The terrorism landscape over the next two to three years will become more diverse and more fragmented. with actors being empowered by advances in emerging technologies.
The counterterrorism community broadly is good at identifying issues that are front and center, but not nearly as adept at peering around corners or anticipating what trends are on the horizon. There are issues unfolding right now, percolating just below the surface, that could suggest what the terrorism landscape might look like in the future. Based on current trends and indicators, the terrorism landscape over the next two to three years will become more diverse and more fragmented. with actors being empowered by advances in emerging technologies.
As mistrust in governments and “ruling systems” increase, the ideological and dogmatic differences, if they exist, between extremists and terrorist groups begin to matter less if they do not pose an existential threat to one another. This necessitates constantly questioning “conventional wisdom” or overly generalized “truisms.” Iran, a Shiite state can and does sponsor Sunni terrorist groups such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Taliban and even al Qaeda. White supremacists may hate Muslims but still have a strong affinity for groups like the Islamic State, fetishizing jihadists’ penchant for extreme violence.
The National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2040 report, published in March, noted that “Large segments of the global population are becoming wary of institutions and governments that they see as unwilling or unable to address their needs. People are gravitating to familiar and like-minded groups for community and security, including ethnic, religious, and cultural identities as well as groupings around interests and causes, such as environmentalism.” This is a recipe for an increase in terrorism and extremist violence around the world, as tribalism becomes entrenched and narratives begin to frame “out-groups,” however defined, in terms of existential threats to security and survival of “in-groups.” Despite the vast troves of money and resources allocated to counterterrorism, states and governments remain largely unprepared for what could come next.
Far-Right Extremism on the Rise
For the past two decades, the U.S. national security establishment has been laser-focused on combating transnational jihadist groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State, as well as their affiliates and franchise groups. The Sept. 11 attacks devastated the nation’s psyche. In response, the U.S. launched the ill-fated and poorly named “Global War on Terrorism.”
Counterterrorism replaced grand strategy as the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, chasing terrorists and insurgents to remote corners of the globe. Terms like “failed states” and “ungoverned spaces” dominated the international security agenda. By late 2019, the United States was conducting counterterrorism missions in approximately 65 countries worldwide. But as Washington and its allies relied on special operations forces and unmanned aerial systems to keep jihadist groups off balance, many Western countries missed the rapid growth of far-right violent extremism.
The threat posed by violent white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and anti-government militias is now impossible to ignore. Attacks motivated by racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy have increased dramatically, with the Global Terrorism Index reporting a 320% surge in far-right terrorist attacks between 2013 and 2018, primarily concentrated in North America, Western Europe, and Oceania. Oslo, Christchurch, Pittsburgh, El Paso, and other cities have all become associated with violent far-right terrorist attacks. Far-right violent extremists have cultivated transnational networks, and groups like Atomwaffen Division, The Base, and the Russian Imperial Movement are no longer secret.
In addition to the global terrorist threat posed by jihadists and far-right violent extremists, which will both remain a challenge for states to contend with, there will likely be an increase in politically and ideologically motivated violence among other movements. It is possible that the coronavirus pandemic will also resuscitate long-dormant forms of extremism, including left-wing violence. Driven by the impending economic downturn and related austerity measures that will inevitably be implemented, individuals and groups energized by socio-economic inequality and angered by corporate greed could engage in acts of vandalism and violence to draw attention to their message.
In the late 1970s, leftist groups like the Red Army Faction (also known as the Baader Meinhof gang) sought to kidnap wealthy industrialists to bring attention to their cause. The mistreatment of animals, long an issue for left-wing groups, is being discussed as a facilitator of infectious diseases like COVID-19. Accordingly, causes like this, and those similar to it, will receive increased attention in the years to come. Moreover, the concept of reciprocal radicalization suggests that, as extremism on the far right grows, it will be met with growth from the far left. In other words, extremist groups fuel one another’s rhetoric and, in some cases, acts of violence.
