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Middle East and North Africa Overview
The Near East region continued to experience significant levels of terrorist activity in 2012, further complicated by ongoing regional instability across portions of North Africa and the Levant. Al-Qa'ida was not a part of the popular uprisings that led to democratic transitions across the Middle East and North Africa, but violent extremists looked for opportunities to exploit the political transitions underway.
In Libya, the security vacuum in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution provided more opportunities for terrorists to operate. This vacuum, combined with the weakness of Libya's nascent security institutions, allowed violent extremists to act, as we saw too clearly on September 11 in Benghazi, when J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, and three staff members, died during attacks on U.S. facilities.
Al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI) - even with diminished leadership and capabilities - continued to conduct attacks across Iraq, while Shia militants largely ceased attacks but continued to threaten U.S. targets in Iraq. AQI also took advantage of a significantly depleted security situation in Syria. Operating under its alias, al-Nusrah Front, the group sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition and attempted to hijack Syria's struggle for democracy. The United States designated al-Nusra as an alias of AQI in December 2012.
Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has also taken advantage of the instability in the region, particularly in Libya and Mali. Kidnapping for ransom operations continued to yield significant sums for AQIM, and it conducted attacks against members of state security services within the Trans-Sahara region.
In the spring of 2012, a Yemeni military offensive, with the help of armed residents, regained government control over territory in the south, which AQAP had seized and occupied in 2011. Although weakened, AQAP was not eliminated as a threat. AQAP increasingly turned to asymmetric tactics to target Yemeni government officials, pro-government tribal militias known as Popular Committees, and their leaders, soldiers, civilians, and U.S. embassy personnel.
In 2012, there was a clear resurgence of Iran's state sponsorship of terrorism, through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), its Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and Tehran's ally Hizballah, who remained a significant threat to the stability of Lebanon and the broader region. Attacks in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Far East were linked to the IRGC-QF or Hizballah. In fact, Hizballah's terrorist activity has reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s with attacks plotted in Southeast Asia, Europe, and Africa.
Despite these persistent threats, governments across the region improved their own counterterrorism capabilities, effectively disrupting the activities of a number of terrorists. The Iraqi government displayed increased capability and efficacy in pursuing multiple Sunni violent extremist groups. Though AQIM's presence and activity in the Sahel and parts of the Maghreb remains worrisome, the group's isolation in Algeria grew as Algeria increased its already substantial efforts to target it. And in 2012, Yemeni forces were successful in reducing the physical territory that AQAP had previously gained in Yemen as the result of political turmoil.
In Gaza, a sharp increase in the number of rocket attacks launched by Hamas and other Gaza-based terrorist groups led Israel to launch Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012. During the course of the eight-day operation, Israeli forces targeted more than 1,500 terrorist sites. Since the Egypt-brokered November 21 ceasefire, the United States has engaged with our Egyptian and Israeli counterparts to strengthen and sustain the peace, in keeping with the President's pledge to Prime Minister Netanyahu to intensify efforts to help Israel address its security needs, especially the issue of the smuggling of weapons and explosives into Gaza. For instance, with U.S. encouragement, Egypt has increased its focus on border security and weapons interdictions. Israel has reciprocated by easing some of its economic sanctions on Gaza. The end result was a period of calm in Gaza. The United States is also in close contact with Egypt and Israel on enhancing security in the Sinai, where an August 5 terrorist attack against an Egyptian military outpost killed 16 soldiers.
Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates played an active role in the newly formed Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF). At the December 2012 GCTF ministerial meeting, the Algiers Memorandum on Good Practices on Preventing and Denying the Benefits of Kidnapping for Ransom by Terrorists was adopted, and the UAE Foreign Minister announced the opening of Hedayah - the International Center of Excellence on Countering Violent Extremism in Abu Dhabi. At the June 2012 GCTF ministerial, Tunisia announced that it would host the International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law, to provide interested governments the necessary training to strengthen criminal justice and other rule of law institutions to counter terrorism.
[Source: Country Reports on Terrorism, Chapter 2, Office of the Coordinator for Conterterrorism, DOS, Washington, 30May13]
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