(CNSNews.com) - Along with a drop in terror attacks worldwide – significantly so in the case of Iraq – 2008 saw a dramatic rise in attacks in Pakistan and deterioration in Afghanistan, while Iran continued to facilitate terror. India was among countries hardest hit, and the situation in Yemen and Venezuela remained worrisome, according to a new State Department report.
Al-Qaeda and related networks, while losing ground, continued to pose “the greatest terrorist threat to the United States and its partners in 2008,” the annual report on terrorism said.
Overall, the number of terror attacks recorded around the world declined during 2008 by 20 percent, with 30 percent fewer fatalities, Russell Travers of the National Counterterrorism Center told a press briefing on the report’s release Thursday.
As it has for well over a decade, Iran continues to top the list of state sponsors of terrorism, where it has been since 1984. The list is now down to four since the removal last year of North Korea. Iran is joined by Syria (added in 1979), Cuba (1982) and Sudan (1993). Designation carries sanctions, including bans on arms-related sales.
“Iran has long employed terrorism to advance its key national security and foreign policy interests, which include regime survival, regional dominance, opposition to Arab-Israeli peace, and countering western influence, particularly in the Middle East,” the report said.
It cited Tehran’s support for the Palestinian terror groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah in Lebanon, militant Shia groups in Iraq, and select Taliban members in Afghanistan. Iran’s main tool for cultivating and sponsoring terrorism abroad, it said, was the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force.
The Qods Force’s involvement in Iraq included the provision of “lethal support, including weapons, training, funding, and guidance, to Iraqi militant groups that targeted coalition and Iraqi forces and killed innocent Iraqi civilians.”
Among other things, Iran supplied insurgents with especially lethal improvised explosive devices (IEDs), designed to overcome armored vehicle protection. The Qods Force, along with Hezbollah in Lebanon, also provided weapons training inside and outside Iraq for insurgents, the report said.
The U.S. in 2007 imposed sanctions on both the Revolutionary Guard and the Qods Force for supporting terrorism.
Despite Iran’s malign role in Iraq, terror attacks there dropped almost by half during 2008.
Travers said that 3,258 terrorist incidents in Iraq in 2008 cost 5,016 lives, compared to 6,210 attacks in 2007 which killed 13,606 people. The U.S. troop “surge” deployment took full effect from June of that year.
Pakistan brought less promising news, however. Travers reported 1,839 incidents, which killed 2,293 people in Pakistan in 2008, a jump from 890 incidents in 2007 that cost 1,340 lives.
Pakistan was both a major target of terrorism last year and a terrorist safe haven. The report said al-Qaeda and allies had moved into “the remote areas of the Pakistani frontier, where they have used this terrain as a safe haven to hide, train terrorists, communicate with the followers, plot attacks and send fighters to support the insurgency in Afghanistan.”
The report said the Pakistan government’s authority in the areas near the border with Afghanistan continued to be challenged.
It identified the Taliban umbrella group, Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), active in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas, as “the most public signal of broad local militant coordination aimed at attacking Pakistani security forces.”
Dealing with 2008, the terrorism report made no reference to a controversial peace agreement struck between the government and the TTP in the NWFP in February. Previous such deals have been short-lived and, according to U.S. and NATO officials, have adversely impacted security across the border in Afghanistan.
The National Counterterrorism Center’s figures for Afghanistan also showed a climb in attacks and casualties – from 1,125 incidents killing 1,961 people in 2007 to 1,220 incidents killing 1,989 people last year.
Travers said those figures were believed to be an undercount: “We just don’t have data as a result of reporting challenges.”
India was among countries worst afflicted by terrorism last year. While most attention was focused on the deadly attacks in Mumbai in November and the almost 200 victims, bombings in New Delhi, Jaipur, Ahmedabad and the northeastern state of Assam during the year also killed more than 240 others.
Other black spots in this year’s report include Yemen, which received a poor grade.
“The government’s response to the terrorist threat was intermittent and its ability to pursue and prosecute suspected terrorists remained weak due to a number of shortcomings, including stalled draft counterterrorism legislation,” the report said.
“The absence of effective counterterrorism legislation that criminalized the activities of those engaged in planning, facilitating, or carrying out acts of terrorism, both in Yemen and abroad, contributed to Yemen’s appeal as safe haven and potential base of offensive operations for terrorists.”
After terrorists attacked the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa in September, killing 18 people, including an American, the government initially gave FBI investigators full access to evidence but cooperation later waned, according to the report.
Another government identified as uncooperative in counter-terror efforts was that of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The report noted Chavez’ “ideological sympathy” for Colombia’s FARC rebels and said his government had not systematically policed its border with Colombia to prevent the movement of armed terrorists or to interdict weapons or narcotics.
It also highlighted concerns about Hezbollah activity in Venezuela, noting the U.S. Treasury Department’s designation in June of a Venezuelan diplomat and a travel agency owner as Venezuelan Hezbollah supporters.
The report said passengers on weekly flights connecting Caracas with Tehran and Damascus “were reportedly subject to only cursory immigration and customs controls” on arrival in Venezuela.
“Venezuelan citizenship, identity, and travel documents remained easy to obtain, making Venezuela a potentially attractive way station for terrorists.”
In May 2008, Venezuela was re-certified as a country “not cooperating fully” with American antiterrorism efforts under U.S. arms export legislation.