A Congress in recess received the State Department’s country-by-country annual report on international terrorism today with a warning that sponsorship of terror by Iran and Hezbollah has surged to “a tempo unseen since the 1990s” with attacks spanning three continents.
The assessment comes just a day after an exhaustive, scathing report by an Argentinian prosecutor accusing Iran of planning attacks from Latin American soil.
And as President Obama tried to do in his national security speech last week, Secretary of State John Kerry’s department tried to highlight a weakening al-Qaeda core in Pakistan “as its leaders focus increasingly on survival” while acknowledging that the terror organization has metastasized with active affiliates in North Africa and beyond.
The report noted al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s plunge into Mali, Boko Haram’s continued attacks in Nigeria, and Al-Shabaab’s “asymmetric tactics” after being driven out of some southern population centers in Somalia.
“Suspected [Boko Haram] attackers killed Nigerian government and security officials, Muslim and Christian clerics, journalists, and civilians. Of particular concern to the United States is the emergence of the BH faction known as ‘Ansaru,’ which has close ties to AQIM and has prioritized targeting Westerners – including Americans – in Nigeria,” the report states.
AQIM was “largely limited” to Algeria’s rural areas, the State Department noted, but “have increasingly taken advantage of chaos and rebellion to expand their areas of control and assert autonomy of action.”
While painting a picture echoing Obama’s claim that “the AQ core is on a path to defeat,” a fact sheet accompanying the report notes “recent events in the region have complicated the counterterrorism picture.”
“The dispersal of weapons stocks in the wake of the revolution in Libya, the Tuareg rebellion, and the coup d’état in Mali presented terrorists with new opportunities,” it said.
“AQ affiliates are increasingly setting their own goals and specifying their own targets…we are facing a more decentralized and geographically dispersed terrorist threat,” the State Department continued. “…In the long term, we must build the capabilities of our partners and counter the ideology that continues to incite terrorist violence around the world.”
Obama’s speech, which largely advocated a return to pre-9/11 threat strategy, last week described the new threat as “more diffuse.” The president didn’t mention Iran once in the lengthy counterterrorism strategy address at the National Defense University. In its single mention, he painted Hezbollah as a politically motivated actor. “In some cases, we continue to confront state-sponsored networks like Hezbollah that engage in acts of terror to achieve political goals,” Obama said.
“And while we are vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat, most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based,” the president added.
The State Department recorded terrorist attacks in 85 countries in 2012, with 10 U.S. citizens killed and more than half of all the attacks occurring in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan.
The report walks a distinct political line, including crediting Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government with being “opposed to violent extremism” and tipping a hat to Saudi Arabia for continuing “its long-term counterterrorism strategy to track and halt the activities of terrorists and terrorist financiers, dismantle the physical presence of al-Qa’ida, and impede the ability of militants to operate from or within the Kingdom.”
It’s a bit tougher on Iran, implicating the Islamic Republic in attacks in India, Thailand, Georgia, and Kenya, as well as the plot to murder the Saudi ambassador in Washington. “The thwarted plot demonstrated Iran’s interest in using international terrorism – including in the United States – to further its foreign policy goals,” the State Department said.
“Since the end of the 2006 Israeli-Hizballah conflict, Iran has assisted in rearming Hizballah, in direct violation of UNSCR 1701. Iran has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in support of Hizballah in Lebanon and has trained thousands of Hizballah fighters at camps in Iran. Iran actively supported members of the Houthi tribe in northern Yemen, including activities intended to build military capabilities, which could pose a greater threat to security and stability in Yemen and the surrounding region,” the report continues.
And while the administration touts looming al-Qaeda defeat in Pakistan, the report makes clear that the Sunni terror group has a home and a friend in Shiite Iran.
“Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al-Qa’ida (AQ) members it continued to detain, and refused to publicly identify those senior members in its custody. Iran allowed AQ facilitators Muhsin al-Fadhli and Adel Radi Saqr al-Wahabi al-Harbi to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran, enabling AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and to Syria. Al-Fadhli is a veteran AQ operative who has been active for years. Al-Fadhli began working with the Iran-based AQ facilitation network in 2009 and was later arrested by Iranian authorities. He was released in 2011 and assumed leadership of the Iran-based AQ facilitation network.”
The State Department’s assessment came a day after Alberto Nisman, Special Prosecutor for the 1994 attack on the Argentina Jewish Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires, released a 500-page indictment accusing Tehran of reaching its tentacles deep into several Latin American countries to plan and orchestrate terror attacks.
Eighty-five people were killed in the AMIA suicide bombing. As cardinal in Buenos Aires, Pope Francis led a charge on the 11th anniversary of the attack to discover and bring the attackers to justice. The following year, in 2006, prosecutors accused Iran and Hezbollah of being behind the bombing.
Two candidates running in Iran’s presidential election this year, Mohsen Rezai and Ali Akbar Velayati, stand accused of planning the bombing. Rezai, currently Iran’s secretary of the Expediency Council, is wanted by Interpol in the case.
“This report shows clearly that the 1994 AMIA bombing was not an isolated event, but rather that it was part of a larger and still ongoing scheme by the Iranian regime and its proxies to expand their influence in the Western Hemisphere and threaten U.S. security interests in the region,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said today of the indictment.
“This indictment reaffirms the fact that Iran’s dual use of diplomatic and cultural offices is utilized to deepen its infiltration into the Hemisphere,” she added. “In particular, the indictment implicates the fugitive Mohsen Rabbani, the mastermind behind the AMIA bombing, as the primary coordinator of Iran’s nefarious activities in the region.”
The indictment notes as another example of Iran’s reach the 2010 conviction of two Guyanese men for conspiring to carry out a terrorist attack on JFK airport in New York.
“These are sleeper cells. They have activities you wouldn’t imagine,” Nisman said when he unveiled his indictment, backed up by a massive file of evidence. “Sometimes they die having never received the order to attack.”
Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, invited Nisman to come to Washington “to educate Congress and this administration on the real threats that Iran and its proxies pose to the U.S. and our hemisphere.”
“I urge this administration and all responsible nations in the region to dedicate their law enforcement and counterterrorism efforts to rooting out this grave threat once and for all,” she added.