(CNSNews.com) – The State Department’s annual report on terrorism, released Thursday, echoes President Obama’s assertion that al-Qaeda is “on a path to defeat” but concedes that it remains capable of inspiring and carrying out attacks. The report also highlights how Islamist terrorists have been able to take advantage of “tumultuous events” in the Arab world, from Libya to Syria.
The 2012 Country Reports on Terrorism says that the Ayman al-Zawahiri-led group – which the administration calls the “AQ core” – has been “significantly degraded” by setbacks including the deaths of key leaders in 2011 and 2012.
Even so, it “still has the ability to inspire, plot, and launch regional and transnational attacks from its safe haven in Western Pakistan.”
“Along with AQ, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, and other like-minded groups continue to conduct operations against U.S., Coalition, Afghan, and Pakistani interests from safe havens on both sides of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border,” the report says.
Despite blows to AQ and two of its affiliates – al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQIM) in Yemen and al-Shabaab in Somalia – “tumultuous events in the Middle East and North Africa have complicated the counterterrorism picture.”
Among these, the report cites the conflict in Syria and instability in post-Gaddafi Libya.
In Syria, the report says that al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), operating under the pseudonym al-Nusrah Front, has “sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition and attempted to hijack Syria’s struggle for democracy.”
It says al-Nusrah has claimed nearby 600 attacks inside Syria since late 2011, including more than 40 suicide attacks.
The report notes that al-Nusrah “says it is fighting to establish an Islamic caliphate encompassing the entire Levant,” and that its leader last April publicly pledged fealty to AQ and Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Other reports have named al-Nusrah as among the most effective of the various rebel groups fighting to topple the Assad regime – and just one of a number of Sunni jihadist elements engaged in the conflict.
When the Obama administration last December blacklisted al-Nusrah (by amending AQI’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization to add al-Nusrah as an alias), the move was criticized by dozens of Syrian rebel groups, including the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army.
Concerns have grown over the past year that weapon shipments to the anti-Assad opposition, mostly originating from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, were mostly benefiting extremist groups.
The U.S. so far has supplied only non-lethal aid to the mainstream opposition, but some members of Congress are pushing for the arming of “vetted” rebel groups. The European Union this week edged closer to arming rebels, agreeing to lift an arms embargo on Syria.
Libyan ‘security vacuum’
On Libya, the State Department report says “the security vacuum in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution provided greater opportunity for terrorists to operate,” and cites the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in which Ambassador Chris Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith, and Navy Seals Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed.
The 42-year-old Gaddafi regime was toppled in a 2011 civil war, with NATO intervention playing a decisive role in turning the tide in favor of anti-regime rebels.
Factors contributing to insecurity in Libya in 2012, the State Department report says, include the “prevalence of loose weapons, the continued ability of extra-governmental militias to act with impunity, the country’s porous borders, and the lack of government capacity to apply the rule of law outside of Tripoli.”
The report also lists attacks in Libya in 2012, a period of particular interest to congressional inquiries into the U.S. security posture in the run-up to the Benghazi attack. They include:
--May 22: a rocket-propelled grenade attack directed at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Benghazi
--Jun. 6: an improvised explosive device attack by “violent extremists” targeting U.S. facilities in Benghazi
--Jun. 11: an attack in Benghazi on a convoy carrying the British ambassador
--Aug. 1: the bombing of military intelligence offices in Benghazi
--Aug. 10: the assassination of a Libyan army general in Benghazi
--Aug. 20: the bombing of an Egyptian diplomat’s car in Benghazi
Dotted throughout the almost 300-page report are references to the way returning fighters and weapons from Libya have contributed to instability – in places including Mali, Niger, Algeria, the Egyptian Sinai and the Gaza Strip (by way of Sudan).
The report outlines ways in which the U.S. is trying to help Libyan authorities, including measures to enhance border security, improve the professionalism of security institutions and stem weapons proliferation.
It acknowledges continuing problems, including difficulties in enforcing legislation to limit the power of armed militias, and the continuing spread of weapons across Libya’s borders.
“[T]he Libyan authorities lacked the basic training and equipment necessary to monitor their vast land and maritime borders, and to control the flow of people and goods through their airports,” it says. “Violent extremists continued to exploit these weaknesses, which threatened to destabilize the Middle East and North Africa region.”