U.S. Report: ISIS and Al Qaeda Threats in 2019
In 2019, the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al Qaeda increasingly relied on local affiliates to conduct ambushes, kidnappings, suicide bombings and targeted assassinations across the Middle East and North Africa, according to the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2019. In their separate arenas, both jihadi movements launched attacks in ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Their tactics were similar. Both ISIS and Al Qaeda attacked civilian and military targets to destabilize governments and weaken U.S. influence.
ISIS: ISIS shifted its focus from seizing territory in Iraq and Syria to carrying out suicide bombings and ambushes in North Africa and South Asia after the destruction of the Islamic State caliphate in March 2019 and the death of leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in October. ISIS has evolved from a caliphate that controlled territory to a global network with cells on the six inhabited continents, U.S. Coordinator for Counterterrorism Ambassador Nathan Sales said. In 2019, the Sunni jihadi group had a major presence in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and the Libyan central and southern deserts as well as in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Islamic State in Egypt carried out 134 improvised explosive device (IED) attacks and nearly weekly assaults on government positions in the Sinai Peninsula. The Islamic State affiliate in Libya conducted dozens of attacks against forces aligned with warlord Khalifa Haftar. It operated out of the sparsely populated districts of Jufra, Sebha and Murzuq. In Afghanistan, the Islamic State-Khorasan Province attacked civilian and Afghan military targets in the capital, Kabul, and the surrounding rural areas. In one particularly gruesome operation on August 18, 2019, an ISIS suicide bomber at a Shiite wedding in Kabul killed 80 people and injured more than 140. ISIS also had cells operating in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
AL QAEDA: Al Qaeda’s regional branches in Egypt and Yemen carried out ambushes, kidnappings and targeted assassinations. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula exploited the withdrawal of Emirati troops from Yemen in July 2019 to regain territory in southern Yemen it had lost in 2018. Ansar al Islam, an al Qaeda affiliate in Egypt, was suspected of ties to two roadside bombings of tour buses near the Giza Pyramids. But Al Qaeda also faced major setbacks. In September 2019, the United States confirmed that it had killed Hamza bin Laden, the son of Osama bin Laden and a rising al Qaeda leader. Algeria, Libya and Tunisia also reported successful counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African affiliate, which had kidnapped Western tourists, bombed hotels and ambushed military vehicles, mostly in Mali and Burkina Faso. An Al Qaeda wing, Hurras al Din, and affiliated groups also operated in Syria’s Idlib province.
In the report, the United States claimed it had made “major strides” alongside its local partners in defeating or degrading terrorist groups. “Now we’re taking the fight to ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates around the world, intensifying our efforts to ensure that we are able to protect American lives and American interests globally,” Ambassador Sales said at a briefing on June 24, 2020. “And this network not only plans its attacks on its own, it also continues to inspire individuals to commit attacks of their own devising.” The following are remarks by Ambassador Sales and excerpts from the report.
Nathan Sales, U.S. Coordinator for Counterterrorism Ambassador
On the Release of the 2019 Country Reports on Terrorism
June 24, 2020
AMBASSADOR SALES: The United States and our partners took major strides last year to defeat and degrade international terrorist organizations. In Iraq and Syria, we destroyed ISIS’s so-called caliphate and eliminated its leader. Now we’re taking the fight to ISIS and al-Qaida affiliates around the world, intensifying our efforts to ensure that we are able to protect American lives and American interests globally. We’re particularly focused on Africa. In 2019, ISIS-affiliated groups were active across the continent, including in the Sahel, the Lake Chad region, and East Africa.
QUESTION: You just discussed the caliphate of ISIS being gone in Syria and Iraq, but worldwide what’s the update? Has it grown or has it shrunk since last year?
SALES: It’s evolved. We’re seeing a continued evolution in ISIS from an entity that purported to control territory to one that is instead a network, a global network that reaches every inhabited continent. And this network not only plans its attacks on its own, it also continues to inspire individuals to commit attacks of their own devising. And as an example of that, I would refer you to the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka last year, a gruesome and vivid example of what ISIS-inspired terrorists are capable of doing.
