Terrorist attacks worldwide surged by more than one-third and fatalities soared by 81 percent last year, a year that also saw the Islamic State group eclipse al-Qaeda as the leading militant Muslim organization, the US Department of State said on Friday.
In its annual report on terrorism, the department also charted an unprecedented flow of foreign fighters to Syria, often lured by the Islamic State group’s use of social media and drawn from diverse social backgrounds.
Taken together, the trends point to a sobering challenge from extremist groups worldwide to the US and its allies, despite severe blows inflicted on al-Qaeda, the group behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the US.
Al-Qaeda’s leaders “appeared to lose momentum as the self-styled leader of a global movement in the face of ISIL’s rapid expansion and proclamation of a caliphate,” the report said, using an alternate acronym for the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
In June last year, the group struck from its base in Syria and seized vast portions of Iraq, much of which it still controls.
“The ongoing civil war in Syria has been a spur to the worldwide terrorism events,” US Department of State Coordinator for Counterterrorism Tina Kaidanow told a news conference.
She said that while the US still worried about al-Qaeda, the growing concern was the number of groups aligning themselves with the Islamic State across the globe.
“There is an appeal of ISIS globally,” Kaidanow added, using another acronym for the group.
US President Barack Obama responded with airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, and a program to train Iraqi security forces.
He has also continued strikes against militant suspects worldwide, included one last week that killed al-Qaeda’s deputy leader.
The state department report, which covers January to December last year, said there were 13,463 terrorist attacks, a 35 percent jump from 2013, resulting in more than 32,700 deaths, an 81 percent increase.
More than 9,400 people were kidnapped or taken hostage by militants, triple the rate of the previous year, it said.
There was some good news: Militant activity decreased in some countries, including Pakistan, Philippines, Nepal and Russia.
The report said the global increase in terrorist attacks was mostly due to events in Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
Kaidanow said weak or failed governments allowed terrorist groups to thrive in places such as Yemen, Syria, Libya, Nigeria and Iraq.
The Islamic State group was particularly lethal. An attack in June last year on a prison in Mosul, Iraq, in which the group killed 670 Shiite Muslim prisoners “was the deadliest attack worldwide since September 11, 2001,” it said.
As of late December last year, more than 16,000 foreign fighters had traveled to Syria, exceeding the rate of those who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen or Somalia “at any point in the [past] 20 years,” the report said.
Last month, a senior department official said the army of foreign fighters who traveled to Syria had grown further, to 22,000.
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