Chapter 1. Strategic Assessment

Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism
Report

CHAPTER 1

STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT

Although terrorist attacks and fatalities from terrorism declined globally for the second year in a row in 2016, terrorist groups continued to exploit ungoverned territory and ongoing conflict to expand their reach, and to direct and inspire attacks around the world. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) remained the most potent terrorist threat to global security, with eight recognized branches and numerous undeclared networks operating beyond the group’s core concentration in Iraq and Syria. Al-Qa’ida (AQ) and its regional affiliates remained a threat to the U.S. homeland and our interests abroad despite counterterrorism pressure by U.S. partners and increased international efforts to counter violent Islamist ideology and messaging. Terrorist groups supported by Iran – most prominently Hizballah – continued to threaten U.S. allies and interests even in the face of U.S.-led intensification of financial sanctions and law enforcement.

ISIS was driven out of roughly a quarter of the territory it held in Syria and Iraq at the beginning of the year through the combined efforts of Iraqi Security Forces and Syrian armed groups, enabled and supported by the 73 members of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. At the same time, diplomatic efforts contributed to strengthening a broad range of travel controls that helped choke off the flow of foreign terrorist fighters to ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria. Along with battlefield deaths, the reduction in the flow of recruits left ISIS at its lowest battlefield strength since at least 2014. In Libya, government forces and aligned armed groups, supported by U.S. air strikes, drove ISIS out of its main Libyan stronghold in Sirte. Many ISIS fighters in Darnah and Benghazi also were driven out by the end of 2016.

ISIS attacks outside its territorial strongholds in Iraq, Syria, and Libya were an increasingly important part of its terrorism campaign in 2016. Most of these attacks took place in countries where ISIS has a declared branch, such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Elsewhere around the globe, returning foreign terrorist fighters and homegrown violent extremists carried out attacks directed, assisted, or inspired by ISIS. The attacks in Brussels on March 22, carried out by the same operational cell that conducted the November 2015 Paris attacks, and attacks in Istanbul, are examples of this. Other operations outside of Iraq and Syria were conducted by individuals who were unable to travel to that region and instead conducted attacks in their home countries or regions. ISIS sought to exploit refugee and migrant flows to disguise the travel of its operatives, causing alarm but resulting in increased vigilance in many of the destination countries.

ISIS continued to commit atrocities against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other groups.

In 2015 and 2016, ISIS abducted, systematically raped, and abused thousands of women and children, some as young as eight years of age. Women and children were sold and enslaved, distributed to ISIS fighters as spoils of war, forced into marriage and domestic servitude, or subjected to physical and sexual abuse. ISIS established “markets” where women and children were sold with price tags attached and has published a list of rules on how to treat female slaves once captured. (For further information, refer to the Trafficking in Persons Report 2016, https://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/index.htm.)

The recruitment of violent extremists through social media remained central to ISIS’s terrorist campaign in 2016. The United States and its partners worked closely with social media companies and others to lawfully counter and curtail use of the internet for terrorist purposes. Due in part to these efforts, ISIS content on the internet declined 75 percent from August 2015 to August 2016, while ISIS-related traffic on Twitter declined 45 percent from mid-2014 to mid‑2016. This coincided with a steep reduction in the monthly rate of official visual media releases by ISIS, from 761 in August 2015 to 194 in August 2016, according to a study published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.[1] Moreover, ISIS had 19 active media outlets at the beginning of 2017, down from at least 40 in 2015, according to another study published by the Council on Foreign Relations.[2]

Even as ISIS attacks increased in 2016, the world experienced fewer terrorist attacks and fewer fatalities from terrorism for the second year in a row, due largely to declines in South and Central Asia and the Lake Chad Basin region of Africa. In the Lake Chad Basin, military gains by the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) and its member states against both Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa, a Boko Haram off-shoot that emerged in 2016, helped drive down terrorist attacks and fatalities in Nigeria and elsewhere in the Lake Chad Basin region over much of the year.