As ISIS evolves into a global network that lacks a physical so-called caliphate, it’s important for the United States and our partners to evolve as well in using a different set of tools to get at this challenge. Sometimes military force is the appropriate tool – we saw that in Syria and Iraq – but oftentimes in this new stage of the fight we will be prioritizing law enforcement to prosecute ISIS-affiliated terrorists for the crimes they’ve committed, counterterrorism finance to cut off the flow of money to ISIS and its affiliates around the world, countermessaging so that we can delegitimize the radical ideology that ISIS uses to inspire the next generation of recruits, and border security measures to ensure that ISIS fighters are not able to enter the United States or cross international borders where they could wreak havoc.
QUESTION: The UN earlier this year found that al-Qaida in Afghanistan remained close to the Taliban. Are you tracking any division between the two as per the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement?
SALES: We’ve been very clear with the American people and with the Taliban that we expect certain conditions to be met as part of our negotiations. We have honored our commitments with respect to troop presence in Afghanistan thus far and we expect the Taliban to honor their commitments to make a clean break from all terrorist organizations. Our end state in Afghanistan is that it can never again be allowed to be a platform for terrorist activity that threatens the U.S. homeland, that threatens our people abroad, or that threatens our allies or interests.
QUESTION: Can I go back to Afghanistan and then one quick one on Syria and Iraq? Have you seen ongoing connections between al-Qaida and the Taliban as part of this report?
And on Syria and Iraq, you mentioned that there are places where you’re working on law enforcement with ISIS, and of course with the military. Does the report detail how ISIS took advantage of some political vacuums in Iraq and some of the protests in Iraq in order to expand? And how is the U.S. countering that mostly with the military, but if you could expand on it?
SALES: On Afghanistan, it’s not a secret to you or the American people, nor is it a secret to the Taliban. We expect the Taliban to live up to the commitments they have made, including a break from any terrorist organization that operates in Afghanistan that could threaten the United States. We’ll be monitoring very closely to ensure that the Taliban does in fact live up to its commitments and its obligations under the agreement.
With respect to ISIS in Iraq, destroyed the caliphate – as the Secretary said, destroyed it in its entirety, but the ISIS threat still remains. And so we have to be very mindful of the need to keep up the pressure. I’ve talked about ISIS networks around the world and it is true with respect to those networks, but we also have to keep our eye on the ball in Iraq, in Syria to prevent any ISIS remnants from reconstituting to prevent them from continuing attacks.
We work with partner forces on the ground, we work with the D-ISIS Coalition, we work with the Iraqi Government to make sure that we’re able to use the full suite of national tools of power to get at that threat.
QUESTION: I noticed that the Islamic Republic of Iran has been mentioned 109 times in your report. Is it fair to say that the Islamic Republic of Iran poses the biggest threat when it comes to terrorist activities around the world to United States? And in part of that report, it talks about the connection between Iran and al-Qaida operatives. What evidence do you have to show that Iran is helping or harboring al-Qaida operatives?
SALES: It’s difficult to rank order the terrorist threats that we face. We have to take them all seriously and we do take them all seriously, whether it’s ISIS or al-Qaida or whether it’s Iran. Of particular concern when it comes to Iran is the fact that it is a state; it has the capabilities and it has the resources of a state. And when you introduce the concept of state sponsorship, the additional resources, the additional capabilities that an SST like Iran can bring is a reason for severe concern, and we’re seeing the results of that all around the world. Last year, we saw – or the year before, we saw a series of Iranian plots to commit assassinations in the heart of Western Europe. We see Iran bankrolling terrorists in the Middle East to include Hizballah, Shia militia groups in Iraq that are responsible for attacks on American personnel there, diplomats and soldiers alike, and that are also involved last year in ruthlessly suppressing peaceful political protests in Iraq. A hundred and nine times? I’m surprised it wasn’t 110 given the scope of Iranian terrorist malignancy around the world. There was another question in there that I --
QUESTION: About the linkage between al-Qaida and Iran.
