U.S.: Iran Is Leading State Sponsor of Terror

September 20, 2018

On September 19, the U.S. State Department reported that “Iran continued its terrorist-related activity in 2017,” including support for several militant groups across the Middle East. “Iran remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and is responsible for intensifying multiple conflicts and undermining U.S. interests in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq, in Bahrain, in Afghanistan, and in Lebanon, using a number of proxies and other instruments such as Lebanese Hizballah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s Quds Force,” said Coordinator for Counterterrorism Nathan Sales at the release of the “Country Reports on Terrorism 2017.” Iran was first designated as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1984. The following are excerpted remarks by Ambassador Sales and Iran-related information from the report. 

 

Nathan SalesAMBASSADOR SALES:  Iran remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and is responsible for intensifying multiple conflicts and undermining U.S. interests in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq, in Bahrain, in Afghanistan, and in Lebanon, using a number of proxies and other instruments such as Lebanese Hizballah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s Quds Force.  The threats posed by Iran’s support for terrorism are not confined to the Middle East; they are truly global.

Since 2012 alone, Hizballah has conducted a successful attack in Bulgaria that killed six, it has undertaken two separate plots in Cyprus, and it has developed large caches of military equipment and explosives in Kuwait, Nigeria, and Bolivia while sending terrorist operatives to Peru and Thailand. 

On June 30th of this year, German authorities arrested an Iranian official for his role in a terrorist plot to bomb a political rally in Paris.  Authorities in Belgium and France also made arrests in connection with this Iranian-supported terrorist plot.

QUESTION:  I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about what you call in the report the “near-global reach of Iran and its proxies.”  And you mentioned a little at the end.  It seems like whenever it’s mentioned, it’s a incident here and there, in some cases maybe inspired by as opposed to actually conducted by Iran.  Do you think you may be overstating the, quote, “near-global reach of Iran and its proxies” in terrorism?

AMBASSADOR SALES:  Not at all.  Iran is the world’s preeminent state sponsor of terrorism, and it brings to its terrorist activities the resources of a state.  We have seen Iran’s and its proxies’ terrorist-related activities across the globe.  There are active fundraising networks in places as far afield as Africa, in South America.  We’ve seen weapons caches planted around the world.  We’ve seen operational activity not just in Lebanon by Hizballah, but by Iran-backed terrorists in the heart of Europe.  Iran uses terrorism as a tool of its statecraft.  It has no reservations about using that tool on any continent.

 

Country Reports on Terrorism 2017

State Sponsors of Terrorism

IRAN

Designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1984, Iran continued its terrorist-related activity in 2017, including support for Lebanese Hizballah (LH), Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza, and various groups in Syria, Iraq, and throughout the Middle East. Iran used the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) to provide support to terrorist organizations, provide cover for associated covert operations, and create instability in the Middle East. Iran has acknowledged the involvement of the IRGC-QF in both of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, and the IRGC-QF is Iran’s primary mechanism for cultivating and supporting terrorists abroad. Iran uses regional proxy forces to provide sufficient deniability to shield it from the consequences of its aggressive policies.

In 2017, Iran supported various Iraqi Shia terrorist groups, including Kata’ib Hizballah. It also bolstered the Assad regime in Syria. Iran views the Assad regime in Syria as a crucial ally and Syria and Iraq as crucial routes to supply weapons to LH, Iran’s primary terrorist group ally. Through financial or residency enticements, Iran has facilitated and coerced primarily Shia fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan to participate in the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown in Syria. Iranian-supported Shia militias in Iraq have also committed serious human rights abuses against primarily Sunni civilians. Iranian forces have directly backed militia operations in Syria with armored vehicles, artillery, and drones.

Since the end of the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese Hizballah conflict, Iran has supplied LH with thousands of rockets, missiles, and small arms, in direct violation of UNSCR 1701. Iran has also provided hundreds of millions of dollars in support of LH and has trained thousands of its fighters at camps in Iran. Lebanese Hizballah fighters have been used extensively in Syria to support the Assad regime. In Bahrain, Iran has continued to provide weapons, support, and training to local Shia militant groups. In March 2017, the Department of State designated two individuals affiliated with the Bahrain-based al-Ashtar Brigades (AAB), which receives funding and support from the Government of Iran, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists under Executive Order 13224.

Iran continued to provide weapons, training, and funding to Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups, including Palestine Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. These Palestinian terrorist groups have been behind a number of deadly attacks originating in Gaza and the West Bank, including attacks against Israeli civilians and Egyptian security forces in the Sinai Peninsula.

The Iranian government maintains a robust offensive cyber program and has sponsored cyberattacks against foreign government and private sector entities.

Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al-Qa’ida (AQ) members residing in Iran and has refused to publicly identify the members in its custody. Iran has allowed AQ facilitators to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran since at least 2009, enabling AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and Syria.

SYRIA

Designated in 1979 as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, Syria continued its political and military support to a variety of terrorist groups. The regime continued to provide weapons and political support to Lebanese Hizballah (LH) and continued to allow Iran to rearm the terrorist organization. The Assad regime’s relationship with LH and Iran grew stronger in 2017 as the regime became more reliant on external actors to fight regime opponents. President Bashar al-Assad remained a staunch defender of Iran’s policies, while Iran exhibited equally energetic support for the Syrian regime. Syrian government speeches and press releases often included statements supporting terrorist groups, particularly LH.

 

Middle East and North Africa 

Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism worldwide remained undiminished through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force, its Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and Tehran’s proxy Hizballah, which remained a significant threat to the stability of Lebanon and the broader region. 
 

BAHRAIN

Overview: Terrorist activity in Bahrain increased in 2017. Bahraini Shia militants remained a threat to security forces and attacks in 2017 resulted in the death of four police officers. During the year, the Bahraini government made gains in detecting and containing terrorist threats from violent Bahraini Shia militants, often backed by Iran, and ISIS sympathizers. The government offered diplomatic support to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS’s efforts and supported its military operations through hosting the Fifth Fleet and Naval Central Command. The closure of an independent newspaper and two opposition political societies along with government suppression of peaceful protests have combined to exacerbate political tensions, which could increase the risk of radicalization to violence.
 

Foreign Terrorist Organizations 

AL-AQSA MARTYRS BRIGADE

aka al-Aqsa Martyrs Battalion

Description: Designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on March 27, 2002, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (AAMB) is composed of small cells of Fatah-affiliated activists that emerged at the outset of the al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000. AAMB strives to drive the Israeli military and West Bank settlers from the West Bank to establish a Palestinian state loyal to Fatah.

Activities: During the 2000 Intifada, AAMB carried out primarily small-arms attacks against Israeli military personnel and settlers. By 2002, the group was striking Israeli civilians inside Israel. In January 2002, AAMB claimed responsibility for the first female suicide bombing in Israel. In 2010 and 2011, the group launched numerous rocket attacks on Israeli communities, and in November 2012, AAMB claimed it had fired more than 500 rockets and missiles into Israel during an Israel Defense Forces operation in Gaza.

In 2015, AAMB declared an open war against Israel and asked Iran for funds to help it in its fight against Israel in a televised broadcast. In the same broadcast, an AAMB fighter displayed a new two-mile tunnel crossing the border beneath Gaza and Israel, which the leader claimed would be used in the next rounds of battle. Throughout 2015, AAMB continued attacking Israeli soldiers and civilians.

In March 2016, armed confrontation in Nablus between Palestinian youths and Palestinian security officials broke out following the arrest of an AAMB associate on charges of murder; seven youths and six Palestinian security officials were injured in the unrest. The AAMB claimed responsibility for two rockets fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip in March 2017, although the rockets did not cause any casualties.

Strength: The group is estimated to have a few hundred members.

Location/Area of Operation: Most of AAMB’s operational activity is in Gaza but it has also planned and conducted attacks inside Israel and the West Bank. AAMB has members in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

Funding and External Aid: Iran has provided AAMB with funds and guidance, mostly through Hizballah facilitators.

 

HAMAS

aka the Islamic Resistance Movement; Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya; Izz al-Din al Qassam Battalions; Izz al-Din al Qassam Brigades; Izz al-Din al Qassam Forces; Students of Ayyash; Student of the Engineer; Yahya Ayyash Units; Izz al-Din al-Qassim Brigades; Izz al-Din al Qassim Forces; Izz al-Din al-Qassim Battalions

Description: Designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on October 8, 1997, Hamas was established in 1987 at the onset of the first Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, as an outgrowth of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The armed element, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, has conducted anti-Israeli attacks, including suicide bombings against civilian targets inside Israel. Hamas also manages a broad, mostly Gaza-based, network of Dawa or ministry activities that include charities, schools, clinics, youth camps, fundraising, and political activities. After winning Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January 2006, Hamas gained control of significant Palestinian Authority (PA) ministries in Gaza, including the Ministry of Interior. In 2007, Hamas expelled the PA and Fatah from Gaza in a violent takeover. Hamas remained the de facto ruler in Gaza in 2017. The group selected a new leader, Ismail Haniyeh, who is based in Gaza, on May 6, 2017.

Activities: Prior to 2005, Hamas conducted numerous anti-Israeli attacks, including suicide bombings, rocket launches, improvised explosive device (IED) attacks, and shootings. U.S. citizens have died and been injured in the group’s attacks. In June 2007, after Hamas took control of Gaza from the PA and Fatah, the Gaza borders were closed, and Hamas increased its use of tunnels to smuggle weapons into Gaza via the Sinai and maritime routes.

