As we usher in a new year, what trends in terrorism are likely to dominate the global security landscape in 2020? Geopolitical realignments, emerging technologies, and demographic shifts will all contribute to different manifestations of ideologically and politically motivated violence. Much of this will continue to have a transnational dimension, with once seemingly parochial challenges made even more complex as a result of the globalization of violence. The threat posed by transnational terrorism in 2020 thus presents a complex mosaic.
The Islamic State enters 2020 as a different group than it has been since its rise to power six years ago. The physical caliphate has been demolished, and the organization seems to be at a nadir, especially when compared to its peak, when it controlled massive swaths of territory and maintained a proto-state in the heart of the Levant. The Islamic State will continue to atomize, making the group weaker in some regards, but also making its network more difficult to target since it will be more decentralized. In Iraq and Syria, there are already reports that the group is attempting to rebuild itself, relying on guerrilla tactics and hit-and-run attacks against Iraqi security forces and the Assad regime in Syria. Sleeper cells are reportedly lying in wait to launch attacks, including bombings and assassinations.
The threat posed by returning foreign fighters to their countries of origin has been lower than anticipated, but there is still a significant number of militants unaccounted for, some of whom may travel to other conflict zones and serve as force multipliers for jihadist groups fighting civil wars or insurgencies in weak and failed states. There is also the question of what will happen to Islamic State members being held in detention camps throughout northeast Syria and elsewhere. Many Islamic State family members are being held in deplorable conditions in camps like the infamous al-Hol camp, which are growing into incubators of radicalization and extremism, as women and children are left lingering while nation-states procrastinate over developing responsible policies for dealing with their citizens. There will also be large numbers of terrorists released from prison over the coming year, with countries struggling to deal with how to reintegrate these individuals back into society.
Al-Qaeda and its affiliated organizations may see an opportunity in the coming year to capitalize on the October 2019 death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Even as it lost its heir apparent with the death of Hamza bin Laden, al-Qaeda has gained ground in conflicts in Syria and Yemen, as well as throughout parts of Africa, including both the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. If the United States withdraws thousands of troops from Afghanistan, as President Donald Trump has promised, al-Qaeda is well-positioned to take advantage of the resulting power vacuum and regenerate its network throughout South Asia. Al-Qaeda has survived for more than three decades due in large part to the group’s ability to innovate by constantly refining tactics, techniques, and procedures that demonstrate a focus on organizational learning. Al-Qaeda affiliates throughout the globe continue to demonstrate the ability to launch spectacular attacks, evidenced most recently by a truck bombing by al-Shabab in Mogadishu, killing 80 people.
The coming year may also signal an uptick in terrorism perpetrated by Shia militants. Iran remains the primary state sponsor of terrorism in the world today. Tehran continues to fund, train, and equip an array of proxy groups with varying degrees of capabilities and objectives. Lebanese Hezbollah is as potent a force as ever, not only fighting in the Syrian civil war, but also maintaining a global footprint and remaining on the cutting edge in terms of its ability to harness emerging technologies like unmanned aerial systems, or drones. Iran has also transferred advanced weaponry, including short-range ballistic missiles, to Shia groups in Iraq, including Kata’ib Hezbollah, the group responsible for a late December rocket attack that killed a U.S. contractor, wounded several U.S. troops, and triggered a retaliatory strike against targets in both Iraq and Syria. There are a number of potential conflicts percolating in the Middle East—Iran vs. the United States; Iran vs. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; Iran vs. Israel—that could see Tehran use its growing networks of proxy fighters to launch sophisticated attacks.
One of the most concerning trends in global terrorism is the proliferation of violent white supremacy extremist organizations and other groups motivated by various forms of right-wing extremism. Ukraine has served as a growing hub for transnational white supremacy, with no signs that the threat posed by neo-Nazis and racially and ethnically motivated extremists will ebb anytime soon. On the contrary, these groups appear to be growing stronger and more popular in North America, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, attempting to mainstream right-wing ideologies and exploiting social media to spread propaganda, recruit new members, and finance their organizations and operations. Shifting demographics in the West, increased migration flows, and the toxic combination of populism and Islamophobia could all factor into more terrorism by right-wing extremists in 2020. The issue of domestic terrorism has been in the United States, with attacks over the past several years in Pittsburgh, PA; El Paso, TX; and Poway, CA, among others. Given the number of high-profile attacks in 2019, including the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand, violent white supremacy extremists and neo-Nazis may feel emboldened and attempt to use their perceived momentum to recruit more members and plot similarly devastating attacks in the year ahead. The use of social media and live-streaming has added a disturbing dimension to terrorism and increased its utility as “propaganda of the deed.”
Terrorists will continue to experiment with emerging technologies in an effort to gain an asymmetric advantage. Few would be surprised to see a terrorist attack incorporating a drone or swarm of drones in 2020, though the most likely culprit could be a group that receives external state sponsorship. The use of a 3-D printed gun in an anti-Semitic attack in Halle, Germany is also foreboding, signaling a growing sophistication or at least a continued fascination with emerging technologies. Although artificial intelligence and machine learning present higher barriers to entry for non-state actors, the use of disinformation and so-called “deep fakes” present counter-terrorism forces, including law enforcement and intelligence services, with new and complex challenges. And while social media companies struggle to counter terrorists’ use of social media, the most cutting-edge groups will forge ahead with new methods of producing and spreading propaganda. There is also a major concern over motivators of political violence that have yet to fully manifest. Terrorism perpetrated by individuals influenced by a neo-Luddite ideology or perhaps emboldened to use violence to call attention to issues related to climate change and the environment remain a distinct possibility.
Finally, geopolitics will influence new trends in terrorism. A raft of protest movements swept the globe in the latter half of 2019, from Latin America to the Middle East to Asia. And even as these protests were perfectly legitimate expressions of political and economic grievances, there always exists the possibility for fringe elements to engage in politically or ideologically motivated violence. 2020 could also see an uptick in terrorism in countries like Northern Ireland and Colombia, two countries accustomed to political violence yet which now seem, perhaps mistakenly, relics of a bygone era of terrorism driven by separatism and ethno-nationalism. This seems particularly poignant given the two-decade focus on the Global War on Terrorism, waged almost exclusively against Salafi-jihadist groups and their affiliates. Another major factor will be the second-order effects associated with the United States’ transition away from counter terrorism and toward great power competition. Shifting attention and a reallocation of resources toward focusing on China and Russia, a move that makes sense strategically, will still have consequences.