SALES: When you see Iranian fingerprints on so many different terrorist groups around the world, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Iran would also have connections to al-Qaida. I can’t comment on intelligence matters, but what we have said publicly in the past is that after 9/11, Iran failed to comply with its obligations to take into custody and extradite for prosecution al-Qaida operatives who were linked to the attacks.
More recently, we have said publicly that Iran has allowed al-Qaida operatives freedom of movement within Iran to enable the movement of fighters and money into conflict zones in neighboring countries. If Iran wants to rejoin the community of responsible nations, here is a start: Crack down on the terrorists that caused 9/11. Crack down on the terrorist proxies that foment violence around the world.
Excerpts from the Report
In 2019, the United States and our partners made major strides to defeat and degrade international terrorist organizations. Along with the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, in March, the United States completed the destruction of the so-called “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria. In October, the United States launched a military operation that resulted in the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed “caliph” of ISIS.
Despite these successes, dangerous terrorist threats persisted around the world. Even as ISIS lost its leader and territory, the group adapted to continue the fight from its affiliates across the globe and by inspiring followers to commit attacks. In Africa, ISIS formally recognized a number of new branches and networks in 2019, and ISIS-affiliated groups were active across the continent, including in the Sahel, the Lake Chad region, and East Africa. In South and Southeast Asia, ISIS affiliates carried out attacks and inspired others to do so as well. The ISIS-inspired attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday killed more than 250 innocent victims, including five U.S. citizens, representing one of ISIS’s deadliest attacks ever.
Although significant terrorist activities and safe havens continued to persist in the Middle East and North Africa throughout 2019, the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and its local partners achieved important milestones, to include liberating the remaining territory held by ISIS in Syria and the successful raid against ISIS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Given the collapse of its so-called “caliphate,” remnants of ISIS in Iraq and Syria reverted to clandestine tactics – a trend expected to continue. Beyond Iraq and Syria, ISIS branches, networks, and supporters across the Middle East and North Africa remained active in 2019, including in Libya, the Arabian Peninsula, the Sinai Peninsula, Tunisia, and Yemen.
ISIS continued its terrorist campaign in the Sinai through its branch ISIS-Sinai Province (ISISSP), and terrorist groups in Egypt carried out more attacks than in recent years. Of note, ISIS-SP was the first ISIS affiliate to swear allegiance to the new ISIS self-proclaimed caliph following Baghdadi’s death. In the Maghreb, counterterrorism efforts and operations by Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia thwarted the activities of ISIS and other terrorist groups. Algerian armed forces and internal security forces published figures showing an increase in arrests of terrorists or terrorist suspects compared with 2018, and Tunisia increased its successful CT operations, including the killing of Jund al-Khilafah’s leader. In Libya, nonstate actors conducted ground operations to neutralize the threat posed by ISIS and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters and facilitators. The United States conducted precision airstrikes targeting ISIS cells in southern Libya, disrupting the group’s organizational presence in the South and eliminating key ISIS personnel. Most terrorist attacks in Libya during the year were conducted by ISIS.
In 2019, the United States and its partners pursued AQ around the world. The organization faced a significant setback with the elimination of Hamza bin Laden, Usama bin Laden’s son and a rising AQ leader. Yet the group and its associated forces remained resilient and continued to pose a threat in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Al Shabaab in the Horn of Africa, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin in the Sahel, and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham/Al-Nusrah Front in Syria are among the world’s most active and dangerous terrorist groups. In December, a member of the Royal Saudi Air Force opened fire at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, where he was receiving training, killing three people and wounding eight. Before the shooting, the gunman had coordinated with al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which claimed credit for the attack. Today, AQ’s network continues to exploit under-governed spaces, conflict zones, and global security gaps to recruit, fundraise, and plot attacks.
