Briefing on the Country Reports on Terrorism 2011
Coordinator, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: All right. Thanks very much, and thank you all for coming today. Today, the State Department is issuing Country Reports on Terrorism 2011, which fulfills a congressional mandate and also provides us with an opportunity to review counterterrorism events worldwide. Please bear in mind that the report only covers events and developments that occurred during the 2011 calendar year.
Of course, 2011 was an extremely significant year in counterterrorism. Besides the death of Usama bin Ladin and a number of other key al-Qaida operatives, we saw millions of citizens throughout the Middle East advance peaceful public demands for change without any reference to al-Qaida’s incendiary world view. This upended the group’s longstanding claim that change in this region would only come through violence. These men and women have underscored, in the most powerful fashion, the lack of influence al-Qaida exerts over the central political issues in key Muslim-majority nations.
At the same time, I should underscore we have no illusions that the transition process that we are in the midst of will be painless or happen quickly. Revolutionary transformations have many bumps in the road. So much is clear. And so inspiring as the moment may be, we are not blind to the attendant perils. Terrorists could still cause to significant disruptions for states undergoing very challenging democratic transitions. The report’s narrative notes, among other things, the continued weakening of the al-Qaida core in Pakistan, but it also demonstrates that the al-Qaida affiliates, while also suffering losses, increased their overall operational ability. And this is particularly true of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. So for all the counterterrorism successes that we’ve seen against al-Qaida and its affiliates, the group and violent extremist ideology and rhetoric continue to spread in some parts of the world.
The report also notes that al-Qaida and its affiliates are not the only terrorist threat that the United States faces. We are increasingly concerned about Iran’s support for terrorism and Hezbollah’s activities as they’ve both stepped up their level of terrorist plotting over the past year and engaging in – and are engaging in their most active and aggressive campaigns since the 1990s. Iran’s use of terrorism as an instrument of policy was exemplified, as you’re all aware, by the involvement of elements of the Iranian Government in the 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador here in Washington.
Let me make a few points about the statistical annex, which is at the end of the report and which was prepared by the National Counterterrorism Center. The total number of worldwide attacks in 2011 was more than 10,000 in 70 countries, resulting in more than 12,500 deaths. But that figure, large as it may be, is a drop of 12 percent from 2010. Again, the largest number of reported attacks occurred in South Asia and the Near East. More than 75 percent of the world’s attacks and deaths occurred in these regions. The victims of terrorist attacks remain overwhelmingly Muslim. The majority of attacks occurred in just three countries – Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, which together accounted for 85 percent of attacks in these regions and almost 64 percent of attacks worldwide. Although it’s worth noting that both Afghanistan and Iraq saw declines in the number of attacks from the previous year – 14 percent in the case of Afghanistan, 16 percent in the case of Iraq.
Africa experienced 978 attacks in 2011, an 11.5 percent increase over the previous year. And this is attributable in large part to the more aggressive attack tempo of the Nigerian-based terrorist group Boko Haram, which conducted 136 attacks in 2011, up from 31 the previous year.
Well, let me end these brief remarks by noting that as a result of international pressure and events such as the Arab Awakening, both al-Qaida the organization and al-Qaida the idea are evolving. Understanding the group’s strengths and weaknesses and the trajectory of its evolution are continuing critical challenges for us and will remain so in the years ahead.
And now, I’ll be happy to take a few questions.
QUESTION: Two questions if I may. One, I look back at the NCTC data going back to 2005, which I think is the first full year for which they were responsible for the statistics, and the figures for both overall attacks and overall worldwide attacks and worldwide fatalities this year, or 2011, are in fact the lowest since 2005. And to what do you ascribe those declines? I mean, I’m sure you’ll say partly it’s you’re getting better at this, but do you also think that the underlying motivating factors for people who launch such attacks are somehow diminishing?
And then secondly, you talked about the Arab Spring. I wonder if you think there is a plausible danger that violence may actually get worse in some places in the short term. I’m thinking in particular of Sinai, but surely there are potentially other examples – Syria being an obvious one – where the transition may actually lead to an increase in what you define as terrorist attacks.
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Both good questions. Let me take the last one first. It’s folly to make predictions of what is going to happen over the next year and what the aggregate numbers are going to look like, but I certainly would not rule out the possibility that we would see increases in violence in any particular area. Egypt, as we know, has gone through a very eventful transition, and that transition included major changes in the security services and in their remit in terms of their personnel and so on and so forth.
We know that there have been long periods of time when many countries in the region were focused on the basic stability of their capitals and their core population areas. So there are all kinds of different things in play, and I think that it would be a mistake to make a hard-and-fast prediction, but simply to say we have to be prepared for any kind of development along those lines. And we’re engaging with all these different countries for exactly that reason.
Now, as for your question about the aggregate declines since 2005, if you remember where we were in 2005, there was an enormous amount of violence in Iraq, and that certainly has to be one of the main reasons for that. And although we’re very concerned about continuing violence in Iraq, the trend line has overall been down through 2011. I think that beyond that, you’d have to look – go region by region. We’ve seen, I think, a pretty steep decline, if memory serves, for example, in Southeast Asia, where there’s been very effective work done to build capacity. In a number of other areas in the world, we’ve also seen increased capacity. Algeria, for example, has many fewer attacks within its borders than it did five, six, seven years ago.