Hamas fought a 23-day war with Israel from late December 2008 to January 2009. From November 14 to 21, 2012, Hamas fought another war with Israel during which it claims to have launched more than 1,400 rockets into Israel. Despite the Egypt-mediated ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in 2012, operatives from Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) coordinated and carried out a November bus bombing in Tel Aviv that wounded 29 people. On July 8, 2014, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in Gaza with the intent of preventing rocket fire into the country; rocket fire had increased following Israeli military operations after Hamas kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers in June 2014, including 16-year-old U.S.-Israeli citizen Naftali Fraenkel.

In April 2016, a Hamas member carried out a suicide attack on a bus in Jerusalem, killing 20. The attack came just two months after Hamas released a music video on its al-Aqsa TV and several social media sites encouraging suicide bombings of Israeli buses. The group was also held responsible for several Gaza-based rocket attacks, including a July strike in Sderot that hit a kindergarten and damaged several buildings.

Throughout 2016, Hamas cooperated with ISIS-Sinai Province, providing its members with funding, training, and organizational support.

Since 2007, Hamas and Fatah have made several attempts to reconcile, though all attempts through the end of 2017 have failed. The latest reconciliation attempt began in Cairo in October 2017, yet its implementation has stalled as neither Hamas nor Fatah can agree on security control or governance over Gaza. Throughout 2017, Israel bombed a number of Hamas targets in response to sporadic rocket attacks coming from Gaza.

Strength: Hamas is comprised of several thousand Gaza-based operatives.

Location/Area of Operation: Since 2007, Hamas has controlled Gaza and also has a presence in the West Bank. Hamas also has a presence in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

Funding and External Aid: Historically, Hamas has received funding, weapons, and training from Iran and raises funds in Gulf countries. The group receives donations from Palestinian expatriates as well as its own charity organizations.

 

HIZBALLAH

aka the Party of God; Islamic Jihad; Islamic Jihad Organization; Revolutionary Justice Organization; Organization of the Oppressed on Earth; Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine; Organization of Right Against Wrong; Ansar Allah; Followers of the Prophet Muhammed; Lebanese Hizballah; Lebanese Hezbollah; LH; Foreign Relations Department; External Security Organization; Foreign Action Unit; Hizballah International; Special Operations Branch; External Services Organization; External Security Organization of Hezbollah

Description: Hizballah was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on October 8, 1997. Formed in 1982 following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Lebanon-based radical Shia group takes its ideological inspiration from the Iranian revolution and the teachings of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. The group generally follows the religious guidance of the Iranian Supreme Leader, which in 2017 was Ali Khamenei. Hizballah is closely allied with Iran and the two often work together on shared initiatives, although Hizballah also acts independently. Hizballah shares a close relationship with Syria, and like Iran, provides assistance – including fighters – to Syrian regime forces in the Syrian conflict.

Activities: Hizballah is responsible for multiple large scale terrorist attacks, including the 1983 suicide truck bombings of the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut; the 1984 attack on the U.S. Embassy annex in Beirut; and the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847, during which U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem was murdered.

Hizballah was also implicated, along with Iran, in the 1992 attacks on the Israeli Embassy in Argentina and in the 1994 bombing of the Argentine-Israelite Mutual Association in Buenos Aires.

In 2000, Hizballah operatives captured three Israeli soldiers in the Shebaa Farms area and, separately, kidnapped an Israeli reserve officer in Dubai. In an exchange between Israel and Hizballah in 2004, the Israeli abducted in Dubai as well as the bodies of the three Israeli soldiers were returned to Israel.

Hizballah is believed to have carried out two attacks against UN Interim Force in Lebanon peacekeepers, an attack in late May 2011 that wounded five Italian peacekeepers and a second attack in July 2011 that wounded six French soldiers.

In January 2012, Thai police detained Hizballah operative Hussein Atris on immigration charges as he was attempting to depart Thailand. Atris was convicted of possessing bomb-making materials by a Thai court in September 2013 and sentenced to two years and eight months in prison. He was released in September 2014 and is believed to reside in Lebanon.

In July 2012, a suspected Hizballah operative was detained by Cypriot authorities for allegedly helping plan an attack against Israeli tourists on the island. On March 21, 2013, a Cyprus court found the operative guilty of charges based on his surveillance activities of Israeli tourists. The group was also responsible for the July 2012 attack on a passenger bus carrying 42 Israeli tourists at the Sarafovo Airport in Bulgaria, near the city of Burgas. The explosion killed five Israelis and one Bulgarian, and injured 32 others.

