Significant terrorist activities and safe havens persisted in the Middle East and North Africa throughout 2020. The 83-member U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS continued its comprehensive efforts to prevent a resurgence of ISIS’s so-called physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria and the activities of its branches and networks. Al-Qa’ida and its affiliates, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and Iran-backed -backed terrorist groups like Hizballah also remained active throughout the region.
While ISIS remains unable to control territory and its leadership ranks have been significantly degraded, the group remains a serious threat to U.S. interests, security in the region, and beyond. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS fighters continued to wage a low-level insurgency, seeking to destabilize the region, recruit new members, and regain territory. More than 10,000 ISIS fighters, including some 2,000 foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) remained in Syrian Democratic Forces-controlled detention facilities in northeast Syria. More than 70,000 associated foreign family members, most of them children, remain in humanitarian camps for displaced persons. The COVID-19 pandemic presented logistical challenges to repatriations, but the United States continued to encourage allies to repatriate their citizens and to prosecute or to rehabilitate and reintegrate them, as appropriate. Beyond Iraq and Syria, ISIS branches, networks, and supporters across the Middle East and North Africa remained active, including in the Arabian Peninsula, Libya, the Sinai Peninsula, Tunisia, and Yemen.
In Libya, local security forces conducted ground operations to neutralize threats posed by ISIS and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters and facilitators, including a September operation by the self-styled Libyan National Army that eliminated the emir of ISIS in Libya. ISIS-Sinai Province, one of the first ISIS branches to swear allegiance to the new ISIS self-proclaimed caliph following Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death, continued its terrorist campaign in North Sinai. In the Maghreb, separate counterterrorism efforts and operations by Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia thwarted the activities of ISIS and other terrorist groups. Algerian forces conducted a steady stream of operations to prevent terrorist groups, including AQ and ISIS affiliates, from planning or conducting attacks.
Al-Qa’ida’s leadership ranks in the Middle East and North Africa were significantly degraded, starting with the death of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) emir Qassim al-Rimi, killed in Yemen in January. Abu Muhammad al-Masri, al-Qa’ida’s number two, was killed in Tehran in August. Despite these setbacks, al-Qa’ida remained a resilient adversary and actively sought to reconstitute its capabilities and maintain safe havens in the region amid fragile political and security climates, particularly in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
In Yemen, AQAP and ISIS’s Yemen branch continue to linger in the seams between the various parties to Yemen’s civil war, despite pressure from the Houthi’s military campaign in al-Bayda governorate. Both ISIS-Yemen and AQAP suffered leadership losses and claimed a smaller number of attacks inside Yemen in 2020. Globally, AQAP sought to capitalize off the claim it supported the perpetrator of the 2019 shooting at U.S. Naval Air Station Pensacola as well as to exploit the controversy over a French schoolteacher’s depiction of the Prophet Mohammed. The Houthis continue to receive material support and guidance from Iranian entities, including to enable attacks against Saudi Arabia. These attacks have utilized armed drones and ballistic missiles, which damaged airports and critical infrastructure.
Iran continued to use the IRGC-QF to advance Iran’s interests abroad. Iran also continued to acknowledge the active involvement of the IRGC-QF in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, the latter in support of the Assad regime. Through the IRGC-QF, Iran continued its support to several U.S.-designated terrorist groups, providing funding, training, weapons, and equipment. Among the groups receiving support from Iran are Hizballah, Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, al-Ashtar Brigades and Saraya al-Mukhtar in Bahrain, and Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) in Iraq. Iran also provided weapons and support to other militant groups in Iraq and Syria, to the Houthis in Yemen, and to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Iran-backed militias escalated the pace of attacks on Embassy Baghdad and Iraqi bases hosting U.S. and other Defeat-ISIS forces.
Countries in the Gulf region continued to take important steps to combat terrorism. Following the U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue in September, the two governments committed to shared counterterrorism priorities for 2021, including security preparations for Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 2022, combating the financing of terrorism, and countering violent extremism. Saudi Arabia and the United States continued to co-lead the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC), an initiative founded in 2017 to increase U.S.-Gulf multilateral collaboration to counter terrorist financing. In 2020, TFTC members imposed sanctions against six individuals and entities affiliated with ISIS.
In the Levant, several terrorist groups, most notably Hizballah, continued to operate in Lebanon and Syria. Hizballah remained Iran’s most dangerous terrorist partner and the most capable terrorist organization in Lebanon, controlling areas across the country. Iran’s annual financial backing to Hizballah — which in recent years has been estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars — accounts for most of the group’s annual budget. Hizballah’s presence in Lebanon and Syria continued to pose a threat to Israel. Israel continued to warn the international community about Hizballah’s efforts to produce precision-guided missiles (PGMs) within Lebanon, including through media presentations detailing potential production sites. Hizballah has said that it possesses enough PGMs for a confrontation with Israel, but it has denied missiles are being developed in Lebanon. Although Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza and the West Bank continued to threaten Israel, Israeli and Palestinian Authority security forces continued their coordination in the West Bank in an effort to mitigate violence.
Source: “Country Reports on Terrorism 2020,” U.S. State Department, (December 16, 2021).