U.S. Report: ISIS and al Qaida are resilient
On September 19, the U.S. State Department reported that “the terrorist landscape grew more complex in 2017.” Coordinator for Counterterrorism Nathan Sales noted that although “ninety-nine percent of the territory ISIS once held in Iraq and Syria has now been liberated…ISIS, al-Qaida, and their affiliates have proven to be resilient, determined, and adaptable.” With the return of foreign fighters to their home countries and an increase in homegrown terrorists, ISIS-inspired attacks outside of the warzone persisted. The United States “increased pressure on al Qaida to prevent its resurgence” with the expansion of the terrorist designation to an al Qaida affiliate in Syria and Mali.The following are excerpted remarks by Ambassador Sales and excerpts from the report on Islamists groups.
AMBASSADOR SALES: 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 an – with al-Qaida’s abandonment of its capabilities or intentions to strike us and our allies. That is why we are continuing to keep the pressure on al-Qaida, its affiliates, and its individuals. The report details a number of efforts that we’ve taken to designate – and I mentioned in my opening remarks – efforts that we have taken to designate al-Qaida affiliates in Syria, in Mali, as well as individuals who are associated with the group.
So although ISIS has gotten the headlines, we remain focused and determined to confront al-Qaida wherever we find it.
QUESTION: I would like to understand where you see the terrorist groups in competition in terms of attacks directed at the continental United States. Between al-Qaida, ISIS, other groups, and geographically, where do you see the greatest threat to the continental U.S.? It used to be AQAP, but that seems to have shifted.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, I think all three of the major terrorist adversaries that I’ve highlighted have both the capability and intent to strike the United States and our allies. Al-Qaida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has repeatedly called for AQ members and followers to commit attacks here in the U.S. ISIS-inspired attacks have occurred here in the United States, including in New York City last October. And as far as Iran-backed terrorist organizations are concerned, we’ve arrested a number of operatives who allegedly were casing targets in support of Iran-backed terrorist organizations and they’re now facing charges in federal court.
So I think all three of them have both the capability and intent, and so the key question then becomes: What are we doing about it? And I think there’s a suite of tools that are useful against all three of those diverse threat streams. You’ve got to stop the flow of money to these organizations. That’s why we designate individuals and facilitators and financiers. You’ve got to be able to stop terrorist travel. That’s why we’re doing things like collecting biometrics at the border, sharing information about known and suspected terrorists, analyzing airline reservation data to identify previously unknown threats. And another thing you’ve got to do is use law enforcement tools to prosecute and investigate and, when convicted, to incarcerate suspected terrorists.
Country Reports on Terrorism 2017
Middle East and North Africa:
Overview: Algeria continued significant efforts to prevent terrorist activity within its borders. Figures published by the Algerian armed forces show continued pressure on terrorist groups as indicated by the numbers of terrorists killed, captured or surrendered, as well as weapons seized and hideouts destroyed. Some analysts assess that continuing losses have substantially reduced the capacities of terrorist groups to operate within Algeria. Nevertheless, al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), AQIM-allied groups, and ISIS elements, including the Algerian affiliate locally known as Jund al-Khilafah in Algeria (JAK-A or Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria), remained in the country. These groups aspired to impose their interpretations of Islamic law in Algeria and to attack Algerian security services, local government targets, and Western interests. Terrorist activity in Libya, Tunisia, and Mali contributed to the overall threat.
Overview: Terrorist activity in Bahrain increased in 2017. Bahraini Shia militants remained a threat to security forces and attacks in 2017 resulted in the death of four police officers. During the year, the Bahraini government made gains in detecting and containing terrorist threats from violent Bahraini Shia militants, often backed by Iran, and ISIS sympathizers. The government offered diplomatic support to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS’s efforts and supported its military operations through hosting the Fifth Fleet and Naval Central Command. The closure of an independent newspaper and two opposition political societies along with government suppression of peaceful protests have combined to exacerbate political tensions, which could increase the risk of radicalization to violence.
