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US: Deaths of Osama bin Laden, other top figures put al-Qaida on 'path of decline'

One year ago, U.S. Navy SEALs launched a nighttime raid on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed former al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden. NBC's Amna Nawaz reports.

WASHINGTON -- Osama bin Laden's death sent al-Qaida into a decline that will be hard to reverse, the United States said on Tuesday in a report that found terrorist attacks last year fell to their lowest level since 2005.

Describing 2011 as a "landmark year," the United States said other top al-Qaida members killed last year included Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, reportedly the militant organization's No. 2 figure after bin Laden's death, and Anwar al-Awlaki, who led its lethal affiliate in Yemen.

"The loss of bin Laden and these other key operatives puts the network on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse," the State Department said in its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" document, which covers calendar year 2011.

The report attributed the killings, which included the May 2011 raid in which U.S. commandos shot bin Laden in Pakistan, to improved cooperation on counterterrorism. But it also said al-Qaida is adaptable and poses "an enduring and serious threat."

Farooq Naeem / AFP - Getty Images

U.S. forces found and killed the al-Qaida leader in the affluent Pakistani town of Abbottabad, where he had been living in a large compound.

While saying there were no terrorist attacks in the United States last year, the report asserted that the U.S. government remains concerned about "threats to the homeland," citing the foiled 2009 Christmas Day attempt by the Nigerian "underwear bomber" who sought to blow up a Detroit-bound aircraft.

The report included a statistical annex prepared by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) that showed the overall number of terrorist attacks worldwide fell to 10,283 last year from 11,641 in 2010.

Panetta: Only a 'small handful' of top al-Qaida targets left

The number of worldwide fatalities fell to 12,533 last year from 13,193 the year before, according to the statistics, which NCTC issued in a report published on June 1.

That was the lowest level since 2005, when there were more than 11,000 attacks and more than 14,000 fatalities. The general decline in terrorism-related fatalities -- which peaked at more than 22,000 in 2007 -- reflects, in part, less violence in Iraq.

The report added: 

Sunni extremists accounted for the greatest number of terrorist attacks and fatalities for the third consecutive year. More than 5,700 incidents were attributed to Sunni extremists, accounting for nearly 56 percent of all attacks and about 70 percent of all fatalities ... Secular, political, and anarchist groups were the next largest category of perpetrators, conducting 2,283 attacks with 1,926 fatalities, a drop of 5 percent and 9 percent, respectively, from 2010.

The State Department report said that as al-Qaida's "core has gotten weaker," affiliated groups have gained ground, citing al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula as a particular threat and voicing concern about al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

Arshad Butt / AP

Osama bin Laden is dead following a military operation in Pakistan and the US has recovered his body, US President Barack Obama announced Sunday night.

It also reported an increase in terrorist attacks in Africa, due largely to Nigeria's Boko Haram militant group, as well as in the Western Hemisphere, which it attributed chiefly to FARC insurgents in Colombia.

Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, said last year was also significant for the "Arab Spring" of popular protests and what he described as its rebuff to al-Qaida's ideology.

"We saw millions of citizens throughout the Middle East advance peaceful public demands for change without any reference to al-Qaida's incendiary world view," he said, adding that upheavals also present risks.

"Revolutionary transformations have many bumps in the road," he added. "Inspiring as the moment may be, we are not blind to the attendant perils."

U.S. counterterror officials say that after years of drone strikes and other activities against the leaders of Al Qaida, the group is no longer able to pull off a major attack against U.S. interests, such as 9/11. NBC's Mike Viqueira reports.

The report cites Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria as state sponsors of terrorism.

It added: 

Al-Qaida and its affiliates and adherents are far from the only terrorist threat the United States faces. Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, continues to undermine international efforts to promote peace and democracy and threatens stability, especially in the Middle East and South Asia. Its use of terrorism as an instrument of policy was exemplified by the involvement of elements of the Iranian regime in the plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, a conspiracy that the international community strongly condemned through a UN General Assembly resolution in November.

It highlighted that Syria was "mired in significant civil unrest for most of 2011" but "continued its strong partnership" with Iran.

The report added:

Syria has laws on the books pertaining to counterterrorism and terrorist financing, but it largely used these legal instruments against opponents of the regime, including political protesters and other members of the growing oppositionist movement.

The State Department also highlighted other forms of violent extremism around the world -- including attacks by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that killed at least 88 people; anarchists in Greece and Italy targeting government offices, foreign missions and symbols of the state; as well as dissident Republican groups in Northern Ireland.

The National Counterterrorism Center's annex also highlighted:

  • Attacks on government facilities decreased by about 43 percent from 2010, from 796 attacks to 453 attacks in 2011.
  • There was a sharp increase in the number of attacks directed at energy infrastructure, including fuel tankers, fuel pipelines and electrical networks, rising from 299 attacks in 2010 to 438 attacks in 2011.
  • The number of attacks directed at public places declined in each of the past five years, from a high of 4,121 attacks in 2007 to 2,186 attacks in 2011.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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