March 02, 2023

Takeaways from the State Department’s Report on Terrorism

Originally published in AEIdeas

The State Department’s annual—at least it’s supposed to be annual—report on terrorism released this past week to cover terrorism trends from 2021. The production timeline has increased—the 2019 report came out in June 2020 and the 2020 report in December 2021—meaning that only now, in 2023, do we have the analytical snapshot from nearly two years ago. Certainly, timeliness adds to the utility of these public assessments. Regardless, the assessments still offers a baseline to understand general trends from 2021, especially gleaned from what the report covers. These takeaways include:

1. The ongoing diversification of the terrorism threat to the US, and its shift from centrally organized to more dispersed actors. One such dynamic is the increasing focus on Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremism (REMVE) both as a driver of domestic terrorism and for its transnational ties. Over the course of just a few years, references to this threat have grown exponentially. The Biden administration’s release of the first US National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism showed leadership in recognizing the REMVE threat domestically. The threat is not new—the Oklahoma city bombing proves that—but has returned in a new form and is part of a transnational phenomenon in this space.

The US counterterrorism community is adapting to counter threats from different ideological movements and to identify and disrupt self-initiated terror plots. The demand on US counterterrorism resources today is quite different than even 10 years ago. While the REMVE threat has resurfaced, the threat from al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Hezbollah, Iran, and others remains.

2. A worrisome outlook on the impact of the Afghanistan withdrawal on the terrorism threat. To quote: “Although the Taliban committed to preventing terrorist groups from using Afghanistan to stage attacks against the United States or others, the extent of its ability and willingness to prevent AQ and ISIS-K from mounting external operations remained unclear.” Indicators that the trend line is going the wrong way are included such as Iran’s provision of weapons to the Taliban, the Haqqani network’s prominent role in the Taliban government (the Haqqanis have strong al Qaeda ties), the uptick of Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) attacks, the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist safe haven, regional fears of a foreign fighter threat, and the question of Afghanistan’s stability. But al Qaeda has kept a low profile, nominally at the Taliban’s behest.

ISK’s strengthening, especially after the reporting window, is of particular concern as it has the potential to further destabilize the region. Emphasis on al Qaeda’s weakness in Afghanistan and the potential for an al Qaeda attack coming from the country overlooks the fact that al Qaeda hasn’t needed to use Afghanistan to launch attacks for years. It has Yemen, Somalia, and possibly Syria. Moreover, a number of senior leaders are now out of Afghan prisons and have expanded freedoms under the Taliban.

3. A serious gap exists between US foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designations and the actual groups. This gap is particularly salient for the Syria-based groups. The issue gets complicated quickly, but the short of it is: Hurras al Din (HAD), a hardline faction with strong ties to al Qaeda, is not designated as an FTO though it is a specially designated global terrorist (SDGT). (Here’s a cheat sheet on the two designations.) Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) is designated as an FTO. Both are successors to Jabhat al Nusra, which was al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Jabhat al Nusra publicly rebranded as HTS and split from al Qaeda, though components of its ideology remain similar. HAD split from HTS in opposition to the split from al Qaeda. National Counterterrorism Center director Christine Abizaid characterized HAD as the “core al Qaeda presence” in Syria. HAD is the more dangerous of the two—it would probably be the group behind an al Qaeda-linked transnational terror attack emanating from Syria—yet does not bear the stronger FTO designation, nor receive mention in this report.

For those following terror threats, the State Department’s reports are not groundbreaking. They generally capture the enduring and evolving threat to the US as well as US partners’ efforts to counter terrorism. (And notably, it’s not all bad news—counterterrorism investments in East Asia and the Pacific have diminished the threat.) But they also provide the chance to review what’s missing and ask questions: Are we resourcing counterterrorism sufficiently to prevent a major attack given the variety of threats today? What counterterrorism approach minimizes the risks from Afghanistan? And how can we keep our designations and policies current with the terrorist landscape?