State Department Report on Terrorism
On November 1, U.S. Counterterrorism Coordinator Ambassador Nathan Sales outlined terrorism trends at the launch of a new report. “In 2017 and 2018, we liberated 110,000 square kilometers of territory in Syria and Iraq, and freed roughly 7.7 million men, women, and children from ISIS’s brutal rule. Those successes laid the groundwork for continued action in 2019, including the total destruction of the physical caliphate and last week’s raid that resulted in the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” he said. “Foreign terrorist fighters headed home or traveled to third countries to join ISIS branches there, and homegrown terrorists – people who have never set foot in Syria or Iraq – also carried out attacks. We saw ISIS-directed or inspired attacks outside the core in places like Paris, Quetta, and Berlin, among others,” Sales recounted. The following are excerpts from Ambassador Sales’ remarks and the country reports, which major attacks and efforts to combat terrorism.
Ambassador Nathan Sales
The Country Reports on Terrorism offers the most detailed look that the Federal Government offers on the global terrorist landscape. Today, I’m going to highlight three key trends that we saw in the 2018 report.
First, in 2018, the United States and our coalition partners nearly completed the destruction of the so-called ISIS caliphate while increasing pressure on the terror group’s global networks. Second, the Islamic Republic of Iran remained the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism, and the administration continued to subject the regime to unrelenting diplomatic and economic pressure. Third, the world saw a rise in racially or ethnically motivated terrorism – a disturbing trend that the administration highlighted in our 2018 National Counterterrorism Strategy.
In addition to these three broad trends, I will also highlight some important steps the United States and our partners took in 2018 to counter terrorist threats.
Before getting into the report itself, however, I’d like to give you some overall numbers. In 2018, most terrorist incidents around the world were concentrated in three regions: the Middle East, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. These three regions experienced about 85 percent of all terrorist incidents. The 10 countries with the greatest number of terrorist incidents in 2018 contributed 75 percent of the overall number.
And as for those three broad trends, first, the United States and our partners made major strides to defeat and degrade ISIS. In 2017 and 2018, we liberated 110,000 square kilometers of territory in Syria and Iraq, and freed roughly 7.7 million men, women, and children from ISIS’s brutal rule. Those successes laid the groundwork for continued action in 2019, including the total destruction of the physical caliphate and last week’s raid that resulted in the death of Abu Bakr al-Bahgdadi.
As the false caliphate collapsed, we saw ISIS’s toxic ideology continue to spread around the globe in 2018. ISIS recognized new regional affiliates in Somalia and in East Asia. Foreign terrorist fighters headed home or traveled to third countries to join ISIS branches there, and homegrown terrorists – people who have never set foot in Syria or Iraq – also carried out attacks. We saw ISIS-directed or inspired attacks outside the core in places like Paris, Quetta, and Berlin, among others. Many of these attacks targeted soft targets and public spaces, like hotels, tourist resorts, and cultural sites.
Having destroyed the so-called caliphate, we are now taking the fight to ISIS branches around the world. In 2018, the State Department sanctioned eight ISIS affiliates, including in Southeast Asia, West Africa, and North Africa.
Second, in 2018, the Islamic Republic of Iran retained its standing as the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism, as it has every year since 1984. The regime, often through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, has spent nearly a billion dollars a year to support terrorist groups that serve as its proxies and promote its malign influence around the region – groups like Hizballah and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
But the Iranian threat is not confined to the Middle East; it’s truly global. In 2018, that threat reached Europe in a big way. In January, Germany investigated 10 suspected IRGC Quds Force operatives. In the summer, authorities in Belgium, France, and Germany thwarted an Iranian plot to bomb a political rally near Paris. In October, an Iranian operative was arrested for planning an assassination in Denmark. And in December, Albania expelled two Iranian officials for plotting terrorist attacks there.
Countering Iran-backed terrorism is and has been a top priority for this administration. That’s why in December of 2018 we hosted the first ever Western Hemisphere Counterterrorism Ministerial to focus on threats close to home, particularly the threats posed by Hizballah, Iran’s terrorist proxy.
In addition, to give a sneak preview of one of the highlights we’ll see in next year’s report, in April of this year, the State Department designated Iran’s IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization. This was the first time we’ve ever so designated a state actor.
