TSG IntelBrief: State Sponsors of Terror
June 17, 2016

State Sponsors of Terror

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• The latest annual State Department report on international terrorism again characterizes Iran as ‘the most active state sponsor of terrorism,’ while acknowledging that some of Iran’s actions are directed against the Islamic State

• The report assesses that the Islamic State’s self-declared ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria is losing ground, but that the group is expanding its terrorist operations

• The report clearly indicates that as long as Syria is governed by President Bashar al-Assad, it will remain on the U.S. ‘terrorism list’ indefinitely

• The report assesses that U.S. counterterrorism cooperation with Sudan is expanding, increasing the potential for joint action against several terrorist groups as well as for Sudan’s eventual removal from the list.

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The State Department’s annual report on international terrorism stands as an authoritative U.S. analysis of the effectiveness of the global effort against state sponsors of terrorism and terrorist groups. As it has for more than two decades, the report, released in early June, classifies Iran as ‘the most active state sponsor of terrorism.’ The report clearly indicates that, despite abiding by the July 2015 nuclear agreement with the international community, Iran will remain on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism (the so-called ‘terrorism list’) indefinitely. The report repeats longstanding assertions that Iran is supporting the Assad regime, Lebanese HizballahHamas, the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen, and Shi’a militias in Iraq. In addition, the report contains the most definitive U.S. statement to date that Iran is providing weapons and explosives to radical Shi’a factions in Bahrain fighting against the Sunni al-Khalifa regime. That assertion is certain to further fuel Saudi Arabia’s contention that Iran seeks to use terrorism and subversion to try to control the region. As has every past such report, the 2015 assessment closely associates Iran and Hizballah, and says that Hizballah continues to operate a global terrorist network that is engaged not only in the Middle East, but also in such far-flung countries as Thailand and Peru.   

At the same time, the report acknowledges that Iran is using these same strategies to combat the so-called Islamic State. The Islamic State is discussed extensively throughout the report, which calls the group ‘the greatest [terrorism] threat globally.’ The report assesses progress in shrinking the group’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria—progress which is attributable not only to U.S. efforts but also to Iran’s support for Iraqi Shi’a militia forces. The report concedes that there have been setbacks in curbing the Islamic State’s expansion of operations in areas outside the core territory, including Libya, Egypt, parts of Africa, Afghanistan, and Europe. The spread of the Islamic State’s terrorist activities is encapsulated in the report’s assessment that global terrorism is becoming more ‘diffused’ and, therefore, more difficult to counter effectively. This analysis calls into question the underpinnings of the international strategy that assumes that destroying the so-called caliphate will precipitate the more general collapse of the Islamic State organization.

A significant finding of the report is its characterization of Sudan, which has been on the terrorism list since 1993. The report praises Sudan’s cooperation with the United States against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, and Sudan’s denial of its territory for use in fundraising and arms trans-shipment by Hamas, appearing to lay the groundwork for Sudan’s removal from the terrorism list. However, as was the case with the 2015 removal of Cuba from the terrorism list, Sudan’s removal will likely only come in conjunction with a broader, public political reconciliation with Sudan. The likelihood of such a rapprochement has increased because of Sudan’s recent turn away from Iran and Hizballah and toward Saudi Arabia. Sudan is participating in the Saudi-led coalition against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen and it joined Saudi Arabia’s anti-terrorism coalition that was announced in late 2015. Were it to solidify its realignment, Sudan could potentially be pivotal to counterterrorism efforts because of its large geographic size and crucial location. Sudan could also potentially help close down arms trans-shipment routes and gather intelligence on several terrorist groups, including: Hamas, al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and Islamic State-related factions in Libya and Egypt

The report is highly critical of the third terrorism list member, Syria. The analysis appears intended to further delegitimize the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and to bolster the U.S. argument that he needs to be replaced. The report, as have past such reports, blames the Assad regime for providing political and armed support to Hizballah and for allowing Iran to rearm Hizballah, calling the regime ‘a staunch defender of Iran’s policies.’ These aspects of Syria’s behavior and linkages to Iran are well-documented elsewhere, insofar as Iran and Hizballah are key actors helping the Assad regime combat the mostly Sunni armed opposition. However, the report goes further than any previous public U.S. assessment in essentially attributing the development of the Islamic State to the support Syria gave to Sunni extremist fighters that attacked U.S. forces during the 2003-2011 U.S. military intervention in Iraq. During that time, Syria apparently allowed Sunni radical Islamists to transit Syria into Iraq as part of an effort to pressure U.S. forces into leaving Iraq. It is clear from the report that, as long as Assad remains in power in Syria, the country will not be removed from the U.S. terrorism list. 

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