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July 31, 2012

US: Iran Remains Leading State Sponsor of Terrorism

by Scott Stearns

STATE DEPARTMENT — The United States says Iran remains the world's biggest state-sponsor of terrorism. The annual U.S. report on global terrorism expresses concern about increasing attacks in Nigeria and Pakistan.

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin said the international community is increasingly alert to Iranian threats and is working to disrupt them.

"We are deeply concerned about Iran's activities on its own through the IRGC Quds Force, and also together with Hezbollah as they pursue destabilizing activities around the globe," said Benjamin.

The annual terrorism report says a September plot last year to kill Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington "underscored anew Iran's interest in using international terrorism - including in the United States - to further its foreign policy goals." It says Iran is training Hamas and Taliban militants in Afghanistan, as well as allowing al-Qaida to use its territory to funnel materiel and personnel to South Asia.

Benjamin said last year's death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and other key operatives put their terror network "on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse."

"We saw millions of citizens throughout the Middle East advance peaceful public demands for change without any reference to al-Qaida's incendiary world view. This upended the group's long-standing claim that change in this region would only come through violence," said Benjamin. "These men and women have underscored in the most powerful fashion the lack of influence al-Qaida exerts over the central political issues in key Muslim-majority nations."

But Benjamin says al-Qaida supporters remain adaptable and have shown resilience in conducting regional attacks that constitute a serious threat to U.S. national security.

Among al-Qaida affiliates, the report says al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula represented a particularly serious threat last year, taking control of territory in southern Yemen and exploiting unrest in that country to advance plots against regional and Western interests.

The report says that in the Sahel, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb gained financially in 2011 through ransoms from kidnappings, while taking advantage of instability in Libya and Mali.

In the Horn of Africa, the report says, al-Shabaab pursued a diverse set of targets, demonstrating the willingness and ability to conduct attacks outside of Somalia. It says the group was weakened last year as a result of the African Union Mission in Somalia, and Kenyan and Ethiopian military offensives that forced it to retreat from Mogadishu.

Benjamin said Nigeria experienced a steady increase in terrorist attacks in 2011, particularly in the northern states of Borno, Yobe, Bauchi, Gombe, Plateau, and Kaduna. The increased terrorism also extended to the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja, with Boko Haram militants killing government and security officials, Muslim and Christian clerics, and numerous civilians.

"We've been engaging with the Nigerian government, in particular, at the highest levels to move them toward greater engagement with communities that are vulnerable to extremist violence by addressing the underlying socio-economic problems in the north," said Benjamin.

In Pakistan, Benjamin said, safe havens remain for terrorist groups seeking to conduct domestic, regional and global attacks, including the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba.

"We've urged Pakistan to take more action against Lashkar-e-Tayyiba. We would certainly like to see more progress on the trial regarding the atrocities in Mumbai. It remains a major concern on the terrorist landscape, without a doubt," he said.

Benjamin said there has been an increase in the number of al-Qaida operatives fighting against the Syrian government, but that the United States believes "the overwhelming majority of the opposition in Syria is composed of ordinary Syrians who are tired of their dictatorship."

Benjamin said that as long as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains in power and the country's political transition is blocked, "the danger grows of more foreign fighters, including extremists of the al-Qaida type infiltrating Syria."