Number of terrorism deaths dropped in 2017; Iraq experienced most attacks in MENA
WASHINGTON - The number of people killed in terrorist attacks in the Middle East and North Africa fell substantially from 2016 to 2017 but terrorist activity and safe havens remain substantial, a report from the US State Department contends.
Iraq experienced the most terrorist attacks — it had more than twice the number than in second place Afghanistan in 2017 — yet the number of terrorism-related deaths in Iraq fell to 4,269 last year from 9,782 the year before, the State Department’s annual report on global terrorism stated.
The decline resulted from the liberation in 2017 of Iraqi territory held by the Islamic State (ISIS), which made Iraq safer but prompted ISIS to adjust its strategy.
“The terrorist landscape grew more complex in 2017. ISIS, al-Qaeda and their affiliates have proven to be resilient, determined and adaptable,” State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Nathan Sales said. “They have adjusted to heightened counterterrorism pressure in Iraq, Syria, Somalia and elsewhere.”
As ISIS fighters leave Iraq and Syria, many are travelling to other countries to join fights, Sales said. Homegrown terrorists are taking inspiration from ISIS and carrying out attacks in their home cities, from New York to London and Berlin and from Bamako in Mali to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso.
“ISIS branches, affiliates and sympathisers across the Middle East remained active in 2017, including in Libya, Saudi Arabia, the Sinai Peninsula and Yemen,” the State Department report noted. ISIS and al-Qaeda “continued to maintain safe havens” in countries such as Syria and Yemen, where they took advantage of fragile political and security conditions.
Sales said al-Qaeda remained a threat even as it has had a lower profile compared to ISIS. “We shouldn’t confuse that period of relative quiet with al-Qaeda’s abandonment of its capabilities or intentions to strike us and our allies,” Sales said. “Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has repeatedly called for [al-Qaeda] members and followers to commit attacks here in the United States.”
The State Department report supported the assessment of analysts who have warned that ISIS remains dangerous even after it was removed from Iraq and Syria by a coalition of 75 countries.
“The security situation is backsliding [in Iraq]. There’s no point denying that. ISIS is re-energised,” said Ahmed Ali, director of the Iraq programme at the National Endowment for Democracy, an organisation in Washington that promotes democratic institutions globally. Ali spoke at a panel on Iraq September 19 in Washington.
Calling Iraq’s government “ineffective” under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Ali cited recent attacks near the US Embassy in Baghdad and on the airport area in Basra, which houses the US Consulate. “It took only two years for ISIS to establish itself,” Ali said. “Two years of bad government will lead to ISIS again.”
Another panellist, former US intelligence officer and Iraqi adviser Michael Pregent, mocked the repeated boasting by US President Donald Trump that ISIS is defeated. “In Iraq, we are acting like there’s nothing going on there,” Pregent said. “I’m concerned about the security backslide.”
The State Department released its report as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by phone to Mohammed al-Halbousi, the newly elected speaker of Iraq’s Council of Representatives, and pledged to help Iraq attain security, prosperity and stability. Pompeo told Halbousi that the United States supports Iraq’s territorial integrity “at this critical time,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
The decline in terrorism-related deaths in Iraq was the main factor behind a drop in the number of people killed globally in terror attacks. There were 18,763 terrorism-related deaths in 2017, down from 25,722 in 2016, the State Department report said. Those figures include perpetrators, who account for about one-quarter of the deaths.
Although terrorist attacks took place in approximately half of the nearly 200 countries in the world, the deaths were concentrated in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Somalia, which accounted for 70% of the terrorism-related deaths. Syria saw its terrorism death toll fall to 1,096 in 2017 from 2,119 in 2016.