And I think a lot of that is because countries around the world recognize the importance of developing their skills. We’ve worked with many of them on developing their law enforcement capacities, and I think that that’s made a difference. I think the scholars will have the final word on this on why we’ve seen this overall decline, but I want to emphasize it’s still a pretty dangerous phenomenon. As we mentioned, it accounts for thousands of casualties, and there’s reason for lots of vigilance. We can’t ensure that the trend lines will always continue going in the way we want.
QUESTION: You mentioned the uptick in attacks from Boko Haram, and presumably, among the Afghanistan attacks, there were many from the Haqqani Network. Considering that they both were significant contributors to terrorist attacks in your report, what more evidence do you need to include both of them as Foreign Terrorist Organizations?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, we are very concerned about the activities of both groups, and we have been working to address the issue of insecurity in northern Nigeria. And this is a top priority for the Department. We’re concerned about Boko Haram’s activities. We’ve been engaging with the Nigerian Government in particular at the highest levels to move them towards greater engagement with communities that are vulnerable to extremist violence by addressing the underlying political and socioeconomic problems in the north.
As you know, we don’t comment on the designation process. It is a laborious process. It has to be able to stand up in court, takes a long time, and I don’t want to preview any designations or non-designations beyond that. I will point out, though, that we have designated, under Executive Order 13224, three leaders of Boko Haram. We did that back on June 21st. And this allows us to focus on those individuals who are most responsible for violence, for threats against the U.S. and its citizens. And I think that we – that was the right move to take at the time. And if there is more on that designation, you’ll certainly hear about it.
Regarding the Haqqanis, of course, we share with Congress, which has acted on this recently, a strong concern about the activities of the Haqqanis. There is now legislation that has been passed on that. It will be before the President shortly. And again, I’m not going to go into the tick-tock of the review for designation. We take this very seriously. We’ve talked to the Pakistanis on numerous occasions about this, and the work goes on. And again, we have designated many Haqqani leaders under Executive Order 13224, so it’s a mistake to say there have been no designations in this area.
QUESTION: I didn’t say that.
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Okay.
QUESTION: I wonder if I could ask one on al-Qaida, please. Thank you. On al-Qaida, you mentioned that the core al-Qaida group seems to be on a path of decline following the deaths of various leaders, including Usama bin Ladin. But on the same – at the same time, you say that its affiliates are on the rise. And I just wonder, doesn’t that make actually al-Qaida a more dangerous organization; it’s becoming more of a many-headed hydra rather than just one organization that you can fight?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: There’s no question that there is cause for concern. I would not say that we are less safe now than we were several years ago, because the al-Qaida core was the most capable part of the organization by quite a lot, and was capable, obviously, of carrying out catastrophic attacks on a scale that none of the affiliates have been able to match. So it’s a complex calculus, but I – so I wouldn’t say that it is more dangerous out there than it was.
What I would say is that we are very concerned about the growth of the affiliates. We are working closely with partner nations around the world. In the case of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is I think everyone agrees is the most dangerous of the affiliates, that’s a group that benefitted from the long political transition, the turmoil that was going on in Yemen. And I’m optimistic because in President Hadi we have a very committed, very reliable partner now. And our work with Yemen is going very, very well. So while the group did exploit that period of uncertainty, we think the trend lines are going in the right direction now in Yemen.
Similarly, we’re working with the various countries of the Maghreb and the Sahel to deal with AQIM. We have strong engagement with East African countries and AMISOM to deal with al-Qaida in East Africa. And I think that it is a serious situation but one that we’re deeply engaged in and making progress in. We just can’t relax, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and its various conspiracies, I think, proves that point better than any of them.
QUESTION: Thank you. You said in the report that by the end of 2001 al-Qaida in Iraq was starting to take advantage of the instability in Syria and was trying to gain a foothold there. I was wondering, in the first part of this year, whether you see that trend continuing and growing and what the al-Qaida presence in Syria is, as you understand it to be, right now.
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Right. Well, look, as I’ve said many times, terrorists gravitate to areas of instability and civil strife, and, as everyone has seen in the press, there have been many accounts of al-Qaida-related operatives being in Syria. There’s no doubt that there are some. And the hatred of Sunni extremist groups for the Assad regime is nothing new. We believe that the number of al-Qaida fighters – al-Qaida-related fighters who are in Syria is relatively small. But there is a larger group of foreign fighters, many of whom are not directly affiliated with AQ, who are either in or headed to Syria, and clearly this is a matter of concern for all who fear greater violence in Syria and for regional stability.
So it’s important though that we see this in context. And we should be clear: Though the Assad regime seeks to portray the current situation as a fight against extremists on its part, the overwhelming majority of the opposition in Syria is composed of ordinary Syrians who are tired of their dictatorship and who yearn for a better, freer, more democratic future for their country.
