Iran remains top terror sponsor as global attacks decline

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Story highlights

  • The annual report says al Qaeda remains a threat
  • It highlights the threat from violent extremist ideology encouraged by a fundamentalist strain of Sunni Islam

Washington (CNN)Iran remains the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism, according to an annual State Department report that pointed to ISIS as the primary non-state threat to US interests and allies.

Terrorism around the world declined globally last year, according to the Country Reports on Terrorism 2016. But Iran continues to destabilize the Middle East through proxies such as Hezbollah, exacerbating conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Despite the worldwide dip in terrorism related deaths and fatalities, the report said that militant groups continued to exploit ungoverned areas in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia to plan attacks. And it flagged militant inspired attacks by "home grown lone offenders" who struck in France, Germany and the United States.
    "ISIS remains the most capable terror organization in 2016," even as it came under pressure from the US-led coalition fighting the group, Justin Siberell, the State Department's acting coordinator for counterterrorism, said Wednesday. Siberell said as well that threats remain in the form of a "resilient al Qaeda" and "an Iranian regime that remained a leading state sponsor of terrorism."
    President Donald Trump has had Iran in his sights, and has been highly critical of the international pact to restrain its nuclear program that the Obama administration championed.
    The White House certified that Iran is complying with the agreement Monday, but only after some concern that Trump might walk away from the deal. On Tuesday, the administration announced more sanctions on Tehran.
    Siberell said the 13% drop in terror attacks from 2015 is due to reduced violence in Syria, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. He said attacks increased in Iraq, Turkey and Somalia and while terrorists struck in 104 countries in 2016, 55% of the attacks took place in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Nigeria and Pakistan.
    ISIS was responsible for more attacks and deaths than any other group, Siberell said, a grisly trophy claimed by the Taliban in 2015.
    The country terror report, mandated by Congress, made no direct reference to Trump's ban on travelers and refugees from six Muslim-majority countries, though the individual countries were mentioned.
    Asked about the restriction on people from Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, Siberell said that "we as a government want to make sure those governments have capabilities in place" to deal with terrorist groups. "There is in general a concern," he said.
    The report notes that ISIS attacks outside its territory are becoming increasingly important as it comes under greater pressure from the US-led coalition and notes that social media remains vital to its recruitment. 
    Al Qaeda also remains a significant worldwide threat, particularly in Yemen, despite sustained US pressure, the report says. 
    The report treads lightly over the ongoing tensions in the Persian Gulf, where Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have cut diplomatic relations with Qatar -- home to a major US military base -- accusing it of backing terrorists and of cozying up to Iran.
    With Secretary of State Rex Tillerson continuing his efforts to help find a solution, the agency's report carefully notes that all countries involved are members of the anti ISIS coalition and are engaged in counter terrorism initiatives.
    The report notes that a common thread linking many terrorists was adherence to violent extremist ideology encouraged by a fundamentalist strain of Sunni Islam.
    The report notes that many critics see Saudi Arabia as an exporter of this kind of fundamentalism, then goes on to detail various Saudi government efforts to counter extremism.
    The report takes a similar approach with Qatar, avoiding mention of the current dispute and offering detailed listings of the ways Doha works to fight terror.
    The report is equally careful about the Palestinian Authority, saying that it is doing what it can, where it has the authority to do so, but more can be done.
    It says that during the tenure of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority "has taken significant steps" to ensure that "official institutions in the West Bank under its control do not create or disseminate content that incites violence."
    The report also notes that Abbas has tried to address terror financing, but the decree he issued "does not fully meet international standards as it does not criminalize all forms of material support or the financing of an individual terrorist in the absence of a link to a specific terrorist act."
    And it notes that while some Palestinian Authority leaders have made provocative and inflammatory comments, the PA itself "has made progress in reducing official rhetoric that could be considered incitement to violence."