Terrorist groups continued to operate and maintain safe havens in the Middle East and North Africa throughout 2021. ISIS and its affiliates, al-Qa’ida (AQ) and affiliated groups, and Iran-backed groups continue to pose the greatest terrorist threats to the region.
ISIS maintained significant operational capabilities and conducted terrorist operations throughout Syria and Iraq, while continuing to promote a large-scale terrorism campaign across 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 and security in the region and beyond. ISIS fighters continued to wage a low-level insurgency in Iraq and Syria, seeking to destabilize the region, recruit new members, and regain territory. More than 10,000 ISIS fighters, including some 2,000 non-Iraqi and non-Syrian 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 continued to present logistical challenges to repatriations, but the United States continued to encourage allies and partners to repatriate their citizens and to prosecute or 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. The 85-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 constituted an enduring threat to the United States and its allies and partners in the Middle East and North Africa. These groups remain capable of inflicting damage on our allies and partners and targeting our interests. Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) continues to linger in the seams between the various parties to Yemen’s civil war, despite pressure from the Houthi military campaign in al-Bayda governorate. Though al-Qa’ida’s leadership ranks in the Middle East and North Africa continued to be degraded in 2021 and the group suffered setbacks, al-Qa’ida remained a resilient adversary. It actively sought to reconstitute its capabilities and maintain safe havens in the region amid fragile political and security climates, including in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
Iran-supported groups continue to engage in dangerous and destabilizing activity across the Middle East, with Iran using the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and its proxies and partners to advance its interests abroad. Iran 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 to various groups within the region. Among the groups receiving support from Iran are Hizballah, Hamas, the Palestine Islamic Jihad, al-Ashtar Brigades and Saraya al-Mukhtar in Bahrain, Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq, and Hizballah al-Hijaz in Saudi Arabia. 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 continued sporadic attacks on Embassy Baghdad and bases hosting U.S. and other Defeat-ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria.
Iranian support and guidance for the Houthis enabled attacks against Saudi Arabia in 2021. These attacks employed armed drones and ballistic missiles, which damaged airports and critical infrastructure. Iran also continued providing Hizballah with the bulk of the group’s annual operating budget, an allocation estimated in recent years to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. This support has made Hizballah a dangerous terrorist partner with Iran and the most-capable terrorist organization in Lebanon. It also has enabled Hizballah to project its power throughout the region, including in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf. 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 within Lebanon with Iranian assistance. Hizballah has said that it has enough precision-guided missiles for a confrontation with Israel, but it has denied missiles are being developed in Lebanon. Although Palestinian terrorist groups in the West Bank and Gaza continued to threaten Israel, Israeli and Palestinian Authority security forces continued their coordination in the West Bank to constrain the ability of these organizations to conduct attacks.
Country Reports on Terrorism 2021, U.S. Department of State, (February 27, 2023).