The U.S. State Department released its annual Country Reports on Terrorism late in June, to—as is often the case with this yearly summary to Congress—little press coverage. Nevertheless, according to the department, the United States and its allies “made major strides to defeat and degrade international terrorist organizations.” Advances included:
- The final conquest of the remaining territorial “caliphate” of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria;
- Killing ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi;
- Designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—including its overseas terrorist arm, the Qods (Jerusalem) Force—as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO);
- Elimination of a rising al-Qaeda leader, Hamza bin Laden, son of the group’s founder Osama bin Laden. The latter authorized the attacks that murdered nearly 3,000 Americans and visitors in New York City’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and aboard United Airlines Flight 93 over Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001. Members of U.S. special forces units killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011; and
- Persuading several Western European and South American countries to join Washington “in designating Iran-backed Hezbollah as a terrorist group in its entirety.” Hezbollah is the Lebanese Shi’ite “Party of God,” a militia and political movement that also serves as an international terrorist surrogate for Tehran. It now is a leading element in Lebanon’s government.
Terrorist designations are intended to make it more difficult for individuals or groups so identified to use global financial institutions, trade, travel and avoid potential criminal investigation and prosecution. Joining Iran as designated state sponsors of international terrorism were North Korea, Syria and Sudan.
Trump administration efforts through the Countering Transnational Terrorism Forum (CTTF)—launched by Washington in 2018—“brought together law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and financial practitioners from more than 25 countries to disrupt Iranian terrorist activities and networks,” according to the report.
The review labeled Hezbollah “an Iran-backed terrorist group that is based in Lebanon but has a truly global reach.” Referring to Washington’s diplomatic campaign against the movement, Ambassador Nathan A. Sales, coordinator of State’s counterterrorism bureau, noted that in 2019 the United Kingdom, Argentina, Paraguay and Kosovo joined the U.S. push to reject “the false distinction between its ‘military wing’ and a purportedly ‘political wing.’”
“Despite these successes,” State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism said in the Foreword to its 2019 Country Reports, dangerous threats “persisted around the world. Even as ISIS lost its leader and territory, the group adapted to continue to fight from its affiliates across the globe and by inspiring followers to commit attacks.”
ISIS-affiliated groups were active across Africa and beyond. ISIS-inspired attacks on three churches and three hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, 2019 killed at least 290 people, including five Americans, and wounded more than 450.
Iran’s theocratic police state “and its proxies continued to plot and commit terrorist attacks on a global scale,” the report stated. “In the past, Tehran has spent as much as $700 million per year to support terrorist groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas [the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement], though its ability to provide financial support in 2019 was constrained by crippling U.S. sanctions.”
According to State, in recent years the mullahs’ regime “was directly involved in plotting terrorism through its IRGC and Ministry of Intelligence and Security,” including plots in North and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. It also continued to permit an al-Qaeda support network to operate in Iran, “sending money and fighters to conflict zones in Afghanistan and Syria” and still allowed al-Qaeda members to live in the country. “Finally, the Iranian regime continued to foment violence, both directly and through proxies, in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.”
Tehran’s actions included targeting “some of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s most important oil-processing facilities,” “active involvement of the IRGC-QF in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, the latter in support of the Assad regime. Through the IRGC-QF, Iran continued its support to several U.S.-designated terrorist groups, providing funding, training, weapons, and equipment.
“Among the groups receiving support from Iran are Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, Kata’ib Hizballah (KH) in Iraq, and al-Ashtar Brigades in Bahrain. Iran also provided weapons and support to Shia militant groups in Iraq, to the Houthis in Yemen, and to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Al-Qaeda’s Still Active
“In December, KH launched a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base hosting U.S. and Coalition forces, killing one American civilian contractor and wounding several U.S. and Iraqi service members. In an immediate response to that attack, the United States carried out precision strikes against five targets associated with KH in Iraq and Syria.”
Though pursued by the United States and its allies, al-Qaeda and affiliates “remained resilient.” Al Shabaab in Somalia, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin in the Sahel and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham/al-Nusrah Front in Syria were “among the world’s most active and dangerous terrorist groups.
In the United States, a member of the Royal Saudi Air Force being trained at Pensacola Naval Air Station, killed three people and wounded eight. “Before the shooting, the gunman had coordinated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”
State’s related Country Reports on Human Rights, released earlier this year, noted that at home, Iran’s rulers crushed widespread protests in November sparked by a fuel price increase, killing approximately 1,500 people and arresting nearly 9,000. “Executions for crimes not meeting the international legal standard of ‘most serious crimes’ and without fair trails … including juvenile offenders” and “numerous reports of unlawful killings, forced disappearance, and torture by government agents, systematic use of arbitrary detention and imprisonment” also characterizing the country’s rule by velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the [clerical] jurist).
In 2019, Hezbollah also “continued its long history of activity in the Western Hemisphere, including its use of supporters and financiers who operate in the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of South America, where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet.” Easing the group’s efforts, “many Latin American countries have porous borders, limited law enforcement capabilities, and established smuggling routes. Commercial hubs in the TBA and Panama remained regional nodes for money laundering and vulnerable to terrorist financing.”
Cuba and Venezuela “continued to provide permissive environments for terrorists.”
In Africa, al-Qaeda-related al-Shabaab “retained safe haven, access to recruits and resources, and de facto control over large parts of Somalia, through which it moves freely and launched … attacks in neighboring Kenya.”
Dictatorships Use Terrorism as an Excuse
ISIS-West Africa, a Boko Haram splinter, and Boko Haram, “continued to conduct attacks against civilians, government, and security forces, which resulted in deaths, injuries [and] abductions” in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin. In Nigeria, such assaults “have displaced more than two million people and left roughly 10 million in need of humanitarian assistance.”
In Asia, “multiple suicide bombings in the Philippines were a new phenomenon for the region.”
But “civil society organizations expressed concern that some governments in the region used terrorism as a pretext to target religious minorities and human rights activists. The Chinese government’s repressive approach to counterterrorism disregards human and relies heavily on mass surveillance, censorship, and mass internment of religious and ethnic minorities. … The Chinese government has detained more than one million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other members of minority groups in internment camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, using counterterrorism as a pretext.”
The report said that Europe continued to face many ongoing terrorist threats in 2019. These came from U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations, foreign terrorist fighters returning from Iraq and Syria, homegrown terrorists, and Iran-backed terrorists. “Despite the total loss of its geographic territory, ISIS continued to project its influence by fomenting attacks against symbolic European targets and public spaces and recruiting from European countries.”
In Turkey—NATO’s troublesome southeastern European member—”terrorist groups espousing a range of extremist and nationalist ideologies, such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front, continued to plot against police and military targets … and raise funds throughout the rest of Europe.”
State’s report also mentioned “the threat posed by racially or ethnically motivated terrorism (REMT), particularly white supremacist terrorism.” This continued a trend that began in 2015 and last year featured “numerous deadly REMT attacks around the world … including in Christchurch, New Zealand; Halle, Germany; and El Paso, Texas.”