The death of Usama bin Ladin, al-Qa’ida’s founder and sole leader for the past 22 years, highlighted a landmark year in the global effort to counter terrorism. In addition to being an iconic leader whose personal story had a profound attraction for violent extremists, bin Ladin was also a prime advocate of the group’s focus on the United States as a terrorist target. Even in the years when he had to limit and manage his contacts with the rest of the organization, it was clear from the trove of information collected from the compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan, that he remained deeply involved in directing its operations and setting its strategy.
Bin Ladin was not the only top al-Qa’ida leader who was removed from the battlefield in 2011. In June, Ilyas Kashmiri, one of the most capable terrorist operatives in South Asia, was killed in Pakistan. Also in June, Harun Fazul, an architect of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, and the foremost member of al-Qa’ida in East Africa, was killed in Somalia by the Transitional Federal Government. In August, Atiya Abdul Rahman, al-Qa’ida’s second-in-command after bin Ladin’s death and a senior operational commander, was killed in Pakistan. In September, Anwar al-Aulaqi, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s chief of external operations, was killed in Yemen.
The loss of bin Ladin and these other key operatives puts the network on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse. These successes are attributable, in large part, to global counterterrorism cooperation, which has put considerable pressure on the al-Qa’ida core leadership in Pakistan. But despite blows in western Pakistan, al-Qa’ida, its affiliates, and its adherents remain adaptable. They have shown resilience; retain the capability to conduct regional and transnational attacks; and, thus, constitute an enduring and serious threat to our national security.
As al-Qa’ida’s core has gotten weaker, we have seen the rise of affiliated groups around the world. Among these al-Qa’ida affiliates, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) represents a particularly serious threat. At year’s end, AQAP had taken control of territory in southern Yemen and was exploiting unrest in that country to advance plots against regional and Western interests.
In the Sahel, al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), historically the weakest of the al-Qa’ida affiliates, saw its coffers filled in 2011 with kidnapping ransoms – a practice that other terrorist groups are also using to considerable advantage. These resources, together with AQIM’s efforts to take advantage of the instability in Libya and Mali, have raised concern about this group’s trajectory.
In the Horn of Africa, al-Shabaab pursued a diverse set of targets, demonstrating that it had both the willingness and ability to conduct attacks outside of Somalia. In all, al-Shabaab’s 2011 attacks resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people. Among its most deadly attacks were a string of armed assaults in May that killed over 120 people, a June attack on African Union Mission in Somalia peacekeepers that killed 13, and an October vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attack on a government compound in Mogadishu that killed about 70. In Somalia, however, al-Shabaab has been weakened over the past year as a result of the African Union Mission in Somalia, and Kenyan and Ethiopian military offensives that forced the group’s retreat from key locations including Mogadishu.
In other areas that have been critically important theaters over the last decade, we recognize a persistent threat. With the United States withdrawal of its final forces from Iraq, Iraqi Security Forces have continued to confront the al-Qa’ida affiliate there, showing substantial capability against the group. Al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) suffered leadership losses and continued to fail to mobilize a Sunni community that turned decisively against it after the carnage in the previous decade. However, AQI is resilient, as noted by its intermittent high-profile attacks in country, and likely to carry out additional attacks into the foreseeable future. In fact, towards the end of 2011, AQI was believed to be extending its reach into Syria and seeking to exploit the popular uprising against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Asad.
Despite the counterterrorism successes in disrupting and degrading the capabilities of al-Qa’ida and its affiliates, al-Qa’ida and violent extremist ideology and rhetoric continued to spread in some parts of the word. For example, while not a formal al-Qa’ida affiliate, elements of the group known as Boko Haram launched widespread attacks across Nigeria, including one in August against the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, which signaled their ambition and capability to attack non-Nigerian targets. The Sinai Peninsula is another area of concern. A number of loosely knit militant groups have formed in the Sinai, with some claiming ties and allegiance to al-Qa’ida – though no formal links have been discovered. Also in August, a group of heavily armed militants who entered southern Israel through the Sinai conducted a series of coordinated attacks against Israeli civilian and military targets near Eilat, killing eight.
Although there were no terrorist attacks in the United States in 2011, we remain concerned about threats to the homeland. In the last several years, individuals who appear to have been trained by al-Qa’ida and its affiliates have operated within U.S. borders. Najibullah Zazi, a U.S. lawful permanent resident, obtained training in Pakistan and, in 2010, pled guilty to charges that he was planning to set off several bombs in the United States. And on October 14, 2011, Nigerian national Umar Abdulmutallab pled guilty to all charges against him in U.S. federal court in Michigan regarding his unsuccessful attempt on December 25, 2009, to detonate an explosive aboard a flight bound for Detroit, Michigan at the behest of AQAP. While these individuals had direct ties to international terrorist groups, separate incidents involving so-called “lone wolf” terrorists also pose a threat to the U.S. homeland – one that can be difficult to detect in advance.
Al-Qa’ida and its affiliates and adherents are far from the only terrorist threat the United States faces. Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, continues to undermine international efforts to promote peace and democracy and threatens stability, especially in the Middle East and South Asia. Its use of terrorism as an instrument of policy was exemplified by the involvement of elements of the Iranian regime in the plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, a conspiracy that the international community strongly condemned through a UN General Assembly resolution in November.
Despite its pledge to support the stabilization of Iraq, in 2011 Iran continued to provide lethal support – including weapons, training, funding, and guidance – to Iraqi Shia militant groups that targeted U.S. and Iraqi forces. Iran also continued to provide weapons, training, and funding to Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups, including Palestine Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. Since the end of the 2006 Israeli-Hizballah conflict, Iran has provided significant quantities of weaponry and funding to Hizballah, in direct violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701.
Both Hamas and Hizballah continued to play destabilizing roles in the Middle East. As a well-armed terrorist group in Lebanon, Hizballah persisted in using force and threats to intimidate the Lebanese people. The group’s robust relationships with the regimes in Iran and Syria, involvement in illicit financial activity, continued engagement in international attack planning, and acquisition of increasingly sophisticated missiles and rockets continued to threaten U.S. interests in the region. Meanwhile, Hamas retained its grip on Gaza, where it continued to stockpile weapons that pose a serious threat to regional stability. Moreover, Hamas and other Gaza-based groups continue to smuggle weapons, materiel, and people through the Sinai, taking advantage of the vast and largely ungoverned territory.
In South Asia, groups such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, and the Haqqani Network continued to cite U.S. interests as legitimate targets for attacks. In 2011, LeT was responsible for multiple attacks. Most of the attacks occurred in Jammu and Kashmir, with the deadliest being a May 27 attack on a private residence in the city of Kupwara that killed two civilians. The Indian Mujahideen, which shares the LeT’s ideology, committed multiple deadly attacks in crowded areas of Mumbai and against the High Court in New Delhi.
While terrorism from non-state actors related to al-Qa’ida, as well as state-sponsored terrorism originating in Iran, remained the predominant concern of the United States, a wide range of other forms of violent extremism undermined peace and security around the world in 2011. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was active in 2011, with approximately 61 credited attacks that killed at least 88 people and wounded over 200. Anarchists in Greece and Italy continued to launch attacks, sometimes infiltrating otherwise peaceful anti-austerity protests, to target government offices, foreign missions, and symbols of the state – albeit at a lower level than in previous years. In Northern Ireland, dissident Republican groups continued their campaigns of violence. The inability of any country to escape from terrorism was underscored in July in Norway, a country that has rarely been targeted in the past, when a lone right-wing extremist espousing a radical xenophobia carried out an attack that left more than 70 people dead and dozens more injured.