Overview: In 2017, Egypt suffered numerous deadly terrorist attacks. Despite efforts by President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi’s government and the Egyptian Security Forces (ESF), especially in North Sinai, terrorist attacks remained persistent. ISIS affiliates, including ISIS-Sinai Province (ISIS-SP) and a distinct group calling itself Islamic State Egypt (IS Egypt), posed the most significant threat, as did groups such as Harakat Sawa’d Misr (HASM) and Liwa al-Thawra. For much of the year, these attacks primarily targeted Egyptian security personnel; however, on November 24, terrorists likely affiliated with ISIS killed more than 312 civilians at a Sufi mosque in North Sinai, resulting in the worst terrorist attack in Egypt’s history.
Overview: By the end of 2017, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), with the support of the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, had reclaimed all of the territory that ISIS had captured in 2014 and 2015. As ISIS retreated from Mosul and other cities, its fighters used improvised explosive devices, homemade mines, and mortars to booby-trap homes, public spaces, and critical infrastructure to impede the movement of Iraq’s security forces and terrorize returning residents. Despite Iraqi progress on the battlefield, ISIS maintained the capability to conduct deadly terrorist attacks. U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization Kata’ib Hizballah continued to operate in Iraq during 2017, exacerbating sectarian tensions. Along with its nefarious activities, Kata’ib Hizballah continued to combat ISIS alongside the Iraqi military, police, and other Popular Mobilization Force units during the year. Iraq expanded its cooperation with the United States and other members of the international community to counter terrorism, including taking steps to dismantle ISIS’s financial activity. Iraq passed 31 resolutions aimed at stopping terrorist financing and made significant progress implementing its 2016 Anti-Money Laundering/Countering Terrorism Finance law, including establishing a committee that designated at least 30 individuals in 2017.
ISRAEL AND THE GOLAN HEIGHTS
Israel was a committed counterterrorism partner in 2017, closely coordinating with the United States on a range of counterterrorism initiatives. For instance, Israel and the United States held numerous interagency counterterrorism dialogues to discuss the broad array of threats in the region and determine areas of collaboration to address these challenges.
Israel faced threats on its northern border from Lebanese Hizballah (LH) and along the north‑eastern frontier from LH and other groups in Syria. Israeli security officials and politicians expressed concerns that Iran was supplying LH with advanced weapons systems and technologies as well as assisting the group in creating infrastructure that would permit it to indigenously produce rockets and missiles to threaten Israel from inside of Lebanon and Syria.
Along its southern border with Egypt and Gaza, Israel faced threats from terror organizations including Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and ISIS-Sinai Province. Israel continued to be concerned about Hamas and PIJ tunneling activities, and in October and December destroyed tunnels it found under the Israel-Gaza boundary. Israel suffered numerous rocket attacks originating from Gaza and the Sinai during 2017, none of which resulted in Israeli fatalities.
WEST BANK AND GAZA
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. 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. Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Shin Bet arrested members of terrorist organizations operating in the West Bank.
Palestinians committed acts of violence and terrorism in the West Bank in 2017. The heightened period of violence from October 2015 to April 2016 decreased in 2017. 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 by extremist Jewish individuals and groups against Palestinians) in the West Bank in 2017.
Hamas maintained security control of Gaza. Several militant groups launched rocket attacks against Israel from Gaza. 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 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. Israeli government officials criticized this practice as incentivizing acts of terror. These payments and 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.
Jordan remained a committed partner on counterterrorism and countering violent extremism in 2017. As a regional leader in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Jordan played an important role in Coalition successes in degrading the terrorist group’s territorial control and operational reach. Although Jordan experienced a decrease in terrorist activity in 2017 compared to the previous year, the country faced a continued threat posed by terrorist groups, both domestically and along its borders. Jordanian security forces thwarted several plots and apprehended numerous terrorists. Following several high-profile attacks in 2016, Jordan took important steps to improve coordination among the security services for terrorism response capabilities and prevented several terrorist attacks.
Jordan remained a target for terrorist groups (including ISIS and al-Qa’ida) for several reasons, including its proximity to regional conflicts in Iraq and Syria, the state’s official rejection of Salafi-Jihadi interpretations of Islam, and its membership in the Defeat-ISIS Coalition. Terrorist entities continued to express interest in attacking soft targets, such as high-profile public events, hotels, tourist sites, places of worship, restaurants, schools, and malls.