Al-Qa’ida and its regional affiliates exploited the absence of credible and effective state institutions in some states and regions to remain a significant worldwide threat despite sustained pressure by the United States and its partners. Despite leadership losses, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remained a significant threat to Yemen, the region, and the United States, as ongoing conflict in Yemen hindered U.S. efforts to counter the group. Al‑Qa’ida’s affiliate in Syria, al-Nusrah Front, continued to exploit ongoing armed conflict to maintain a territorial safe haven in select parts of northwestern Syria. Al-Shabaab, which pledged allegiance to al-Qa’ida in 2012, continued to conduct asymmetric attacks throughout Somalia and parts of Kenya despite weakened leadership and increasing defections. In February, al‑Shabaab claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack aboard a Daallo Airlines flight from Mogadishu that resulted in the death of the attacker, but failed to destroy the aircraft as intended. The attack demonstrated that civilian aviation targets remain a high priority for international terrorist groups despite the broad improvements in aviation security. Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its affiliates in Mali shifted their operational emphasis from holding territory to perpetrating asymmetric attacks against government and civilian targets, including hotels in Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire, as well as UN peacekeeping forces in northern Mali. Al-Qa’ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) continued to operate in South Asia, which the AQ‑core has historically exploited for safe haven, and it claimed several attacks targeting religious minorities, police, secular bloggers, and publishers in Bangladesh. In Afghanistan, al‑Qa’ida suffered significant losses, including its regional leader, Faruq al-Qahtani, who was killed in a U.S. operation in October 2016.

Regional and international military coalitions supported to varying degrees by the United States and its allies continued to make progress against terrorist groups in fragile states, particularly in Africa. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), in concert with the Somali National Army (SNA), was able to hold key sections of rural areas in south-central Somalia, although al‑Shabaab’s leveraging of clan politics and exploitation of poor economic conditions to recruit fighters undermined AMISOM and SNA territorial gains. In the Lake Chad Basin, the MNJTF contributed to an overall reduction in terrorist attacks and fatalities, although national forces within the group had difficulty holding cleared areas and rebuilding civilian institutions, especially in Nigeria. In the Sahel region, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali and French forces provided a measure of stability and security in Mali’s north.

The use of Chemical, Biological, Radiological, or Nuclear (CBRN) materials and expertise remained a terrorist threat, as demonstrated by terrorists’ stated intent to acquire, develop, and use these materials; the nature of injury and damage these weapons can inflict; the ease with which information on these topics now flows; and the dual-use nature of many relevant technologies and material. As evidence of this challenge, the third report of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism found that ISIS was responsible for a sulfur mustard attack in Marea, Syria, on August 21, 2015. Given the well‑understood ISIS interest and intent in CBRN capabilities, the United States has been working proactively to disrupt and deny ISIS’s (and other non-state actors’) chemical weapons capability, as well as to deny ISIS and other non-state actors access to CBRN-useable materials and expertise through interdictions and strengthening the ability of regional governments to detect, disrupt, and respond effectively to suspected CBRN activity.

Terrorist attacks on public spaces and other soft targets – sometimes using unsophisticated means and methods – resulted in mass casualties. The terrorist attack in Nice on July 14, claimed by ISIS, epitomized this phenomenon. The attacker, a Tunisian national residing permanently in France, drove a 19-ton cargo truck through crowds gathered on a seaside promenade to celebrate Bastille Day, France’s national holiday, killing 86 and injuring hundreds before police shot and killed him. In Germany, an ISIS-claimed truck attack killed 12 in a crowded Christmas market in Berlin on December 19, 2016. Other notable terrorist attacks on soft targets during the year included AQIM attacks on a restaurant and hotel in Ouagadougou on January 15; a June 28 attack on the main airport in Istanbul, attributed to ISIS; and a July 23 attack on a peaceful protest in Kabul, carried out by the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan. The same ISIS affiliate also claimed responsibility for multiple attacks in Pakistan, including a November 12 bomb blast at the Shah Noorani Shrine in Baluchistan province, Pakistan, which killed more than 50 and wounded more than 100 people. Finally, attacks using bladed weapons such as knives and machetes, which ISIS propaganda has promoted, remained a feature of the terrorism threat in 2016. Knife attacks in Israel and the West Bank by Palestinian lone offenders continued a trend begun there in 2015.

Attacks on soft targets led to increased focus on the need for greater coordination and interoperability between intelligence agencies and law enforcement at the national level, increased information sharing, and expanded public-private partnerships. In response, the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), with support from the United States, launched an ongoing soft‑targets initiative to build political will and increase capacity to prevent soft-target attacks and mitigate their effects. At the same time, attacks on airports and airliners in 2015 and 2016 highlighted the persistent need to protect air travelers and prevent terrorists from targeting aircraft or using them as weapons. To address this threat, on September 22, 2016, the UN Security Council adopted the first UN Security Council resolution (UNSCR) focused exclusively on the terrorist threat to civil aviation – UNSCR 2309 (2016).

