The State Department’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism states that the number of fatalities from terrorist attacks increased 60% from 2012 to 2013 and the overall number of attacks increased 40%. The uptick is attributable to a rise in terrorism in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and the Philippines.
There were 9,707 terrorist attacks last year, killing almost 18,000 people and injuring over 32,000. Approximately 3,000 people were seized as hostages or kidnapped by terrorists. The number of attacks doubled in Iraq and Pakistan also saw an increase of about 37%.
Three of the four designated state sponsors of terrorism are Islamic (Iran, Syria and Sudan). So are seven of the top 10 deadliest terrorist organizations: The Taliban, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (also known as ISIS), Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement in the Philippines.
The State Department says that Al-Qaeda affiliates are increasingly relying upon crime to raise money, such as credit card fraud, extortion and holding innocents for ransom. Donors in the Gulf are also sustaining Al-Qaeda.
The report also notes that Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s influence over the affiliates is decreasing. For example, his orders to avoid collateral damage have been “routinely disobeyed.” Al-Qaeda’ mass murdering of Muslims and overall persecution is the single greatest factor contributing to Al-Qaeda’s fall in popularity.
Al-Qaeda is also splintering due to power struggles and differences over tactics. Al-Qaeda had two affiliates operating in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS). A rivalry began last summer, when ISIS announced that it had taken Jabhat al-Nusra into its ranks. Zawahiri intervened on the side of Jabhat al-Nusra.
The tensions between the two groups in Syria turned violent earlier this year and Zawahiri declared that ISIS is not part of his organization and condemned the group in February. Al-Qaeda spoke out against the “sedition” of ISIS and “the shedding of protected blood.”
On April 9, nine terrorist leaders in Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Iran endorsed the “Khorasan Pledge” announcing their defection from Al-Qaeda to ISIS. The statement basically accused Al-Qaeda of being too moderate:
“[Al-Qaeda] did not have any courage to enforce judgments over those who disobey sharia, under the pretext of avoiding a clash with people due to their inability and incapacity, although they enforced in secret more than they did out in the open,” it said.
Iran remains the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world and its accelerated involvement in terrorism that began in 2012 is continuing. The State Department validated reports of Iranian weapons shipments to militants in Yemen and Bahrain last year.
Iran also continues to support Al-Qaeda, despite the two being sworn enemies and on opposite sides in the battlefields of Syria. The report says Iran will not identify the Al-Qaeda operatives it has detained and continues to permit two Al-Qaeda leaders, Muhsin al-Fadhli and Abdel Radi Saqr al-Wahab al-Harb, to oversee a “core facilitation pipeline” through Iran to Syria and Southeast Asia.
The State Department assessment did not say that al-Fadhli moved to Syria in mid-2013, as an Arab media report claimed. It seems counter-intuitive for Iran to help Al-Qaeda operate in Syria, where it is fighting Iranian allies. This is part of a sophisticated political strategy to position the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad as the lesser of two evils.
In addition to the four state sponsors of terrorism, the State Department listed 13 safe havens for terrorists. These are areas where instability and poor governance allow terrorists to assemble.
There are three safe havens in Africa: Somalia, Mali and the Trans-Sahara. This is where Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the al-Mulathamun Battalion and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa are able to operate.
In Southeast Asia, terrorists are congregating in the southern Philippines and the islands in the Sulawesi Sea. Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are based here.
The four safe havens in the Middle East are Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Yemen. These are the playgrounds for ISIS, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The report did not specify any groups in Libya like Ansar al-Sharia.
The two havens of South Asia are Afghanistan and Pakistan, enabling Al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, the Afghan and Pakistani Talibans, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Lashkar-I-Jhangvi and others.
The only two havens in the Western hemisphere are Colombia and Venezuela. The terrorist groups operating there include the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN) and Hezbollah.
Al-Qaeda’s command-and-control may be getting pummeled and the group may be fracturing into more “extreme” and “moderate” factions, but the statistics show this has not led to a decrease in terrorism. In fact, it sharply increased last year.
The report shows that Islamist terrorism is not dependent upon one group. If Al-Qaeda was extinguished tomorrow, replacements would arise. By focusing on the individual group of Al-Qaeda, we are focusing on a manifestation of the ideological problem—not on the problem itself.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.