By Warren Strobel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Terrorist attacks worldwide surged by more than a third and fatalities soared by 81 percent in 2014, a year that also saw Islamic State eclipse al Qaeda as the leading jihadist militant group, the U.S. State Department said on Friday.
In its annual report on terrorism, the department also charts an unprecedented flow of foreign fighters to Syria, often lured by Islamic State's use of social media and drawn from diverse social backgrounds.
Taken together, the trends point to a sobering challenge from militant groups worldwide to the United States and its allies despite severe blows inflicted on al Qaeda, author of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in Washington and New York.
Al Qaeda's leaders "appeared to lose momentum as the self-styled leader of a global movement in the face of ISIL's rapid expansion and proclamation of a Caliphate," the report said, using an alternate acronym for Islamic State.
Last June, Islamic State attacked from its base in Syria and seized vast swaths of Iraq, much of which it still controls.
U.S. President Barack Obama responded with air strikes in Iraq and Syria, and a program to train Iraqi security forces. He has also continued air strikes against militant suspects worldwide, included one this week that killed al Qaeda's deputy chief.
The State Department report, which covers calendar year 2014, said there were 13,463 terrorist attacks, a 35 percent jump from 2013, resulting in more than 32,700 deaths, an 81 percent rise. More than 9,400 people were kidnapped or taken hostage by militants, triple the rate of the previous year, it said.
There was some good news: Militant activity decreased in some countries, including Pakistan, the Philippines, Nepal and Russia.
The report said the global increase in terrorist attacks was mostly due to events in three countries: Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
Islamic State was particularly lethal. A June 2014 attack on a prison in Mosul, Iraq, in which the group killed 670 Shi'ite Muslim prisoners "was the deadliest attack worldwide since September 11, 2001," it said.
As of late December, more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters had traveled to Syria, exceeding the rate of those who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen or Somalia "at any point in the last 20 years," the report said.
Last month, a senior State Department official said the army of foreign fighters who traveled to Syria had grown further, to 22,000.
"Individuals drawn to the conflict in Syria and Iraq were diverse in their socioeconomic and geographic background," the report said, highlighting the complex challenge in curbing the flow.
In a June 8 news conference, Obama acknowledged the importance of stemming the flow of fighters, even as the United States says its air strikes have killed thousands of Islamic State fighters.
"We’re taking a lot of them off the battlefield, but if they’re being replenished, then it doesn’t solve the problem over the long term," he said.
(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Jonathan Oatisw)