The killing of Osama bin Laden and several other top leaders has left the al Qaeda terrorist group severely weakened, according to the latest annual U.S. government report on terrorism.
Iran, meanwhile, continued to fund and supply international terrorist groups and remained an active state sponsor, according to the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2011 made public on Tuesday.
Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, told reporters that Iranian-backed Hezbollah is expanding its terrorist activities.
“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 are engaging in their most active and aggressive campaign since the 1990s,” Benjamin said.
The report said the killing of bin Laden during a U.S. commando raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was the highlight of a “landmark year” for global efforts to counter terrorism.
“In addition to being an iconic leader whose personal story had a profound attraction for violent extremists, bin Laden was also a prime advocate of the group’s focus on the United States as a terrorist target,” the report said, noting that papers recovered from the Qaeda leader’s hideout show that, even with his limited contacts with al Qaeda, he directed operations and set strategy for the terror group behind the September 11 attacks on the United States.
In addition to bin Laden, other al Qaeda leaders who were killed last year included Ilyas Kashmiri, a top leader in South Asia killed in Pakistan, and Haroun Fazul, mastermind of the deadly 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, and the top al Qaeda leader in East Africa, who was killed in Somalia.
Also, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader after bin Ladin’s death and a senior operational commander, was killed in Pakistan in August, and in September, Anwar al Awlaki, chief of external operations for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed in Yemen.
“The loss of bin Laden and these other key operatives puts the network on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse,” the report said.
The report said al Qaeda remains “adaptable” despite the losses and members have “shown resilience; retain the capability to conduct regional and transnational attacks; and, thus, constitute an enduring and serious threat to our national security.”
Regional al Qaeda affiliates remain dangerous. The report singled out Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as a major threat.
In Somalia, the al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab killed more than 1,000 people despite military offensives weakening the group over the past year.
In Iraq, al Qaeda remains “resilient” and is extending its operatives into Syria and exploiting unrest there, the report said.
Al Qaeda continued to spread its ideology in some parts of the world, notably through the group Boko Haram, which has carried out numerous attacks in Nigeria.
Benjamin, the counterterrorism coordinator, was asked why the Obama administration has not formally designated Boko Haram and the Southwest Asian terror group Haqqani Network as terrorist groups.
“We are very concerned about the activities of both groups, and we have been working to address the issue of insecurity in northern Nigeria,” Benjamin said.
“Regarding the Haqqanis, of course, we share with Congress, which has acted on this recently, a strong concern about the activities of the Haqqanis,” he said.
Congress has been pressing the administration to declare the Haqqani network a designated terrorist group, which allows other steps to be taken to isolate and defeat the group.
The Haqqani Network is reportedly linked to Pakistan’s intelligence service, which critics say is one reason the administration has not cracked down on the group.
Benjamin said leaders of both groups have been labeled terrorists, but not their organizations.
Groups claiming to have ties to al Qaeda terrorists also began moving into the Sinai Peninsula, a development the report said is raising new fears of infiltration.
“A number of loosely knit militant groups have formed in the Sinai, with some claiming ties and allegiance to al Qaeda—though no formal links have been discovered,” the report said.
One terrorist group of heavily armed militants carried out attacks inside southern Israel in August 2011 near Eilat, killing eight people.
Benjamin said he is concerned about the diffusion of al Qaeda affiliates but noted, “I would not say that we are less safe now than we were several years ago, because the al Qaeda 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 I wouldn't say that it is more dangerous out there than it was,” he said. “What I would say is that we are very concerned about the growth of the affiliates.”
Domestically, the report said that while no terrorist attacks were carried out in the United States last year, “we remain concerned about threats to the homeland.”
“In the last several years, individuals who appear to have been trained by al Qaeda and its affiliates have operated within U.S. borders,” the report said, including Najibullah Zazi, a U.S. resident trained in Pakistan who pled guilty in 2010 to charges he planned to set off bombs in the United Sates. Underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab also pled guilty last year to trying to blow up an airliner on behalf of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
“While these individuals had direct ties to international terrorist groups, separate incidents involving so-called ‘lone wolf’ terrorists also pose a threat to the U.S. homeland—one that can be difficult to detect in advance,” the report said.
On Iran, the report said Tehran remained the leading sponsor of global terror, highlighting the rogue regime’s links to a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
Iran also continued to provide weapons and training to Iraqi Shia militant groups that are targeting U.S. and Iraqi forces, and continued to back Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups.
“Since the end of the 2006 Israeli-Hizballah conflict, Iran has provided significant quantities of weaponry and funding to Hizballah, in direct violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701,” the report said.
“Both Hamas and Hizballah continued to play destabilizing roles in the Middle East.”
Hamas, in Gaza, continued to stockpile weapons that “pose a serious threat to regional stability,” the report said.
South Asian terror groups that were active in conducting attacks on U.S. interests include Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan, and the Haqqani Network.
Asked about the growth of Iranian-backed and al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist networks in Europe’s Balkans, Benjamin said:
“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.”