Four trends in global terrorism threats in 2017

The year 2016 was plagued with significant terrorism incidents across the globe.

Even among counter-terrorism policy practitioners, many were surprised by the scale and magnitude of attacks that struck Belgium, France, Germany and, more recently, Turkey.

As we begin 2017, we are in for an increase in the tempo of activity by terrorist groups. Here are four major trends that will characterise the terrorism landscape this year.

ISIS LOSING AT HOME BUT EXPANDING ATTACKS ABROAD

Military efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have intensified and the group has suffered significant losses on the ground. Territory controlled by ISIS in Iraq, Libya and Syria has shrunk by a third, and is likely to be reduced further this year. Unfortunately, even as ISIS concedes ground at home, the group is lashing out overseas.


Presidential Security Forces showing their skills during a simulation of a terrorist attack in Jakarta, Indonesia, last month. The global terrorism landscape for this year will be characterised as one of higher risk, says writer Weimeng Yeo. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

ISIS has already built a robust external operations network that functions independently of the group's waning territorial fortunes. ISIS already has a foothold on multiple overseas fronts.

Two motives underpin the push overseas. First, going abroad diverts attention from ISIS' territorial losses and helps it retain credibility and legitimacy. Narrative about ISIS potency and strength looks incongruous when the group is under fire and losing ground. ISIS knows that to recruit followers, it must offer a coherent narrative of strength. Second, the attacks overseas are meant to deter further attacks by Western forces in the group's home territory.

Further erosion of ISIS territory is expected this year. Unfortunately, this will likely prompt not only increased attacks in other parts of the Middle East but also strikes in Europe and perhaps in the US.

But more harrowing is that these attacks outside its domain strengthen ISIS' position that it does not need physical control of a state to propagate terror. Thus, even if defeated at home, the threat from ISIS will persist.

COMPETITION INTENSIFIES BETWEEN AL-QAEDA AND ISIS

While ISIS has dominated the headlines, the last 12 months have seen Al-Qaeda, particularly through its associated groups, respond to the ISIS challenge more aggressively.

ISIS and Al-Qaeda are at war with the West and committed to the revival of an Islamic caliphate. However, they are deeply divided over strategy and leadership on who should be the vanguard of the extremist cause.

The rivalry between both groups is deeply entrenched and the likelihood that they will overcome their differences remains unlikely this year. In the Levant, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), the Al-Qaeda proxy group in the region, through its special operations group, the Khorasan Group, has been the most active. Despite Russian and Iranian intervention in Syria, JN is well placed to orchestrate, either on its own or on Al-Qaeda's central directive, strikes across the Middle East and potentially in Europe.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a group that is also capable of orchestrating strikes overseas. It has greatly benefited from the current turmoil in Yemen and has issued two communiques calling for more terrorist attacks against the West.

Moreover, Ibrahim Hassan Asiri, the chief bomb-maker for AQAP responsible for the 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot and the 2010 cargo plane bomb plot, is still at large.

Since ISIS has already increased its focus on more attacks overseas, a competition to see who can inflict the most damage around the world is indeed rising.

Attacks by ISIS across the globe have been designed to garner more recruits, financial donors and prestige away from Al-Qaeda. However, to truly displace Al-Qaeda, the senior leaders of ISIS know it needs to orchestrate a larger terrorist attack comparable to the 9/11 attack carried out by Al-Qaeda.

MORE AMBITIOUS AND SOPHISTICATED ATTACKS

Strikes against a range of targets that have high concentrations of people - such as those witnessed in Brussels - will be the more likely attack scenarios.

Such attacks can be devastating on an individual level and might lead to significant casualties, but attacks involving knives, small weapons or using a truck as a battering ram lack the symbolic horror of a major attack.

Groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS that want to maintain their credibility will be planning to execute more ambitious and sophisticated attacks.

ISIS knows that to recruit new followers, it must offer a coherent narrative of divine purpose. With the group's leaders styling themselves as Prophet Muhammad's heirs, attacking the secular US or countries in Western Europe would reinforce such a narrative.

Thus Al-Qaeda and ISIS will be compelled to orchestrate more ambitious and spectacular attacks in Western cities to keep their supporters engaged. This could include larger bombs, further targeting of civilian airlines or even chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks.

Militants have also used their experience on the ground in Iraq and Syria to experiment with new technology to execute more sophisticated terrorist attacks. Some of these innovations could translate to more catastrophic scenarios in the West. For example, in Iraq, ISIS has been working on using radio-controlled model aircraft as an improvised explosive device (IED) delivery platform. Such attack drones might carry bigger payloads than the small quadcopters widely sold to hobbyists.

Extremists in Iraq and Syria are also known to have developed remote control systems for driverless vehicles to deliver IEDs without using suicide bombers.

RISE OF FAR-RIGHT MILITANCY

Finally, while the bulk of the global terror threat will come from Islamist groups, political violence from far-right militant groups is on the rise.

Many xenophobic populist mass movements have resorted to political violence to express their objectives. Countries in Europe as well as the US have experienced a revival of militant right-wing extremist groups.

For example, in Britain, the authorities reported a 40 per cent increase in hate crimes in the month following Brexit, the British referendum vote on European Union membership, compared with the month before.

In the US, there have been similar reports of far-right political violence on the upswing after the electoral success of Mr Donald Trump. Far-right terrorism in the West has traditionally been committed by small independent groups, or lone actors who target mainly government institutions and minorities through small-arm attacks and assassinations.

These attacks are not meant to result in large numbers of casualties but to stir up an atmosphere of panic and fear among the local populace.

However, the risk of a macro attack from far-right terror groups or individuals can potentially become higher if they change their attack objectives and collaborate with one another.

In sum, the global terrorism landscape for this year will be characterised as one of higher risk.

Militant Islamist groups linked to either Al-Qaeda and ISIS will continue to be the main protagonists and will dictate the tempo of global terrorism activity for this year. Acts of right-wing political violence, particularly in the West, will also rise.

Security agencies around the world will indeed have a difficult time quelling the threat this year.

• The writer is a senior model manager at Risk Management Solutions who does modelling on terrorism risks. He holds a master's degree in international affairs from Georgetown University in the US.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2017, with the headline 'Four trends in global terrorism threats in 2017'. Print Edition | Subscribe