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Another Clear Warning: State Department Report Shows Alarming Trend

SOURCE: AP/Anjum Naveed

A Pakistani police officer stands guard at a road block near the site of a bomb explosion in Islamabad on March 16, 2008 blamed on Islamic militants linked to Al Qaeda.

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The U.S. State Department released its “Country Reports on Terrorism” for 2007 this week. The congressionally-mandated report highlights a disturbing global trend: Al Qaeda and its associated networks are strengthening and expanding.

Al Qaeda and its affiliates remained the “greatest terrorist threat to the United States and its partners in 2007,” according to the report. Ambassador Dell Dailey, the State Department’s top counterterrorism official, also stated in a press conference on the report that “core elements of Al Qaeda are adaptable and resilient, and Al Qaeda and associated networks remain our greatest terrorist threat to the United States and its partners.”

While disturbing, this report comes as no surprise. Senior members of the U.S. intelligence and military have been sounding the alarm about the strengthening Al Qaeda network for some time. The July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, the Intelligence Community’s Annual Threat Assessment in February 2008, and a March 30 Meet the Press interview with CIA Director Michael Hayden all pointed to the same concern.

The State Department report’s raw numbers on terrorist attacks worldwide are of only limited utility for detailed analysis, given its lack of distinction between the size or the perpetrators of the attacks it catalogs. With these caveats in mind, the report does reveal a slight drop in the number of terrorist attacks on civilians worldwide in 2007, thanks in part to a decrease in attacks in Iraq and the Western hemisphere. The number of people killed in the attacks, however, increased between 2006 and 2007; 22,685 non-combatants were killed in 2007 alone—an 8 percent increase from the previous year.

Iraq continued to be the overwhelming source for terrorism-related deaths, casualties, and kidnappings in 2007. They represented over 60 percent of the terrorism fatalities worldwide. The ongoing U.S. war in Iraq, the report noted, continues “to be exploited by [Al Qaeda] as a rallying cry for radicalization and terrorist activity.”

In Afghanistan, the number of attacks in 2007 rose by almost 17 percent from the previous year, to 1,127 attacks that inflicted over 4,600 casualties. This is more than double the number of attacks that occurred in 2005, reflecting the continued deterioration of security on that front.

Terrorist Safe Haven

Immediately following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, many of Al Qaeda’s core leaders were killed and captured. Yet due to insufficient troop levels, inadequate resources, the distraction of the war in Iraq, and flawed approaches in Pakistan, Al Qaeda has been able to rebuild.

Al Qaeda, according to the State Department report, “reconstituted some of its pre-9/11 operational capabilities through the exploitation of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), replacement of captured or killed operational lieutenants, and the restoration of some central control by its top leaders.” From this safe haven in FATA, the Al Qaeda leadership is increasingly able to provide training and direction to potential terrorists, as it did in Afghanistan prior to 2001. Authorities in Europe are also concerned that Pakistan has become “an ideological and training hotbed for jihadists, and they are being exported here.” Thwarted and conducted terrorist attacks in Denmark, Germany, and Spain have all revealed links to terrorist training camps situated in FATA.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has so far failed to develop a comprehensive strategy for eliminating Al Qaeda’ safe havens in the FATA, according to a recent study by the Government Accountability Office, the independent nonpartisan investigatory body of Congress. U.S. assistance to Pakistan and the FATA has been overwhelmingly military in nature, and the embassy in Islamabad reported to GAO investigators that without concrete direction from the top policymakers in Washington, its efforts to coordinate State and Defense department programs in Pakistan were proceeding without any agreed-upon strategy for how to use all elements of U.S. national power.

Ideological Battle

National security experts are increasingly concerned that Al Qaeda’s FATA-based core is serving as an inspirational vanguard for a broader movement around the world. While some of Al Qaeda’s followers maintain operational ties to the organization’s central command, it appears that there are an increasing number of networks and individuals who subscribe to the rhetoric of Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, but operate independently of Al Qaeda central command. This has caused some terrorist analysts to warn that we are now facing a new “leaderless” wave of terrorists. Al Qaeda’s leadership releases statements to its global audience through the media and the Internet with increasing frequency—its media production arm put out over 90 videos in 2007 alone.

Yet the State Department report offers little in terms of strategic thinking or assessment of progress in the ideological war against these terrorist groups. For example, one of its few metrics for measuring the progress of U.S. public diplomacy in the Muslim world is the number of websites that link to the State Department’s “Identifying Misinformation” website.

The United States has had only marginal success countering these ideological messages thus far, and the report acknowledges the United States and international community’s failure to counter Al Qaeda’s messaging machine. It asserts, “The international community has yet to muster a coordinated and effectively resourced program to counter extremist propaganda.” Recent public opinion polling in the Middle East continues to show opposition to U.S. policies there and some sympathy for Al Qaeda’s goals, if not its methods, of challenging America. A recent shift in official U.S. government language away from terms like “jihadi” and “Islamist” represents a long-overdue step in the right direction—although the president himself appears to have missed the memo, and the State Department report fails to follow the new guidelines.

Conclusion

The Center for American Progress and Foreign Policy magazine released their third edition of the Terrorism Index in August 2007. The survey of over 100 national security experts from across the ideological spectrum found that an overwhelming 84 percent disagreed with the statement that “the United States is winning the war on terror.” The persistent threat of Al Qaeda seven years after 9/11, as shown in the State Department’s report and by other U.S. government professionals, only reinforces these opinions. The Bush administration has failed to advance comprehensive strategies for preserving American power, security, and leadership in the world and eliminating the real terrorist threats we face in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Iraq, and in the broader counterterrorism mission.

For more reports by Center for American Progress experts addressing some of these strategic shortcomings please see:

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