January 20, 2021

IntelBrief: Geopolitical Trends that Will Pose Challenges to the Biden Administration

President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden are joined by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff during a COVID-19 memorial event at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • As the Biden-Harris administration takes stock of the security challenges ahead, several important geopolitical trends are on the horizon.
  • 2021 trends include: the growth of racially & ethnically motivated terrorism, violent anti-government extremism, great power competition and COVID19.
  • Adversaries at home and abroad may feel emboldened by a distracted and divided America struggling to deal with extremism and the pandemic.
  • The challenges facing the U.S. are more diverse than at any time in the past two decades; allies will be key partners in making progress.

Growth of Far-Right Extremism

While 2020 did not witness a large-scale right-wing terrorist attack like the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue attack in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania or the 2019 El Paso, Texas attack, there was still visible momentum among far right violent extremist groups – including an assortment of racially and ethnically motivated groups, anti-government militias and conspiracy theorists - culminating in the Capitol insurrection in early January 2021. In assessing the possibility of further right-wing violent extremist attacks in 2021, there are ample reasons for concern. First, with widespread access to a COVID vaccine likely by late spring or early summer, the ability for people to gather at soft targets will present new opportunities for bad actors that simply did not exist for much of 2020. Second, the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris may, like the election of President Obama before them, increase the likelihood of violence perpetrated by white supremacists, militias far-right violent extremist groups. This could be exacerbated by possible policy changes perceived as existential threats by such groups, including domestic terrorism laws, easing of immigration restrictions, and/or stricter forms of gun control. Third, under a Biden presidency, Washington will reengage in multilateral fora, such as the United Nations. This engagement could reignite long-standing conspiracies that the U.S. is subordinating its own interests to that of a secretive global elite determined to erode U.S. power and invite an occupying force onto American soil to confiscate citizens’ firearms and ammunition. As it turns its focus to domestic right-wing violent extremism, a major challenge for the Biden administration will be making sure it does not lose sight of the continuing challenges posed by Salafi-jihadist terrorism and groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their respective affiliates across the globe.

The Continued Collapse of Weak and Failing States

The Biden-Harris is likely to increase focus on great power competition with Russia and China, rather than counterterrorism, and refocus attention the threat posed by weak and failed states. In particular, the perpetually failed states of Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen are still home to Salafi-jihadist groups, including affiliates of both al-Qaeda and ISIS. The U.S. military is operating with a limited footprint in some of the most dangerous regions of the globe, and as security budgets are reallocated to deal with public health crises, there will be fewer resources available to deal with the resurgence of violent extremist groups. 

This shift in government investment and attention is occurring as terrorists, insurgents, and other violent non-state actors gain access to emerging technologies and highly sophisticated weaponry, including drones and missiles. It is likely that some terrorist organizations could move to funding their operations through the use of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Groups like al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) could be poised for a comeback, and they continue to actively recruit new members while retaining the capability to launch devastating attacks. Meanwhile, external intervention from regional states is likely to further destabilize countries in South Asia, the Horn of Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. While the United States is consumed with issues related to domestic violent extremism and the COVID-19 pandemic, and focused globally on nation-state adversaries and other near-peer competitors, many are concerned that security cooperation activities and efforts to build partner capacity will atrophy, leading to a power vacuum that will be filled by violent non-state actors.


2021 will be a year of increasing cyberwarfare between major powers. The U.S. intelligence community linked the SolarWinds hack to Moscow, confirming that the Kremlin successfully breached U.S. government information technology systems. The Russian hack directly impacted several key U.S. security agencies, putting at risk defense, diplomatic, and commercial secrets. This intrusion, coupled with continued disinformation campaigns by state and non-state actors, will necessitate a more forceful response from the new administration. In contrast to its predecessors, the Biden-Harris national security team is likely to take an array of overt, covert, and clandestine measures in response to Russia’s attack. For instance, the Biden team will very likely publicly sanction Russian individuals and institutions directly and indirectly involved in the hack. The new administration will be less reluctant to counter Russian disinformation efforts by using the Global Engagement Center to publicly highlight illegal Russian initiatives, and any others that may arise. Further, the U.S. is likely to increase the use of offensive cyber weapons to inflict a proportionate level of damage against adversarial government institutions. Doing so runs the risk of a tit-for-tat exchange that could spiral into more damaging attacks, some of which could leak into the private sector and impact broader commercial interests. However, the greater risk for the Biden administration is not responding and allowing Russia to continue offensive cyber operations with impunity – paving the way for others to follow suit.

An Assertive China

Beginning in the early part of 2020 and continuing throughout the remainder of the year, China grew increasingly aggressive in its public diplomacy, a phenomenon that earned the moniker ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy. Beijing waged a disinformation campaigns to shift the blame for the start of the COVID-19 pandemic onto other countries and skillfully exploited a deficient U.S. response by engaging in  in ‘mask diplomacy,’ the distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) to other countries in order to burnish its own image and increase its influence. As other countries’ economies lag due to the impact of COVID-19, Beijing is seeking to push ahead and regain its status as an economic powerhouse. China will move forward with elements of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), taking advantage of new opportunities where they arise. Moreover, with power shifting from the Republicans to Democrats in the U.S. government, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may be tempted to test the Biden administration early on in order to discern its ‘red lines.’ That could mean a further crackdown in Hong Kong, adventurism in the South China Sea, or moves to operationalize a more robust military posture vis-à-vis Taiwan. The Biden administration is likely to build on the determination that China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims constitutes a genocide, which will inevitably lead to friction. Tensions between China and India could also flare up, as they did along the border at various points last year and complicate international relations as India takes a seat on the UN Security Council for 2021-2022. As the Biden-Harris team looks to further strengthen multilateral engagement, tensions among Council members, and in particular the permanent five (“P5”), could constrain ambition. This is particularly key as the P5 will be leading the way in determining the next UN Secretary-General in 2021.

Ongoing Challenges Posed by COVID-19 Pandemic

With multiple vaccines developed, approved, and in the process of being distributed, 2021 will be a better all-around year than 2020 for global public health authorities. However, as the virus continues to spread and new variants or strains surface, as have recently occurred in the United Kingdom, reoccurring lockdowns and deadly outbreaks are inevitable. As such, the global economy will sputter along, with some countries better positioned to take advantage of existing conditions than others. Another major challenge will be ensuring equity in terms of vaccine distribution. Developing countries with less advanced medical infrastructures and access to healthcare will struggle, potentially turning entire regions into COVID hotspots. There is also the potential for organized criminal syndicates to become more heavily involved in profiting from counterfeit vaccines, while nation-states including China and Russia may continue their efforts to hack laboratories and research labs in the United States in an effort to secure data related to the COVID-19 vaccine. With large swathes of populations across the globe increasingly isolated and insulated by pandemic lockdowns, the prospect of increased polarization and disinformation may also be exploited by violent extremist groups across a wide range of ideological spectrums. While Covid-19 has in some respects inhibited terrorist groups from moving personnel and materials, or accessing targets, it may have increased opportunities to radicalize recruits and mobilize support. The impact of Covid-19 on broader terrorist threats therefore remains unclear and an uptick in al-Qaeda and ISIS-related activity cannot be discounted.