WASHINGTON - Terror attacks and terror-related deaths trended downward last year although efforts to degrade the Islamic State terror group as well as Iran's network of state-sponsored terror groups did little to diminish their capabilities.
In its annual report on global terrorism released Wednesday, the U.S. State Department said worldwide terror attacks fell by nine percent from 2015 to 2016, while the number of deaths dipped 13 percent.
But American officials cautioned IS remained “the most capable terrorist organization globally in 2016,” helping to drive a more than 20-percent increase in attacks in Iraq compared to 2015.
They also warned IS continued to use its own operatives while exploiting ungoverned spaces in Libya, Somalia, Yemen, northeastern Nigeria, parts of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
“ISIS was responsible for more attacks and death than any other perpetrator group in 2016,” said Justin Siberell, the State Department's acting coordinator for counterterrorism, using one of the many acronyms for the terror group.
“Attacks outside ISIS territorial strongholds in Iraq and Syria were an increasingly important part of ISIS’ 2016 terrorism campaign,” he added.
On Capitol Hill, senators of both parties expressed cautious optimism that progress is being made in the fight against IS, after a closed-door briefing by top administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
“There’s a whole different kind of effort that is underway,” Republican Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said. “There’s just a lot more clarity, a lot more focus on annihilation [of IS].
“There’s a renewed energy, renewed focus, and they are not playing around. Anybody that listened to that [briefing] understands they are all about killing every ISIS member they can get a hold of,” added Corker, of Tennessee.
“I think there is clear progress,” Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey said. “A lot of tough fighting ahead. But I am cautiously optimistic, based upon what I heard [at the briefing].”
'A worldwide threat'
Like IS, State Department officials warned the al-Qaida terror group and its regional affiliates also found ways to take advantage of ineffective governments across Africa and the Middle East “to remain a significant worldwide threat.”
Al-Qaida's Yemen affiliate, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, in particular, has benefited from the ongoing conflict there “by significantly expanding its presence in the southern and eastern governorates,” the State Department report warned.
The report also concluded al-Qaida continued to benefit from a willingness by the Iranian government to look the other way.
“Since at least 2009, Iran has allowed AQ (al-Qaida) facilitators to operate a core facilitation pipeline through the country, enabling AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and Syria,” the report stated, citing just one of several concerns the United States has about what it continues to call the world foremost state sponsor of terrorism.
The report also raised concerns about Iran's continued support for Shia terror groups in Iraq as well as for Lebanon-based Hezbollah, described by the State Department's Siberell as an “extremely sophisticated” terror group with a global network.
Along with Iran, Hezbollah operatives and fighters have been active in bolstering the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, despite suffering heavy casualties.
“There is a mixed picture on whether that has strengthened or weakened the group,” Siberell said. “They maintain a significant military capability that is being brought to bear.”
Over 11,000 terror attacks last year
According to the State Department report, 2016 was the second year in a row the world saw fewer attacks and fewer deaths due to terrorism.
Citing data collected by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, the report said there were more than 11,000 terror attacks last year resulting in more than 25,600 deaths.
More than 100 countries were victims of terror attacks, but the majority took place in just five, including Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, the report said.
VOA's Michael Bowman contributed to this report from Capitol Hill.