The Cable

Report: Al-Qaeda core weakened as affiliates gained strength in 2011

U.S. President Barack Obama has made his administration's successes against terrorist groups -- above all last year's killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden -- a central plank of his re-election campaign.

But according to the State Department's latest annual counterterrorism report, al Qaeda affiliates are gaining operational strength in the Middle East and South Asia, even though terrorist attacks worldwide are at their lowest level since 2005.

The report cited 2011 as a "landmark year" due to the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and other key al Qaeda operatives, and noted that the terrorist group's "core," largely based in Pakistan, had been weakened.

"I would not say that we are less safe now than we were several years ago, because the al Qaeda core was the most capable part of the organization by quite a lot, and was capable obviously of carrying out catastrophic attacks on a scale that none of the affiliates have been able to match," Coordinator for Counterterrorism Dan Benjamin said Tuesday at a briefing introducing the report.

Democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa also testified to the terrorist organization's decline, he said, though he offered a few cautionary notes.

"We saw millions of citizens throughout the Middle East advance peaceful, public demands for change without any reference to al Qaeda's incendiary world view," Benjamin said.

"This upended the group's longstanding claim that change in this region would only come through violence. These men and women have underscored in the most powerful fashion the lack of influence al Qaeda exerts over the central political issues in key Muslim majority nations."

Though AQAP benefited from the long and tumultuous political transition in Yemen, Benjamin said he expects the trend lines to go "in the right direction" under new president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Syria, on the other hand, remains a major cause for concern with no solution in sight. The New York Times reported Sunday that Muslim jihadists are "taking a more prominent role" in the resistance.

"We believe that the number of al Qaeda fighters who are in Syria is relatively small, but there's a larger group of foreign fighters, many of whom are not directly affiliated with al Qaeda, who are either in or headed to Syria," Benjamin said.

Iran remains the preeminent state sponsor of terrorism, according to the report, as its Lebanese client, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, is engaging in the most active and aggressive campaign since the 1990s.

Of the more than 10,000 attacks carried out in 70 countries, 64 percent occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but both Afghanistan and Iraq saw a decrease in the number of attacks from 2010.

In Africa, there was an 11.5 percent uptick in attacks, a result of Nigerian militant group Boko Haram's more aggressive strategies and tactics. Despite criticism from Congress, the Obama administration has refused to designate Boko Haram a terrorist organization on the grounds that its attacks are not representative of its general ideology, though the State Department did designate three of its leaders terrorists in June.

The report also mentions the Haqqani network, a Taliban-affiliated group attacking NATO troops in Afghanistan. On Thursday, the Senate voted unanimously to pass a resolution urging the State Department to add the network to the list of terrorist groups, which would become effective with President Barack Obama's signature.

The Cable

Romney team: Obama ‘leading from behind’ on Iran

The Mitt Romney camp is trying to exploit Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's criticism of the U.S. sanctions regime against Iran to portray Barack Obama's administration as "leading from behind" on Iran, on the same day the administration announced a new round of sanctions against Iranian companies and banks that do business with them.

"Since taking office three and a half years ago, President Obama has allowed Iran's nuclear ambitions to proceed unimpeded," said Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams in an e-mail sent to reporters headlined "On Iran, Obama has led from behind."

"As Israel's prime minister recently made clear, the Obama Administration's efforts haven't made an ‘iota' of difference. The president's refusal to take a tough stance when it comes to Iran has imperiled our allies and jeopardized our national security," Williams said.

"We have to be honest and say that all the sanctions and diplomacy so far have not set back the Iranian program by one iota," Netanyahu said after meeting Romney in Israel. "I believe that we need a strong and credible military threat, coupled with the sanctions, to have a chance to change that situation."

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes acknowledged that the Iranians have yet to buckle in a conference call Tuesday.

"The purpose of the sanctions is to affect the Iranian calculus and it is certainly the case that Iran has not decided to live up to its international obligations, which why we are expanding the sanctions," he said.

But the sanctions have hurt Iran's ability to fund and procure parts for its nuclear program, while making it more difficult for the country's leaders to justify the program domestically, Rhodes argued.

"We do see an impact on the Iranian government," he said. "We share the assessment of the government of Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu that the purpose of the sanctions is to change the calculus of the Iranian government with respect to their nuclear program and until they do that we have to keep increasing the pressure."

Earlier Tuesday, on an Obama campaign conference call, former Pentagon official Colin Kahl asserted that Romney's Iran policy differs little from what the administration is already doing.

"A lot of this is Romney describing our current policy and disguising it as criticism," Kahl said.

The purpose of the White House call was to roll out a new executive order authorizing sanctions on any company that conducts significant financial transactions with the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) or the Naftiran Intertrade Company (NICO), the firm that conducts business for NIOC.

The president's message on the new executive order can be found here. Dealings with those entities would be allowed for petroleum-related transactions emanating from countries that the State Department has exempted from penalties for "significantly reducing" their oil business with Iran. The only country not exempted is China.

The new executive order also sanctions entities that provide petrochemicals to Iran, and those sanctions are not subject to exemptions.

"We're currently seeing attempts by Iran to circumvent current oil sanctions. The new executive order is aimed at closing loopholes and preventing circumvention," said Rhodes.

The Treasury Department today also designated for sanctions the Bank of Kunlun in China and Elaf Islamic Bank in Iraq, both of which Treasury says have aided in significant financial transactions with sanctioned Iranian banks. The Wall Street Journal criticized the administration for not going after the Bank of Kunlan in an editorial Monday.

"As financial institutions around the world have cut ties with designated Iranian banks to avoid the risk of involvement in Iran's illicit activities, Bank of Kunlun and Elaf Islamic Bank have done just the opposite," said Treasury Under Secretary David Cohen. "Today's action exposes these banks' continued business with designated Iranian banks, and effectively cuts them off from the U.S. financial system. It should also serve as clear warning to banks outside the United States of the risks of doing business with both of these banks, since they have knowingly provided their services to designated Iranian banks."

The Cable asked the administration officials to respond to critics of the new sanctions who say the administration is playing "whack-a-mole" by sanctioning foreign banks one by one only after they are found to be aiding Iran.

"I think the results demonstrate quite clearly that we have imposed broad-based, comprehensive, and highly effective sanctions against Iran," Robert Einhorn, the State Department's sanctions czar, said. "So I think it's not accurate to describe it as a game of whack-a-mole. This is an effort to really on a very comprehensive basis apply very significant pressure, and I think it's working quite well."

The Cable also asked Rhodes if the administration supports the compromise Iran sanctions bill that will likely move through Congress this week. Rhodes said the White House hasn't yet fully reviewed the bill but the administration will probably support it.

"We've been working with Congress as they've developed that legislation. We certainly share the goal, and we believe it can be an important tool in adding to the sanctions regime we have in place," Rhodes said. "We are reviewing the specific text of the bill that was produced, but we're quite optimistic that we're going to be able to continue to work in lockstep with Congress ... as we increase pressure."

LIOR MIZRAHI/AFP/GettyImages