A State Department report Thursday said core elements of al-Qaida hiding in Pakistan remain the foremost terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland. The annual report, covering 2009, cited a shift in terrorist activity from the Middle East to South Asia.
The Congressionally-mandated global terrorism report contained few surprises, with no change from the previous year in its listing of Iran, Cuba, Sudan and Syria as state sponsors of terrorism.
But officials said that for the first year since it began compiling the statistics, more incidents of terrorism occurred in South Asia than the Middle East.
Russ Travers, Deputy Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told reporters that of the just under 11-thousand terrorism incidents counted in 2009, 75 per cent occurred in those two regions.
"In the Middle East, what we've see over the last three or four years is a pretty substantial decline in the total number of incidents," said Russ Travers. "And in South Asia, incident totals have crept up, so that for the first year - last year - since we've been doing this, South Asia has proven to be more violent than the Middle East."
The report defines terrorist acts as pre-meditated, politically-motivated violence against non-combatants.
Both the total number of attacks, and the nearly 16,000 fatalities attributed to them last year, were down slightly from 2008 levels.
A sharp decline in the terrorism toll in Iraq was countered by a big increase in Afghanistan, where both attacks and related casualties tripled.
State Department Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism Daniel Benjamin said Osama Bin-laden's core al-Qaida terror group in Pakistan remained the foremost security threat to the United States and its interests.
He called the group adaptable and resilient but said it encountered notable setbacks last year.
"The group remained under great pressure in Pakistan due to Pakistani military operations aimed at eliminating militant strongholds in the federally-administrated tribal areas," said Daniel Benjamin. "Al-Qaida faced a number of significant leadership losses, and as a result found it more difficult to raise money, train recruits and plan attacks outside of the region."
Benjamin said al-Qaida has tried to encourage its regional affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and Somalia to pursue a global agenda.
He said the July 11 bombings against soccer fans in Kampala, claimed by the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab militia, appears to be the first terror act the group has staged outside of Somalia.
The list of countries named as state sponsors of terrorism and subject to harsh U.S. sanctions, remained limited to Iran, Cuba, Sudan and Syria. But Benjamin said Eritrea and Venezuela were cited for not being fully cooperative in anti-terrorism efforts.
North Korea was removed from the state sponsors list in 2008 after not having been linked to any recent terror acts.
However Benjamin said the United States is looking into recent reports that Pyongyang has tried to ship weapons to the Afghan Taliban and to Hamas and Hezbollah in the Middle East.
"We've seen those reports," he said. "We are looking into them. The Secretary [Clinton] and others in the administration have been clear that if we find that North Korea is indeed sponsoring terrorism, obviously we will revisit the issue of the lifting as a state sponsor."
Benjamin cautioned against an expectation of early action on North Korea, calling the review process laborious.
U.S. officials have termed the sinking in March, attributed to North Korea, of the South Korean navy ship the Cheonon a military-on-military act by two countries technically at war, rather than a terrorist incident.