So long as Assad refuses to go and Syria’s transition is blocked, the danger grows of more foreign fighters, including extremists of the al-Qaida type, infiltrating Syria. We are not – we are very much alert to this issue. We’ve spoken with the Syrian opposition groups and warned them against allowing such fighters to infiltrate their organizations. They’ve assured us that they are being vigilant and want nothing to do with AQ or with violent extremists. And I should add that the Free Syrian Army has issued several statements urging foreign fighters to leave Syria.
QUESTION: Well, can I just – a quick follow? I understand what they’ve said. But is it your understanding that these foreign fighters and al-Qaida are operating alone? Or is there – do you have genuine concerns that they’re colluding with some members of the opposition? I’m not saying one particular group or the other.
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: I think our concern is less about collusion than it is about infiltration – groups, individuals who are trying to pass themselves off as something that they aren’t and gaining a foothold in various organizations that way.
MR. VENTRELL: Michel.
QUESTION: Yeah. To what extent are you concerned from Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas behaviors? And what are you doing in this regard?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, of course, Iran is and remains the preeminent state sponsor of terrorism in the world. We are deeply concerned about Iran’s activities on its own through the IRGC-Qods Force. And also, together with Hezbollah, as they pursue destabilizing activities around the globe, we are firmly committed to working with partners and allies to counter and disrupt Iranian activities and to prevent Iran from sponsoring new acts of terrors. And we think that the international community is increasingly alert to this threat and will resist it.
I think that it’s important to note that we’ve seen quite a number of different designations in the last year. We have seen a number of al-Qaida activists in Iran who have been designated. We have had them – our (inaudible) case, which, of course, was foiled. We have had other designations of Hezbollah-related individuals who are involved in criminal activities. This has been an area in which we’ve had some really eye-opening revelations in the last year, particularly in the Lebanese-Canadian Bank case. And of course, I speak frequently with interlocutors, with counterparts around the world, on the threats of Hezbollah and, frankly, so do many people above me in the hierarchy, both here and at the White House and at the Department of Defense, and so on and so forth. This is a whole-of-government activity, and it’s concerted and it’s determined.
MR. VENTRELL: We have time for just a couple more questions.
QUESTION: You speak of destabilizing activities around the world of Iran. Can you name some?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, as you know, there are investigations going on in quite a number of different countries. I think that the appropriate thing is to allow those countries to speak for the status of those investigations, but quite a number of them bear the hallmarks of either Iranian or Hezbollah activities.
QUESTION: Including the Bulgaria attacks?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: I’m going to leave that the Bulgarians to characterize.
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: What is your assessment of the strength of Lashkar-e Tayyiba in the year 2011? Has it increased or come down because of the al-Qaida’s decline?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: I have no seen any decrease in Lashkar-e Tayyiba strength. It continues to be a matter of great concern to us, and I’ve spoken on many occasions about the threat to stability in South Asia that Lashkar-e Tayyiba poses. We’ve urged Pakistan to take more action against Lashkar-e Tayyiba. We’d certainly like to see more progress on that trial regarding the atrocities in Mumbai. It remains a major concern on the terrorist landscape, without a doubt. So --
MR. VENTRELL: Right here.
QUESTION: Thank you. I was wondering if you can jump to Latin America and make some comments on Colombia, if you can highlight how is the situation or what the report says about Colombia. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, the long-term picture in Colombia at the end of 2011 remained quite good. We’ve seen an enormous reduction in terms of the territory and capabilities of the FARC and the ELN. There is, of course – continues to be activity that is of concern, but when we look around the world and see who’s really benefited from political will and capacity-building efforts, Colombia is at the very top of the list. We know that it takes a long time for terrorist groups to be truly wound down and put out of business. So if there are continuing attacks, I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise. But again, we consider Colombia to be a success case and one in which its leadership showed great resolve.
QUESTION: Do you have information – about Colombia, do you have information about relationship between President Chavez and terrorists in Colombia – FARC, ELN?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: I don’t think we have anything that we haven’t put out before. Of course, there have been issues regarding FARC people having a safe haven, using Venezuela for a safe haven. There have been a number of designations of Venezuelans for their relationship with terrorists, and it’s something that we continue to look at very, very carefully.
MR. VENTRELL: Last question. Can you --
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: Thank you. Can we jump to – maybe to Europe, southeast of Europe, especially – I mean, Western Balkans, especially Bosnia and Kosovo? Do you have from that region – do you have any information about connections between al-Qaida and some terrorist activities in Bosnia and Kosovo and maybe Iran-backed activities in that part?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, actually, the – I think the report covers that, and I encourage you to read the section on Bosnia. There certainly has been some extremist activity there. As you know, an extremist in Frankfurt who came from that region carried out an attack against the U.S. military personnel. It is a concern, and we do engage with the government in Sarajevo as well as in – others in the region to deal with this. I would not say that this is a theater that causes us concern in the same way that South Asia and the Middle East do, but nonetheless, it’s an area where we’re engaged and vigilant.
QUESTION: Are you following the trial about the gentleman who attacked the American Embassy in Sarajevo that --
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: I don’t have any information on that myself, but I’m quite sure that the Bosnia desk in the EUR is covering it, as is our own regional directorate. So –
MR. VENTRELL: Thank you all.