Chapter 1. Strategic Assessment

Bureau of Counterterrorism



Major trends in global terrorism in 2014 included the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL’s) unprecedented seizure of territory in Iraq and Syria, the continued flow of foreign terrorist fighters worldwide to join ISIL, and the rise of lone offender violent extremists in the West. Despite the fragmentation of al-Qa’ida and its affiliates, weak or failed governance continued to provide an enabling environment for the emergence of extremist radicalism and violence, notably in Yemen, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, and Iraq. Continuing a trend noted in last year’s report, terrorist groups employed more aggressive tactics in their attacks. In ISIL’s case, this included brutal repression of communities under its control and the use of ruthless methods of violence such as beheadings and crucifixions intended to terrify opponents. Boko Haram – operating in the Lake Chad Basin region of northern Nigeria, northern Cameroon, and southeast Niger – shared with ISIL a penchant for the use of brutal tactics, which included stonings, indiscriminate mass casualty attacks, and kidnapping children for enslavement. ISIL targeted religious minorities such as Christians and Yazidis in particular, but also Shia Muslims and Sunni tribesmen who defied its rule. The 2014 calendar year also witnessed a powerful regional and international mobilization to counter ISIL that halted the group’s initial advances in Iraq. The adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2178 in September constituted a significant step forward in international efforts to cooperate in preventing the flow of foreign terrorist fighters to and from conflict zones.

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The ongoing civil war in Syria was a significant factor in driving worldwide terrorism events in 2014. The rate of foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria – totaling more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 90 countries as of late December – exceeded the rate of foreign terrorist fighters who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years. Many of the foreign terrorist fighters joined ISIL, which, through intimidation and exploitation of political grievances, a weak security environment in Iraq, and the conflict in Syria, secured sufficient support to conduct complex military operations in an effort to seize contiguous territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria for a self-declared Islamic caliphate. ISIL routinely and indiscriminately targeted defenseless civilians, including religious pilgrims, while engaging in violent repression of local inhabitants.

ISIL showed a particular capability in the use of media and online products to address a wide spectrum of potential audiences: local Sunni Arab populations, potential recruits, and governments of coalition members and other populations around the world, including English-speaking audiences. ISIL has been adroit at using the most popular social and new media platforms (YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter) to disseminate its messages broadly, with near-instantaneous reposting and the generation of follow-on links and translations into additional languages following ISIL’s initial publication of online propaganda. Content included brutal images, such as hostage beheadings and boasts of slave markets of Yazidi girls and women. In 2014, ISIL expanded its messaging tactics to include content that purported to show an idealized version of life under its rule and progress in building the institutions of an orderly state. ISIL’s use of social and new media also facilitated its efforts to attract new recruits to the battlefields in Syria and Iraq, as ISIL facilitators answered in real time would-be members’ questions about how to travel to join the group. Individuals drawn to the conflict in Syria and Iraq were diverse in their socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds, highlighting the need for comprehensive counter-messaging and early engagement with a variety of communities to dissuade vulnerable individuals from traveling to join the conflict.

In 2014, ISIL began to foster relationships with potential affiliates beyond Iraq and Syria. Ansar al-Shari’a in Darnah pledged allegiance to ISIL in October 2014, and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, operating primarily out of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, officially declared allegiance to ISIL in November. Questions remained, however, about the meaning of such affiliates – whether representative of a command relationship, commonality of strategic goals, or merely opportunistic relationships.

The prominence of the threat once posed by core al-Qa’ida (AQ) diminished in 2014, largely as a result of continued leadership losses suffered by the AQ core in Pakistan and Afghanistan. AQ leadership also appeared to lose momentum as the self-styled leader of a global movement in the face of ISIL’s rapid expansion and proclamation of a Caliphate.

Though AQ central leadership was weakened, the organization continued to serve as a focal point of “inspiration” for a worldwide network of affiliated groups, including al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula – a long-standing threat to Yemen, the region, and the United States; al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb; al-Nusrah Front; and al-Shabaab. Other violent Sunni Islamist extremist groups associated with AQ included the Islamic Jihad Union, Lashkar i Jhangvi, Harakat ul-Mujahadin, and Jemaah Islamiya. Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban, and the Haqqani Network, which operated in Pakistan and Afghanistan, also have ties to AQ. Additionally, supporters and associates worldwide “inspired” by the group’s ideology may have operated without direction from AQ central leadership, making it difficult to estimate their numbers.

