Briefing: Country Reports on Terrorism 2013

Special Briefing
Tina S. Kaidanow
Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism 
Washington, DC
April 30, 2014

MS. HARF: Hello, everyone. I’m going to stand on this step just for a few minutes; see how Jen does it every day. I am very tall on this. (Laughter.) Woo. Okay.

Welcome to the daily briefing. As you know, we are starting today with our annual rollout of the Country Reports on Terrorism from 2013. This is what the cover looks like, everyone. So we have with us our coordinator for counterterrorism, Ambassador Tina Kaidanow. She will make some remarks and then answer a few questions from all of you, and then we will go into the daily briefing after that. Remember to keep questions for her on the report and on counterterrorism. I’m happy to stay up here for an hour and answer all of your other questions that aren’t related.

So with that, I will turn it over to her. This is a very different angle from up here. And step down –

AMBASSADOR KAIDANOW: Now you know how I feel. That’s right.

MS. HARF: I know. (Laughter.) Go ahead.

AMBASSADOR KAIDANOW: Great. Thank you so much. Okay. Okay, thank you all today for coming. Today, the State Department is issuing the Country Reports on Terrorism 2013, which not only fulfills a congressional mandate, but also provides us with an opportunity to review the state of terrorism worldwide and elaborate on efforts to counter current threats. Defining the nature and the scope of the terrorist threat is absolutely crucial. It allows us to best determine and calibrate our strategy and our response.

As the report makes clear, the terrorist threat continues to evolve rapidly in 2013. The international community’s successful efforts to degrade al-Qaida, or AQ, senior leadership in Pakistan, coupled with weak governance and instability in the Middle East and Northwest Africa have accelerated the decentralization of what we refer to as al-Qaida core. This has led to the affiliates in the AQ network becoming more operationally autonomous from AQ core and increasingly focused on local and regional objectives.

The past several years have seen the emergence of a more aggressive set of AQ affiliates and likeminded groups, most notably in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Northwest Africa, and Somalia. In 2013, we saw al-Qaida’s leadership struggle to maintain discipline within the AQ network and communicate guidance to its affiliated groups. For example, the tactical guidance by AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to minimize collateral damage was routinely disobeyed, notably with respect to increasingly violent attacks by AQ affiliates against civilian religious pilgrims in Iraq, hospital staff and convalescing patients in Yemen, and families at a shopping mall in Kenya.

With the decline of al-Qaida core and its resulting inability to finance its affiliates, terrorist groups have turned to a range of criminal activity to raise needed funds. Kidnapping for ransom remains the most frequent and the most profitable source of illicit financing. Private donations from the Gulf also remained a major source of funding for Sunni terrorist groups, particularly for those operating in Syria.

A worrying trend that will affect the CT landscape in the years to come is that of foreign fighters traveling to Syria. Syria continues to be a major battleground for terrorism on both sides of the conflict, and remains a key area of longer-term concern. The conflict is attracting thousands of fighters from around the world, particularly from North Africa, the Gulf, Central Asia, and Europe, who are traveling there to join the fight against the Assad regime, with some joining violent Islamic extremist groups. A number of our partners overseas are concerned that citizens who become foreign fighters in Syria will bring back violent extremist connections and battlefield experience when they return home.

Al-Qaida and its affiliates and likeminded groups are not the only terrorist threats that have resonance. Iran’s state-sponsorship of terrorism and Hezbollah’s activities are also of significant concern. Interdictions in the past year have found Iran attempting to smuggle arms and Iranian explosives to Syria, to Yemen, and also to arm Shia opposition groups in Bahrain. And the IRGC Qods Force, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shia militant groups have all been providing a broad range of critical support to the Assad regime since the start of the conflict.

As we continue efforts to resolve our concerns over Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy, we will continue to counter Iranian support for terrorism, in coordination with our partners and our allies, and make clear to Iran’s leaders that its government sponsorship of illicit actions are unacceptable to the international community. Furthermore, we will continue to condemn strongly Hezbollah’s global terrorist activities, including its intervention in Syria, which contravenes Lebanon’s stated policy of disassociation.