In June, the Border Guard Force engaged and killed three attackers on motorcycles attempting to enter Jordan from Syria near the Rukban border camp.
During 2017, the Government of Kuwait initiated new lines of effort as part of its multi-agency endeavor to foster moderation and address violent extremism. New initiatives included imam training and school outreach programs as well as a new TV channel targeting demographics thought more susceptible to radicalization to violence. Kuwait took important steps to implement the United Nations (UN) Security Council ISIL (Da’esh) and al-Qa’ida sanctions regime, and joined both the Egmont Group and the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC), a U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council(GCC) initiative announced during President Trump’s May visit to Saudi Arabia. Despite continued efforts by ISIS to target Kuwait, there were no terrorist incidents in its territory in 2017. Kuwait was an active partner in post-ISIS stabilization and reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Kuwait also co-chaired and participated in numerous meetings for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. During the second U.S.-Kuwait Strategic Dialogue, held in Washington, D.C. in September, Kuwait signed a counterterrorism information-sharing arrangement aimed at deterring terrorist attacks and enhancing the bilateral security partnership with the United States.
Lebanon was a committed ally in the defeat-ISIS fight during 2017, and its ground forces represented one of the most effective counterterrorism partners in the region. The United States provided security assistance and training to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), and worked with Lebanon’s defense and law enforcement organizations, such as the Internal Security Forces (ISF), to build its counterterrorism capabilities.
Terrorist groups operating in Lebanon included U.S. government-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations Hizballah, ISIS, Hamas, 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. Even though the Lebanese government reaffirmed its official policy of disassociation in 2017, Hizballah continued its military role in Syria in support of the Syrian regime and admitted that it has a military presence in Iraq. Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps, particularly the largest, Ain el-Helweh, remained outside the jurisdiction of local security forces and posed a security threat due to potential militant recruitment and terrorist infiltration.
In 2017, the Lebanese security forces sought to impede Sunni foreign terrorist fighter flow to and from Syria and Iraq via border security and counterterrorism operations, including increased security measures at airports, border crossings, and ports to prevent the flow of ISIS and al‑Nusrah Front (ANF) fighters to Syria and Iraq. In August, the Lebanese government was involved in an arrangement that led to the departure of 4,800 al-Qa’ida-affiliated Syrian fighters from Aarsal, Lebanon to Idlib, Syria, and 670 ISIS fighters from Raas Baalbek, Lebanon into Syria. Lebanese President Michael Aoun declared “victory over terrorism” following an August 2017 LAF campaign to expel ISIS militants along the Lebanese-Syrian border near Aarsal. It was the LAF’s largest and most successful military operation in over a decade. Lebanon is a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, and participates in all four of the Coalition’s civilian working groups.
Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) proved a reliable counterterrorism partner in 2017, and worked closely with the United States to counter the spread of terrorist groups such as ISIS-Libya and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). While Libya has made considerable progress against ISIS, including dislodging ISIS fighters from its stronghold of Sirte in 2016, terrorist groups have taken advantage of political instability and limited government presence in other parts of the country. Through coordination with the GNA, the United States conducted periodic precision airstrikes on ISIS-Libya desert camps and AQIM cells, degrading their numbers and displacing remaining elements to other areas both inside and outside Libya. Toward the end of 2017, ISIS elements were in a position to carry out only local-level operations. The GNA has also cooperated with the United States on the investigation of suspected terrorists.
While Sirte had previously served as ISIS-Libya’s center of governance in Libya, ISIS-Libya cells also existed in other areas of the country, including the eastern Libyan cities of Benghazi and Darnah. The eastern Libya-based “Libyan National Army” (LNA) drove groups of ISIS and other extremist fighters out of Benghazi as part of its campaign to gain control of Benghazi. The LNA, led by General Khalifa Haftar and not aligned with the GNA, has expressed the desire to rid Libya of terrorist groups.
Other terrorist organizations, including AQIM, maintained a presence in Libya. These groups continued to take advantage of the political instability throughout the country, but efforts by GNA-aligned forces, international partners, and the LNA have degraded terrorist capabilities in some areas. AQIM has sought to establish a longer-term presence in Libya.