Third, in 2018, we saw an alarming rise in racially or ethnically motivated terrorism, including here in the United States with the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Similar to Islamist terrorism, this breed of terrorism is inspired by a hateful, supremacist, and intolerant ideology. Make no mistake; we will confront all forms of terrorism no matter what ideology inspires it.
In 2018, the administration’s National Counterterrorism Strategy specifically highlighted racially and ethnically motivated terrorism as a top national security priority. This was the first such strategy to ever address this threat.
In addition, here at the State Department, we are combatting this threat with our Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE, authorities. We’re using the Strong Cities Network to address radicalization and recruitments. In addition, we’re working with tech companies to counter racially or ethnically motivated extremism by developing positive narratives and building resilience to hateful messages.
Let me move on to describe some of the key lines of effort we’ve pursued to protect our homeland and to protect our interest from these threats.
We made major strides to defeat and degrade terrorist groups in 2018, and I’d like to draw your attention to three particular lines of effort: securing our borders and defeating terrorist travel; second, using sanctions to cut off money; and third, the disposition of captured foreign terrorist fighters, or FTFs.
Restricting terrorist travel remained a top priority last year. We continue to pursue arrangements to share terrorist watch lists with other countries pursuant to Homeland Security Presidential Directive 6, or HSPD 6. We signed a number of new arrangements in 2018 and now have over 70 on the books. In addition, our border security platform, known as PISCES – that stands for Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System – grew to include 227 ports of entry in 23 countries. Our partners use it every day to screen more than 300,000 travelers.
Second, the United States continued to use our sanctions and designations authorities to deny terrorists the resources they need to commit attacks. In all, the State Department completed 51 terrorism designations in 2018, and the Treasury Department likewise completed 157 terrorism designations. Significant State Department designations in 2018 include ISIS-West Africa, al-Qaida affiliates in Syria such as the al-Nusrah Front, and JNIM, which is al-Qaida’s affiliate in Mali. We also designated Jawad Nasrallah, the son of Hizballah’s leader, who recruited individuals to carry out terrorist attacks against Israel.
Third, as the President has made clear, all countries have an obligation to repatriate and prosecute their FTFs for any crimes they’ve committed. The United States has led by example by repatriating our own citizens. To date, we’ve brought back and prosecuted six adult fighters or ISIS supporters, and we’ve also returned 14 children who are now being rehabilitated and reintegrated. In addition, the United States has facilitated the returns of hundreds of FTFs and family members to their countries of origin while also sharing evidence that our soldiers captured on the battlefield to enable effective prosecutions. Again, we urge other countries to follow our lead and take their citizens back.
Overview: The United States and Algeria enjoyed close counterterrorism cooperation and had regular dialogue to discuss and coordinate counterterrorism efforts, exchange expertise, and strengthen the existing counterterrorism partnership. Algeria continued its significant efforts to prevent terrorist activity within its borders. Algerian armed forces and internal security forces published figures to show the continued pressure on terrorist groups, indicated by the considerable increase in numbers of terrorists surrendered, compared with 2017, and a comparable number of arms caches and hideouts that were destroyed in sweeping operations. Some analysts assessed that continuing losses have substantially reduced the capacities of terrorist groups to operate within Algeria. Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), AQIM-allied groups, and ISIS’s Algeria branch – including elements of the local group known as Jund al-Khilafah in Algeria (or Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria) – remained in the country but were under significant pressure. These groups aspired to impose their interpretations of Islamic law in the region and to attack Algerian security services, local government targets, and Western commercial interests. Terrorist activity in Libya, Mali, and Tunisia – as well as human, weapons, and narcotics trafficking – contributed to the overall threat, particularly in border regions.
Algeria actively supported the effort to counter ISIS through counter-messaging and capacity-building programs with neighboring states. Algeria is a member of the GCTF and co-chaired the GCTF’s West Africa Region Capacity-Building Working Group with Canada in 2018.
