BAGHDAD, Iraq – Despite being weakened by the pressure of U.S. and other forces, Al Qaeda (search) remains the main terror menace facing the United States, the State Department says.
At the same time, however, lesser-known terror operations, some affiliated with Al Qaeda, others merely inspired by its goals, are taking up some of the slack as Usama bin Laden's (search) network loses central leadership and foot soldiers, the department said in its first "Country Reports on Terrorism" (search).
"There is a declining role for a significantly degraded Al Qaeda and a rising role for groups inspired by Al Qaeda," State Department counsel Philip D. Zelikow said Wednesday at a briefing on the document.
The report cited as examples the March 2004 bombings of commuter trains in Madrid and an Algerian terrorist leader's announcement of fealty to Al Qaeda.
The incidents "illustrate what many analysts believe is a new phase of the global war on terrorism, one in which local groups inspired by al-Qaida organize and carry out attacks with little or no support or direction from al-Qaida itself," the report said.
The report expanded on testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee in February by CIA Director Porter Goss (search). He spoke of gains against Al Qaeda and its affiliates but warned that they remain dangerous.
The country reports especially credited Pakistan for its work in curtailing the effectiveness of Al Qaeda.
"Al-Qaida leadership was degraded through arrests and ongoing Pakistani operations to assert greater control along the border with Afghanistan where some al-Qaida leaders are believed to hide," the report said. "Numerous al-Qaida and affiliated foot soldiers were captured or killed during the year."
Still, it said, "many senior al-Qaida leaders remained at large, continued to plan attacks against the United States, U.S. interests and U.S. partners."
Additionally, the fugitives "sought to foment attacks by inspiring new groups of Sunni Muslim extremists to undertake violent acts in the name of jihad," it said.
Jointly with the State Department report, the new National Counterterrorism Center issued a compilation of international terror incidents in 2004 with numbers of incidents and victims.
It said 651 significant international terrorist attacks caused 9,321 casualties worldwide, including 1,907 deaths. The dead, wounded or kidnapped included 103 Americans or 1 percent of the total.
On Tuesday, Rep. Henry Waxman (news, bio, voting record), D-Calif., said the 651 attacks were triple the 2003 number but told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice the report probably understates the toll. Zelikow said this count is not precisely comparable to last year's, because the terrorism center put greater manpower and resources into the project than the State Department had.
Until now, the State Department has included figures with its annual "Patterns of Global Terrorism," based on definitions of terrorism established by Congress.
Last year's report caused problems for the department after it was learned that it greatly understated the number of terrorist incidents. On Wednesday, House Democratic leaders asked the department's acting inspector general, Cameron Hume, to investigate whether the mistakes were politically motivated.
The National Counterterrorism Center is working on a new count, to be released in June, that will use new definitions of terrorism. "It is going to be a much more comprehensive data set," said John Brennan, the center's interim director, and will likely to count more incidents.
As an example of the rules under which the State Department operated and which his center used for the data released Wednesday, Brennan said the report lists only one of two Russian airliners that suicide bombers blew out of the sky last year.
The one that counted had an Israeli aboard. The other had all Russians, making it a domestic incident.
"It makes no sense to have the definition of terrorism depend on checking the nationality of all the victims," Brennan said.