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State Department: terror dips worldwide, but IS remains a threat

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File

(Read caption) An informal memorial at Place de la Republique for victims of terrorism, on April 2, 2016 in Paris, France. Global acts of terror decreased for the first time since 2012, the US State Department said in a report on Thursday.

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During a heated election season, the threats of global terrorism have often been invoked on the campaign trail.

But a report released Thursday by the US State Department offers a different perspective: Amid international cooperation to counteract terrorist threats, it says, the number of terrorist attacks has declined for the first time since 2012.

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There were 11,774 terrorist attacks in 92 countries in 2015, as CNN reported: 13 percent less than the previous year, according to figures compiled by researchers at the University of Maryland that were included in the country-by-country report.

More than 28,300 people were killed in those attacks, including attackers killed in suicide missions. But that number also represents a 14 percent drop in the number of deaths related to terrorism from 2014.

In some countries, the news is grimmer: The State Department reports that terrorist attacks and deaths increased last year in Turkey, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt and Syria. More than 55 percent of terrorist attacks were concentrated in only five countries: Afghanistan, India, Iraq, Nigeria, and Pakistan. 

"The international community made important progress in degrading terrorist safe havens – in particular, a sizeable reduction in the amount of territory held by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, in Iraq and Syria, as well as the finances and foreign terrorist fighters available to it," Justin Siberell, the department's acting coordinator for counterterrorism, told reporters at a Thursday briefing in Washington. Forty percent of the territory held by IS in January 2015 had been retaken by January 2016, according to the report. 

But it is still the "greatest threat globally," the department says, noting that instability in IS regions and others has helped terrorist groups gain territory and influence. 

The report also highlights terrorist threats in Europe from "foreign terrorist fighters who return home," citing attacks in Paris, Lebanon, and Turkey. 

Mr. Siberell noted that the Islamic State's impact was global, but provided few specifics about how the government would respond beyond its existing efforts. "I think we have to remain vigilant, certainly," he said, adding "This is a group that does espouse a philosophy and an ideology that is global in its intent.... [I]t's a global concern and we require a global response to address it."

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President Obama has frequently pointed to efforts to curb violent extremism as requiring the cooperation of local communities, condemning "anti-immigrant bigotry" as counter-productive. The State Department says the country-by-country reports help them refine those efforts. 

"We have to commit ourselves to build diverse, tolerant, inclusive societies that reject anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant bigotry that creates the divisions, the fear and the resentments upon which extremists can prey," Mr. Obama said in a speech at the United Nations in September.

The report says Iran was the "foremost state sponsor of terrorism" last year, including providing financial support, equipment and training to terrorist groups. Syria and Sudan were also listed as state sponsors of terrorism. Last year, the department removed Cuba from the list, a sign that may point to the administration's slowly warming relations with the island nation.

But Iran's continued inclusion on the list could provide ammunition for those critical of the Obama administration's nuclear deal. The deal included the removal of some economic sanctions, raising fears for critics that the funds could end up being used for terrorism.

In January, Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that was a possibility. "I think that some of it will end up in the hands of the IRGC or other entities, some of which are labeled terrorists," he said in a CNN interview in Davos, Switzerland, referring to Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps.

But, Secretary Kerry noted, "right now, we are not seeing the early delivery of funds going to that kind of endeavor at this point in time."