Terrorism is a dynamic, adaptable phenomenon that is highly dependent on local political, social, and economic consequences and circumstances. We know that terrorist movements thrive on state failure, on political upheaval, and on poor governance – among other factors. Terrorists and extremists are opportunistic. They adapt quickly to exploit openings presented by political transitions and upheavals. To meet the challenges posed by these evolving threats, we must continue and redouble our efforts where we have been successful, and innovate in areas where we can do more.

In keeping with President Obama’s articulation of a policy that stresses the development of key counterterrorism partnerships across the globe, we’ve engaged in a variety of capacity-building efforts so that countries can do a better job of combatting the threats that emerge from within their own borders and their regions.

Leveraging these partnerships is vital to the success of our counterterrorism efforts. In places where the central government is either overwhelmed or lacks capacity, partnerships with foreign governments and regional organizations can pave the way for international assistance. The international response in northern Mali – led by France, Chad, and other African partners – is a good case in point. So too is the response of AMISOM to the instability in Somalia. Troops from Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Djibouti, and Ethiopia have all made a measurable difference in challenging al-Shabaab. Regional assistance from the Gulf Cooperation Council states, as well as strong bilateral assistance by the United States, has been essential in helping the Government of Yemen in its efforts to rollback al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, also known as AQAP.

Our work with the Global Counterterrorism Forum, the GCTF, is another example of expanded U.S. international engagement. Among the GCTF’s recently launched new initiatives is a foreign terrorist fighters project, led by the Netherlands and Morocco. Practitioners will meet this spring and this summer to develop good practices for addressing the entire spectrum of the foreign terrorist fighters problem, including law enforcement, countering violent extremism, and reintegration. And in June, the GCTF-inspired International Institute on Justice and the Rule of Law will open its doors in Malta, serving in future as a hub to train and build the institutional capacity of our partners in the Sahel and the Maghreb and beyond on how to handle terrorism and other transnational security challenges from a legal standpoint, while respecting the grave importance of human rights.

Ultimately counterterrorism and rule of law goals are closely aligned and reinforce one another. That’s why the rule of law programs are at the heart of our capacity-building efforts. We aim to help our partners use their law enforcement agencies to identify, prosecute, adjudicate, and incarcerate suspected terrorists. We’re also working with our partners to strengthen their ability to halt financial flows of terrorist organizations and disrupt terrorist travel.

As we help build this rule of law capacity, we’re also working to reduce the number of recruits to terrorist groups and counter the messaging that these groups use to appeal to a wider audience. Our efforts on countering violent extremism are most effective when conducted through international partnerships as, for example, the one that we had undertaken through the Hedayah Center, based in and supported by the UAE as well as other countries, which will focus on projects aimed at countering extremism through innovative means.

In addition to counterterrorism assistance rendered in the fields of rule of law and combating recruitment, we provide a wide array of expertise and programmatic support for our partners to help them identify and disrupt the financing of terrorism, strengthen aviation and border security, and sharpen their law enforcement and crisis response tools to respond to the terrorist threat.

Evolving terrorist threats require, as I’ve said, innovative strategies, creative diplomacy, and even stronger partnerships. Building partner capacity, countering violent extremism, and engaging partners bilaterally and multilaterally are all essential. As I hope you will agree after you look at this review, we’ve made significant progress, but there remains a lot to do.

And now, I’ll be happy to take a few of your questions.

MS. HARF: Great. So when I call on you – I know all of you very well, but if you could identify yourself and your outlet for the ambassador, that would be helpful.


QUESTION: Jo Biddle from AFP. Thank you very much. I had a couple of questions, but I wanted to first ask about al-Qaida. The report notes that the al-Qaida leadership, core leadership, is degraded and that the threat has evolved into what you call more aggressive and autonomous al-Qaida affiliates. Could you address the issue about whether these affiliates are actually more dangerous now than al-Qaida used to be?