Despite setbacks, AQ remained resilient and actively sought to reconstitute its capabilities and maintain safe havens amid fragile political and security climates, particularly in Egypt, Libya, 109 Syria, and Yemen. For example, AQ and AQ-affiliated groups continued to operate in Idlib province in northwest Syria and AQ-aligned Ansar al-Islam also posed a threat in Egypt.
In Yemen, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS’s Yemen branch continued to exploit the security vacuum created by the ongoing conflict between the Republic of Yemen Government and Iran-backed Houthi militants, while also contending with each other. Additionally, the IRGC-QF and Hizballah continued to take advantage of the conflict to destabilize the region, including by providing weapons and training to Houthi militants who committed attacks against neighboring states. AQAP used its tribal connections and public discontent with the Iran-backed Houthis to recruit new members, conduct attacks, and operate in areas of southern and central Yemen with relative impunity, although CT operations eliminated key leaders, pushed the group out of certain areas, and pressured the group’s networks.
In the Levant, Jordan and Lebanon both remained committed partners to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Several terrorist groups, most notably Hizballah, continued to operate in Lebanon throughout the year. Hizballah remained Iran’s most powerful terrorist partner and the most capable terrorist organization in Lebanon, controlling areas across the country. Iran’s annual financial backing to Hizballah – which in recent years has been estimated at $700 million – accounts for the overwhelming majority of the group’s annual budget. Hizballah’s presence in Lebanon and Syria continued to pose a threat to Israel. Israel published information in August about Hizballah’s efforts to produce precision-guided missiles (PGMs) within Lebanon. While Hizballah said it possessed enough PGMs for a confrontation with Israel, it denied missiles were being developed in Lebanon. Israel also uncovered and destroyed multiple tunnels dug by Hizballah under the border into Israel that could have been used for terrorist attacks between December 2018 and January 2019. Although Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza and the West Bank continued to threaten Israel, Israeli and Palestinian Authority security forces continued their coordination in the West Bank in an effort to mitigate violence.
In 2019, the Taliban and the affiliated HQN increased terrorist attacks targeting Afghan civilians, government officials, and members of the international community. Additionally, ISIS-K continued to attack civilians and especially targeted religious minorities. The enemy-initiated attack trend in 2019 defied its usual seasonal pattern; while in most years, such attacks decrease in cold-weather months, they remained consistently high following the summer fighting season. ISIS-K, elements of al-Qa’ida, including affiliate AQIS, and terrorist groups targeting Pakistan, such as TTP, continued to use the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region as a safe haven.
Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), elements of al-Qa’ida, including affiliate al-Qa’ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), and terrorist groups targeting Pakistan, such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, continued to use the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region as a safe haven. Despite progress against ISIS-K in late 2019, the Government of National Unity (GNU) struggled to assert control over this remote terrain, where the population is largely detached from national institutions. U.S. and Afghan security forces partnered in numerous counterterrorism operations against ISIS-K and AQIS, including an operation in September, which eliminated AQIS leader Asim Umar in Helmand province
In 2019, the Algerian government increased the number of arrests of terrorists or terrorist supporters compared with the previous year and undertook a comparable number of operations to destroy arms and terrorist hideouts. Some analysts assessed that Algeria’s steady drumbeat of sweeping operations substantially diminished the capacities of terrorist groups to operate within Algeria. 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 considerable pressure by Algerian security authorities. 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.
Neither AQIM nor ISIS conducted any attacks in Algeria in 2019, although media reported that, on January 16, an unidentified terrorist group killed a lone shepherd in Tarek Ibn Ziad, a mountainous area about two-and-a-half hours southwest of Algiers. Several clashes, however, took place between terrorists and security forces during 111 sweeping operations in which AQIM and ISIS primarily used IEDs and small arms
There were no successful terrorist attacks in Bahrain in 2019, but domestic security forces conducted numerous operations to preempt and disrupt attack planning. The Government of Bahrain (GOB) is a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and supported U.S. government counterterrorism efforts. Political relations between the predominantly Sunni-led government and Shia-majority opposition remained tense, exacerbated by the July execution of two Bahraini Shia convicted on terrorism charges.
