Chapter 1. Strategic Assessment

Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism
May 30, 2013

Chapter 1.

Strategic Assessment

The al-Qa’ida (AQ) core, under the direction of Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been significantly degraded as a result of ongoing worldwide efforts against the organization. Usama bin Laden’s death was the most important milestone in the fight against AQ, but there have been other successes – dozens of senior AQ leaders have been removed from the fight in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Ilyas Kashmiri, one of the most capable AQ operatives in South Asia, and Atiya Abdul Rahman, AQ’s second-in-command, were killed in Pakistan in 2011. AQ leaders Abu Yahya Al-Libi and Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti were killed in 2012. As a result of these leadership losses, the AQ core’s ability to direct the activities and attacks of its affiliates has diminished, as its leaders focus increasingly on survival.

Leadership losses have also driven AQ affiliates to become more independent. The affiliates are increasingly setting their own goals and specifying their own targets. As avenues previously open to them for receiving and sending funds have become more difficult to access, several affiliates have engaged in kidnapping for ransom. Through kidnapping for ransom operations and other criminal activities, the affiliates have also increased their financial independence.

While AQ affiliates still seek to attack the “far enemy,” they seem more inclined to focus on smaller scale attacks closer to their home base. Both al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have taken steps to seize land and impose their brutal authority over local populations.

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. Along with AQ, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, and other like-minded groups continue to conduct operations against U.S., Coalition, Afghan, and Pakistani interests from safe havens on both sides of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Other South Asian terrorist organizations, including Lashkar e-Tayyiba (LeT), cite U.S. interests as legitimate targets for attacks. LeT, the group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, continues to pose a serious threat to regional stability.

In Yemen, the fight against AQAP is a work in progress, but the trend lines are positive. Yemeni forces have had success pushing AQAP out of its southern strongholds over the last year, leading AQAP to turn increasingly to asymmetric tactics in a campaign of bombings and targeted assassinations against government targets, pro-government tribal militias known as Popular Committees and their leaders, soldiers, civilians, and foreign diplomatic personnel.

After more than two decades of strife, autumn 2012 marked the beginning of political transition in Somalia, with a new provisional constitution, parliament, and president. These are hopeful signs of a new era in this long-suffering country. This success was made possible because Somali National Forces and the AU Mission in Somalia – with strong financial support and training from the United States and Western partners – expelled al-Shabaab from major cities in southern Somalia. Though al-Shabaab is carrying out attacks against the new government, it is fragmented by dissension and much weakened.

Though the AQ core is on a path to defeat, and its two most dangerous affiliates have suffered serious setbacks, tumultuous events in the Middle East and North Africa have complicated the counterterrorism picture. The dispersal of weapons stocks in the wake of the revolution in Libya, the Tuareg rebellion, and the coup d’état in Mali presented terrorists with new opportunities. The actions of France and African countries, however, in conjunction with both short-term U.S. support to the African-led International Support Mission to Mali and the long-term efforts of the United States via the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, have done much to roll back and contain the threat.

In Libya, the security vacuum in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution provided greater opportunity for terrorists to operate. This vacuum, combined with the weakness of Libya’s nascent security institutions, allowed violent extremists to act, as we saw too clearly on September 11 in Benghazi, when J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, and three staff members, died during attacks on U.S. facilities.

In Syria, AQI seeks to establish a long-term presence under the pseudonym of al-Nusrah Front. The Nusrah Front has denounced the Syrian Opposition Coalition’s founding, rejected the vision statement that the opposition issued in Cairo, and says it is fighting to establish an Islamic caliphate encompassing the entire Levant.

In Gaza, a sharp increase in the number of rocket attacks launched by Hamas and other Gaza-based violent extremist groups led Israel to launch Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012. During the course of the eight day operation, Israeli forces targeted more than 1,500 terrorist sites. Since the Egypt-brokered November 21 ceasefire, the United States has engaged with our Egyptian and Israeli counterparts to strengthen and sustain the peace.

In West Africa we are seeing a loosely-organized collection of factions known as Boko Haram (BH) – some of them with ties to AQIM – exploiting the grievances of northern Nigerians to gain recruits and public sympathy. The number and sophistication of BH’s attacks are increasing, and while the group focuses principally on local Nigerian issues and actors, there are reports that it is developing financial and training links with transnational violent extremists.

The year 2012 was also notable in demonstrating a marked resurgence of Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism, through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), its Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), and Tehran’s ally Hizballah. Iran and Hizballah’s terrorist activity has reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s, with attacks plotted in Southeast Asia, Europe, and Africa. On February 5, 2013, the Bulgarian government publically implicated Hizballah in the July 2012 Burgas bombing that killed five Israelis and one Bulgarian citizen, and injured 32 others. On March 21, 2013, a Cyprus court found a Hizballah operative guilty of charges stemming from his surveillance activities, carried out in 2012, of Israeli tourist targets, while Thailand was prosecuting a Hizballah member for his role in helping plan a possible terrorist attack in that country. The IRGC-QF is suspected of directing planned terrorist attacks in Georgia, India, Thailand, and Kenya in 2012, and is also implicated in a 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States in Washington, DC. And both Iran and Hizballah are providing a broad range of critical support to the Asad regime, as it continues its brutal crackdown against the Syrian people.

While terrorism from non-state actors related to AQ and state-sponsored terrorism originating in Iran remained the predominant concern of the United States, other forms of terrorism undermined peace and security around the world. In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party remained active in 2012. Anarchists in Greece and Italy launched periodic attacks, targeting private businesses, foreign missions, and symbols of the state. In Colombia, terrorist attacks occurred almost every day until the declaration of a unilateral cease-fire by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in November. In Northern Ireland, dissident Republican groups continued their campaigns of violence. “Lone Wolf” violent extremists also remain a concern, as we saw in March 2012, when violent extremist gunman Mohammed Merah went on a multiday killing spree in Toulouse and Montauban, France. Seven people, including three children, lost their lives before he was killed by police.