Focus of Anti-American Terror Shifts from Mideast to South Asia

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

( - The focus of international terror aimed at Americans appears to be shifting from the Middle East to South Asia, the State Department says in its annual terrorism report, due for release Monday.

But Middle East states continue to sponsor terrorism, and Iran is once again singled out as the number one offender.

"Although there were signs of political change in Iran in 1999, the actions of certain state institutions in support of terrorist groups made Iran the most active state sponsor of terrorism," says the report, a copy of which was leaked to the New York Times Sunday.

As it has done every year since 1993, the "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report names five Islamic and two communist states as terror-sponsors - Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Cuba and Libya.

The report said the terrorist threat against Americans was no longer posed as much by terror-sponsoring states as it was by "networks" of groups motivated by religion rather than politics, and funded by crime or the narcotics trade.

Ominously, it also warned that terrorists were attempting to obtain non-conventional "weapons of mass destruction" and that "cyber-terrorism" was also becoming a problem.

The department is more critical this year of Afghanistan and Pakistan, although neither is officially designated as a terror-supporting state.

For sheltering Saudi-born terror chief Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan is accused of posing a "major terrorist threat," but it was not added to the list because the United States does not recognize the Islamist Taliban militia which rules most of the war-ravaged country.

The report says Pakistan is sending "mixed messages" by supporting terror-groups in neighboring Afghanistan as well as organizations inside Pakistan and in disputed Kashmir. It cites the Harakat ul-Mujahedin group, linked to the hijacking late last year of an Indian Airlines plane.

Michael Sheehan, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, was quoted as saying Pakistan was not designated a terror-sponsor because "it is a friendly state that is trying to tackle the problem."

Nations on the terror list face a range of tough sanctions and are denied foreign aid. Some form of sanctions already are in force against both Pakistan, for its non-conventional weapons program; and Afghanistan, for sheltering Bin Laden.

Zamir Akram, deputy chief of mission at Pakistan's embassy in Washington, told the Pakistan daily Dawn that calling the Pakistan-backed struggle of Kashmiri separatists terrorism was wrong.

"Millions of Kashmiri people fighting against the Indian occupation [of part of Kashmir] cannot be called terrorists."

He told the newspaper that the Americans were "as responsible as anyone else for creating the forces that they are now condemning" in Afghanistan.

"The U.S., when it walked away from Afghanistan, abandoned that country [which] fell in the trap of all these problems like narcotics, terrorism, gunrunning etc."

During the 1980s, the U.S. supported the Muslim war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. After the Soviet forces left, fighting continued among"moderate" and fundamentalist groups.

India has been urging Washington to have Pakistan - its archrival in South Asia - declared a terror-sponsoring country, and Indian external affairs ministry officials have been involved in talks with the State Department over Pakistan's alleged role in harboring militants.

The Times of India noted Monday that while the State Department report was described as "more upbeat" than in previous years because the number of American victims of terrorism had dropped, "that view may not be shared by India, which has been subjected to unrelenting terrorist attacks, especially in Kashmir."

Mideast rogues

The Middle East remained a key problem area for terrorism, according to the U.S. report.

Iran and Syria continued to support terrorist groups opposed to the Arab-Israeli peace process, it said, but added that Syria could be removed from the list of terror supporters if a comprehensive peace agreement was concluded with Israel, "which would necessarily address terrorism issues."

Libya, despite repeated assertions that it had adopted an anti-terrorism policy, needed to do more to convince the U.S. there had been a "true change."

The report said Lebanon's "lack of effective government control" allowed terrorist groups to operate within its borders with impunity.

In Egypt, on the other hand, "successful counterterrorism efforts" had for the first time in years meant an absence of terror-related attacks last year.

Further afield, recent developments in North Korea, including "positive statements condemning terrorism in all its forms," could see the country eventually removed from the list.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow