WASHINGTON — Even as al Qaida’s central Pakistan-based leadership has been severely weakened, the terrorist network’s regional offshoots have become more aggressive and threatening, driving a 40 percent increase in terrorist attacks worldwide between 2012 and 2013, the State Department said Wednesday.
“While the international community has severely degraded AQ’s core leadership, the terrorist threat has evolved,” the State Department said in its latest annual global report on terrorism. “The past several years have seen the emergence of a more aggressive set of AQ affiliates and like-minded groups, most notably in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Northwest Africa and Somalia.”
In addition to action by the international community - apparent short-hand for CIA drone strikes and intelligence cooperation with countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan - al Qaida’s core leadership under Ayman al Zawahiri has been hurt by fund-raising problems and defiance of its authority by its regional affiliates, the report said.
Among other examples, the report cited the defiance by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria of Zawahiri’s order to halt its fratricial conflict with the Nusra Front, the designated al Qaida affiliate in Syria, and confine itself to fighting neighboring Iraq’s Shiite Muslim-led government. The affiliates also disregarded Zawahiri’s directives to avoid causing civilian casualties, the report said.
“Guidance issued by Zawahiri in 2013 for AQ affiliates to avoid collateral damage was routinely disobeyed, notably in increasingly violent attacks by these affiliates against civilian populations,” the report said.
The report singled out Syria as a rising concern because of what it said is a looming threat posed by thousands of foreign fighters who are joining al Qaida-linked rebel groups like the Nusra Front and other Islamist extremist factions fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad.
The foreign fighters, their combat skills and ideology honed in Syria, could pose a serious threat to their own countries or others on their return.
“The conflict is attracting thousands of fighters from around the world, particularly from North Africa, the Gulf, Central Asia, and Europe, who are traveling there to join the fight against the Assad regime, with some joining violent Islamic extremist groups,” U.S. Counterterrorism Coordinator Tina S. Kaidanow said at a briefing on the report. “ A number of our partners overseas are concerned that citizens who become foreign fighters in Syria will bring back violent extremist connections and battlefield experience when they return home.”
According to a statisical annex to the report, there were 9,707 terrorist attacks around the world in 2013, a 40 percent increase over 2012. The attacks claimed more than 17,800 lives and caused more than 32,500 injuries. Moreover, more than 2,990 people were kidnapped or taken hostage by terrorists in 2013, it said.
Iraq saw the highest number of terrorist attacks in 2013 - 2,495 - amidst an upsurge in the Sunni insurgency against the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
In other findings, the report said:
- Terrorist violence was increasingly rooted in hatred between Sunni and Shiite extremists, especially in Syria, Lebanon and Pakistan;
- While private donations from the Arab states of the Persian Gulf are helping fund terrorist groups, terrorists also indulged in criminal activities to raise money, including kidnappings for ransom, and
- Despite making progress in talks to resolve the Iranian nuclear dispute, Tehran remained a major state-sponsor of terrorism through its support for Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia, and Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The entire report, including regional overviews, can be found here.