Chapter 1 -- Strategic Assessment
TRENDS IN 2007
AL-QA’IDA AND ASSOCIATED TRENDS: Al-Qa’ida (AQ) and associated networks remained the greatest terrorist threat to the United States and its partners in 2007. It has reconstituted some of its pre-9/11 operational capabilities through the exploitation of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), replacement of captured or killed operational lieutenants, and the restoration of some central control by its top leadership, in particular Ayman al-Zawahiri. Although Usama bin Ladin remained the group’s ideological figurehead, Zawahiri has emerged as AQ’s strategic and operational planner.
AQ and its affiliates seek to exploit local grievances for their own local and global purposes. They pursue their own goals, often at large personal cost to the local population. These networks are adaptive, quickly evolving new methods in response to countermeasures. AQ utilizes terrorism, as well as subversion, propaganda, and open warfare; it seeks weapons of mass destruction in order to inflict the maximum possible damage on anyone who stands in its way, including other Muslims and/or elders, women, and children.
Despite the efforts of both Afghan and Pakistani security forces, instability, coupled with the Islamabad brokered cease-fire agreement in effect for the first half of 2007 along the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier, appeared to have provided AQ leadership greater mobility and ability to conduct training and operational planning, particularly that targeting Western Europe and the United States. Numerous senior AQ operatives have been captured or killed, but AQ leaders continued to plot attacks and to cultivate stronger operational connections that radiated outward from Pakistan to affiliates throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.
2007 was marked by the affiliation of regional insurgent groups with AQ, notably the growing threat in North Africa posed by the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat’s (GSPC) September 2006 merger with AQ, which resulted in GSPC renaming itself al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM is still primarily focused on the Algerian government, but its target set is broader than it was prior to the merger. For example, AQIM claimed responsibility for the near-simultaneous December 11 bombings of the Algerian Constitutional Council and the United Nations headquarters in Algeria; building upon previous attacks on foreign vehicles and AQIM statements, the attack on the UN underlined that AQIM now considers foreign interests to be attractive targets. In April, AQIM launched suicide attacks for the first time and vowed to use them as a primary tactic against their enemies. In 2007, AQIM carried out eight suicide attacks that resulted in large numbers of government and civilian casualties. The suicide bombers used by AQIM are typically recruited from easily exploitable groups, such as teenagers in the July 11 and September 8 attacks, or the elderly and terminally ill, as in the December 11 UN attack. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’s (LIFG) November 2007 merger with AQ, on the other hand, has yielded few successful attacks to date, reflecting the depleted capabilities of LIFG within Libya. (See Chapter 6, Terrorist Organizations, for further information on AQIM and LIFG.)
At the same time, the alliance of convenience and mutual exploitation between al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) and many Sunni populations there has deteriorated. The Baghdad Security Plan, initiated in February, along with assistance from primarily Sunni tribal and local groups has succeeded in reducing violence to late 2005 levels, has disrupted and diminished AQI infrastructure, and has driven some surviving AQI fighters from Baghdad and Al Anbar into the northern Iraqi provinces of Ninawa, Diyala, and Salah ad Din. While AQI remained a threat, new initiatives to cooperate with tribal and local leaders in Iraq have led to Sunni tribes’ and local citizens’ rejection of AQI and its extremist ideology. The continued growth and improved capabilities of the Iraqi forces have increased their effectiveness in rooting out terrorist cells. Iraqis in Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala Provinces, and elsewhere have turned against the terrorist group and were cooperating with the Iraqi government and Coalition Forces to defeat AQI.
The late 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia and subsequent deployment of AU forces there have kept AQ East Africa leadership, and elements of the Council of Islamic Courts that harbored them, on the run. Intense militancy against the Ethiopian and Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces continued, reinforcing the early 2007 call to action by AQ through Ayman al-Zawahiri. In an Internet video released in January 2007, al-Zawahiri urged all mujahedin, specifically those in the Maghreb, to extend support to Somali Muslims in a holy war against the occupying Ethiopian forces.
Throughout 2007, AQ increased propaganda efforts seeking to inspire support in Muslim populations, undermine Western confidence, and enhance the perception of a powerful worldwide movement. Terrorists consider information operations a principal part of their effort. Use of the Internet for propaganda, recruiting, fundraising and, increasingly, training, has made the Internet a “virtual safe haven.” International intervention in Iraq continued to be exploited by AQ as a rallying cry for radicalization and terrorist activity, as were other conflicts such as Afghanistan and Sudan. The international community has yet to muster a coordinated and effectively resourced program to counter extremist propaganda.