Overview: Bahraini Shia militants remained a threat to security forces, though there were no successful major terrorist attacks in 2018. The Bahraini government made gains in detecting and containing terrorist threats from Bahraini Shia terrorists, often backed by Iran, and from ISIS sympathizers. Bahrain regularly experienced low-level violence between predominantly Bahraini Shia youths, who used Molotov cocktails and other homemade devices, and the predominantly Sunni security forces in mostly Shia villages. The Government of Bahrain is a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and supported the Coalition’s diplomatic efforts and military operations by hosting the Fifth Fleet and Naval Central Command. Bahrain held parliamentary and municipal council elections on November 24 and December 1, respectively; both were peaceful. Political relations between the Sunni-led government and Shia-dominated opposition remained tense, exacerbated by a law ratified in June, preventing Bahrainis who had been members of now-banned political societies from contesting the elections. Sustained political tension, attributable to discrimination against the Shia majority, could increase the risk of radicalization to violence.
Overview: Egypt is a counterterrorism partner of the United States, a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, and a member of the GCTF. Attacks in mainland Egypt increased in 2018 while the number of attacks in Sinai diminished compared with 2017. However, from July 2018 forward the trend in Sinai was fewer but deadlier attacks. Attacks that occurred focused largely on security forces and the Christian community, civilians, and, to a lesser extent, foreign tourists. With the February launch of Operation Sinai 2018, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s government and the Egyptian Security Forces (ESF) continued a concerted effort to fight terrorist groups in North Sinai, but terrorist attacks continued in both North Sinai and mainland Egypt. ISIS branches and networks, including ISIS-Sinai Province (ISIS-SP) and an ISIS network in mainland Egypt, posed the most significant threats of terrorism. U.S.-designated terrorist groups Harakat Sawa’d Misr and Liwa al-Thawra also posed a continued threat, but with diminished activities compared with previous years.
Overview: By the end of 2018, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) were in nominal control of all territories liberated from ISIS. Reverting to clandestine tactics following its loss of territory, ISIS increasingly resorted to targeted assassinations of police and local political leaders, along with IEDs and shooting attacks directed at both government and government-associated civilian targets. ISIS sought to reestablish support among populations in Ninewa, Kirkuk, Diyala, Salah ad Din, and Anbar provinces, in particular. Although ISIS maintained the capability to conduct deadly terrorist attacks in Iraq, these attacks resulted in fewer casualties in 2018 than in 2017. The Iran-backed, U.S.-designated FTO, Kata’ib Hizballah, continued to operate in Iraq during 2018. Iran-aligned Iraqi militias instigated violent and destabilizing activities in Iraq and within the region.
In 2018, the Departments of State and the Treasury designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorists several affiliates of Iran-backed Iraqi militias outside the control of the government. The Kurdistan Workers Party (commonly known as the PKK), a terrorist group headquartered in the mountains of northern Iraq, continued to conduct terrorist attacks in Turkey. Iraq continued its cooperation with the United States and the international community to counter terrorism and dismantle ISIS’s financial networks. Iraq continued to make progress implementing its 2016 AML/CFT law. The AML/CFT Committee, established in 2017, designated at least 34 individuals in 2018.
In 2018, following ISIS’s demonstrated use of chemical agents in territory it controlled between 2014 and 2017, the United States continued to work with Iraq to deny ISIS access to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) materials and expertise strengthening the ability of Iraq’s government, academic institutions, and private sector to secure weaponizable chemical and biological materials and detect, disrupt, and respond effectively to suspected CBRN activity.
Overview: Jordan remained a committed partner on counterterrorism and CVE in 2018. As a regional leader in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Jordan played an important role in degrading the terrorist group’s territorial control and operational reach. Jordan continued to face a persistent threat of terrorist activity in 2018, both domestically and along its borders, owing in part to its proximity to regional conflicts in Iraq and Syria and the state’s official rejection of Salafi-jihadi interpretations of Islam. Terrorist entities expressed interest in attacking both hard and soft targets, such as high-profile public events, hotels, and tourist locations. Jordanian security forces thwarted several plots and apprehended numerous terrorists. Prominent terrorist incidents included an ISIS-inspired attack in Fuheis and an ensuing counterterrorism raid in Salt that resulted in the deaths of five members of the Jordanian security forces. Coordination among Jordan’s security services for terrorism response capabilities and prevention remains a challenge.
Border security remains an overarching priority for the Jordanian government, given fears that violence from the conflict in neighboring Syria will spill over into Jordan. There were many Jordanian nationals among the FTFs in Iraq and Syria. The threat of domestic radicalization, especially online, remains. Returning FTFs are an ongoing concern for Jordan’s security services. As a member of the GCTF, Jordan continued to be a committed partner on FTF issues in 2018 as co-chair with the United States of the GCTF FTF Working Group.
