WASHINGTON - U.S. counterterrorism officials say despite major strides in combating and regaining territory from terror groups like Islamic State and al-Qaida, the terror landscape has grown more complex.
"ISIS, al-Qaida, and their affiliates have proven to be determined, resilient and adaptable," U.S. Coordinator for Counterterrorism Nathan Sales said Wednesday, using an acronym for Islamic State. "They have adjusted to heightened counterterrorism pressure in Iraq, Syria, Somalia and elsewhere."
Sales made the comments in a briefing to reporters on the release of the State Department's 2017 Country Reports on Terrorism, which found that IS and al-Qaida have become more dispersed, turning to the internet to inspire attacks by distant followers, making them less susceptible to conventional military action.
The State Department report says as IS lost territory last year, it continued to shift away from a centralized command and encouraged its sympathizers around the world to use whatever weapons they have at hand against so-called "soft targets." The report says 2017 saw such attacks in Manchester, Barcelona, Sinai, Marawi, New York City and elsewhere.
While terror groups have become more resilient, Sales noted progress in the fight, with the United States and its allies working to expand information security, improve aviation security and enhance law enforcement capabilities.
The U.S. counterterrorism official said the coalition has succeeded in liberating nearly all the territory Islamic State fighters once held in Iraq and Syria, and increased pressure on al-Qaida.
Also in 2017, the total number of terrorist attacks worldwide decreased by 23 percent, and the total number of deaths caused by terrorism decreased by 27 percent. Sales said the main reason for that decrease is that the number of terrorist attacks and resulting deaths plummeted in Iraq.
Still, Sales says there is one country that leads others in supporting terrorism.
"Iran remains the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism and is responsible for intensifying multiple conflicts and undermining U.S. interests in Syria, Yemen, in Iraq, in Bahrain, in Afghanistan and in Lebanon, using a number of proxies and other instruments, such as Lebanese Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force," Sales told reporters Wednesday.
Sales also noted that while al-Qaida has not been in the spotlight as much as in the past, the terror group has been expanding its numbers.
"Al-Qaida is a determined and patient adversary. They have largely remained out of the headlines in recent years as they've been content to let ISIS bear the brunt of the international response. But we shouldn't confuse that period of relative quiet with al-Qaida's abandonment of its capabilities or intention to strike us and our allies."