2007 witnessed the continuation of the transition from expeditionary to guerilla terrorism highlighted in Country Reports on Terrorism 2006. Through intermediaries, web-based propaganda, exploitation of local grievances, and subversion of immigrant and expatriate populations, terrorists inspired local cells to carry out attacks which they then exploit for propaganda purposes. We have seen a substantial increase in the number of self-identified groups with links (communications, training, and financial) to AQ leadership in Pakistan. These “guerilla” terrorist groups harbor ambitions of a spectacular attack, including acquisition and use of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
TALIBAN and other insurgent groups and criminal gangs: Afghanistan remained threatened by Taliban and other insurgent groups and criminal gangs, some of whom were linked to AQ and terrorist sponsors outside the country. Taliban insurgents murdered local leaders and attacked Pakistani government outposts in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. The Government of Pakistan’s long term three-pronged (security, economic and political) FATA Strategy was designed to eliminate Taliban and AQ safe havens along the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier.
The Government of Afghanistan continued to strengthen its national institutions and polls indicated the majority of Afghans believed they were better off than they were under the Taliban. The international community’s assistance to the Afghan government to build counterinsurgency capabilities, ensure legitimate and effective governance, and counter the surge in narcotics cultivation is essential to the effort to defeat the Taliban and other insurgent groups and criminal gangs.
STATE SPONSORS OF TERRORISM: State sponsorship of terrorism continued to undermine efforts to eliminate terrorism. Iran remained the most significant state sponsor of terrorism. A critically important element of Iranian national security strategy is its ability to conduct terrorist operations abroad. Iranian leaders believe this capability helps safeguard the regime by deterring United States or Israeli attacks, distracting and weakening the United States, enhancing Iran’s regional influence through intimidation, and helping to drive the United States from the Middle East. Hizballah, a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, is key to Iran’s terrorism strategy. Iran also continued to threaten its neighbors and destabilize Iraq by providing weapons, training, and funding to select Iraqi Shia militants. These proxy groups perpetrate violence and cause American casualties in Iraq. Hizballah, supported by Iran and Syria, continued to undermine the elected Government of Lebanon and remained a serious security threat. Foreign terrorists continued to transit Syria en route to and from Iraq; a report to Congress stated that nearly 90 percent of all foreign fighters entering Iraq are transiting from Syria. In addition, the Government of Iran has recently begun an effort to expand commercial and diplomatic ties throughout the Western Hemisphere. Iran has, in the past, used diplomatic missions to support the activities of Hizballah operatives.
OTHER TERRORIST GROUPS: The ongoing political stalemate in Lebanon has contributed to enabling suspected foreign extremist militants to set up operational cells within the Palestinian refugee camps, such as Fatah al Islam (FAI) in Nahr el-Barid. While the Lebanese Armed Forces defeated FAI militants after a three-month battle (May 20 – September 2), some of its members remained at large while other Palestinian militant groups continued to capitalize on the lack of government control within the camps. Some of these groups, such as the al-Qa’ida-associated Asbat al-Ansar and Jund al-Sham, were able to find a safe haven within the camps, most notably in the Ain el-Hilwah camp.
Terrorist activity emanating from the the Palestinian territories also remained a key destabilizing factor and a cause for concern.
In Colombia, the FARC exemplified another trend: growing links between terrorist and other criminal activity. The FARC, which continued to hold hundreds of hostages, including three American citizens captive for more than four years, raised more than an estimated $60 million per year from narcotics trafficking. Terrorist activities and support for terrorist infrastructure are funded by contributions from individuals, false charities and front organizations, but also increasingly through other illicit activities such as trafficking in persons, smuggling, and narcotrafficking. We also have seen increasing evidence of trafficking in persons network facilitators being employed to facilitate terrorist movement, particularly into Iraq.
DEFEATING AN AGILE TERRORIST ENEMY
Responding to terrorist groups that have many of the characteristics of a global insurgency – propaganda campaigns, grass roots support, and political and territorial ambitions, though ill-defined, requires a comprehensive response. Successful methods include a focus on protecting and securing the population; and politically and physically marginalizing the insurgents, winning the support and cooperation of at-risk populations by targeted political and development measures, and conducting precise intelligence-led special operations to eliminate critical enemy elements with minimal collateral damage.
There were significant achievements in this area this year against terrorist leadership targets, notably the capture or killing of key terrorist leaders in Pakistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, and the Philippines. These efforts buy us time to carry out the most important elements of a comprehensive counterterrorist strategy: disrupting terrorist operations, including their communications, propaganda and subversion efforts; planning and fundraising; and eliminating the conditions that terrorists exploit. We must seek to build trusted networks of governments, multilateral institutions, business organizations, and private citizens and organizations that work collaboratively to defeat the threat from violent extremism.
