March 31, 2023

IntelBrief: The Terrorism Landscape Continues to Evolve

AP Photo

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Counterterrorism has become a backburner issue amid great power conflict, to the chagrin of many intelligence and homeland security professionals tasked with maintaining vigilance in the face of an ever-evolving threat.
  • The challenge most familiar to the United States and its allies, Salafi jihadist terrorism, now manifests in different forms and different locales, notably concentrated in the Sahel now.
  • Without strong and inspirational leadership, the “Islamic State” brand has become watered down, with affiliate groups and IS branches pursuing more narrow agendas embedded in more local and regional conflicts.
  • Beyond Salafi-jihadists, the terrorism landscape is far more diverse than in recent years, with threats posed by groups motivated by different ideologies, including far-right extremists and those related to Iran, for example.

More than a year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world remains fixated on the developments in that conflict, while more broadly, the global security community is focused on great power competition and the prospects of interstate conflict, with an attendant focus on alliance building, and conventional military operations. Counterterrorism has consequently become a backburner issue, much to the chagrin of many intelligence and homeland security professionals tasked with maintaining vigilance in the face of an ever-evolving threat. Counterterrorism practitioners are grappling with reduced resources, from funding to manpower to expertise, as well as attention from senior policymakers and officials. According to a 2017 Stimson Center report, counterterrorism spending by the U.S. Department of Defense (hardly the only U.S. department with counterterrorism equities) steadily declined from its 2008 peak – driven largely by the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – to 2016. Nonetheless, 2017 U.S. counterterrorism spending still remained 150 percent higher when compared to the year after 9/11. To keep the threat at bay, counterterrorism forces need both a forward presence and the ability to enable capable partners – including security and civilian components - all while maintaining focus on emerging threats, which are easy to miss amidst such an overwhelming shift from non-state actors to nation-state concerns. Prevention – addressing the spectrum of drivers and grievances driving terrorist mobilization and recruitment - will remain a critical means of suppressing the threat and keeping it contained to a short list of hot spots.

The challenge that the U.S. and its allies have become most intimately familiar with, Salafi jihadist terrorism, now manifests in different forms and locales. Largely decentralized, Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates are currently most active in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, including the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. But there is also an uptick in activity by these organizations’ affiliates in coastal West Africa along the Gulf of Guinea, the southeastern Swahili coast, especially Mozambique, and Central Africa, where Islamic State’s tentacles extend into the Democratic Republic of Congo. South Africa is also a growing hub of Islamic State logistical support. Whereas al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State core in Iraq and Syria were once the dominant threats, today, the top of the list features al-Shabaab in Somalia, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) throughout the Sahel and coastal West Africa, and Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) in Afghanistan. The strength of these groups will ebb and flow in accordance with local social, political, and economic conditions, also responding to changes in governance, as witnessed most starkly in the Sahel and South Asia.

The jihadist movement is beset with its own challenges, including sustained leadership losses, which has kept the bench rather thin, and intra-movement differences among different factions. And while a decentralized structure aids survivability and stretches counterterrorism resources, it is also impacted by the tyranny of distance, which forces jihadist leaders to manage a complex global organization from remote areas while maintaining intense operational security to stay alive. Islamic State has lost two leaders in the past year, making the group unable to introduce a charismatic leader able to inspire a new generation of recruits. Without strong inspirational leadership, the “Islamic State” brand has become watered down, with affiliate groups and IS branches pursuing more localized agendas embedded in local and regional conflicts and politics. As French journalist Wassim Nasr recently noted at the Global Security Forum in Doha, many of these groups are becoming more political, more embedded in local dynamics, and therefore also more entrenched. But over time, some groups currently working toward parochial objectives could change focus, deciding instead to target the West. Terrorist groups and entrepreneurial leaders will seek to harness emerging technologies asymmetrically. Recently General Kurilllo indicated that ISK might be in a position to conduct an external operation in as little as six months.

Beyond Salafi-jihadists, the terrorism landscape is far more diverse than in recent years. Far-right extremistsare emboldened with both implicit and explicit support from many mainstream political actors, while the broader far-right ecosystem continues to inspire racially- and ethnically-motivated violent extremists (REMVEs) to conduct “lone-wolf” attacks against synagogues, mosques, LGBTQ+ sites, and other symbolic targets. The conflict in Ukraine is likely to lead to pernicious second- and third-order effects, including far-right extremists gaining military experience fighting on both sides of the conflict and the potential for various actors to express discontent at some point by conducting attacks on external actors or states. On the Russian side, the Wagner Group and the Russian Imperial Movement could seek to forge closer connections with far-right extremist elements throughout Europe and continue to displace Western influence in places like Africa. While there has been much focus on white supremacist extremists and other racially and ethnically motivated actors in Europe and North America, there are also worrying indications of far-right violence gaining greater traction in the Global South, including India, Brazil, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia, for example.

The Iran Threat Network, Iran’s worldwide network of proxy forces, also remains active, working through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, including Lebanese Hezbollah. In August 2022, an individual inspired by Shia Islamic extremism stabbed author Salman Rushdie during a book reading in upstate New York. And Iran continues to be implicated in terrorist plots around the world, from attempted assassination plots against diplomats to attacks against Israeli and Jewish institutions and symbols worldwide. Continued violence and instability in the Levant could also further inflame existing tensions and prompt outbreaks of violence or mobilization; at the Global Security Forum, Rami Khouri highlighted the growing instability and insecurity resulting from frayed social contracts in the Middle East and North Africa, which can also generate greater support for extreme measures and movements.

There is also a range of other terror threats that fit less neatly into categories. So-called ‘Incels’ are violent misogynists who have proven lethal in the past several years. Left-wing terrorism has also been on the rise and could play a more prominent role in the future, with issues such as the environment, abortion rights, and economic issues motivating a more militant milieu among left-wing actors and groups. Technophobes, sometimes referred to as neo-Luddites, are also becoming more extreme in their collective aversion to emerging technologies, including 5G wireless, artificial intelligence, and robotics, to name just a few. There is also a trend toward ideological convergence, occasionally labeled ‘salad bar terrorism,’ wherein violent extremists adhere to a broad range of views, some of which are contradictory. Conspiracy theorists imbibing disinformation have also engaged in acts of domestic terrorism and political violence. The attacks of 9/11 proved the adage that terrorists only need to be successful once while counterterrorism efforts need to succeed all the time. While many lessons have been learned about the adverse impacts of heavy-handed counterterrorism measures and the permissive role of the “Global War on Terror” in allowing repressive governments to quash dissent in the name of counterterrorism, degrading or diminishing counterterrorism in the face of sweeping geopolitical shifts risks undermining the tactical successes of the past two decades.