Morocco has a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy that includes vigilant security measures, regional and international cooperation, and counter-radicalization policies. In 2017, Morocco’s counterterrorism efforts effectively mitigated the 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. During the year, authorities reported a decrease in the number of terrorist-related arrests (186) for the first time since 2013.
Following the August attacks in Barcelona, Morocco assisted the Spanish investigation and promised to expand cooperation to track terrorists of Moroccan origin radicalized abroad. The government remained concerned about the threat posed by the return of Moroccan foreign terrorist fighters (estimated at approximately 1,660) and their families. Morocco participates in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and, in September, renewed its term as co-chair of the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) with the Netherlands.
Oman is an important regional counterterrorism partner that actively worked in 2017 to prevent terrorists from conducting attacks or using the country as a safe haven. 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 violent extremism and terrorism, but rarely broadcast their counterterrorism 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, as well as the Riyadh-based Terrorist Finance Targeting Center. The Government of Oman issued a series of official statements condemning terrorist attacks in 2017.
The United States and Qatar significantly increased counterterrorism cooperation in 2017, under the Counterterrorism Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by the Secretary of State and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani in July. In the MoU, Qatar and the United States set forth mutually accepted means of increasing information sharing, disrupting terrorism financing flows, and intensifying counterterrorism activities. At the November 8, 2017, U.S.-Qatar Counterterrorism Dialogue, the two governments affirmed the progress made on implementing the MoU and committed to expand bilateral counterterrorism cooperation. Qatar is an active participant in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, is active in all Defeat-ISIS Coalition working groups, and has provided significant support in facilitating U.S. military operations in the region. Qatar hosts approximately 10,000 U.S. servicemen and women on two military installations critical to coalition efforts. Security services capable of monitoring and disrupting terrorist activities have maintained the status quo. In June, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates unexpectedly severed diplomatic ties with and imposed sanctions on Qatar, alleging the government supported terrorist groups in the region, among other purported grievances.
Saudi Arabia continued to maintain a strong counterterrorism relationship with the United States and supported enhanced bilateral cooperation to ensure the safety of both U.S. and Saudi citizens within Saudi territories and abroad. The Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman vowed October 24 to return Saudi Arabia to a country of “moderate Islam.” During President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, the two countries released a Joint Strategic Vision Declaration announcing new initiatives to counter terrorist messaging and disrupt the financing of terrorism. Saudi Arabia remained a key member and active participant in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
On November 4, the Saudi government announced a revision of its Counterterrorism and Counter Terror Financing Law (CT Law, detailed below) to reinforce its capacity to counter terrorism. Saudi Arabia implemented the UN Security Council ISIL (Da’esh) and al-Qa’ida sanctions regime. It expanded existing counterterrorism programs and messaging to address returning foreign terrorist fighters and leveraged terrorist finance provisions of the new CT Law to counter the funding of terrorist groups.
The risk of terrorist activity in Tunisia remained high in 2017, including the potential for terrorist attacks and the movement of arms and terrorists from neighboring countries. In 2017, al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)-aligned Uqba bin Nafi’ Battalion and ISIS-affiliated groups continued small-scale attacks against Tunisian security personnel. Tunisian security forces improved, however, their ability to preempt terrorist activities. There were no major terrorist attacks in Tunisia in 2017. The last terrorist attack on tourists occurred on June 26, 2015.
The government has made counterterrorism a top priority, and Tunisia continued to cooperate with the international community, including the United States, to professionalize its security apparatus. U.S. security assistance to Tunisia grew in 2017, but Tunisia needs more time and international support to complete the overhaul of its military and civilian security forces.
Instability in Libya has allowed terrorist groups, including ISIS, to continue cross-border smuggling operations, although there were no reported terrorist attacks in 2017 originating from Libya. The last major attack came in March 2016 in the border town of Ben Guerdan. The disproportionate numbers of Tunisians who previously travelled to fight in Syria and Iraq – and their potential return – remains a cause for concern.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) did not experience any terrorist attacks in 2017. The UAE government continued to prosecute numerous individuals for terrorism-related offenses.