The West Bank and Gaza
Overview: The Palestinian Authority (PA) continued its counterterrorism and law enforcement efforts in the West Bank, where Hamas, PIJ, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine remained present, though the PA also continued to provide payments to convicted terrorists and the families of deceased terrorists. The PA Security Forces (PASF) constrained the ability of those organizations to conduct attacks, including through arrests of Hamas members planning attacks against Israelis. Per Oslo-era agreements, the PA exercised varying degrees of authority over the West Bank. The IDF and ISA arrested members of terrorist organizations operating in the West Bank.
In 2018, the United States assisted the PA’s law enforcement efforts, which contributed to counterterrorism capacity building by providing training, equipment, and infrastructure support to the PASF. U.S. training and support assisted in the PA’s continuing work to sustain and further develop professional, self-sufficient, and capable security forces. The United States also assisted the PA with criminal justice investigations and prosecutions of terrorist financing and terrorist-related activity.
Palestinians committed acts of violence and terrorism in the West Bank in 2018. The number of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israelis in the West Bank was lower compared with the heightened period of violence from October 2015 to April 2016; however, Palestinians continued to commit stabbings, shootings, and vehicular attacks against Israelis.
Israelis, including settlers, committed acts of violence, including “price tag” attacks (property crimes and violent acts against Palestinians) in the West Bank. These incidents increased in number in 2018 over the previous year, though there were no reported fatalities.
Hamas maintained security control of Gaza. Several militant groups launched rocket attacks against Israel, threw Molotov cocktails, planted IEDs, and launched incendiary kites and devices toward Israel during demonstrations along the Israel-Gaza security fence. The primary limitation on PA counterterrorism efforts in Gaza remained Hamas’ control of the area and the resulting inability of the PASF to operate there.
The PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) continued to provide “martyr payments” to the families of Palestinian individuals killed carrying out a terrorist act. The PA and PLO also provided payments to Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those convicted of acts of terrorism against Israelis. The amounts of the payments increased in relation to the length of the military court sentence. These payments (as well as separate canteen stipends that the Israeli government allows for prisoners) were first initiated by the PLO in 1965 and have continued under the PA since the Oslo Accords with Israel. Israeli government officials criticized this practice as incentivizing acts of terror. In 2018, the Knesset adopted a new Israeli law expected to be implemented in 2019, which mandates withholding from PA custom clearance revenues an amount equivalent to PA prisoner and martyr payments, based on Israeli calculations.
Overview: The Government of Kuwait focused on improving its capacity to implement counterterrorism arrangements concluded in previous years. Kuwait joined the United States and other members of the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) in coordinated domestic designations of individuals and entities associated with Hizballah and the Taliban. Kuwait is a regional leader in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and co-leads, with Turkey and the Netherlands, the Coalition’s FTF Working Group. In February, Kuwait hosted a full Coalition ministerial meeting at which the Coalition’s Guiding Principles were affirmed.
Overview: Lebanon is a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and a committed partner in countering terrorism. In 2018, the United States provided security assistance and training to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to increase the LAF’s capacity as the sole legitimate defender of Lebanon’s sovereignty. The United States also worked with Lebanon’s defense and law enforcement organizations, such as the Internal Security Forces (ISF), to build its counterterrorism capabilities and its ability to investigate and prosecute local terrorism cases. Terrorist groups operating in Lebanon included U.S.-designated FTOs such as Hizballah, Hamas, ISIS, and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. Hizballah remained the most capable terrorist organization in Lebanon, controlling areas in the Bekaa Valley, southern Lebanon, and south Beirut. In September, Hizballah announced that its armed militia had advanced its military capabilities and that the group possessed precision-guided missiles. In December, Israel announced the discovery of Hizballah-constructed tunnels that crossed the Lebanon-Israel frontier, several of which were later confirmed by the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
Despite the Lebanese government’s official policy of disassociation from regional conflicts, Hizballah continued its military role in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen in support of the Syrian regime. Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine continued to operate in Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps. The camps remained outside the control of Lebanese security forces and continued to pose a security threat because of their potential for militant recruitment and terrorist infiltration. Several terrorists on the FBI’s Most Wanted List and who are the subjects of the Department of State’s Rewards for Justice program are reportedly residing in Lebanon.