Bahrain experienced periodic low-level violence in predominantly Bahraini Shia villages, usually to mark notable dates of importance, such as the anniversary of the 2011 political unrest.
Throughout the year, Bahrain continued to conduct security operations targeting suspected militants. Individuals apprehended during security raids were tried in Bahraini courts, and some were convicted of involvement in terrorism-related activities. In April, a Bahraini court sentenced to prison 139 Bahrainis, of whom 69 received life sentences (25 years), on terrorism 113 charges; the court also ordered the revocation of their citizenships. The GOB accused the individuals of forming an organization it referred to as “Bahraini Hizballah” with the intention of carrying out attacks in Bahrain.
There were no terrorist attacks reported in Bahrain in 2019.
Nearly all terrorist attacks in Egypt took place in the Sinai Peninsula and largely targeted security forces, but terrorist attacks targeting civilians, tourists, and security personnel in mainland Egypt remained a concern. Though early 2019 witnessed a series of IED incidents in greater Cairo, those incidents became more infrequent as the year progressed. ISIS-Sinai Province (ISIS-SP) carried out the majority of the total attacks in 2019, though it claimed no attacks in mainland Egypt and no attacks against Western interests. ISIS-SP responded to ISIS’s call to increase attacks to avenge the terrorist group’s territorial defeat in Syria in March. ISISSP was the first affiliate to swear allegiance to the new self-proclaimed caliph in November. There were at least 151 IED-related attacks in Egypt in 2019, of which ISIS-SP conducted at least 137 in northern and central Sinai, along with near-weekly complex assaults on government fortified positions, demonstrating the terrorist group’s freedom to maneuver during daytime hours and geographic expansion of attacks westward, toward the Suez Canal Zone, and southward. In addition, Harakat Sawa’d Misr (HASM) and al-Qa’ida allied groups such as Ansar al-Islam are believed to be behind the spate of anti-western attacks in mainland Egypt in 2019, and they also posed a continued threat.
While terrorist attacks primarily targeted Egyptian security personnel, civilians and foreigners were also targeted. Of note, terrorist groups carried out increased kidnappings and executions of individuals suspected of collaborating with the Egyptian government and military, particularly in April and June. Coptic Christians and other religious minorities continue to be targets for terrorist attacks
Overall terrorist attack methods throughout Egypt included small arms attacks, IEDs, VBIEDs, kidnappings, executions, complex assaults, ambushes, and targeted assassinations.
ISIS continued to present a serious threat to Iraqi stability, undertaking targeted assassinations of police and local political leaders and using IEDs and shooting attacks directed at both government and government-associated civilian targets, in support of a violent campaign to reestablish a caliphate. ISIS sought to reestablish support among populations in Ninewa, Kirkuk, Diyala, Salah ad Din, and Anbar provinces, especially in the areas of disputed control between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the federal government, where the division of responsibility for local security is unclear. Although ISIS maintained the capability to conduct deadly terrorist attacks in Iraq, these attacks resulted in fewer casualties in 2019 than in previous years.
According to the Federal Intelligence and Investigation Agency within Iraq’s Ministry of Interior, acts of terrorism, violence, and armed conflict with ISIS killed more than 534 civilians and injured more than 1,121 in 2019 as of December 1. This was a decrease from 2018, when roughly 900 civilians died and 1,600 were injured. ISIS continued to carry out suicide and hit-and-run attacks throughout the country with 844 attacks during the year. The most significant of these was a bus bombing in September that killed 12 Iraqis near the major pilgrimage site of Karbala
Israel, West Bank and Gaza
Israel faced threats from the north from Hizballah and along the northeastern frontier from Hizballah and other Iran-backed groups, including about 150,000 rockets aimed at Israel. Israeli officials expressed concern that Iran was supplying Hizballah with advanced weapons systems and technologies, as well as assisting the group in creating infrastructure that would permit it to indigenously produce rockets, missiles, and drones to threaten Israel from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, or Yemen. To the south, Israel faced threats from terrorist organizations including Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and ISIS-Sinai. Rocket attacks originating from Gaza resulted in four deaths and dozens of injuries in 2019.
