Terror attacks down but global threat more 'complex', says US report

A bouquet reading "for the victims of terrorism" lies in front of a memorial fountain during a national ceremony to pay tribute to the victims of militant attacks, in Paris, on Sept 19, 2018.
A bouquet reading "for the victims of terrorism" lies in front of a memorial fountain during a national ceremony to pay tribute to the victims of militant attacks, in Paris, on Sept 19, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The near-defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has forced a dispersal of the militant group that has made the global threat of terror attacks much more complex, the US State Department said in a report on Wednesday (Sept 19).

ISIS, Al-Qaeda and related militants have decentralised and are adopting new technologies like simple chemical weapons and small drone systems to be able to pose a threat far from their traditional operating zones, according to the department's report on terrorism in 2017.

"They have become more dispersed and clandestine, turning to the Internet to inspire attacks by distant followers, and, as a result, have made themselves less susceptible to conventional military action," it said.

"Further, the return or relocation of foreign terrorist fighters from the battlefield has contributed to a growing cadre of experienced, sophisticated, and connected terrorist networks, which can plan and execute terrorist attacks."

State Department coordinator for counterterrorism Nathan Sales said global terror attacks fell 23 per cent and deaths due to terrorism fell 27 per cent in 2017 from 2016.

That decline was almost wholly due to the fall of ISIS in Iraq, where coalition and government forces have captured most of the territory it once controlled.

But members of the group have dispersed away from the Middle East and are surfacing with their own operations and networks elsewhere, including South-east Asia.

Last year, ISIS operatives conducted attacks in England, Spain, Egypt, the United States and Philippines, the report noted.

The report pointed out that ISIS is also now threatening China and Chinese interests around the world, after some Chinese nationals joined the group.

Mr Sales said Al-Qaeda, despite living in the ISIS shadow for several years, remains a very potent threat globally, responsible for, among others, a truck bomb attack in October 2017 in Mogadishu, Somalia that killed more than 300 people.

"Al-Qaeda is a determined and patient adversary," he said.

The third major threat, in US eyes, is Iran, which Mr Sales said uniquely has the entire power of the state behind its plotting of attacks.

"Iran remains the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism and is responsible for intensifying multiple conflicts and undermining US interests in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, Afghanistan, and Lebanon," he said.

All three - ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Iran - "have both the capability and intent to strike the United States and our allies," he said.

The report indicated a general increase in global cooperation to fight terrorism, including tracking and blocking financial flows to the groups.

But this remains a challenge, Mr Sales noted.

"You have got to stop the flow of money to these organisations."

"You have got to stop terrorist travel" as well, he added, pointing to the spread of airport detection systems like biometric face identification as a potent tool.