Pakistan Removes Thousands of Names From Terrorist Watch List

The list has been cut in half in the past 18 months without public explanation

Pakistan has removed thousands of names from its terrorist watch list in what the country says is an effort to meet its obligations ahead of a new round of assessments by a global anti-money-laundering watchdog.

The so-called proscribed persons list, which is maintained by Pakistan’s National Counter Terrorism Authority, or NACTA, is intended in part to help financial institutions avoid doing business with or processing transactions of suspected terrorists.

The list, which in 2018 contained about 7,600 names, has been reduced to under 3,800 in the past 18 months. About 1,800 of the names have been removed since the beginning of March, according to data collected by Castellum.AI, a New York-based regulatory technology company.

No public explanation was given for the removals as they were made, but a Pakistani official said in an email interview that they are part of the country’s ongoing efforts to comply with a commitment to strengthen its counterterrorism safeguards.

The size and speed of the removals is unusual, according to Peter Piatetsky, a former senior policy adviser for the U.S. Treasury and co-founder of Castellum.AI. “Removing close to 4,000 names without a public explanation is unheard of and it raises significant questions about the listing process,” he said.

Global standards call for countries to communicate de-listings to the financial sector immediately upon taking such action. Pakistan, which designates entities and persons with suspected links to terrorism under its Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997, hasn’t historically done so.

The Pakistani official, Tahir Akbar Awan, a section officer with the Ministry of Interior, said the list had become “bloated with multiple inaccuracies” because it contained names of individuals who had died and those who may have committed crimes but weren’t associated with a designated terrorist group.

The Financial Action Task Force, an international organization that sets global standards and monitors countries’ anti-money-laundering and counterterrorism-financing policies, is scheduled to evaluate Pakistan’s progress in June, although measures intended to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus could delay the assessment.

Pakistan has been under increased monitoring from the FATF since June 2018. If it fails to make progress on an action plan developed by the organization, FATF members could vote to further restrict the country’s access to the international financial system.

A FATF spokesperson declined to comment on the removal of names from Pakistan’s terrorist watch list. In February, the group said Pakistan had largely addressed about half of the action items it had agreed to implement to prevent additional sanctions.

The organization is famously opaque, and doesn’t publicly explain in detail the steps a country must take as part of an action plan, said Michael Kugelman, a deputy director at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based global policy research institution chartered by Congress in 1968.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the FATF has an expectation that Pakistan move forward on the prosecution of certain prominent terrorists, he said. In February, a Pakistani court convicted high-profile militant leader Hafiz Saeed on terrorist financing charges. Mr. Saeed’s name remains on Pakistan’s watch list.

Irfan Vaid, a sanctions and financial crimes compliance consultant who previously worked at the U.S. Treasury as an adviser and attaché to Pakistan, welcomed the updates to the list but said Pakistan still had a way to go in making it fully effective.

“Their list is lacking a lot of names, identifiers and other information we need to make definitive matches,” he said.

Several of the names removed from Pakistan’s list appear to be aliases for designated terrorists listed on U.S. or United Nations sanctions lists, according to Castellum.AI. The lack of certain identifiers—such as dates of birth or, in some cases, a national ID number—on NACTA’s list makes it difficult to know for sure, sanctions experts said.