The Palestinian Authority continued its counterterrorism and law enforcement efforts in the West Bank, where Hamas, PIJ, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) remained active. PA officials continued to make inconsistent statements about a commitment to non-violence. The PA security forces constrained the ability of terrorist organizations and individuals to conduct attacks, in part by arrests targeting those planning attacks against Israelis. Per Oslo-era agreements, the PA exercised varying degrees of authority over the West Bank owing to the presence of IDF in certain areas, as well as frequent Israeli entry into PA-controlled areas for counterterrorism operations. The IDF and Shin Bet also arrested individuals and members of terrorist organizations operating in the West Bank. The United States continued to coordinate with PA security forces in counterterrorism efforts. U.S. advisory support assisted the PA as it continued to develop professional security forces capable of some, but not all, counterterrorism functions
Hamas maintained control of Gaza in 2019. Several militant groups, including Hamas and PIJ, launched rocket attacks against Israel from Gaza, including significant attacks against Israel in May. PIJ led other large attacks against Israel in November and members of PIJ committed suicide attacks against Hamas civil police. During weekly protests at the Israel-Gaza security fence with Israel, Palestinians threw Molotov cocktails and IEDs, and they launched incendiary balloons and devices towards Israel, damaging farms and nature preserves. According to the head of Israel’s Eshkol regional council, the total damage in 2019 was estimated at $3.46 million. Hamas and PIJ terror tunneling activities continued.
As a regional leader in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Jordan played an important role in Coalition successes in degrading the terrorist group. Jordan continued to face a persistent threat of terrorist activity 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 continue to express interest in attacking both “hard” and “soft” targets, such as high-profile public events, hotels, tourist locations, and Jordanian security services.
The most notable terrorist incident in 2019 was the November 6 attack targeting foreign tourists in Jerash. Jordanian security forces thwarted several plots and apprehended numerous terrorists; however, coordination among Jordan’s security services for terrorism response capabilities and prevention remains a challenge, but it continues to improve.
Jordanian security services disrupted a number of terrorist plots in various stages of operational planning. While successful interdictions showcase the government’s efforts, they come in response to attempts to conduct terrorist operations in Jordan from a variety of terrorist groups or individuals with terrorist aspirations, including those inspired by ISIS and al-Qa’ida. On November 12, the Jordanian newspaper Al-Rai reported that the GID thwarted terrorist operations of two suspects who planned to target employees of the U.S. and Israeli embassies, as well as U.S. soldiers at a military base in the Jafr region. The GID reportedly arrested the two suspects in July, and their trial in the State Security Court (SSC) began in early November. The SSC sentenced one of the suspects to eight years in prison for threatening to attack the Israeli Embassy in Amman.
During 2019, the Government of Kuwait participated in or conducted a significant number of training programs to build CT capacity and to counter terrorism financing. Kuwait is a regional leader in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, part of the Defeat-ISIS Coalition Small Group, and co-leads (with Turkey and the Netherlands) the Coalition’s Foreign Terrorist Fighters Working Group.
There were no terrorist incidents reported in Kuwait in 2019.
Lebanon remains a committed partner in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Terrorist groups operating in Lebanon included Hizballah, ISIS, Hamas, and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. Of these, the Lebanon-based and Iran-backed terrorist group Hizballah remained the most capable. In August 2019, Israel publicly released information about Hizballah’s efforts to produce precision-guided missiles (PGMs) within Lebanon. Hizballah announced that the group possessed enough PGMs for a confrontation with Israel but denied that it was developing PGM factories in Lebanon. Between December 2018 and January 2019, Israel 128 uncovered and destroyed multiple tunnels dug by Hizballah under the border into Israel that could have been used for terrorist attacks.