Overview: Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) was a reliable counterterrorism partner in 2018, participated in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, and continued to work with the United States to counter the spread of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Libya (ISIL-Libya) and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Terrorist groups continued to exploit the country’s political instability and limited government presence, and some groups have integrated themselves within local communities – particularly in the South. Libya was the target of dozens of terrorist attacks in 2018. Through coordination with the GNA, the United States conducted periodic precision airstrikes on ISIL-Libya and AQIM cells. The GNA continued to cooperate with the United States on the investigation of suspected terrorists. The eastern Libya-based Libyan National Army (LNA) announced in June that a military operation had cleared the city of Derna of extremist fighters. The LNA, led by General Khalifa Haftar and not aligned with the GNA, has expressed the goal of ridding Libya of terrorist groups.
Overview: The United States and Morocco have excellent and long-standing counterterrorism cooperation. The Government of Morocco continued its comprehensive counterterrorism strategy that includes vigilant security measures, regional and international cooperation, and counter-radicalization policies. In 2018, Morocco’s counterterrorism efforts largely mitigated its risk of terrorism, although the country continued to face sporadic threats, largely from small, independent terrorist cells, the majority of which claimed to be inspired by or affiliated with ISIS. Morocco experienced its first terrorist incident since 2011 with the killing of two Scandinavian tourists in December. Morocco is an active participant in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Morocco is also a member of the GCTF and is currently the co-chair of the GCTF with the Netherlands.
Overview: Oman is an important regional counterterrorism partner that actively works to prevent terrorists from conducting attacks or operating in the country. The Omani government in 2018 remained concerned about the conflict in Yemen and the potential for al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS-Yemen to threaten Oman’s land and maritime borders. Omani officials regularly engaged with U.S. officials on counterterrorism, but rarely broadcasted their efforts publicly. The Government of Oman sought training and equipment from the U.S. government, commercial entities, and other countries to support its efforts to control Omani land, air, and maritime borders. Oman also used U.S. security assistance to improve its counterterrorism tactics and procedures. Oman is a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), and the Riyadh-based Terrorist Finance Targeting Center (TFTC). The Government of Oman issued several statements condemning terrorist attacks around the world in 2018.
Overview: The United States and Qatar continued to increase counterterrorism cooperation in 2018, building on progress made after the U.S. Secretary of State and Qatari Foreign Minister signed a counterterrorism Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in July 2017. At the U.S.-Qatar Counterterrorism Dialogue in September 2018, the two governments affirmed their progress implementing the MOU and committed to a set of shared 2019 priorities. Qatar is an active participant in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, is active in all Defeat-ISIS Coalition working groups, and facilitated U.S. military operations in the region. Qatar hosts roughly 10,000 U.S. service members on two military installations critical to Coalition efforts. Security services capable of monitoring and disrupting terrorist activities have maintained the status quo.
Overview: Saudi Arabia continued to maintain a strong counterterrorism relationship with the United States and responded to terrorist threats from violent militant groups, ISIS sympathizers, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and Iran-backed Houthi militants based in Yemen. Based on local reporting, Saudi Arabia continued to see a reduction in the number of deaths attributable to terrorist violence as the government actively and effectively improved its counterterrorism readiness. Through a range of counterterrorism initiatives, many in partnership with the U.S. government, Saudi Arabia took tangible steps to strengthen its counterterrorism capabilities in border security, counter terrorist financing, and CVE. Saudi Arabia remained a key member and active participant in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and co-leads the Defeat-ISIS Coalition’s Counter-ISIS Finance Group. Saudi Arabia co-chairs the Riyadh-based Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) with the United States, an initiative founded in 2017 to increase U.S.-Gulf multilateral collaboration to counter terrorist financing. Senior Saudi government and religious leaders issued strong public statements denouncing violent acts perpetrated by global terrorist organizations.
During 2018, Saudi Arabia faced terrorist threats primarily targeting Saudi security forces. Saudi Arabia participated in forums designed to expand regional CVE efforts and what Saudi Arabia describes as “the radicalization of Islam,” while addressing the challenge of returning FTFs from conflict zones and terrorist propaganda. In 2018, Saudi Arabia continued its recent efforts to promote what it calls “moderate Islam,” though some support for intolerant views in third countries persisted, and some Saudi textbooks continued to include language that promoted discrimination, intolerance, and violence.