And I also wanted to ask, in January, in the State of the Union Address, President Obama talked about the al-Qaida leadership being on the path to defeat. Degraded and being on the path of defeat are two different things, and I wonder if you could just sort of tell us exactly what your opinion is of that.

AMBASSADOR KAIDANOW: Right. As I said, and as the report makes clear, I think we have seen a serious degrading of al-Qaida core. And the greatest evidence for that or the most sort of, I think, trenchant evidence of that, is that they’ve been unable to get across a number of their own directives to the affiliates that are now situated elsewhere, both in the Middle East, in North Africa, and other places.

What that’s done is allow a bit of space to a number of these groups that have situated themselves and have become more prominent, again in those areas that I just mentioned. They thrive on local disruption, on crisis, on protracted conflicts, and because of those things they’ve been able to pursue agendas that are primarily local in focus.

But that said, there are a number of groups, including al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, for example, that do obviously have stated goals against the United States, the homeland, and our interests overseas. We regard those threats very seriously. We track them very, very closely. We take a degree of pain in trying to understand what they’re trying to do and how to counter those threats. And so I wouldn’t class them as more or less dangerous. I would say the threat continues to evolve, as we’ve indicated in the report. And that’s what we are very challenged in trying to make sure that we stay on top of all of that.

QUESTION: And on the issue about whether they’re actually on the path of defeat or whether they’re just degraded?

AMBASSADOR KAIDANOW: Well, again, I mean, I think that the evidence that we’ve seen has shown that they are unable to do what they had done in the past, in terms of directing the activity of their affiliates globally. So I think that through any measure what that means is degrading and disrupting has been successful.

But that said, there’s still a core al-Qaida element that we need to watch out for. They still issue directives from time to time. Those directives are differentially taken into account by these groups overseas – some more, some less. And we have to be cognizant of the fact that they still remain a threat, but we believe less of a threat. And we have to be careful to take into account the evolving nature of the threat in the way that I’ve described.


MS. HARF: Michel, go ahead.

QUESTION: Michel Ghandour with Al Hurra Television. The report notes that Syrian Government historically had an important role in the growth of terrorist networks in Syria. Can you elaborate on that, please?

AMBASSADOR KAIDANOW: You mean growth of terrorist networks in Iraq or in Syria?

QUESTION: In Syria --


QUESTION: -- as the report notes.

AMBASSADOR KAIDANOW: Well, again, I mean, I think the – what we’ve seen with respect to the growth of the extremist network in Syria is quite concerning, particularly the flow of foreign fighters into Syria, which is something that the report talks about. That’s a concern not just for us, but for a number of our partners who have expressed interest in collaborative efforts with us in trying to deal with that particular set of threats. We have a degree of capacity that we can help them build in terms of rule of law and building legal frameworks and dealing with border issues and a number of things that can stop the flow of foreign fighters out of source countries into Syria and hopefully prevent those people from joining these extremist networks that then may return home at some point and pose a challenge or a threat to the countries that they came from.

QUESTION: And to what extent Syria constitutes a threat to the United States? And what are you doing to counter this threat?

AMBASSADOR KAIDANOW: Well, again, like our partners, I think we’re concerned over the long term that – to the extent that Syria continues to become a political issue and the political conflict continues in Syria, it will attract individuals who then may be radicalized when they go to Syria, and then at some point potentially return home. They could come here as well. I mean, that’s certainly a possibility. We monitor those threats as we monitor all threats to U.S. security, both homeland and our interests overseas.

But I think, again, the key point here is that we’re working with those partners who see an escalating number of people going from their countries to Syria to see what we can do to assist them and to hear their concerns about what can be done to stem the flow of those foreign fighters to Syria.

MS. HARF: Great. Catherine.

QUESTION: I’m Catherine Chomiak with NBC. I understand the report is on 2013, but right now, there’s a lot of focus on Boko Haram with the kidnapping of the schoolgirls. So if you could speak a little bit generally about Boko Haram and what we’ve seen over the time period that the report covers, and then address U.S. CT cooperation with Nigeria.