Another potential motivation for left-wing terrorism is a scenario wherein large numbers of individuals grow increasingly radicalized by their governments’ inability or unwillingness to deal with climate change. This would not necessarily be a new phenomenon, but rather a return to the 1990s when groups like the Earth Liberation Front were considered significant terrorist threat. In Mexico, a group known as Individualidades Tendiendo a lo Salvaje that blends eco-extremism with anarchist ideology has conducted low-level arson, improvised explosive device attacks, and assassinations. The group, whose name translates to “Individuals Tending to the Wild” was created in 2011 — inspired by an ideology similar to the neo-Luddite worldview proffered by the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski — but soon enough abandoned its ethos of revolution against global technology and adopted concepts of absolute nihilism. The group has attacked nano scientists, transmission towers, and labs, and law enforcement has failed so far in apprehending any of its members. In Brazil, an eco-extremist group known as Sociedade Secreta Silvestre detonated a pressure cooker packed with metal outside of a shopping mall in Brasilia and threatened to attack the Olympic Games in 2016.
Environmental or animal rights groups that are currently non-violent may grow disgruntled if their pleas for policy change continue to go ignored. Even a small number of aggrieved individuals committed to using violence to call attention to a cause, even one many people may sympathize with, can destabilize society and breed further violence. Given the transnational nature of terrorism in 2021, it would be foolish to rule out the possibility of left-wing terrorists forging and cultivating transnational connections.
Environmental concerns also exist on the far-right side of the extremism spectrum. In a phenomenon that some have labeled “white supremacists going green,” eco-fascists have increasingly displayed an interest in combating climate change. This ideology harnesses classic far-right causes including anti-immigration toward a typically far-left objective: protecting the environment. Both the Christchurch and El Paso terrorists included elements of eco-fascism in their manifestos, respectively. There is also a real potential for overlap with other motivations, including those opposed in some way to a bevy of issues such as urbanization, capitalism, consumerism, decadence/materialism, modernization, industrialization, and aversion to technological advances in society, an issue already motivating acts of sabotage and destruction.
Extremist Online Communities
Conspiracy theorists have developed an obsession with 5G wireless as a potential cause of COVID-19. Across the world, from the United States to the Netherlands and beyond, individuals and small groups have attacked cell towers and other telecommunications infrastructure. This could grow into a movement unified by an aversion to technology more broadly, particularly as artificial intelligence becomes more ubiquitous and concern grows over robotics as a source of job loss, and it could induce individuals to engage in acts of violence to push back against what they see as the encroachment and overreach of technology into everyday life, much as Kaczynski argued in his manifesto. The 5G issue has surfaced as a popular topic for many other conspiratorial movements, including QAnon.
After the Jan. 6 attacks on Capitol Hill, QAnon has emerged as a possible threat to U.S. national security. What began as an online meme that promoted conspiracy theories has developed into a movement that has repeatedly incited real-world violence, like the December 2016 attack on a Washington, D.C., pizzeria in the “Pizzagate” incident. QAnon has recently exploited legitimate grievances and concerns on issues like human trafficking and child exploitation. The ideological group offers a misleading explanation to what can be perceived as inadequate government responses to a number of societal plagues. According to QAnon, the U.S. federal government, or “the system,” functions as a so-called “Deep State” and is complicit in the abduction, rape, torture, and murder of children.
Following several recent attacks in North America, there is also a renewed focus on a community of violent misogynists known as ”incels,” or involuntary celibates, who advocate violence against women. Canada recently took the unprecedented step of charging a teenager with terrorism for an incel-inspired attack at a Toronto massage parlor that left one woman dead and another wounded. The movement retains a large online following, where young men rail against feminism as the downfall of civilization and swap memes about women being tortured and raped. Incel violence has not been classified as terrorism in the U.S., and many have argued that it is the result of loneliness and isolation.
