Chapter 1. Strategic Assessment

Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism
August 18, 2011

Al-Qa’ida (AQ) remained the preeminent terrorist threat to the United States in 2010. Though the AQ core in Pakistan has become weaker, it retained the capability to conduct regional and transnational attacks. Cooperation between AQ and Afghanistan- and Pakistan-based militants was critical to the threat the group posed. In addition, the danger posed by Lashkar-e Tayyiba (LeT) and increased resource-sharing between AQ and its Pakistan-based allies and associates such as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Haqqani Network meant the aggregate threat in South Asia remained high.

In addition, the affiliates have grown stronger. While AQ senior leadership continued to call for strikes on the U.S. homeland and to arrange plots targeted at Europe, the diversity of these efforts demonstrated the fusion of interests and the sharing of capabilities among AQ groups with different geographical focuses. We saw TTP provide support to U.S. citizen Faisal Shahzad, who sought to carry out a car bombing in Times Square in May. Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) continued to demonstrate its growing ambitions and a strong desire to carry out attacks outside of its region. The group followed up its December 25, 2009 attempt to destroy an airliner bound for Detroit with an October 2010 effort to blow up several U.S.-bound airplanes by shipping bombs that were intended to detonate while in the planes’ cargo holds. Information about potential AQ plots in Europe prompted several European countries to raise their terror alerts toward the end of the year. On December 11, a car bomb device was detonated minutes before Sweden’s first ever suicide bomber carried out an attack in a crowded pedestrian area in Stockholm.

Similarly, al-Shabaab in East Africa, some of whose senior leaders have declared adherence to the AQ brand of violent extremism, gained strength in 2010 and conducted its first major attack outside of Somalia in July when it claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings that killed 76 people in Kampala, Uganda, during the World Cup. Al-Shabaab’s widening scope of operations, safe haven in Somalia, and ability to attract Western militants, made it a continuing threat to U.S. interests in the region.

In addition to operations, AQ affiliates have taken on a greater share of the propaganda work. AQAP created AQ’s first English-language magazine, Inspire. Although the magazine failed to arouse sustained interest from Western media, it proved a platform for dual U.S.-Yemeni citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi, who emerged as an operational and ideological leader in AQAP.

In a troubling trend, English-speaking militants increasingly connected to each other through online venues like militant discussion forums and video-sharing platforms, which encouraged both violent behavior and individual action. Many participants in online communities have real-world relationships with extremists who bolster their radicalism and mobilize them toward violent action. Five Pakistani Americans contacted by a Taliban recruiter through YouTube encouraged one another to travel to Pakistan to train for warfare against the United States; they remained in Pakistani custody at year’s end. Several Somali Americans decided to go overseas to fight with al-Shabaab – a decision that was likely shaped by a combination of online propaganda, face-to-face recruitment, and supportive real-world peer networks.

Not all of AQ’s formal affiliates and informal allies presented as grave a threat to U.S. interests in 2010. No group has made a bigger name for itself in the kidnapping for ransom business than al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which relies on ransom payments to sustain and develop itself in the harsh Saharan environment. AQIM carried out several attacks and continued kidnapping foreigners for ransom but is not an existential threat to governments in the region. The U.S. government urged its allies to refuse to pay AQIM and other terrorist group’s ransoms, which have become a primary means of financial support for terrorist organizations.

Al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) continued to be politically marginalized as its constituency dwindled further. Though AQI remained capable of carrying out occasional sizable attacks, its violent tactics failed to ignite the sectarian violence the group sought. Instead, we saw two successful elections in Iraq and a decision by Sunni leaders in the country to participate in the political process.

The wave of non-violent democratic demonstrations that began to sweep the Arab world at the end of 2010 held promise but also some peril. Great numbers of citizens advanced peaceful public demands for change without reference to AQ’s incendiary world view, upending the group’s longstanding claims that change would only come through violence and underscoring anew the group’s lack of influence over the central political issues in key Muslim-majority nations. But at the same time, the political turmoil distracted security officials and raised the possibility that terrorist groups would exploit the new openness and, in some cases, disarray, to carry out conspiracies, a possibility with significant and worrisome implications for states undergoing democratic transitions.

The apparent blow suffered by AQ had no significant effect on other terrorist groups with deep roots in the Middle East, as both Hamas and Hizballah continued to play destabilizing roles in the region. Hizballah’s persistence as a well-armed terrorist group in Lebanon with an entrenched hold, if not veto, on the political process in Lebanon, as well as its robust relationships with Iran and Syria, and acquisition of increasingly sophisticated missiles and rockets threatened the interests of Lebanon and other U.S. partners in the region, especially Israel. Hizballah’s aggressive stance and threatening statements about the Special Tribunal on Lebanon, which is investigating the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, increased the danger of Lebanon moving even closer toward sectarian violence. Hamas retained its grip on Gaza, where it continued to stockpile weapons – supplied in large part by Iran – that posed a serious threat to regional stability.