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 support for counter messaging and countering violent extremism platforms, such as the Sawab and Hedayah Centers, respectively. The UAE government remained co-chair of the Coalition Communications working group along with the United States and the United Kingdom (UK).
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 together with financial authorities to counter terrorist finance. UAE government officials worked closely with their 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 support local forces in counterterrorism operations.
Throughout 2017, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS-Yemen have continued to exploit the political and security vacuum created by the ongoing conflict between the Yemeni government under President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi and Houthi-forces. A Saudi-led coalition of 10 member states continued its air campaign to restore the legitimacy of the Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) that started in March 2015. The ROYG, in partnership with the Saudi-led Coalition, controlled the majority of Yemeni territory at the end of 2017, including the population centers of Aden, Mukalla, Ta’izz, and Al Ghaydah. Houthi forces controlled the capital of Sana’a. AQAP’s area of influence has increased since the onset of the civil war.
The ROYG under President Hadi cooperated with the U.S. government on counterterrorism efforts. However, because of the instability and violence in Yemen, 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 2017 removed several key leaders and decreased AQAP’s freedom of movement, but AQAP and ISIS-Yemen continue to carry out terrorist attacks throughout government-held territory. In southern Yemen, UAE forces continued to play a vital role in counterterrorism efforts.
ISIS-Yemen remained considerably smaller in size and influence compared to AQAP, but remained operationally active. ISIS-Yemen attacks increased in late 2017, exploiting the tenuous security environment in Aden. The United States conducted successful airstrikes against two ISIS-Yemen training camps – its first against the group – in October 2017.
Turkey continued its intensive efforts to defeat terrorist organizations both inside and outside its borders, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and ISIS, respectively. Turkey’s eight-month military operation, referred to as Operation Euphrates Shield, to clear ISIS from a 98-kilometer segment of the Turkey-Syria border concluded in March 2017. Turkey remained an active contributor in international counterterrorism fora, including the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF).
Turkey is a source and transit country for foreign terrorist fighters seeking to join ISIS and other terrorist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq. Turkey is also an active member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and continued to provide access to its airspace and facilities for operations in Iraq and Syria. The United States and Turkey continued sharing comprehensive counterterrorism information. According to government authorities, as of October 23, Turkey’s “Banned from Entry List” included 53,781 individuals from 145 countries. Turkey deported 5,446 individuals from more than 100 countries for suspected terrorism ties.
The PKK continued to conduct terrorist attacks in Turkey. Turkey’s security forces conducted operations domestically along with airstrikes against PKK leadership positions in northern Iraq. The Ministry of National Defense claimed that, as of April, the government had killed, wounded, or captured more than 11,300 PKK terrorists since July 2015, when a two-year ceasefire between the government and the PKK ended. Turkish authorities reported more than 1,000 government security personnel have died in clashes with the PKK since the end of the ceasefire. Detentions and arrests of individuals suspected of aiding the PKK increased in 2017.
According to interior ministry data, law enforcement forces detained more than 15,000 suspects for allegedly aiding and abetting the PKK during the January 2 to October 30 timeframe. The PKK also targeted Turkish elements operating in northern Iraq. Turkish authorities in October announced that PKK elements in northern Iraq had kidnapped two Turkish National Intelligence Organization (Milli Istihbarat Teskilatı or MIT) officers.
Turkey’s counterterrorism efforts were impacted in the aftermath of the July 2016 coup attempt due to the government’s investigation into the movement of self-exiled Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, which Turkey refers to as the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization” (“FETO”). This resulted in detentions, arrests, and dismissals of military, security, and civil servants from public office. Turkey designated “FETO” as a terrorist organization in May 2016 and later accused it of perpetrating the attempted coup. The state of emergency instituted by the Turkish government July 21, 2016, remained in effect at the end of 2017. As of November, the government had dismissed approximately 150,000 civil servants from public service for alleged “FETO” or terrorism-related links, often on the basis of scant evidence and minimal due process. Detentions of “FETO” suspects continued at year’s end, with 35,145 detained in the January 2 to October 30 timeframe, according to interior ministry data.
