Fighting Global Terrorism

This brief indentifies some of the critical foreign adversaries of the United States and why they matter. These include:

  • State sponsors of terrorism;
  • Designated international terrorist groups;
  • and States the United States does not diplomatically recognize.1

State Sponsors of Terrorism

The U.S. government defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents."2

A State Sponsor of Terrorism is a nation that has “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” The Department of State maintains this list. These nations are subject to numerous sanctions, such as:

  • A ban on arms-related exports and sales;
  • Controls over exports of dual-use items, which are devices that have both military and civilian use. (Note: Exports require a 30-day notification to Congress for any goods or services that could significantly enhance the country’s military capability or ability to support terrorism);
  • Prohibitions on economic assistance; and
  • Imposition of miscellaneous financial and other restrictions.3


Cuba has supported the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), as well as some members of the Spanish separatist group, the Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA).4


Iran remains the most active of all of the state sponsors of terrorism, supporting groups such as Hezbollah, HAMAS, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), among others.


Sudan was designated a state sponsor of terrorism in the early 1990s because it hosted numerous terrorist groups—most notably al Qaeda. However, it remains unclear why Sudan remains on the list, as the State Department states Khartoum currently cooperates with U.S. counterterrorism efforts.5


Syria has historically allowed multiple terrorist groups (including HAMAS, Hezbollah and various Palestinian terrorist organizations) to operate freely and with explicit government support.

Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO)

The Department of State also maintains a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list. To earn a place on the FTO list, a group must pose a threat to the U.S. or U.S. interests. As of September 2012, there are over 50 groups on the list. The following are several examples, divided by region. While there are other groups that use, or have used, terrorist tactics, they are not on the list for various reasons.


  1. Al Qaeda (AQ): Pakistan-based organization responsible for 9/11.
  2. Lashkar-e Tayyiba (LT) (Army of the Righteous): Pakistan- and Kashmir-based group that carried out the 2008 Mumbai attack.
  3. Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP): Pakistan-based group that is a critical al Qaeda ally.
  4. Jemaah Islamiya (JI): Indonesia-based, al Qaeda-linked group responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings.
  5. Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG): Philippines-based Islamist separatist group.

Middle East

  1. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP): Saudi- and Yemen-based al Qaeda affiliate, most notably responsible for the thwarted 2009 Christmas Day attack on a Detroit-bound passenger plane. AQAP remains committed to attacking the U.S., as it tried to destroy a U.S. cargo plane in 2010.
  2. HAMAS (Islamic Resistance Movement): Sunni Palestinian group that seeks to bring Israel under Islamic control. After winning local elections in 2006, HAMAS now controls the Gaza Strip.
  3. Hezbollah (Party of God): Shi’a organization based in Lebanon responsible for, among other operations, the 1983 attacks on the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut. Hezbollah is a semi-autonomous proxy for both Iranian and Syrian interests.
  4. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI): This al Qaeda affiliate is responsible for hundreds of attacks and thousands of deaths throughout Iraq since its inception in 2004.
  5. Al Nusra Front: AQI-led jihadist organization currently fighting the Syrian government.


  1. Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA): Basque nationalist organization that commits terrorist acts throughout Spain.
  2. Real IRA (RIRA): Splinter group that broke from the Provisional Irish Republican Army after the PIRA declared a ceasefire with the UK in 1997.

Central/South America

  1. Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC): Based in Colombia, FARC is Latin America’s oldest and largest insurgent group, responsible for scores of murders, kidnappings, bombings, and hijackings since the mid-1960s.
  2. Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso): A Maoist, Peru-based group.


  1. Al Shabaab: Somalia-based al Qaeda affiliate. Note: multiple Somali-Americans have left the U.S. to join al Shabaab, although we have yet to see an al Shabaab-led attack in the U.S.
  2. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): Algeria-based al Qaeda affiliate that has spread into neighboring Mali, Niger, and Mauritania.

Removed from the State Sponsor of Terrorism List

Since the founding of the State Sponsors list, the State Department has removed four countries which have either fully renounced terrorism or have actively and successfully aided the U.S. in counter-terrorism efforts. These countries include:


Removed after the U.S. invasion in 2003.6


Removed after Muammar Gadhafi surrendered their ongoing nuclear weapons program, severed ties with terrorist organizations (including closing active training camps), and paid compensation for its involvement in the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing.7


Removed in 2008 as an incentive to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table over its nuclear weapons program.8


Removed when it united with North Yemen in 1990 to form the Republic of Yemen.

Diplomatic Relations

Beyond the issue of terrorism, the United States does not recognize the governments of certain major countries recognized by the United Nations. Therefore, we have no embassy in their capitals:

Iran: The U.S. severed relations with Iran in April 1980 following the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran that touched off a 444-day long hostage crisis.

Cuba: The U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 1961, shortly after Cuba signed a treaty with the USSR and nationalized various foreign properties and companies.

North Korea: The U.S. has never formally recognized North Korea and therefore has never had diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

End Notes