Chapter 1. Strategic Assessment

Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism
April 30, 2009

This chapter highlights terrorism trends and ongoing issues in 2008 to provide a framework for detailed discussion in later chapters.


AL-QA’IDA AND ASSOCIATED TRENDS: Al-Qa’ida (AQ) and associated networks continued to lose ground, both structurally and in the court of world public opinion, but remained the greatest terrorist threat to the United States and its partners in 2008. AQ has reconstituted some of its pre-9/11 operational capabilities through the exploitation of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the replacement of captured or killed operational lieutenants, and the restoration of some central control by its top leadership, in particular Ayman al-Zawahiri. Worldwide efforts to counter terrorist financing have resulted in AQ appealing for money in its last few messages.

In the years since 9/11, AQ and its extremist allies have moved across the border to the remote areas of the Pakistani frontier, where they have used this terrain as a safe haven to hide, train terrorists, communicate with followers, plot attacks, and send fighters to support the insurgency in Afghanistan. Therefore, Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) provided AQ many of the benefits it once derived from its base across the border in Afghanistan.

The threat from al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) continued to diminish. While still dangerous, AQI experienced significant defections, lost key mobilization areas, suffered disruption of support infrastructure and funding, and was forced to change targeting priorities. Indeed, the pace of suicide bombings countrywide, a key indicator of AQI's operational capability, fell significantly during 2008. Initiatives to cooperate with tribal and local leaders in Iraq continued to encourage Sunni tribes and local citizens to reject AQI and its extremist ideology. The sustained growth and improved capabilities of the Iraqi forces increased their effectiveness in rooting out terrorist cells. In Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala Provinces, and elsewhere, local populations turned against AQI and cooperated with the Government of Iraq and Coalition Forces to defeat it.

The late 2006 Ethiopian incursion into Somalia forced AQ on the run in East Africa, but also served as a rallying point for anti-Ethiopian/anti-Government militia and al-Shabaab. After Ethiopian forces drove the Islamic Courts Council (ICC) out of power, al-Shabaab, the militant wing of the former ICC, and disparate clan militias launched a violent insurgency targeting the Ethiopian presence in Somalia, the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFG), and the African Union Mission in Somalia peacekeepers.

Attacks against the Ethiopian and TFG forces continued in 2008, following the early 2007 call to action by AQ’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, who urged all mujahedin to extend support to Somali Muslims in a holy war against Ethiopian forces. The subsequent security vacuum in parts of central and southern Somalia has led divergent factions to oppose al-Shabaab and its extremist ideology. However, hardcore al-Shabaab fighters, foreign fighters, and allied militias continued to conduct brazen attacks in Mogadishu and outlying environs, primarily in South/Central Somalia. AQ elements continued to benefit from safe haven in the regions of southern Somalia under al-Shabaab influence. After al-Shabaab’s leaders publicly ordered their fighters to attack AU peace-keeping troops based in Mogadishu, a suicide vehicle bomber detonated near an AU base in the capital on January 24, 2008, killing an estimated 13 people.

Al-Qa’ida in Yemen (AQY) carried out several attacks against tourism and U.S and Yemeni government targets. The most notable was the September 17 attack against the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa that killed 18 people. A half a dozen other attacks occurred in Yemen in 2008 including a January attack that killed two Belgian tourists and two Yemeni drivers in the southern governorate of Hadramaut. Despite an August raid on an AQY cell that resulted in the death of its leader, the Government of Yemen has been unable to disrupt other AQY cells. Yemen continued to increase its maritime security capabilities, but land border security along the extensive frontier with Saudi Arabia remained a problem, despite increased Yemeni-Saudi cooperation on bilateral security issues.


Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) maintained training camps and support networks in the isolated and remote areas of Algeria and the Sahel. AQIM continued to primarily target the Algerian government, but also made threats against what it termed "crusading" Westerners, particularly American and French citizens, although Russians, Danes, Austrians, Swiss, British, German, and Canadian citizens have been targeted as well, particularly in kidnappings for ransom. AQIM support cells have been discovered and/or dismantled in Spain, Italy, Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia, and Mali. In Algeria, there was a dramatic rise in terrorist attacks claimed by AQIM during the month of August, with at least 79 people killed in various incidents across the northeastern part of the country, many of them in suicide bombings.

AQ continued its 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. Their use of the Internet for propaganda, recruiting, fundraising and, increasingly, training, has made the Internet a “virtual safe haven.” That said, bin Laden and Zawahiri appeared to be in the position of responding to events rather than driving them, particularly in the latter half of 2008.

Besides seeking to take advantage of international interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan as tools for radicalization and fundraising, AQ also sought to use the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but lacked credibility in this regard. The international community has yet to muster a coordinated and effectively resourced program to counter extremist propaganda.

TALIBAN and other insurgent groups and criminal gangs: The Taliban and other insurgent groups and criminal gangs, some of whom were linked to AQ and terrorist sponsors outside the country, control parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan and threaten the stability of the region. Attacks against our troops, NATO allies, and the Afghan government have risen steadily. Taliban insurgents murdered local leaders and attacked Pakistani government outposts in the FATA of Pakistan. Ideological allies of the Taliban conducted frequent attacks in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), particularly in the Swat Valley, and have extended operations in to the Punjab and the capital city of Islamabad. Suicide bombers are increasingly used to target Pakistanis, in addition to conducting cross-border raids on ISAF forces.