State Sponsors of Terrorism
Designated in 1979 as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, Syria continued its political and military support to a variety of terrorist groups. The regime continued to provide weapons and political support to Lebanese Hizballah (LH) and continued to allow Iran to rearm the terrorist organization. The Assad regime’s relationship with LH and Iran grew stronger in 2017 as the regime became more reliant on external actors to fight regime opponents. President Bashar al-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 LH.
Foreign Terrorist Organizations
ABDALLAH AZZAM BRIGADES
Designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on May 30, 2012, the Abdallah Azzam Brigades (AAB) formally announced its establishment in a July 2009 video statement claiming responsibility for a February 2009 rocket attack against Israel. The Lebanon‑based group’s full name is Ziyad al-Jarrah Battalions of the Abdallah Azzam Brigades, named after Lebanese citizen Ziad al Jarrah, one of the planners of and participants in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
ISLAMIC STATE OF IRAQ AND SYRIA (ISIS)
Al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on December 17, 2004. In the 1990s, Jordanian militant Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi organized a terrorist group called al-Tawhid wal-Jihad to oppose the presence of U.S. and Western military forces in the Middle East and the West’s support for, and the existence of, Israel. In late 2004, he joined al-Qa’ida (AQ) and pledged allegiance to Usama bin Laden. At this time his group became known as al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI). Zarqawi led the group in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom to fight against U.S. and Coalition forces until his death in June 2006.
In October 2006, AQI publicly renamed itself the Islamic State in Iraq and in 2013 it adopted the moniker ISIS to express its regional ambitions as it expanded operations to include the Syrian conflict. ISIS is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who declared an Islamic caliphate in June 2014. In October 2017, the U.S. military fighting with local Syrian allies announced the liberation of Raqqa, the self-declared capital of the ISIS “caliphate.”
AL-AQSA MARTYRS BRIGADE
Designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on March 27, 2002, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (AAMB) is composed of small cells of Fatah-affiliated activists that emerged at the outset of the al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000. AAMB strives to drive the Israeli military and West Bank settlers from the West Bank to establish a Palestinian state loyal to Fatah.
Ansar al-Islam (AAI) was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on March 22, 2004. AAI was established in 2001 in the Iraqi Kurdistan region with the merger of two Kurdish terrorist factions that traced their roots to the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan. On May 4, 2010, AAI’s leader Abu Abdullah al-Shafi’i was captured by U.S. forces in Baghdad; he remained in prison at the end of 2017. On December 15, 2011, AAI announced a new leader: Abu Hashim Muhammad bin Abdul Rahman al Ibrahim. AAI seeks to expel western interests from Iraq and establish an independent Iraqi state based on its interpretation of Sharia law.
ARMY OF ISLAM
Designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on May 19, 2011, the Army of Islam (AOI), founded in late 2015, is a Gaza-based terrorist organization responsible for numerous terrorist acts against the Israeli and Egyptian governments and British, New Zealand, and U.S. citizens. The group, led by Mumtaz Dughmush, subscribes to an extremist Salafist ideology.
Gama’a al-Islamiyya (IG) was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on October 8, 1997. Formed in the 1970s, IG was once Egypt’s largest terrorist group. In 2011, it formed the Building and Development political party that competed in the 2011 parliamentary elections and won 13 seats. The external wing, composed mainly of exiled members in several countries, maintained that its primary goal was to replace the Egyptian government with an Islamist state. IG’s “spiritual” leader Omar Abd al-Rahman, or the “blind Sheikh,” served a life sentence in a U.S. prison for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and died in prison in February 2017.
Designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on October 8, 1997, Hamas was established in 1987 at the onset of the first Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, as an outgrowth of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The armed element, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, has conducted anti-Israeli attacks, including suicide bombings against civilian targets inside Israel. Hamas also manages a broad, mostly Gaza-based, network of Dawa or ministry activities that include charities, schools, clinics, youth camps, fundraising, and political activities. After winning Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January 2006, Hamas gained control of significant Palestinian Authority (PA) ministries in Gaza, including the Ministry of Interior. In 2007, Hamas expelled the PA and Fatah from Gaza in a violent takeover. Hamas remained the de facto ruler in Gaza in 2017. The group selected a new leader, Ismail Haniyeh, who is based in Gaza, on May 6, 2017.
