Al-Qaeda Affiliates Expand as Core Declines, U.S. Finds

Al-Qaeda’s affiliates increasingly are taking the initiative as the terrorist organization’s core leadership has been weakened, the State Department said.

Foremost among the allied groups, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula last year “regained the initiative” in its fight with Yemen’s government and “continues to pose the most significant threat to the United States and U.S. citizens and interests in Yemen,” according to the State Department’s annual terrorist report issued today.

“While the international community has severely degraded AQ’s core leadership, the terrorist threat has evolved,” the report finds. “Leadership losses in Pakistan, coupled with weak governance and instability in the Middle East and Northwest Africa, have accelerated the decentralization of the movement and led to the affiliates in the AQ network becoming more operationally autonomous from core AQ and increasingly focused on local and regional objectives.”

The past several years have seen “the emergence of a more aggressive set” of affiliates and like-minded groups, most notably in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Northwest Africa, and Somalia, according to the report. It finds that AQAP and another affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have been “particularly effective” at using kidnapping for ransom to fund their activities.

Areas of Iraq and Libya, where the U.S. had intervened militarily in hopes of bringing stability, are now terrorist safe havens.

Western Iraq

In desert areas of western Iraq, especially in Anbar and Nineveh Provinces, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) established semi-permanent encampments, providing secure bases for its fighters in Syria, the State Department reports.

“These areas reportedly included camps, training centers, command headquarters, and stocks of weapons,” according to the report. “ISIL fighters allegedly controlled villages, oases, grazing areas, and valleys in these areas and were able to move with little impediment across international borders in the area.”

Libya, with a weak government, has become a “terrorist safe haven and its transit routes are used by various terrorist groups,” according to the State Department.

The report was based on developments in 2013 and doesn’t reflect some recent developments, such as stepped up, U.S.-aided government attacks against AQAP in Yemen.

“Terrorist violence in 2013 was fueled by sectarian motivations, marking a worrisome trend, in particular in Syria, Lebanon, and Pakistan, where victims of violence were primarily among the civilian populations,” according to the report.

“Thousands of extremist fighters entered Syria during the year, among those a large percentage reportedly motivated by a sectarian view of the conflict and a desire to protect the Sunni Muslim community from the Alawite-dominant Assad regime,” the report states. “On the other side of the conflict, Iran, Hezbollah, and other Shiite militia continued to provide critical support to the Assad regime, dramatically bolstering its capabilities and exacerbating the situation.”

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