amended since 2004. Therefore, the U.S. is still applying an over-securitized legal framework created twenty years ago that has been largely criticized as overbroad, vague, and easily weaponized against civil society. 

Tomaszewski also spoke to some of the examples of the ways that the material support statutes have negatively impacted humanitarian and peacebuilding work by either chilling operations in areas where FTOs operate, or impacting banks’ willingness to facilitate transactions for these organizations due to concerns of their own liabilities under material support laws and contributing to a problem known as ‘derisking’. The organizations most impacted by these laws are those operating in conflict areas where assistance is needed most. These laws also inhibit the work of peacebuilding organizations that are working to prevent the root causes of violent extremism in the first place. Thus, by maintaining this broad legal framework for material support, the U.S. is in actuality inhibiting means of preventing the roots of terrorism and violent extremism and harming its own stated counter-terrorism goals and national security. 

Dima Khalidi, director of Palestine Legal, gave a summary of the findings of Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights’ (CCR) recent white paper, Anti-Palestinian at the Core: The Origins and Growing Dangers of U.S. Antiterrorism Law, which shows how core features of the U.S. material support laws and anti-terrorism framework were “driven by anti-Palestinian agendas from the beginning.” For example, the earliest mention of “terrorism” in a U.S. federal statute concerned restricting humanitarian aid to Palestinians, which “inaugurated a pattern of rendering Palestinians synonymous with terrorism.” Additionally, the first law authorizing private terrorism lawsuits was drafted to target the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and has and continues to be weaponized against pro-Palestinian organizations, such as American Muslims for Palestine and the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

Khalidi highlighted the importance of this history in the current context of policymakers who wish to continue to expand these laws in order to chill and criminalize pro-Palestinian speech and First Amendment-protected activities. 

Abdul-Ghani Al-Iryani, senior researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, spoke to the consequences of FTO designations on peace processes, specifically in the context of Yemen. In 2021, the Trump administration designated Ansar-Allah, commonly known as the Houthis, as an FTO.  After the designation, experts argued that a designation would do little to alter Houthi behavior while condemning millions to greater starvation and health risks. Moreover, designations undermine the fragile peace process being cultivated there. Less than three weeks later, the Biden administration reversed the designation, citing “the profound humanitarian implications of this designation.” 

Recently, on Jan. 17, 2024, the Biden administration designated the Houthis as a Specially Designated Terrorist Group (SDTG) as part of the U.S.’ efforts to respond to Houthi missile and drone strikes against shipping targets in the Red Sea en route to Israel. Al-Iryani described that even though an SDTG designation is less restrictive than the FTO designation, it has still had severe implications for peacebuilding organizations operating in Yemen and risks a further stranglehold on international humanitarian work in Houthi-run territories, as it caused banks and exchange firms to stop working with organizations in these areas. 

Panelists all agreed that an alternative framework to the current U.S. material support laws is critical. The legislation must be amended to exempt critical humanitarian and peacebuilding work and incorporate the data-driven evidence that shows that overbroad counter-terrorism frameworks inhibit civil society operations and therefore perpetuate violent extremism. However, panelists also made arguments for an entirely re-drafted and new framework, without the discriminatory and political motives that were deeply intertwined into the material support laws at their original drafting. Even if a legislative fix is not immediately possible, the U.S. administration and the Department of Justice (DOJ) should provide updated written guidance on the prosecution policies of the material support laws for organizations operating in FTO-held areas and the banks that facilitate transactions for these organizations. This guidance would provide much-needed clarity for humanitarian and peacebuilding organizations and warm the chilling effect on life-saving assistance programming in conflict areas. 

The webinar recording is expected to be available on the ABA’s website in the coming weeks.