Hizballah was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on October 8, 1997. Formed in 1982 following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Lebanon-based radical Shia group takes its ideological inspiration from the Iranian revolution and the teachings of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. The group generally follows the religious guidance of the Iranian Supreme Leader, which in 2017 was Ali Khamenei. Hizballah is closely allied with Iran and the two often work together on shared initiatives, although Hizballah also acts independently. Hizballah shares a close relationship with Syria, and like Iran, provides assistance – including fighters – to Syrian regime forces in the Syrian conflict.
Formed in 2006 and designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on July 2, 2009, Kata’ib Hizballah (KH) is an anti-Western Shia group with a terrorist ideology. Prior to the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011, the group conducted attacks against Iraqi, U.S., and Coalition targets in Iraq, and threatened the lives of Iraqi politicians and civilians supporting the legitimate political process in Iraq. The group is notable for its extensive use of media operations and propaganda, including filming and releasing videos of attacks. KH has ideological ties to and receives support from Iran.
KURDISTAN WORKERS’ PARTY
Founded by Abdullah Ocalan in 1978 as a Marxist-Leninist separatist organization, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on October 8, 1997. The group, composed primarily of Turkish Kurds, launched a campaign of violence in 1984. The PKK’s original goal was to establish an independent Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey.
l-Nusrah Front (ANF) is al-Qa’ida’s affiliate in Syria and was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on May 15, 2014. It is led by Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, aka al‑Julani. The group was formed in late 2011 when then-al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) – now ISIS – leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sent al-Jawlani to Syria to organize terrorist cells. In 2013, the group split from AQI and became an independent entity. ANF’s stated goal is to oust Syria’s Assad regime and replace it with a Sunni Islamic state. The group is present throughout Syria, but is concentrated in and controls a portion of territory in northwest Syria, where it is active as an opposition force, in local governance, and in external plotting.
PALESTINE ISLAMIC JIHAD
alestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on October 8, 1997. Formed by militant Palestinians in Gaza during the 1970s, PIJ is committed to the destruction of Israel through attacks against Israeli military and civilian targets and to the creation of an Islamic state in historic Palestine, including present day Israel.
POPULAR FRONT FOR THE LIBERATION OF PALESTINE
Designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on October 8, 1997, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) is a Marxist-Leninist group that was formed in 1967 by George Habash after splitting from the Arab Nationalist Movement. The group earned a reputation for large-scale international attacks in the 1960s and 1970s, including airline hijackings that killed at least 20 U.S. citizens.
Designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on October 8, 1999, al-Qa’ida (AQ) was established in 1988. The group helped finance, recruit, transport, and train fighters for the Afghan resistance against the former Soviet Union. AQ strives to eliminate Western influence from the Muslim world, topple “apostate” governments of Muslim countries, and establish a pan-Islamic caliphate governed by its own interpretation of Sharia law that would ultimately be at the center of a new international order. These goals remain essentially unchanged since the group’s 1996 public declaration of war against the United States. AQ leaders issued a statement in 1998 under the banner of “The World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders,” saying it was the duty of all Muslims to kill U.S. citizens – civilian and military – and their allies everywhere. AQ merged with al-Jihad (Egyptian Islamic Jihad) in June 2001. Many AQ leaders have been killed in recent years, including Usama bin Laden in May 2011. AQ’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri remained at-large in 2017.
AL-QA’IDA IN THE ARABIAN PENINSULA
Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on January 19, 2010. In January 2009, the now-deceased leader of al-Qa’ida in Yemen, Nasir al-Wahishi, publicly announced that Yemeni and Saudi al-Qa’ida (AQ) operatives were working together under the banner of AQAP. The announcement signaled the rebirth of an AQ franchise that previously carried out attacks in Saudi Arabia. AQAP’s self‑stated goals are to establish a caliphate and Sharia law in the Arabian Peninsula and the wider Middle East.
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"The Islamists" is a book and website on the origins, evolution, and positions of Islamist movements in the Middle East. The movements are redefining the order and borders in the world’s most volatile region. Yet they have diverse goals and different constituencies. Sometimes they are even rivals. Read more