- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
The Obama administration has spent years arguing that the killings of Osama bin Laden and numerous al Qaeda lieutenants have defeated what it describes as the "core" of the terror group. On Wednesday, though, the State Department warned in its annual terrorism report that al Qaeda had evolved from a centralized group to a set of "operationally autonomous" and financially independent affiliates, and grimly noted that the shift has resulted in a sharp spike in the total number of terror attacks and fatalities around the world.
All told, the State Department found that worldwide terrorist attacks rose by 40 percent over the past year, from 6,771 in 2012 to 9,707 in 2013. Two-thirds of the strikes occurred in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India, resulting in the deaths of more than 11,000 people. A total of 17,891 people died in terrorist attacks in 2013, up from 11,098 in 2012.
The report attributed much of the violence to sectarian strife in Syria, Lebanon, and Pakistan, which have been riven by brutal fighting between the countries’ religious and ethnic populations. Iraq has been hit particularly hard, with Sunni militants slaughtering thousands of Shiite civilians, but Syria’s brutal civil war has begun to morph from a rebellion against Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad to ongoing communal violence between the country’s Alawite and Sunni populations. Islamist militants in Syria, the report says, are increasingly "motivated by a sectarian view of the conflict and a desire to protect the Sunni Muslim community from the Alawite-dominant [Assad] regime."
While last year’s report highlighted key milestones in the United States’ war on terror — including the deaths of the bin Laden and dozens of other senior al Qaeda leaders — the latest report strikes a much less positive note, noting that al Qaeda affiliates from Yemen to Nigeria continue carrying out attacks on a regular basis.
The report noted that the threat posed by al Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria is especially worrying because the fighting there is attracting growing numbers of foreign fighters. As of April, the death toll in Syria’s civil war had exceeded 150,000, and breakaway al Qaeda affiliates there appear to have few qualms about targeting civilians. Security officials across the Middle East and throughout the West worry that battle-hardened foreign militants who gained experience fighting in Syria may return to their home countries and attempt to mount attacks there as well.
"The scale of this problem has raised a concern about the creation of a new generation of globally-committed terrorists, similar to what resulted from the influx of violent extremists to Afghanistan in the 1980s," the report notes.
The State Department also highlights the continuing threat posed by Iran, the country with which the Obama administration is trying to conclude a long-sought nuclear deal. Iranian terror, according to the report, is a "predominant concern" to the United States given the "resurgence of activity" by Hezbollah, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The report notes that authorities have intercepted several arms shipments intended for terrorist groups financed by Iran and that Hezbollah, which is thought to receive extensive support from Tehran, has helped prop up the Assad regime by sending in thousands of skilled fighters motivated by a desire to help the strongman "protect the Shia Muslim community from Sunni extremists."
Read the full report here.