Victoria Media – Further Edition

US State Department warns ISIS grew and evolved worldwide as it lost territory in Syria

Photo: Dawn Armfield

The United States and its partners made major strides to defeat and degrade international terrorist organizations in 2018. Together, we liberated nearly all the territory ISIS previously held in Syria and Iraq, freeing 110,000 square kilometers and roughly 7.7 million men, women, and children from ISIS’s brutal rule. These successes set the stage for the final destruction of the so-called “caliphate” in 2019. At the same time, the United States and its partners continued to pursue al-Qa’ida (AQ) globally, and the United States applied maximum pressure on Iran-backed terrorism, significantly expanding sanctions on Iranian state actors and proxies and building stronger international political will to counter those threats.

Despite these successes, the terrorist landscape remained complex in 2018. Even as ISIS lost almost all its physical territory, the group proved its ability to adapt, especially through its efforts to inspire or direct followers online. Over the last year, ISIS’s global presence evolved with affiliates and networks conducting attacks in the Middle East, South and East Asia, and Africa. Additionally, battle-hardened terrorists headed home from the war zone in Syria and Iraq or traveled to third countries, posing new dangers. Hundreds of ISIS fighters were captured and detained by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a partner non-state actor. The United States led by example in repatriating and prosecuting American foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs), and we pressed other countries to do the same. Meanwhile, homegrown terrorists, inspired by ISIS ideology, planned and executed attacks against soft targets, including hotels, restaurants, stadiums, and other public spaces. The December 2018 shooting at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, France, which killed three people and wounded 12, demonstrated the ability of homegrown terrorists to strike in the heart of Western Europe.

Iran remains the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism. The regime has spent nearly one billion dollars per year to support terrorist groups that serve as its proxies and expand its malign influence across the globe. Tehran has funded international terrorist groups such as Hizballah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It also has engaged in its own terrorist plotting around the world, particularly in Europe. In January, German authorities investigated 10 suspected Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force operatives. In the summer, authorities in Belgium, France, and Germany thwarted an Iranian plot to bomb a political rally near Paris, France. In October, an Iranian operative was arrested for planning an assassination in Denmark, and in December, Albania expelled two Iranian officials for plotting terrorist attacks. Furthermore, Tehran continued to allow an AQ facilitation network to operate in Iran, which sends fighters and money to conflict zones in Afghanistan and Syria, and it has extended sanctuary to AQ members residing in the country.

AQ and its regional affiliates remain resilient and pose an enduring threat to the United States, our allies and partners, and our interests around the world. Given ISIS’s setbacks, AQ aims to reestablish itself as the vanguard of the global jihadist movement. Despite our sustained efforts since September 11, 2001, and the group’s leadership losses, AQ’s regional affiliates continue to expand their ranks, plot, and carry out attacks, as well as raise funds and inspire new recruits through social media and virtual technologies. AQ’s global network includes remnants of the group’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Nusrah Front in Syria, other AQ-linked extremists in Syria, AQ in the Arabian Peninsula, AQ in the Islamic Maghreb, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, al-Shabaab, and AQ in the Indian Subcontinent.

Regionally focused terrorist groups also remained a threat in 2018. For example, Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayyiba – which was responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks – and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) maintained the capability and intent to attack Indian and Afghan targets. In February, operatives reportedly affiliated with JeM attacked an Indian army camp at Sunjuwan, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, killing seven. Elsewhere in South Asia, the Taliban and the Haqqani network (HQN) continued to launch lethal attacks throughout Afghanistan, including against U.S. military personnel. In one of its deadliest attacks to date, HQN – an affiliate of the Taliban – killed more than 100 people after detonating an explosives-laden ambulance in Kabul in January, a week after the Taliban conducted an attack on a Kabul hotel that killed 22. The Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan also continued to carry out attacks in 2018, including a March suicide bombing that targeted a checkpoint on the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan, resulting in the deaths of four police officers and two civilians. Israel continued to face terrorist threats from Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza. In 2018, Hamas and other Gaza-based groups launched more than 750 rockets and mortar shells toward Israel.

Terrorist tactics and use of technologies evolved throughout 2018. For example, the increased use of commercially available drones and encrypted communications, as well as low-tech vehicle and knife attacks, presented additional challenges for the international counterterrorism community. Moreover, terrorists remained intent on attacking civil aviation, though there were no successful such attacks in 2018.

In October, the White House released the National Strategy for Counterterrorism, the United States’ first counterterrorism strategy since 2011. The strategy emphasizes the need to counter the full spectrum of terrorist threats we face, including ISIS, AQ, and Iran-backed groups, as well as regional terrorist organizations. It also highlights the need for a whole-of-government approach to counterterrorism – one that relies on both civilian and military tools to address near- and long-term terrorist threats. Our strategy places a premium on dismantling terrorist organizations using a wide range of diplomatic, law enforcement, military, intelligence, financial, and other tools. It also calls on our foreign partners to assume a greater share of the burden. In 2018, the United States used this whole-of-government approach to mobilize international responses to counter the most dangerous transnational terrorist organizations.

Throughout the year, we continued our efforts to combat terrorist financing. The Department of State completed 51 designation actions against terrorist groups and individuals, and the Department of the Treasury completed 157 terrorism designations. These actions were critical steps in cutting off the flow of resources that might be used to commit terrorist attacks.

Restricting terrorist travel remained a top priority. The United States played a leading role in helping states implement key measures in UN Security Council Resolution 2396 aimed at countering terrorist travel, including border security and information sharing measures. The United States signed three new arrangements to share terrorist watchlists under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 6, bringing the total number of partner countries to 72. The Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System (PISCES) border security platform grew to include 227 ports of entry in 23 countries, and our partners use it to screen more than 300,000 travelers each day. In December, the United States launched an initiative at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to adopt a standard for passenger name record data – a key screening tool that the United States has used for decades and that UN Security Council Resolution 2396 made mandatory for all UN members – by the end of 2019.

The United States continued to play a major role in building our partners’ capabilities to detect, disrupt, and dismantle terrorist networks – particularly governments on the front lines against terrorist threats. Such assistance advanced major U.S. counterterrorism priorities, especially information sharing, aviation security, preventing homegrown terrorism, countering the financing of terrorism, countering Iran-backed groups, and pursuing FTF prosecutions and repatriations. The Department of State also launched a battlefield evidence initiative with the Departments of Defense and Justice, to enable the United States and partner nations to use captured enemy material more effectively in criminal prosecutions and other civilian applications.

The United States engaged a host of international partners – from governments to local religious leaders to tech companies – to counter terrorist radicalization and recruitment, both online and offline. We supported international initiatives, including the Strong Cities Network, which expanded to 125 cities globally and plays a key role in building local resilience to terrorist narratives. We also funded and mobilized support for grassroots programs to counter radicalization to violence in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kenya, Kosovo, Malaysia, Mali, Nigeria, the Philippines, and many other locales.

These efforts are only a snapshot of our ongoing work to protect the United States and our allies from terrorism. Country Reports on Terrorism 2018 provides a detailed review of last year’s successes and challenges facing our country and our partners. As we look to 2019 and beyond, the United States and our partners will remain committed to the global counterterrorism fight.