IntelBrief: Assessing the Global Terrorism Threat and Looking Ahead
April 30, 2019
Bottom Line Up Front
• The global jihadist movement is alive and well, even after the so-called Islamic State’s territorial caliphate has collapsed.
• The Iranian Threat Network has grown in strength and now extends further than at any point in recent memory.
• The threat posed by right-wing extremism is undeniable—several recent high-profile attacks point to a rising tide of white nationalist terrorism and violence.
• Political violence in the future could be directed by a range of ideologies, from those motivated by protecting the environment to others seeking to reject society’s growing embrace of technology.
The global jihadist movement is alive and well, even after the so-called Islamic State’s territorial caliphate has collapsed. IS franchises and affiliates continue to expand, including in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere. Losing the physical caliphate may tarnish its brand in the eyes of some, but the fact that it was able to successfully take and hold territory in the first place will remain a viable propaganda tool for the group to recruit new members and lift the morale of the global jihadist movement as a whole. The appearance of reclusive IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on a video for the first time in five years is also meant to give the organization a boost. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda has launched a grassroots campaign to gain local support and link its organization with parochial groups to gain political legitimacy. The future of the global jihadist movement will look much like it did in the past, as roving bands of militants disperse to new battlefields, from North Africa to Southeast Asia, where they will join existing civil wars, establish safe havens and sanctuaries, and seek ways of conducting spectacular attacks in the West that inspire new followers.
The Iranian Threat Network has grown in strength and now extends further than at any point in recent memory. Iran works through a range of proxies and sponsored militias, from highly capable groups like Lebanese Hezbollah and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq, to more nascent networks featuring fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Liwa Fatemiyoun and Liwa Zainebiyoun battalions, respectively, operating in Syria to bolster the regime of Bashar al-Asad. Iran also supports Houthi rebels in Yemen in its quest to counter the Saudi- and Emirati-backed forces devastating that country amidst ongoing conventional military warfare. Tehran has assumed a strategic approach in which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF) is tasked with building pro-Iranian armed factions within the region into political movements with progressively increasing influence and capabilities. The network is led by Major General Qassem Soleimani, the long-time chief of the Quds Force. Soleimani has been responsible for the creation of an arc of influence—which Iran terms its “Axis of Resistance”—extending from the Gulf of Oman through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
The rise in identity politics in Europe and elsewhere has fueled another violent transnational movement that is unfolding in front of our very eyes: radical right-wing terrorism. The threat posed by right-wing extremism is undeniable. The horrific attacks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Christchurch, New Zealand, and San Diego, California are the latest in what has been a rising tide of white nationalist terrorism and violence. And the threat posed by right-wing extremists can no longer be considered localized. Similar to jihadist groups, violent white supremacists have forged international linkages. These two dangerous networks feed off each other. When a Salafi-jihadist commits a terrorist attack, it benefits the right-wing terrorist. And when a right-wing terrorist commits an attack, the Salafi-jihadist terrorist benefits from it.
But what will the future hold? There is growing concern that the future of terrorism will feature violent non-state actors harnessing new technologies to increase the lethality of their attacks, from the use of drones to harnessing the destructive potential of new bio-technologies and gene editing tools like CRISPR. Analysts spend so much time examining the current threat landscape that it can be easy to miss ideologies or currents percolating just below the surface until it is too late. Political violence in the future could be driven by a range of ideologies, from those motivated by the desire to call attention to the threat posed by climate change to others seeking to reject society’s growing embrace of technology. As witnessed in the past, individuals motivated to protect the environment could feel compelled to commit violent acts against persons or property to call attention to their cause. Similarly, if artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies disrupt society and the economy, there will likely be a backlash, perhaps similar to some of the neo-Luddite ideology promoted by the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. These threats likely will not be mutually exclusive, and could all overlap as some ebb and others accelerate, forcing policymakers and counterterrorism officials to make difficult decisions in allocating resources toward combating the threat posed by terrorism as it continues to evolve.
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