The presence of Hizballah in the Lebanese government was an impediment to effective host government action against terrorist incidents. For instance, the government took no action to hold Hizballah accountable for its rocket attack on Israel in September or the cross-border tunnels, and prevented the UN Interim Force in Lebanon from fully investigating these incidents by failing to provide access to the areas where these incidents occurred. In international fora, Lebanon argued that acts taken against what it characterized as “foreign occupation” are not terrorism, in an attempt to justify Hizballah’s violence against Israel.
The ongoing conflict involving the Government of National Accord (GNA) and Libyan National Army (LNA)-aligned forces, as well as other nonstate actors, prevented Libyan authorities from dedicating sufficient resources to the fight against terrorist groups. However, both GNA- and LNA-aligned forces conducted CT operations during the year, arresting or killing dozens of ISIS or AQIM fighters. U.S. strikes on ISIS-Libya targets further degraded this 130 group. The GNA continued to work with the United States to counter the spread of terrorist groups such as ISIS-Libya and AQIM, albeit to a more limited degree following the departure of U.S. forces from Libya in April. The GNA’s effectiveness was constrained both by the lack of control it exerted over national forces and by its diminished geographic reach.
Since the 2016 expulsion of ISIS from Sirte, the group has lacked a concentrated, physical presence in Libya, instead spreading into smaller groups with a presence in both urban environments and the sparsely populated desert districts of Jufra, Sebha, and Murzuq. In southern Libya, where terrorist groups operated most freely, forces aligned with the LNA conducted operations against AQIM and ISIS. All acknowledged terrorist attacks by ISIS in 2019 were conducted against LNA forces or against civilian targets in areas under LNA control. The LNA undertook CT efforts in areas under its control.
In coordination with the GNA authorities in Tripoli, the United States conducted four precision airstrikes on ISIS in southern Libya in September 2019, killing 43 ISIS fighters and displacing remaining elements. The GNA has also cooperated with the United States on the investigation of suspected terrorists. Libya is a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS
In 2019, Morocco’s CT efforts largely mitigated its risk of terrorism, doubling the number of arrests compared with 2018. 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. In March 2019, Morocco repatriated eight FTFs from Syria.
There were no terrorist incidents reported in Morocco in 2019.
The Omani government remains concerned about the conflict in Yemen and the potential for al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS-Yemen to threaten Oman’s land and maritime borders. Omani officials regularly engaged with U.S. officials on the need to counter terrorism, but rarely broadcast their CT 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 crisis management capacity, as well as its CT tactics and procedures.
There were no terrorist incidents reported in Oman in 2019.
The United States and Qatar continued to increase CT cooperation in 2019, building on progress made after the U.S. Secretary of State and Qatari Foreign Minister signed a CT MOU in July 2017. At the U.S.-Qatar Counterterrorism Dialogue in November 2019, the two governments declared their fulfillment of the MOU largely complete and committed to set shared priorities for 2020. 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.
There were no terrorist attacks reported in Qatar in 2019.
Saudi Arabia maintained a high cooperation tempo with U.S. and international partners in a range of CT fields, including terrorist information sharing, monitoring of FTFs, border security, countering unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and CVE. The Saudi Arabian government worked to disrupt, and supported U.S. and international sanctions against, terrorist finance networks, focusing heavily on entities supporting Iran’s IRGC-QF, Lebanese Hizballah, and other Iranian proxy groups active in the Gulf
Saudi Arabia suffered from numerous terrorist incidents in 2019. Terrorist incidents included both external attacks by Iranian and Houthi actors and small-scale attacks, largely perpetrated by lone offender actors including ISIS sympathizers. Militants instigated violence using IEDs, gunfire, and UAS.
Designated in 1979 as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, Syria continued its political and military support to various terrorist groups. The regime continued to provide weapons and political support to Hizballah and continued to allow Iran to rearm and finance the terrorist organization. The Assad regime’s relationship with Hizballah and Iran grew stronger in 2019 as the regime became more reliant on external actors to fight opponents and secure areas. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) remains present and active in the country with the permission of President Bashar al-Assad. Assad remained a staunch defender of Iran’s policies, while Iran exhibited equally energetic support for the Syrian regime. Syrian government speeches and press releases often included statements supporting terrorist groups, particularly Hizballah and vice versa.