Overview: The government continues to prioritize counterterrorism, and Tunisia cooperated with the United States and other international partners to professionalize its security apparatus. U.S. security assistance to Tunisia grew in 2018 and Tunisia made tangible progress on several of its counterterrorism goals, including enhanced border security, new proposed legislation, asset freezing of terrorist financiers, and implementation of CVE programming. Tunisia also made positive strides in developing its military and civilian security capacity to conduct counterterrorism efforts. Tunisia is currently working on a strategy for the return, trial, and incarceration of captured Tunisian FTFs from battlefields in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Tunisia is a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and is active in the Coalition’s FTF and Counter-ISIS Finance working groups.
The risk of terrorist activity in Tunisia remained high in 2018, including the potential for terrorist attacks and the infiltration of arms and terrorists from neighboring countries. In 2018, aspiring ISIS affiliate Jund Al Khilafa-Tunisia (JAK-T), al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)-aligned Uqba bin Nafi’ Battalion, and others conducted primarily small-scale attacks against Tunisian security personnel, including one in July against the Tunisian National Guard that killed six officers. Nonetheless, Tunisian security forces continued to improve their ability to preempt terrorist activities by identifying and dismantling numerous terrorist cells.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Overview: The United Arab Emirates (UAE) government continued to prosecute numerous individuals for terrorism-related offenses in 2018. In line with previous years, the UAE government continued its collaboration with U.S. law enforcement on counterterrorism cases; its membership in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS; and its support for counter messaging and CVE platforms, such as the Sawab and Hedayah Centers, respectively. The Government of the UAE remained co-chair of the Defeat-ISIS Coalition’s Communications Working Group along with the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as co-chair of the Defeat-ISIS Coalition’s Stabilization Working Group with the United States and Germany.
The government’s security apparatus continued monitoring suspected terrorists in the UAE and foiled potential terrorist attacks within its borders. UAE customs, police, and other security agencies improved border security and worked with financial authorities to counter terrorist finance. UAE government officials worked closely with U.S. law enforcement counterparts to increase the UAE’s counterterrorism capabilities.
The UAE continued to deploy forces in Yemen to counter al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS, and to support local forces in counterterrorism operations.
Overview: Throughout 2018, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), ISIS-Yemen, Hizballah, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), and other Iran-backed terrorist groups, continued to exploit the political and security vacuum created by the ongoing conflict between the Yemeni government under the leadership of President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, and the Iran-backed Houthi forces. Additionally, IRGC-QF has exploited the conflict to expand its influence in Yemen. UN and other reporting has highlighted the growing connection between the IRGC-QF and the Houthis, including the provision of lethal aid used by the Houthis to target civilian sites in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In Yemen, Houthi attacks enabled by U.S.-designated Iranian entities or proxies targeted military and civilian sites, primarily associated with Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) and Saudi-led coalition members. Media reports suggest that other FTOs, such as Hizballah, may also be supporting the Houthis. The Saudi-led coalition continued its air campaign to restore the legitimacy of the ROYG, which it started in March 2015. The ROYG, in partnership with the Saudi-led coalition, controlled the majority of Yemeni territory at the end of 2018, including the population centers of Aden, Al Ghaydah, Mukalla, and Ta’izz. Houthi forces controlled the capital of Sana’a and surrounding northwest highlands, and largely controlled the port city of Hudaydah, among other areas. AQAP retained a significant area of influence inside Yemen, though the terrorist group suffered setbacks caused by counterterrorism pressure.
The ROYG cooperated closely with the U.S. government on counterterrorism efforts. However, because of the instability and violence in Yemen, and because of its own degraded capabilities, the ROYG cannot effectively enforce counterterrorism measures. A large security vacuum persists, which gives AQAP and ISIS-Yemen more room to operate. Counterterrorism gains in 2018 continued to remove key leaders and complicate AQAP’s freedom of movement, but AQAP and ISIS-Yemen continued to carry out terrorist attacks throughout the country, including in government-held territory. UAE-backed Yemeni forces continued to play a significant role in counterterrorism efforts.
ISIS-Yemen remained considerably smaller in size and influence compared with AQAP, but it remained operationally active and continued to claim attacks against AQAP, Yemeni security forces, and the Houthis.
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