Iran’s support of international terrorism has reached levels unseen since the 1990s, but the top cadre of al Qaeda leaders have largely been decimated in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the State Department said Thursday in its latest report on worldwide terrorism.
“Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism and [its ally Hezbollah’s] terrorist activity have reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s, with attacks plotted in Southeast Asia, Europe, and Africa,” the State Department said in its analysis, pointing to attacks last year in India, Thailand, Georgia and Kenya in which Iran was implicated.
The report also said the Islamic Republic “provided financial, material, and logistical support for terrorist and militant groups in the Middle East and Central Asia” and outlined how the Tehran-based Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force is the Iranian “regime’s primary mechanism for cultivating and supporting terrorists abroad.” Tehran’s considerable support for Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite Islamist militia, was also noted.
The State Department’s designation of “state sponsors of terrorism” — one of the highlights of the annual analysis, known formally as the “Country Reports on Terrorism” — was otherwise largely unchanged from 2011, with Cuba, Sudan and Syria named alongside Iran, which has been on the list since 1984.
This year’s analysis cited Syria for providing “political and weapons support to Lebanese Hezbollah,” and for continuing to “allow Iran to re-arm the terrorist organization.”
But notably softer language is used in a section on Cuba, suggesting a possibility the State Department may be moving toward taking the communist nation off the list.
While Cuba continued during 2012 to offer safe haven to members of Basque Fatherland and Liberty, a group seeking an independent Basque state in northern Spain, it also “began hosting peace talks” between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the analysis says.
Obama too optimistic?
Regarding al Qaeda and the activities of Islamist terrorists worldwide, the analysis broadly — but not entirely — backs up claims President Obama made during a speech May 23 at the National Defense University that al Qaeda’s 9/11-era leadership “is on the path to defeat.”
During the speech, Mr. Obama described the “future of terrorism” being rooted in the activities of “lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates” making “threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad,” as well as ideologically nurturing “homegrown extremists” in the U.S. and other non-Muslim countries.
The administration has cited the 2011 killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as an unquestionable success in the greater global war on terrorism. But concern about the changing face of ongoing threats facing the U.S. were amplified last month when, according to authorities, two Chechen-born brothers became radicalized and killed three people and wounded more than 250 at the Boston Marathon.
Some of the finer points in analysis released by the State Department on Thursday offer a notably more sober assessment than that presented last week by Mr. Obama.
During his speech, the president said the “remaining operatives” of al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan now “spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us.” Mr. Obama said al Qaeda “did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston” and has “not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11.”
The State Department analysis, however, maintains that “the AQ core still has the ability to inspire, plot, and launch regional and transnational attacks from its safe haven in Western Pakistan, despite its leadership losses.”
While the analysis describes al Qaeda’s core as “significantly degraded” and calls bin Laden’s death “the most important milestone” in the fight against al Qaeda, it adds that “leadership losses have also driven AQ affiliates to become more independent.”
The result, the analysis says, is that “the affiliates are increasingly setting their own goals and specifying their own targets.”
Spread into Africa
Recent months have seen a growing number of analysts suggest terrorism inspired by al Qaeda, if not materially linked, is now stabbing deeper into the heart of Africa than the Obama administration and U.S. intelligence community leaders have been willing to acknowledge.
While the State Department analysis makes repeated mention of the flow of Islamist fighters across “porous borders” in Africa, it takes care to characterize most of the terrorist activity reaching south of the Sahel as being focused locally rather than internationally.
The analysis does, however, characterize the activity as “terrorism,” particularly with regard to Nigeria. Over the past year, the State Department has designated three leaders of the shadowy Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram as “global terrorists” with “close links” to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Throughout 2012 “indigenous terrorist attacks increased” in Nigeria, where the “violent extremist group, Boko Haram, claimed responsibility for some of these attacks,” the analysis states. “Of particular concern to the United States is the emergence of the BH faction known as ‘Ansaru,’ which has close ties to [al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] and has prioritized targeting Westerners — including Americans — in Nigeria.”
The analysis also hones in on nearby Mali, where recent months saw a deployment of French military forces dislodge al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb operatives who had seized control of nearly half the West African nation during 2012.
“Alongside regional efforts to contain and marginalize [al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] and its allies in northern Mali, the international community urged Mali’s interim government to restore an elected government to Mali, negotiate with groups in northern Mali that reject terrorism and accept Mali’s territorial integrity, and respond to the humanitarian crisis,” the analysis states.
Libya and the Middle East
The State Department analysis describes an evolving threat in the Middle East and North Africa, saying that “tumultuous events” there “have complicated the counterterrorism picture,” and particularly citing a “security vacuum” created during the aftermath of the 2011 revolution in Libya.
“This vacuum, combined with the weakness of Libya’s nascent security institutions, allowed violent extremists to act,” the analysis states in reference to the September attacks in Benghazi.
Similar instability in Iraq, along with Syria’s civil war, have also fostered a wave of ongoing terrorist activity. While al Qaeda in Iraq “continued to conduct attacks” after U.S. military forces left the nation, it also “took advantage of a significantly depleted security situation in Syria,” the analysis states.
“Operating under its alias, al-Nusrah Front, the group sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition and attempted to hijack Syria’s struggle for democracy,” the State Department document says. “The United States designated al-Nusra as an alias of [al Qaeda in Iraq] in December 2012.”
The analysis does, however, cite some positive developments, particularly in Yemen, where “with the help of armed residents, regained government control over territory in the south that [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] has seized and occupied since 2011.”
There was also progress in Somalia against the Islamist militant group al-Shabab, which has even had some success recruiting Somalis living in the U.S. to return to their homeland as suicide bombers.
“Somali National Forces and the African Union Mission in Somalia expelled al-Shabaab from major cities in southern Somalia,” the analysis sates.