The Government of Afghanistan continued to strengthen its national institutions, and some polls indicated the majority of Afghans believed they were better off than they were under the Taliban. The terror-drug nexus and funding from the Gulf have increased the Taliban’s ability to fight, and the Taliban’s efforts to convince Afghanis that ISAF forces and corruption in the Afghanistan government are the source of Afghani pain has fueled the insurgency and curtailed legitimate efforts to influence Afghanis to reject violent extremism. 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 reduce terrorism. Iran remained the most significant state sponsor of terrorism. Iran has long employed terrorism to advance its key national security and foreign policy interests, which include regime survival, regional dominance, opposition to Arab-Israeli peace, and countering western influence, particularly in the Middle East. Iran continues to rely primarily on its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force to clandestinely cultivate and support terrorist and Islamic militant groups abroad, including: Lebanese Hizballah, Palestinian terrorist groups such as HAMAS and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, certain Iraqi Shia militant groups, and Islamic militants in Afghanistan, the Balkans, and elsewhere. Throughout 2008, the Qods force continued to provide weapons, training, and funding to Lebanese Hizballah to advance its anti-Israeli campaign and undermine the elected Government of Lebanon. Despite a dramatic decrease in attacks in Iraq since August 2008, security remains fragile, in part because the Qods Force continued to provide lethal support to select Iraqi militant groups that target U.S., Iraqi and Coalition forces. Iranian weapons transfers to select Taliban members in Afghanistan in 2008 continued to threaten Afghan and NATO troops operating under UN mandate and undermine stabilization efforts in that country. The Government of Iran also continued to pursue an expansion of its military ties during this period into the Western Hemisphere and parts of Africa, including through its IRGC-Qods Force.


The terrorist groups of greatest concern – because of their global reach – share many of the characteristics of a global insurgency: propaganda campaigns, grass roots support, transnational ideology, and political and territorial ambitions. Responding requires a comprehensive response that focuses on recruiters and their networks, potential recruits, the local population, and the ideology. An holistic approach incorporates efforts aimed at protecting and securing the population; politically and physically marginalizing 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 risk to innocent civilians.

Significant achievements in this area were made this year against terrorist leadership targets, notably the capturing or killing of key terrorist leaders in Pakistan, Iraq, and Colombia. These efforts buy us time to carry out the non-lethal and longer term elements of a comprehensive counterterrorist strategy: disrupting terrorist operations, communications, propaganda, subversion efforts, planning and fundraising, and preventing radicalization before it takes root by addressing the grievances that terrorists exploit and discrediting the ideology that provides their legitimacy. Actions that advance these strategic objectives include building and strengthening networks among governments, multilateral cooperation, business organizations, and working within civil society. It is crucial to empower credible voices and provide alternatives to joining extremist organizations.

Working with allies and partners across the world, we have created a less permissive operating environment for terrorists, keeping terrorist 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 continued to pass counterterrorism legislation or strengthen 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 with which it shares terrorist screening information. This information serves as an important tool for disrupting and tracking travel of known and suspected terrorists. Saudi Arabia has implemented one of the first rehabilitation programs for returning extremists 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 U.S. ambassadors overseas in key terrorist theaters of operation to assess threats 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.) 2008 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 continued in immigrant populations, youth and alienated minorities in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. A special focus on new approaches in Europe has been productive and has informed the way we understand government’s role in combating radicalization It is increasingly clear that radicalization 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, through which youths reach out to extremists in order to become involved in the broader AQ fight.

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, using the Internet to convey their message.

Counter-radicalization is a priority for the United States, particularly in Europe, given the potential for Europe-based violent extremism to threaten the United States and its key interests directly. The leaders of AQ and its affiliates are interested in recruiting terrorists from and deploying terrorists to Europe. They are especially interested in people familiar with Western cultures who can travel freely in the region and to the United States. However, countering such efforts requires that we treat immigrant and youth populations not as a threat to be defended against, but as a target of enemy subversion to be protected and supported. It requires that community leaders take responsibility for the actions of members within their communities and act to counteract extremist propaganda and subversion. It also requires governments to serve as facilitators, conveners, and intellectual partners to credible organizations/people who can do what governments cannot. Finally, bilateral, regional, and multilateral cooperation is essential.

We are also exploring how to harness the enormous potential of the private sector in the United States with its economic might and fast and flexible responses to market and security conditions. We need to find better ways to deploy this strength against terrorists. For its part, the private sector has a vested interest in partnering against violent extremists to secure its existing and future investments/economic opportunities. In addition, grassroots groups can play an important role in supporting immigrant and youth populations, 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 major components of our response to the threat of violent extremism.

The commitment by governments to work with each other, the international community, private sector organizations, and their citizens and immigrant populations remains a key factor in coordinated efforts to confront violent extremism. Local communities and religious leaders are also a vital part of countering radicalization strategies.

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 and state sponsors of terrorism, and terrorist exploitation of grievances represent ongoing challenges.