A "more aggressive set" of terrorist groups affiliated with al Qaeda, foreign fighters in Syria, and Iran's continuing support for terrorism are posing both immediate and long-term threats to the U.S. and its allies, the State Department said on Wednesday.
The State Department's annual global terrorism survey found that while al Qaeda's Pakistan-based core has been weakened, deadly affiliates have put down roots across the Middle East and North Africa. These groups have exploited weak governance and instability to deepen their operations, particularly in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, northwest Africa and Somalia.
The degradation of al Qaeda's senior leadership in Pakistan has "accelerated the decentralization of what we refer to as al Qaeda core," said Tina Kaidanow, State Department coordinator for counterterrorism. "This has led to the affiliates in the AQ network becoming more operationally autonomous from AQ core and increasingly focused on local and regional objectives."
Terrorist attacks in the reporting period rose more than 40 percent in comparison with the previous year, the report noted. Al Qaeda affiliates pose a danger to U.S. interests, but less so to the U.S. homeland.
"Their focus is more local and regional, and they will attack U.S. targets and allied regimes in their areas of operations," said Daniel Byman, a professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University.
Iran was again included in the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, alongside Cuba, Sudan and Syria.
Iran continues to be a major sponsor of terrorism and defy demands to prove that its nuclear ambitions are peaceful, the report says.
The report found a resurgence of activity by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force and Ministry of Intelligence and Security is fanning unrest across the Middle East.
Ms. Kaidanow said that even as the Obama administration pursues nuclear negotiations with Tehran, it will continue to counter Iranian support for terrorism and "make clear to Iran's leaders that its government sponsorship of illicit actions are unacceptable to the international community."
The report also examined the effect of the war on terrorism on al Qaeda.
In 2013, al Qaeda's leadership struggled to maintain discipline within its network and to communicate guidance to its affiliates, the report said, citing the fact that its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was repeatedly rebuffed in his attempts to mediate a dispute between al Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria. Al Qaeda affiliates also ignored al-Zawahiri's 2013 tactical guidance to avoid civilian casualties.
"Al Qaeda-related groups at times ignored the core even when [Osama] bin Laden was alive," said Mr. Byman. "However, the weakness of the core due to drone strikes, the appeal of some important local groups like those in Syria, and Zawahiri's lack of charisma all make such challenges more likely."
Syria, where a civil war is now in its fourth year, has turned into a significant breeding ground for terrorists and a magnet for foreign fighters, the State Department report said.
U.S. allies are worried that their citizens fighting in Syria will return as battle-hardened militants and pose a security threat to the homeland.
The flow of foreign fighters to Syria is a "worrying trend that will affect the [counterterrorism] landscape in the years to come," said Ms. Kaidanow.
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