AMBASSADOR KAIDANOW: Mm-hmm, yeah. We are very concerned about the growth of Boko Haram, as are the Nigerians. We’ve seen just in the last few weeks, as you indicated, some very serious and very troubling attacks. That wasn’t covered in the 2013 report, obviously, but the nature of those attacks has continued to escalate, and that concerns us as well as the Nigerians. And I should say that we are very – that we extend our condolences to the people of Nigeria for the repeated attacks that we’ve seen.

I think it’s very important that the Government of Nigeria, which recognizes the nature of the threat, continue to address this as a holistic matter. In other words, it can’t just be a military and security effort; it has to be an effort that undertakes a variety of different efforts which includes, by the way, development of that part of Nigeria where Boko Haram tends to be more active.

But that said, again, the group itself has shown an increasing willingness to take action against innocent civilians, it’s very troubling, and we’re going to continue to work very closely with the Government of Nigeria to give them as much assistance as we can, and to urge them to do what they can do, both within the frame of rule of law – which is important – and to take effective measures that span not just security elements, but elements that are developmental, economic, political, and so forth.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. HARF: Ashish, you can go ahead.

QUESTION: Ashish Sen with The Washington Times. You cited as an example of al-Qaida’s degraded core the fact that its directives are being ignored. To what extent is that a result of Usama bin Ladin’s death and the reflection of Zawahiri’s own standing within the organization?

AMBASSADOR KAIDANOW: It’s a good question. I don't know that we have all the answers in terms of why it is that some of their directives have not been what – regarded as carefully overseas. I think, again, we’ve seen the expansion of some of these groups in places where their local interests may conflict with what they have heard from Zawahiri or from core al-Qaida. And they make their judgments about what makes sense for them locally, but what that does for us is, again, pose a challenge, because we have to understand the dynamics not just of what core al-Qaida is directing, but what the local situation may portend. And that’s what makes it so important for us to have as much good information as we can get on these groups.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

MS. HARF: Elise, go ahead.


MS. HARF: Wait. Say who you are and where you’re from.

QUESTION: Sure. Elise Labott.

MS. HARF: That’s the rules.

QUESTION: Elise Labott with CNN. Thanks for doing this.


QUESTION: I was wondering if you can talk about how the Snowden revelations of the NSA collection programs might have affected terrorists’ ability to operate and whether they’ve gone underground. Have they changed their tactics because they know that we’re – that they’ve learned about some of our collection tactics?

AMBASSADOR KAIDANOW: Well, I will say this: I mean, the Snowden revelations were an unauthorized disclosure of classified information. The reason information is classified in the first place is because we deem it essential to U.S. national security to keep that classified. It is therefore not surprising if I tell you that it has done damage to our intelligence efforts and it’s done damage to our ability to ensure that these groups don’t have eyesight on the way that we try and gain intelligence with respect to what they’re doing.

So overall, it’s incredibly damaging when we have these kinds of leaks because at the end of the day, these groups are better able to assess and judge how we obtain our information.

QUESTION: Have you seen any decrease in kind of open communications that you might have been able to obtain before that they’ve gone underground or --

AMBASSADOR KAIDANOW: Well, again, I don’t want to get too specific on this because I don’t want to serve that purpose. But the point is here that any time we have a release, an unauthorized release of classified information, you run the risk, the very serious risk that you will have a degrading of your ability to maintain good classified skillsets. And this is – I mean, this is something that is really, really essential to the intelligence effort and to our ability to maintain security. So that’s – I think that’s what I would say.

MS. HARF: Okay, let’s do one more right here.

QUESTION: Thank you. I actually have a couple --

MS. HARF: Say your name and where you’re from.

QUESTION: Sorry. Bingru Wang with Hong Kong Phoenix TV. I have couple of questions on China. I saw – you mentioned in your report that actually you recognize that China criticize the U.S. You have double standard when it comes to terrorist – what do you think makes the difference, and how do you define terror attack?