Over the past two decades, the Assad regime’s permissive attitude towards AQ and other terrorist groups’ FTF facilitation efforts during the Iraq conflict fed the growth of AQ, ISIS, and affiliated terrorist networks inside Syria. The Syrian government’s awareness and encouragement for many years of terrorists’ transit through Syria to Iraq for the purpose of fighting U.S. forces before 2012 is well documented. Those very networks were among the terrorist elements that brutalized the Syrian and Iraqi populations in 2019. Additionally, Shia militia groups in Iraq, some of which are U.S.-designated FTOs aligned with Iran, continued to travel to Syria to fight on behalf of the Assad regime. Marxist groups, including affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), also operated on Syrian soil and represent Turkey’s primary counterterrorism concern in Syria. ISIS cells remained active in parts of Syria and launched attacks on civilians and U.S. partner forces. In October, U.S. forces completed an operation that resulted in the death of ISIS leader al-Baghdadi. ISIS members in Syria continued to plot or inspire external terrorist operations.
As part of a broader strategy during the year, the regime portrayed Syria itself as a victim of terrorism, characterizing all internal armed opposition as “terrorists.”
Although the risk of terrorist activity in Tunisia remained high in 2019, the Tunisian government’s improved counterterrorism capacity and coordination, as well as its prioritization of border security, contributed to a reduction in the number and severity of terrorist attacks. The dual suicide attack on June 27 by ISIS-inspired individuals was the most ambitious of 2019, but the Tunisian government’s response was well orchestrated and quickly restored public calm and resulted in arrests. The increased number of successful CT operations throughout 2019, including the killing of Jund Al Khilafah leader Houssem Thelithi Mokni, reflected greater interagency coordination, improved preemptive planning, and sustained momentum in dismantling terrorist cells.
Terrorist organizations remained active; however, their ability to carry out effective attacks was degraded by improved coordination and capacity of Tunisian security forces. Lone wolf attacks continued to pose a challenge to security forces.
United Arab Emirates
The United Arab Emirates government continued to prosecute multiple individuals for terrorism-related offenses in 2019. In line with previous years, the UAE continued its collaboration with U.S. law enforcement on counterterrorism cases; its membership in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS; and its support for CVE and related platforms, such as the Sawab and Hedayah Centers, respectively. 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. The 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 144 increase the UAE’s CT capabilities. The UAE continued to support counterterrorism efforts in Yemen to counter AQAP and ISIS, including support to local forces in CT operations. The drawdown of some UAE forces in Yemen and disbanding of some local security forces supported by the UAE following conflict between the Republic of Yemen Government and forces aligned with the Southern Transitional Council contributed to a reversal of territorial gains in the fight against AQAP and ISIS in Yemen, including in areas known to be historical safe havens for the groups.
There were no terrorist attacks reported in the UAE in 2019.
A large security vacuum persists, which provides AQAP and ISIS-Yemen room to operate. Most counterterrorism gains in 2018 were reversed in 2019, as some UAE forces withdrew and other security forces supported by the UAE disbanded. Republic of Yemen Government and tribal pressures continued to complicate AQAP’s freedom of movement. AQAP and ISIS-Yemen continued to carry out terrorist attacks throughout the country, including in government-held territory. UAE-backed Yemeni Security Belt Forces, which played a significant role in CT efforts, were used by the STC to exercise control over significant parts of Aden in August. The November 2019 Riyadh Agreement aims to bring them under Republic of Yemen Government control. 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 militants.
AQAP and ISIS-Yemen terrorists carried out hundreds of attacks throughout Yemen in 2019. Methods included suicide bombers, VBIEDs, ambushes, armed clashes, kidnappings, and targeted assassinations.