While the attacks do not have political aims, per se, the incentive for violence is ideological and intended to project intimidation against women and feminist movements. In the original video uploaded to YouTube by notorious incel Elliot Rodger just prior to his attack that left six people dead and 14 injured, hundreds of comments referred to Rodger as a “martyr” who had his whole life ahead of him. “At some point it drives you crazy. I have no mental illness. I am honest. I am quite an ugly guy and no woman would settle for me though I have a lot to offer. I’m just angry because it’s not fair,” said a 21-year-old self-proclaimed incel to the author in 2014.
Diverse and Fragmented
Not only will terrorism be more diverse, but in many ways, it will be more fragmented in terms of organizational structure and ideology. Groups and organizations will still exist, and indeed will continue to be the dominant entities, but lone actors, small cells, and violent social movements will join them in occupying states’ counterterrorism bandwidth. The ideologies that motivate violence might also confound policymakers, as violent extremists are increasingly attracted to so-called “salad bar” ideologies that span the spectrum and borrow from numerous, and at times seemingly contradictory, ideological foundations. In many cases, neo-Nazi groups like Atomwaffen and National Action, or eco-terrorists like as Individualidades Tendiendo a lo Salvaje have quoted or been inspired by jihadist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS. The jihadist blueprint book “The Management of Savagery” inspired not only generations of armed Islamists but also, ironically, legions of terrorists that are essentially Islamophobic as part of their stated raison d’etre.
Finally, terrorists and terrorist groups in the future will be empowered by advances in emerging technologies. The result is that terrorists will deploy unmanned aerial systems, or drones, with increasing frequency and skill. Advances in virtual currencies will aid non-state actors seeking to finance their operations, while more sophisticated methods of encryption will facilitate terrorist communication, perhaps leading to more organizations emulating the Islamic State’s virtual planner model of directing and managing terrorist attacks. Individuals or groups with extremely high levels of technical skills might even be able to harness the power of artificial intelligence as a force multiplier for attacks and operations.
The United States has been attempting to pivot away from counterterrorism as an organizing principle as it prepares to meet the challenges of great-power competition. But counterterrorism and great-power competition are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, in many cases, a convergence between the two will further complicate the response and may also lead to an increase in state-sponsored terrorism, a throwback to the proxy conflicts waged during the Cold War.
To head off violent ideologies or support for terrorist groups before they metastasize, and to formulate adequate prevention policies, the United States should heed the lessons observed from local contexts in foreign states. Chief among these lessons is taking note of early indications and warnings of racism, sectarianism, or other forms of discrimination against specific societal groups. Issues like salad bar ideologies do not comport with neat analytic frameworks. Concepts like fringe fluidity mean that it is entirely possible, and increasingly more common, for violent extremists to reconcile aspects of two competing ideologies, like neo-Nazism and militant Islamism.
For counterterrorism analysts, it is crucial to step outside of analytic comfort zones. This requires questioning long-held assumptions and avoiding groupthink that too often plagues intelligence community assessments. Of course, this requires deep knowledge of how terrorist groups train, recruit, and operate. But it also requires intellectual curiosity, an understanding that ideology can be malleable, and the ability to identify trend lines before they become fault lines.
Dr. Colin P. Clarke is the Director of Policy and Research at The Soufan Group. Dr. Clarke’s research focuses on domestic and transnational terrorism, international security, and geopolitics. Clarke serves on the editorial board of three of the leading scholarly journals in the field of terrorism studies, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Terrorism and Political Violence, and Perspectives on Terrorism. He has testified before Congress on numerous occasions as an expert witness on a range of terrorism-related issues, appears frequently in the media to discuss national security-related matters, and has published several books on terrorism, including his most recent, “After the Caliphate: The Islamic State and the Future Terrorist Diaspora.” He tweets at @ColinPClarke.
Rasha Al Aqeedi is a Senior Analyst and the Head of the Nonstate Actors program in the Human Security Unit at the Newlines Institute. Prior to joining the Newlines Institute, Al Aqeedi was the editor in charge of “Irfaa Sawtak,” a U.S.-based platform that offers insights into post-conflict communities in Iraq and Syria. She has also served as a Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute and George Washington University’s Program on Extremism and tweets at @RashaAlAqeedi.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and not an official policy or position of the Newlines Institute.