Terrorism Still Thriving, State Department Says

Four years into the "global war on terror," terrorism appears to be thriving, according to the 2005 edition of the annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" released here Friday by the U.S. State Department.

While the control and reach of al Qaeda, which carried out the spectacular Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, have weakened over the past four years, smaller autonomous groups and individuals that are "extremely difficult to detect or counter" have increasingly moved into the vacuum, according to the 265-page report.

And while its ability to mount "global acts of terrorism" has diminished, "AQ and its affiliates political will has not been undermined" and it remains the most prominent terrorist threat to the United States and its allies, the report stated.

At the same time, Washington’s anti-terrorist campaign was bolstered during 2005 by cooperation from three governments – Sudan, Libya, and Syria – that the State Department itself lists as "state sponsors of terror," according to the report.

In a rare note of public praise and in marked contrast to recent statement by senior George W. Bush administration figures, the State Department noted that Damascus "made efforts to limit the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq."

The report still labels Iran as the "most active" state sponsor of terrorism, citing its support for Hizballah and Palestinian groups and for "insurgents in Iraq" and Tehran’s refusal to hand over al Qaeda officials it claims to have arrested after the Taliban ouster. Other "state sponsors," besides Syria, Libya and Sudan, include Cuba and North Korea.

Iraq itself "remains a key front in the global war on terror," according to the report, but has not yet become "the safe-haven for terrorism that Afghanistan was before September 11," despite efforts by al Qaeda and other predominantly Sunni groups to achieve that goal.

Still, Iraq accounted for nearly one-third of the 11,111 terrorist attacks tallied by the State Department during 2005, and for some 55 percent of the 14,600 people killed as a result of those attacks.

Those global totals were an all-time record; indeed, the total number of incidents cited in the 2004 report was 3,129 – less than a third of the 2005 tally.

But State Department officials were quick to emphasize that they had made critical changes in their methodology in 2005 that necessarily resulted in sharp increases in the number of incidents included in the report. This year’s results, they said, could not be compared with those of previous years.

While past reports were based on acts of "international terrorism" – that is, incidents involving the citizens or territory of two or more countries – the latest report counted all confirmed acts of "terrorism," which it defined as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents."

Nonetheless, the tripling of terrorist incidents was seized on by Amnesty International USA as evidence that the U.S. strategy in its war on terror was failing. "Perhaps the United States government needs to honestly assess if it’s pursuing the best strategy in winning the ‘war on terror,’" said Eric Olson, acting director of AIUSA’s government relations office.

Noting the changes in methodology, Olson added that "the bottom line is the numbers are up. Even more importantly, does a "war on terror" policy that includes holding and torturing people in secret facilities or outsourcing torture, without charge, trial or access to the outside world make us safer? According to today’s report, apparently not."

In fact, the latest report noted the number of terrorist incidents recorded in Iraq in 2005 came to 3,474 – more than twice the number of incidents cited in 2004. Some 8,000 people were killed in this year’s attacks, while another 13,000 were either injured or kidnapped, the report stated.

In Afghanistan, where U.S. forces helped oust the al Qaeda-backed Taliban government in late 2001, slightly more than 1,500 people were killed, injured or kidnapped as a result of nearly 500 terrorist incidents last year, according to the report, which also noted a "marked increase" in the number of suicide bombings in that country in the course of the year.

The increase in suicide bombing was also a global trend, according to the report, which cited last July’s suicide bombings that killed 54 people in London’s transport system – the first time the tactic was used in Europe – as well as suicide attacks in Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Egypt and Indonesia.

Last November’s suicide attacks against luxury hotels in Amman in which nearly 60 people were killed were the most lethal of all those claimed by al Qaeda during 2005, the report said.

Al Qaeda devoted increased attention during 2005 to ideological and propaganda activity and establishing ties with like-minded groups, such as that led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq and a "new generation of Sunni extremists" elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Nonetheless, "what was once a relatively structured network appeared to be a more diffuse worldwide movement of like-minded individuals and small groups, sharing grievances and objectives, but not necessarily organized formally," the report said.

And while U.S.-led efforts to deny the group a foothold in Afghanistan have been "largely successful," it has proved "adaptive and resilient." The report concedes that Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghan border "have been a safe haven" for al Qaeda since the fall of the Taliban and that bringing those areas under the central government’s control "remains an important objective in the global war on terror."

Other "safe havens" for terrorists of concern to Washington include the Trans-Sahara region of North and Northwest Africa where various groups, particularly the Algeria-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat are believed to operate; Somalia, which continues to lack a functioning central government; the Sulawesi/Celebes Sea, which sits astride the maritime boundary between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines; the Caucus, notably Chechnya, Daghestan, North Ossetia, and neighboring areas; and in the Triborder region of South America’s southern cone where "suspected supporters of Islamic terrorist groups, including Hizballah and HAMAS, take advantage of loosely regulated territory and proximity to Muslim communities" in the region.

The report also notes concern about the border regions along Colombia’s periphery as a stronghold for "narcoterrorist" groups with which Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has an "ideological affinity"; Lebanon, whose government "recognizes several terrorist organizations, including Hizballah"; Yemen where "several terrorist organizations continued to maintain a presence"; and the border region between northern Iraq and northeastern Turkey, where a Turkish Kurdish rebel group considered "terrorist" by Washington has long been active.

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.