Working with allies and partners across the world, we have created a less permissive operating environment for terrorists, keeping leaders on the move or in hiding, and degrading their ability to plan and mount attacks. Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Jordan, the Philippines, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and many other partners played major roles in this success. Dozens of countries have passed new counterterrorism legislation or strengthened pre-existing laws that provide their law enforcement and judicial authorities with new tools to bring terrorists to justice. The United States has expanded the number of foreign partners for the sharing of terrorist screening information, which is a concrete tool for disrupting and tracking travel of known and suspected terrorists. Saudi Arabia has implemented an effective model rehabilitation program for returning jihadis to turn them against violent extremism and to reintegrate them as peaceful citizens.
Through the Regional Strategic Initiative, the State Department and other United States agencies are working with Ambassadors overseas in key terrorist theaters of operation to assess the threat and devise collaborative strategies, action plans, and policy recommendations. We have made progress in organizing regional responses to terrorists who operate in ungoverned spaces or across national borders. This initiative has produced better intra-governmental coordination among United States government agencies, greater cooperation with and between regional partners, and improved strategic planning and prioritization, allowing us to use all tools of statecraft to establish long-term measures to marginalize terrorists. (See Chapter 5, Terrorist Safe Havens (7120 Report) for further information on the Regional Strategic Initiative and on the tools we are using to address the conditions that terrorists exploit.) 2007 witnessed improvement in capacity and cooperation on such key issues as de-radicalization, border controls, document security, interdiction of cash couriers, and biometrics and other travel data sharing. (See Chapter 2, Country Reports, for further details on counterterrorism efforts taken by individual countries).
Radicalization of immigrant populations, youth and alienated minorities in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa continued. But it became increasingly clear that radicalization to violent extremism does not occur by accident, or because such populations are innately prone to extremism. Rather, we saw increasing evidence of terrorists and extremists manipulating the grievances of alienated youth or immigrant populations, and then cynically exploiting those grievances to subvert legitimate authority and create unrest. We also note a “self-radicalization” process of youths reaching out to extremists in order to become involved in the broader AQ fight.
Such efforts to manipulate grievances represent a “conveyor belt” through which terrorists seek to convert alienated or aggrieved populations, by stages, to increasingly radicalized and extremist viewpoints, turning them into sympathizers, supporters, and ultimately, in some cases, members of terrorist networks. In some regions, this includes efforts by AQ and other terrorists to exploit insurgency and communal conflict as radicalization and recruitment tools, especially using the Internet to convey their message.
Counter-radicalization is a key policy priority for the United States, particularly in Europe, given the potential of Europe-based violent extremism to threaten the United States and its key interests directly. The leaders of AQ and its affiliates are extremely interested in recruiting terrorists from and deploying terrorists to Europe, people familiar with Western cultures who can travel freely. Countering such efforts demands that we treat immigrant and youth populations not as a source of threat to be defended against, but as a target of enemy subversion to be protected and supported. It requires community leaders to take responsibility for the actions of members within their communities and to act to counteract extremist propaganda and subversion, and also requires bilateral, regional, and multilateral cooperation.
Because the enemy is a non-state actor that thrives among disaffected populations, private sector efforts are as important as government activity. We have yet to fully harness the power of the private sector, which offers enormous potential, such as economic might and fast and flexible responses to market and security conditions. We need to find better ways to deploy this strength against terrorists. The private sector, of course, has a vested interest in partnering against violent extremists to secure its existing and future investments/economic opportunities. In addition, grassroots and community groups can play an important role in supporting immigrant and youth populations as described above, strengthening their resistance to extremist approaches. Citizen diplomacy, cultural activity, person-to-person contact, economic cooperation and development, and the application of media and academic resources are key components of our response to the threat.
The key success factor in confronting violent extremism is the commitment by governments to work with each other, with the international community, with private sector organizations, and with their citizens and immigrant populations. Local communities are also a vital part of countering radicalization strategies.
Where governments cooperate, build trusted networks, seek active, informed support from their people, provide responsive, effective, and legitimate governance, and engage closely with the international community, the threat from terrorism has been significantly reduced. Where governments have lacked commitment in working with their neighbors and engaging the support of their citizens, terrorism and the instability and conflict that terrorists exploit, have remained key sources of threat.
This chapter sets the scene for the detailed analysis that follows. Significant achievements in border security, information sharing, transportation security, financial controls, and the killing or capture of numerous terrorist leaders have reduced the threat. But the threat remains, and state sponsorship, improved terrorist propaganda capabilities, the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction by some terrorist groups as well as by state sponsors of terrorism, and terrorist exploitation of grievances represent ongoing challenges.