In Iraq, Hizballah assisted Iraq Shia militant and terrorist groups, and in January 2007, attacked the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center, killing five American soldiers. In May 2013, Hizballah publicly admitted to playing a significant role in the ongoing conflict in Syria, rallying support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hizballah’s support for Syria’s al-Assad regime continued into 2017. There were reportedly about 7,000 Hizballah fighters in Syria; several senior Hizballah military commanders and hundreds of fighters have died in the Syrian conflict.

In May 2013, Nigerian authorities arrested three Hizballah operatives who had stored anti-tank weapons, rocket propelled grenades and launchers, small arms, and a large quantity of ammunition and explosives.

In October 2014, Peruvian authorities arrested a Hizballah operative who had been planning to carry out attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets. Investigators found traces of explosives in his home.

In May 2015, Cypriot authorities arrested Hizballah member and Lebanese-Canadian national Hussein Bassam Abdallah after finding 8.2 tons of liquid ammonium nitrate in the basement of a residence in Larnaca. Abdallah was charged by the Republic of Cyprus on five offenses, including participation in a terrorist organization and providing support to a terrorist organization. On June 29, 2015, Abdallah was sentenced to six years in prison.

In August 2015, Kuwaiti authorities arrested three Hizballah operatives who had stored 42,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, 300 pounds of C4, dozens of small arms, and 204 grenades under a residential house.

In 2017, Bolivian authorities identified a Hizballah-affiliated warehouse, seizing enough explosive precursor material to produce a 2.5 ton bomb, as well as a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device.

In June 2017, two Hizballah operatives were arrested in the United States. One operative arrested in Michigan had identified the availability of explosives precursors in Panama in 2011 and surveilled U.S. and Israeli targets in Panama as well as the Panama Canal from 2011-2012. Another operative arrested in New York had surveilled U.S. military and law enforcement facilities from 2003-2017.

Strength: The group has tens of thousands of supporters and members worldwide.

Location/Area of Operation: Hizballah is based in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the Bekaa Valley, and southern Lebanon, but the group operates around the world. Since 2013, Hizballah fighters have assisted Assad regime forces in many areas across Syria.

Funding and External Aid: Iran continues to provide Hizballah with the majority of its funding, training, weapons, and explosives, as well as political, diplomatic, monetary, and organizational aid. Syria has furnished training, weapons, and diplomatic and political support. Hizballah also receives funding in the form of private donations from Lebanese Shia diaspora communities around the world, including profits from legal and illegal businesses. These include smuggling contraband goods, passport falsification, narcotics trafficking, money laundering, and credit card, immigration, and bank fraud.

 

KATA’IB HIZBALLAH

aka Hizballah Brigades; Hizballah Brigades in Iraq; Hizballah Brigades-Iraq; Kata’ib Hezbollah; Khata’ib Hezbollah; Khata’ib Hizballah; Khattab Hezballah; Hizballah Brigades-Iraq of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq; Islamic Resistance in Iraq; Kata’ib Hizballah Fi al-Iraq; Katibat Abu Fathel al-A’abas; Katibat Zayd Ebin Ali; Katibut Karbalah

Description: Formed in 2006 and designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on July 2, 2009, Kata’ib Hizballah (KH) is an anti-Western Shia group with a terrorist ideology. Prior to the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011, the group conducted attacks against Iraqi, U.S., and Coalition targets in Iraq, and threatened the lives of Iraqi politicians and civilians supporting the legitimate political process in Iraq. The group is notable for its extensive use of media operations and propaganda, including filming and releasing videos of attacks. KH has ideological ties to and receives support from Iran.

Activities: KH has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks since 2007, including improvised explosive device bombings, rocket-propelled grenade attacks, and sniper operations. In 2007, KH gained notoriety for its attacks against U.S. and Coalition Forces in Iraq. In June 2011, five U.S. soldiers were killed in Baghdad when KH assailants fired multiple rockets at U.S. military base, Camp Victory. The group remained active in 2015, participating in fighting in Syria in support of the Assad regime, and in Iraq against ISIS. In June and July 2015, the group broadcast its recruitment contact information and an appeal for donations on a pro-Iran channel and on YouTube in an effort to recruit fighters to Syria and Iraq.

In 2016, KH continued to fight ISIS alongside the Iraqi Army and participated in the operation to liberate Mosul, though they were only active outside the city. In 2017, the group threatened to fight “American occupiers” in Iraq, in an article published on the group’s official website.

Strength: Exact membership numbers are unknown. Estimates range from 1,000 to the group’s claim of 30,000 fighters

Location/Area of Operation: Predominately Iraq-based, but the group also fights alongside pro-Assad regime forces in Syria.

Funding and External Aid: KH is heavily dependent on support from Iran.

 

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