The United States and our international partners made major strides to defeat and degrade international terrorist organizations in 2017. We succeeded in liberating nearly all of the territory ISIS once held in Iraq and Syria. We increased pressure on al-Qa’ida to prevent its resurgence. We amplified efforts to expose and curtail Hizballah’s malign activities inside Lebanon, in the Middle East, and across the globe. We worked with allies and partners around the world to expand information sharing, improve aviation security, enhance law enforcement and rule of law capacities, and prevent terrorist recruitment and recidivism.
Despite our successes, the terrorist landscape grew more complex in 2017. ISIS, al-Qa’ida, and their affiliates have proven to be resilient, determined, and adaptable, and they have adjusted to heightened counterterrorism pressure in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere. They have become more dispersed and clandestine, turning to the internet to inspire attacks by distant followers, and, as a result, have made themselves less susceptible to conventional military action. Further, the return or relocation of foreign terrorist fighters from the battlefield has contributed to a growing cadre of experienced, sophisticated, and connected terrorist networks, which can plan and execute terrorist attacks.
As ISIS lost territory, it continued to shift away from a centralized command and control structure toward a more diffuse model. It has experimented with and employed small unmanned aerial systems and has used rudimentary chemical weapons. The group encouraged sympathizers to use whatever weapons were at hand – such as large vehicles – against soft targets and public spaces. Increasingly, the responsibility for deciding where, when, and how to attack has devolved to homegrown terrorists inspired or enabled by ISIS to conduct operations far from the war zone. In 2017, we saw such attacks in Manchester, UK; Barcelona, Spain; Sinai, Egypt; Marawi, Philippines; New York City; and elsewhere.
Al-Qa’ida quietly expanded its membership and operations in 2017. Its global network includes the remnants of its core in Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Nusrah Front (in Syria), al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Shabaab (in Somalia), and al-Qa’ida in the Indian Subcontinent. Nusrah’s formation of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, drawing in other hardline Syrian opposition groups, exemplified its effort to rebrand itself to appeal to a wider segment of the Syrian population. Al-Qa’ida affiliates also conducted major attacks, such as in October 2017, when al-Shabaab detonated a truck bomb in the heart of Mogadishu, killing over 300 people, the deadliest terrorist attack in Somali history. Al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri continued to publicly call for supporters to attack the U.S. government and citizens globally.
Iran remained the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and continued to support attacks against Israel. It maintained its terrorist-related and destabilizing activities through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force and the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hizballah. Iran is responsible for intensifying multiple conflicts and undermining the legitimate governments of, and U.S. interests in, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. In particular, Iran and Hizballah are emerging from the Syria conflict emboldened and with valuable battlefield experience that they seek to leverage across the globe. IRGC leader Qasem Soleimani recruited and deployed Shia militias from diverse ethnic groups across the Middle East and South Asia to fight in defense of the Assad dictatorship in Syria. Beyond the Middle East, Iran and its terrorist affiliates and proxies posed a significant threat and demonstrated a near-global terrorist reach. Notably, in June 2017, the FBI arrested two suspected Hizballah operatives in Michigan and New York who allegedly were conducting surveillance and intelligence gathering on behalf of the organization, including in the United States.
Regionally focused terrorists groups remained a threat in 2017. For example, Hamas continued to rebuild its military infrastructure and capabilities to support terrorist attacks against Israel. Additionally, Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar e-Tayyiba continued to pose a regional threat in the subcontinent. Some regional and local terrorist groups have avoided greater international attention by remaining independent from ISIS and al-Qa’ida while others may have concluded that the benefits of greater expertise, resources, and prominence outweighed the risks of a formal connection with a notorious transnational terrorist network.
In short, the nature of the terrorist threat confronting the United States and our allies around the world evolved in 2017. While the immediate dynamics that led terrorists to flock to Iraq and Syria since 2014 have diminished, other factors that terrorists exploit to recruit new followers remained a challenge, such as sectarianism, failing states, and conflict zones. More than ever, it remains a critical priority for the United States and our allies to defeat our terrorist adversaries.
In 2017, the United States led efforts to enhance the international community’s law enforcement and other civilian capabilities that are increasingly essential in the next phase of global counterterrorism. In December, with U.S. leadership, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2396, with 66 co-sponsors. UN Security Council resolution (UNSCR) 2396 requires member states to collect airline reservation data to block terrorist travel, to develop watchlists of known and suspected terrorists, and to use biometrics to spot terrorists who might be trying to cross their borders. The resolution also calls on UN members to enact serious criminal offenses that will enable them to prosecute and penalize terrorists who have returned from the battlefield.
In addition, throughout 2017, the State Department led bilateral diplomatic efforts with key countries to improve border and aviation security and information sharing. We increased the number of Homeland Security Presidential Directive 6 (HSPD-6) arrangements to share information about known and suspected terrorists by almost 15 percent in 2017. Our total number of HSPD-6 partners now stands at 69, including all 38 members of the Visa Waiver Program. The United States also deployed the latest border security systems to key counterterrorism partners, provided screening technology and training, and worked to expand global engagement on transportation-related threats. Border security support through the Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation Systems (PISCES) expanded to 260 ports of entry in 23 countries.
We also used foreign assistance resources to enable our partners to better identify, deter, disrupt, apprehend, prosecute, and convict terrorists and their supporters. Our goal is for partners to be able to confront the terrorist threats they face themselves without turning to the United States for assistance. We placed special emphasis on helping partner countries enact appropriate legal frameworks to bring criminal charges against terrorist offenders. At the end of 2017, 70 countries had laws in place to prosecute and penalize foreign terrorist fighters, and 69 had prosecuted or arrested foreign terrorist fighters or their facilitators.
The United States also worked to stanch the flow of money to terrorist networks by designating 30 organizations and individuals as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) and/or Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs). This included top ISIS and al-Qa’ida leaders and operatives. The State Department also continued to expose and sanction states that back terrorism. We designated the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 2017, and also designated key Hizballah figures as SDGTs as we pushed back on Iranian support for terrorism across the globe.
These efforts are only a snapshot of our ongoing work to protect the United States, our allies, and interests from terrorism. Country Reports on Terrorism 2017 provides a more detailed review of last year’s successes and challenges so we can consider how to strengthen our counterterrorism efforts going forward. As we look to the rest of 2018 and beyond, the United States remains committed to working with our allies and partners to confront the shared threat of global terrorism. I hope this report will serve as a useful resource for those seeking to better understand this threat and our efforts to defeat it.
Ambassador Nathan A. Sales
Coordinator for Counterterrorism