June 25, 2020
IntelBrief: U.S. State Department Country Reports on Terrorism 2019 Assesses Global Nature of the Threat
Just yesterday, the U.S. State Department issued its annual report outlining country reports on terrorism to provide a global snapshot of the threat landscape. Several themes are familiar, including: the persistent threat posed by Salafi-jihadists groups including the Islamic State and al-Qaeda; the continuing role played by Iran in sponsoring proxy groups like Hezbollah and fomenting terrorism and extremism worldwide, from the Middle East to Latin America; and a recognition of the growing threat posed by a transnational network of racially or ethnically motivated terrorists (especially white supremacist terrorists). The report primarily focuses on the previous year, so in this case the analysis assessed U.S. counterterrorism efforts over the course of 2019 and highlighted progress in several key areas while acknowledging that numerous challenges lie ahead.
In 2019, the United States and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS removed the Islamic State (IS) from its last remaining physical stronghold in Baghouz, Syria in March, and by late October killed its longtime leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, dealing the organization a significant blow. However, the State Department acknowledges that IS a resilient and adaptive adversary and even without its so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria, will continue to pose a threat to global stability through the growth of several of its affiliate and franchise groups and its expansion into new territories, including throughout parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and in areas of South and Southeast Asia. Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, suffered the loss of Hamza bin Laden in September 2019. Progress in disrupting al-Qaeda’s global network in 2019 led to valuable intelligence that facilitated the targeting of several of the group’s high-level leaders this year, including the killing of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) chief Qassim al-Rimi in February 2020 and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) veteran Abdelmalek Droukdel earlier this month. But al-Qaeda still retains the ability to inspire followers to conduct attacks, as evidenced by a December 2019 attack on a Naval Air Station in Florida by a Saudi Air Force lieutenant who coordinated the attack with AQAP.
Iran was a major focus of the 2019 Country Reports on Terrorism for its role in sponsoring terrorist groups and attacks around the world. Through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including the Qods Force, as well as through its Ministry of Intelligence and Security, Tehran was connected to terror plots on nearly every continent. The Iranian regime has also continued to cultivate a growing network of proxy forces in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen, which it funds, trains, and equips to help accomplish its regional security objectives. Although the State Department touts the United States’ campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ and the designation of the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) as critical to success in countering Iran, the regime’s actions in the first half of 2020 suggest that Tehran remains emboldened and that the results of the maximum pressure campaign are mixed, at best. The report also lambasts Iran for providing sanctuary to high-ranking al-Qaeda operatives.
A welcome change in this year’s report is an elevated focus on the threat posed by racially or ethnically motivated terrorists (REMT), particularly white supremacist terrorists. In 2019, there were several high-profile terrorist attacks perpetrated by REMT actors, including in Christchurch, New Zealand; Halle, Germany, and El Paso, Texas. The report notes that numerous European countries experienced a sharp rise in REMT activity, plots, and attacks, while also remarking on the role of social media and the internet in spreading REMT propaganda. And while the attention devoted to white supremacists represents a shift in the mindset of U.S. government counterterrorism officials, the report still does not go into enough depth in describing the transnational nature of the threat and the various nodes that comprise white supremacist extremist networks. The terrorist threat is far from static and to ensure that the United States is able to protect its citizens at home and abroad, Washington must continue to play the essential role of building our partner nation and allies’ capabilities to detect, disrupt, and dismantle global terrorist networks.
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