By Elise Labott
While the killings of Osama bin Laden and other top al Qaeda operatives have weakened the terror network, the rise of groups affiliated al Qaeda in the Middle East and Africa presents a serious threat to U.S. security, the State Department's annual terrorism report warns.
"As al-Qaida's core has gotten weaker, we have seen the rise of affiliated groups around the world. Among these al-Qaida affiliates, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) represents a particularly serious threat," the survey of terrorism worldwide warned.
The overview of terrorism and terrorist groups around the world found that bin Laden's death last year in a raid on his compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan, by U.S. Navy Seals, coupled with the killing of top al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, "puts the network on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse." The report says the June death of Iyas Kashmiri and the August killing of Atiya Abdul Rahman, al Qaeda's second-in-command after bin Laden's death, are among the top blows dealt to the organization in Pakistan.
But it warns that "despite blows in western Pakistan, al-Qaida, its affiliates, and its adherents remain adaptable. They have shown resilience; retain the capability to conduct regional and transnational attacks; and, thus, constitute an enduring and serious threat to our national security."
The report says that as a result of instability stemming from the Arab Spring uprisings, "the Near East region remained one of the most active in terms of terrorist activity in 2011."
"Many countries across the region experienced increased instability as a result of the events of the Arab Awakening, and some terrorists attempted to exploit this situation," it warned. "Multiple terrorist organizations displayed the capability and intent to strike at targets across the region and to garner influence in states undergoing political transitions."
Loose munitions from Libyan stocks and the threat of terrorists obtaining man-portable air defense systems (ManPADS) posed a "significant risk to regional security and civil aviation," the report warned.
It singled out al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as "representing a particularly serious threat," warning that by the end of last year, the group "had taken control of territory in southern Yemen and was exploiting unrest in that country to advance plots against regional and Western interests."
AQAP claimed responsibility for the attempted "underwear bomb" attack on a Detroit-bound passenger airliner in 2009. And in 2010, it said it was behind a plot to send two packages containing bombs hidden in printer cartridges to two Chicago synagogues. The packages were discovered in the United Kingdom and Dubai after Saudi officials provided a tip about the plot.
Political instability in Yemen, the report found, reduced the ability of the government there to address potential terrorist havens outside the capital, which allowed AQAP and other extremist groups to expand their influence in Yemen. Although AQAP suffered significant losses in 2011 from U.S.-trained and equipped counterterrorism forces, including the deaths of AQAP spokesman Anwar al-Awlaki, Samir Khan, Ammar al-Wa'ili and hundreds of militants and their commanders, the group has continued to carry out attacks.
The departure of U.S. troops in Iraq has challenged counterterrorism efforts. Although Iraqi forces have made progress combating al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the group "remained capable of large-scale coordinated attacks and conducted numerous high-profile suicide and car bombings on government and civilian targets, aiming to increase tensions among Iraq's diverse ethnic and sectarian elements and undercut public confidence in the government's capacity to provide security."
By the end of the year, the group was "believed to be extending its reach into Syria and seeking to exploit the popular uprising against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad."
The report also found a growing terrorist presence throughout North and East Africa. In the Horn of Africa, it said, "Al-Shabaab remained in control of much of southern and central Somalia, however, providing a permissive environment for al-Qaida operatives to conduct training and terrorist planning with other sympathetic violent extremists, including foreign fighters." It found that the capability of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government and Somali local and regional authorities to "prevent and preempt Al-Shabaab terrorist attacks remained limited."
The report cited more than 1,000 deaths from the group's attacks, including a string of armed assaults in May that killed more than 120 people, a June attack on African Union Mission in Somalia peacekeepers that killed 13, and an October vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attack on a government compound in Mogadishu that killed about 70. During last year's drought across the Horn of Africa, the group also prevented the delivery of humanitarian aid, which the United Nations said worsened a famine.
But it warned that Al-Shabaab "pursued a diverse set of targets, demonstrating that it had both the willingness and ability to conduct attacks outside of Somalia" and that the group's leadership "remained actively interested in attacking U.S. and Western interests in the region" and hosted al Qaeda-affiliated foreign fighters at training camps for international recruits.
In Africa's Sahel region, the report found that "al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), historically the weakest of the al-Qaida affiliates, saw its coffers filled in 2011 with kidnapping ransoms - a practice that other terrorist groups are also using to considerable advantage. These resources, together with AQIM's efforts to take advantage of the instability in Libya and Mali, have raised concern about this group's trajectory." The report said AQIM remained a "significant security threat" in Algeria and maintained encampments in remote parts of northern Mali over the past year as a base for its activities in neighboring countries.
In June, President Obama informed lawmakers of U.S. military actions in Somalia and Yemen, two nations that have seen significant terrorist activity and civil unrest.
The president stated, "In a limited number of cases, the U.S. military has taken direct action in Somalia against members of al Qaeda, including those who are also members of Al-Shabaab, who are engaged in efforts to carry out terrorist attacks against the United States and our interests."
Obama said that U.S. forces have been working with Yemen to dismantle al Qaeda's powerful affiliate there.
"Our joint efforts have resulted in direct action against a limited number of AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) operatives and senior leaders in that country who posed a terrorist threat to the United States and our interests," he wrote.
The report noted Boko Haram, a group of militants in Nigeria believed to have ties to al Qaeda, and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, where "a number of loosely knit militant groups have formed ... with some claiming ties and allegiance to al-Qaida."
The report labeled Iran "the world's leading sponsor of terrorist activity," providing funds and support "for terrorist and militant groups throughout the Middle East."
"Iran remained an active state sponsor of terrorism in 2011 and increased its terrorist-related activity," the report said.
Tehran acted "likely in an effort to exploit the uncertain political conditions resulting from the Arab Spring, as well as in response to perceived increasing external pressure on Tehran."
A plot uncovered in September to kill Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States "underscored anew Iran's interest in using international terrorism - including in the United States - to further its foreign policy goals," the report said.
In addition to providing arms and training to militant groups such as Hamas and other Palestinian extremist groups, as well as Hezbollah, the report said that Iran's Revolutionary Guards had provided training to Taliban militants in Afghanistan and were allowing al Qaeda to use its territory to funnel funds and operatives into Southeast Asia.
A statistical annex prepared by the National Counterterrorism Center, an arm of the US intelligence community, reported that the overall number of terrorist attacks worldwide fell to 10,283 last year from 11,641 in 2010.
The number of deaths from terrorist attacks dropped last year to 12,533 from 13,193 in 2010, the lowest level since 2005.