International acts of terror in 2003 were the fewest in more than 30 years, according to the U.S. State Department’s annual terrorism report released Thursday.
The Patterns of Global Terrorism report said 190 acts of international terrorism occurred in 2003 — a slight drop from 198 attacks the previous year and the lowest total since 1969.
The figure marked a 45 percent decrease in attacks since 2001, but it did not include most of the attacks in Iraq, because attacks against combatants did not fit the U.S. definition of international terrorism.
Cofer Black, the State Department’s ambassador at large for counterterrorism, told a news conference that he attributed the decrease to “unprecedented collaboration between the United States and foreign partners to defeat terrorism.”
The report counted 82 anti-U.S. attacks around the world in 2003, up from 77 in 2002. Thirty-five American citizens died in terrorist attacks last year.
The highest number of attacks, 70, occurred in Asia, the report said.
The report said the war in Iraq has turned that country into “a central battleground in the global war on terrorism.”
It said former regime elements conducting attacks against coalition forces have “increasingly allied themselves tactically and operationally with foreign fighters and Islamic extremists, including some linked to Ansar al-Islam, al Qaeda and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.”
Black said while al-Zarqawi operates as an “independent actor,” without orders from al Qaeda leadership, the United States considers him to be “sympathetic to al Qaeda” and part of the threat represented by that network.
The report warned that “several terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, increasingly look to chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials as a means to cause mass casualties.”
State sponsors of terrorism
The list of nations designated state sponsors of terrorism — Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria and Sudan — remained the same as the previous year.
But the report cited Sudan and Libya for taking “significant steps to cooperate in the global war on terrorism.”
The report said that in 2003 “Libya held to its practice in recent years of curtailing support for terrorism, although Tripoli continues to maintain contact with some past terrorist clients.”
It cited recent cooperation by Libya on dismantling its weapons of mass destruction, addressing the U.N. requirements to resolve the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing, and recent statements by President Moammar Gadhafi about fighting al Qaeda. (Full story)
Sudan “deepened its cooperation with the U.S. government” last year in combating terrorism, including sharing information, strengthening anti-terror legislation, ratifying several terrorism conventions and arresting suspected extremists, the report said.
The United States is still concerned, however, about the presence of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas in Sudan, the report said.
Iraq remained on the list because U.S. law requires a country to have a “government in place that pledges not to support acts of terrorism” before its removal, the report said.
The report said Syria has condemned terrorism and cooperated with the United States on al Qaeda, returned a sought-after “terrorist planner” to U.S. custody and attempted to tighten its borders with Iraq to limit movement of potential terrorists.
But, it said, Syria still provided political and material support to Palestinian terror groups and “continued to permit Iraq to use Damascus as a transshipment point for resupplying Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
The report said North Korea “is not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts” since 1987 and has been attempting to deal with past terrorist actions such as returning hostages to Tokyo.
Nevertheless, it said, “Pyongyang has not taken substantial steps to cooperate” to combat international terrorism.
As in previous years, the report said Iran “remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism in 2003.”
It cited that nation’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard and Ministry of Intelligence as being “involved in the planning of and support for terrorist acts,” and said Iran continued to support Palestinian terror groups.
It also suggested that Iran pursued policies in Iraq after the war that “ran counter” to coalition interests.
Those actions included providing safe haven for members of Ansar al Islam, advocating attacks against coalition forces and helping people with ties to the Revolutionary Guard infiltrate southern Iraq, the report said.
It said Iran’s record against al Qaeda “remains mixed” and that it has failed to identify and transfer senior members of al Qaeda it claims to have in custody.
Saudi Arabia, Malaysia praised
The report praised Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with the United States in combating terrorism after bombings in the country last May and November.
The kingdom was cited by Black in the report as “an excellent example of a nation increasingly focusing its political will to fight terrorism,” including arresting terrorists, cutting funding and strengthening legislation.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who was in Riyadh last week during the latest wave of attacks, said the past year’s attacks did not have the intended effect — to weaken Saudi resolve.
“That brutality only served to strengthen Saudi resolve — inject more urgency into ongoing counterterrorism efforts and open entirely new avenues of cooperation,” Armitage told the news conference.
The report also praised Malaysia’s counterterrorism cooperation.
Although the report covered only terrorist attacks in 2003, Black reflected on the March 11 terrorist bombings in Madrid, Spain, which many believe tipped national elections against Prime Minister Jose Aznar.
“Terrorists have concluded, with the help of many others, that there may be a relationship between a terrorist action and an election in a democracy,” Black said.
Asked if terrorists might attempt to affect the November U.S. presidential election, Black said, “These groups may decide that this is a good target date to look toward in all democracies.”