Adherents of ISIL and AQ conducted terrorist attacks in the West in 2014 in so-called "lone offender attacks" including Quebec and Ottawa , Canada (October 20 and October 22, respectively) and Sydney, Australia (December 15-16). In many cases it was difficult to assess whether attacks were directed or inspired by ISIL or by al-Qa’ida and its affiliates. These attacks may presage a new era in which centralized leadership of a terrorist organization matters less; group identity is more fluid; and violent extremist narratives focus on a wider range of alleged grievances and enemies with which lone actors may identify and seek to carry out self-directed attacks. Enhanced border security measures among Western states that have increased the difficulty for known or suspected terrorists to travel internationally likely encouraged groups like AQ and ISIL to inspire and rely on lone actors already resident in the West to carry out attacks and thereby realize their goal of terrorizing Western populations.

ISIL and AQ were far from the only serious threat that confronted the United States and its allies. Iran continued to sponsor terrorist groups around the world, principally through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF). These groups included Lebanese Hizballah, several Iraqi Shia militant groups, Hamas, and Palestine Islamic Jihad. Iran, Hizballah, and other Shia militia continued to provide support to the Asad regime, dramatically bolstering its capabilities, prolonging the civil war in Syria, and worsening the human rights and refugee crisis there. Iran supplied quantities of arms to Syria and continued to send arms to Syria through Iraqi airspace in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions. Finally, Iran used Iraqi Shia militants and high profile appearances by Qods Force officials on the front lines of Iraq to claim credit for military successes against ISIL and to belittle coalition airstrikes and U.S. contributions to the Government of Iraq’s ongoing fight against ISIL.

ISIL and AQ affiliates, including al-Nusrah Front, continued to use kidnapping for ransom operations and other criminal activities to raise funds for operational purposes. Much of ISIL’s funding, unlike that of AQ and AQ-type organizations, did not come from external donations but was internally gathered in Iraq and Syria. ISIL earned up to several million dollars per month through its various extortion networks and criminal activity in the territory where it operated, including through oil smuggling. Some progress was made in 2014 in constraining ISIL’s ability to earn money from the sale of smuggled oil as a result of anti-ISIL Coalition airstrikes that were conducted on ISIL-operated oil refineries.

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President Obama has repeatedly stressed that the fight against terrorism is not one the United States can or should pursue alone. We have been working to shift our counterterrorism strategy to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold. Accordingly, we have built an effective Global Coalition to Counter ISIL; more than sixty partners are contributing to this multifaceted effort to stop ISIL’s advances on the ground, combat the flow of foreign fighters, disrupt ISIL’s financial resources, counteract ISIL’s messaging, and undermine its appeal.

The shared foreign terrorist fighter threat has prompted even closer cooperation among U.S. federal agencies and our international partners, particularly in Europe. In September, President Obama chaired a UN Security Council (UNSC) session on the foreign terrorist fighter threat, and the UNSC subsequently adopted Resolution 2178. We have seen increased international focus on this problem and the development of more effective counterterrorism laws overseas, as well as enhanced border security efforts and a greater willingness to share threat information among partner nations.

Partners in North Africa and Asia also took steps in 2014 to strengthen their counterterrorism capabilities through new laws and the development of other means to identify, interdict, and prosecute foreign terrorist fighters and those who support them. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates have all enacted legislation or regulations in 2014 to address the foreign terrorist fighter issue.

In West Africa, the countries of Cameroon, Chad, and Niger mobilized forces in 2014 to help Nigeria contain the growing threat posed by Boko Haram. With the authorization of the African Union (AU), these countries announced the launch of a new Multinational Joint Task Force to coordinate operations against Boko Haram. In Somalia, AU troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda continued to push al-Shabaab from towns, thus supporting the people and government of Somalia’s efforts to build security and stability.

While countries worldwide worked to enact legislation and developed and implemented programs to address violent extremism, we remain concerned about counterproductive actions some governments have taken in the name of addressing terrorism – actions such as political repression and human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, which could heighten political grievances and exacerbate the terrorist threat. These actions could become conditions that terrorists themselves exploit for recruitment – for example, banning political parties or suppressing freedom of speech by imprisoning bloggers and journalists. Multilateral and regional institutions can provide the appropriate framework to address these challenges.