Although the drivers of radicalization to violence varied from country to country – and even within countries – a common thread through much of the terrorism observed in 2016 was adherence to violent extremist ideology put forth by a fundamentalist strain of Sunni Islam that perceives itself to be under attack by the West and in conflict with other branches of Islam. ISIS volunteers from predominantly Sunni states in the Middle East continued to cite defense of the Syrian people against supposed “apostates” – referring to the Assad regime and its Shia backers in Iran – as a motivation for joining the group. Central Asian labor migrants working in Russia, Turkey, and other countries, often facing poor working conditions and social isolation were more susceptible to recruitment by groups espousing ISIS’s violent extremist ideology. In parts of Africa, ISIS’s ideology resonated among those with direct experience of official corruption and abusive security-service tactics. In the West, ISIS’s narrative of a fight for the restoration of a premodern, sectarian caliphate from West Africa to Southeast Asia continued to resonate with members of predominantly Muslim immigrant communities, converts to Islam, and others searching for identity and purpose, although only a small fraction of these have become terrorists, and their radicalization to violence has been influenced as much by uniquely personal circumstances as by ideology. Finally, the online messages of the late al-Qa’ida figure Anwar al-Aulaqi continued to influence Western violent extremists years after his 2011 death in a U.S. counterterrorism operation in Yemen. Omar Mateen, who killed 49 in an attack on a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in July 2016, told an acquaintance in 2014 that he had watched videos of al-Aulaqi’s sermons and found them powerful. (Mateen, who was killed by police, pledged allegiance to ISIS during the course of the standoff, but the U.S. government has not found evidence of formal ties between Mateen and the group.)

International support for addressing the ideological, political, social, and economic drivers of violent extremism grew in 2016. Institutions shaped and supported by the United States and its allies continued to provide platforms for action. In July, the UN General Assembly endorsed recommendations of the Secretary-General’s Plan of Action for Preventing Violent Extremism, a significant step because it put the weight of the UN’s largest political organ, representing all 193 members, behind an approach to terrorism prevention shaped and influenced by the United States and its closest allies. The 30-member GCTF, which the United States founded and co‑chaired from 2011 to 2015, endorsed good practices in a number of areas relevant to terrorism prevention under its Initiative to Address the Life Cycle of Radicalization to Violence. GCTF members began supporting training and other programs to help countries on the frontlines of terrorism implement best practices, often through international platforms for information sharing and cooperation among counter-radicalization experts, such as the Strong Cities Network and the Hedayah International Center of Excellence for Countering Violent Extremism in Abu Dhabi.

Iran remained the foremost state sponsor of terrorism in 2016 as groups supported by Iran maintained their capability to threaten U.S. interests and allies. The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force, along with Iranian partners, allies, and proxies, continued to play a destabilizing role in military conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Iran continued to recruit fighters from across the region to join Iranian affiliated Shia militia forces engaged in conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and has even offered a path to citizenship for those who heed this call. Hizballah continued to work closely with Iran in these conflict zones, playing a major role in supporting the Syria government’s efforts to maintain control and territory, and providing training and a range of other support for Iranian aligned groups in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Additionally, Hizballah continued to develop its long-term attack capabilities and infrastructure around the world.

The United States continued to use a range of tools to counter Iran-sponsored terrorist groups. For instance, on October 20, 2016, the Department of State designated Hizballah commander Haytham ‘Ali Tabataba’i as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under Executive Order 13224, blocking his property subject to U.S. jurisdiction and prohibiting U.S. persons from engaging in transactions with him. Tabataba’i commanded Hizballah’s special forces, has operated in Syria, and has been reported to be in Yemen.

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[1] Daniel Milton, “Communication Breakdown: Unraveling the Islamic State’s Media Efforts,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, October 2016, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/communication-breakdown-unraveling-the-islamic-states-media-efforts.

[2] Charlie Winter and Colin P. Clarke, “Is ISIS Breaking Apart? What Its Media Operations Suggest,” Foreign Affairs (website), January 31, 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2017-01-31/isis-breaking-apart?cid=int-lea&pgtype=hpg.