AMBASSADOR KAIDANOW: Well, again, I don’t want to get too deeply into the definition of terrorist attacks. I mean, I think each country sort of looks at this in their own particular perspective, and we are very, again, sympathetic to the Chinese – the attacks that have happened in China with respect to some of the groups there.

I don’t really want to get too much into, again, hypotheticals about the definition of terrorism. But with respect to China generally, again, we don’t – we condemn any act that kills civilians. It just – it’s a phenomenon that we work actively with our partners to combat.

QUESTION: Just – I have a quick follow-up. You also mentioned that Chinese authorities did not provide detailed evidence of terrorist involvement.


QUESTION: Is that why you call some, like, Kunming incident terrorist attack, but then the Tiananmen Square incident you still haven’t drawn a conclusion?

AMBASSADOR KAIDANOW: Well, again, I think we felt that it would be helpful to us if the Chinese would allow greater access to information on some of these attacks so that we could make a more informed estimate of what the circumstances were surrounding them. And we’ve made that clear to the Chinese Government, so I think it’s all in the report, as you said.

MS. HARF: Okay. Thanks, you guys.

QUESTION: Can I just sneak – can I sneak one more in on Cuba?

QUESTION: Wait. I had one more. Come on, hold --

MS. HARF: I said there were five questions, and we were here on time, this early --

QUESTION: Come on.

QUESTION: Six nice even --

MS. HARF: She had the first question.

QUESTION: Huh? Well, I was busy reading --

QUESTION: Are there (inaudible) --

MS. HARF: I have control of the room. Okay, we’re going to do two quick ones.

QUESTION: Mine is very quick.

MS. HARF: Matt and Samir.

QUESTION: Okay. I just wanted to --

MS. HARF: Jo had the first question. She got one.

QUESTION: I just want to make sure that it’s correct – that in the statistical annex, it says there were more than 9,700-something attacks last year? I don’t – I didn’t bring it with me. But I just want to make sure that when you compare the number of attacks from 2013 to 2012, I came up with a 43 percent increase. Does that sound right to you?

AMBASSADOR KAIDANOW: To be honest with you, the statistical analysis that’s prepared is done independently. It’s done by the University of Maryland.

QUESTION: I understand that.

AMBASSADOR KAIDANOW: And I have someone here who can talk about the methodology that they used if you want to ask them.

QUESTION: I don’t need to know the methodology. I just want – I remember last year the situation where – the way it was counted changed, and it couldn’t be compared last year to previous years.


QUESTION: This year, I believe it can be compared to last year’s because it was the same methodology. Correct?

PARTICIPANT: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: So is it correct that what you have counted is a 43 percent increase in the number of terrorist attacks?

PARTICIPANT: Yeah, I think it’s just under that number, but – yes.

QUESTION: I think it’s 43.36, I believe.


QUESTION: Okay. That – thank you.

MS. HARF: Look at your math skills today, Matt. I like it.

Okay, last question from Samir who’s been waiting patiently.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you.

MS. HARF: Where are you from?

QUESTION: Samir Nader with Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Sawa. Does the report find out or mention if Iran increased or decreased its financial support to its proxy terrorist organizations?

AMBASSADOR KAIDANOW: The report makes clear that we still have concerns, deep concerns about Iran’s use of proxies, including Hezbollah --


AMBASSADOR KAIDANOW: -- in both terrorist activities as well as its support to the Assad regime in Syria.

QUESTION: Because they have difficult economic crises in Iran now, according to press reports yesterday, so is this going to impact their financial support to Hezbollah and Hamas and others?

AMBASSADOR KAIDANOW: I can’t say whether it will impact in the future, and the report makes clear that in 2013 we were very concerned, again, that the level of support to Iran’s proxies remains of concern to us.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. HARF: Thank you. And I will stay around to brief, so if there are questions I can answer about the report, I will try. I can also take them back to the ambassador.

So with that, we’re just going to do a quick change out and start the briefing in two minutes.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. HARF: It’s your second two-minute warning today.


MS. HARF: Thank you, guys.

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