By Colin P. Clarke December 8, 2021 National Security Program
With the world still reeling from the global COVID-19 pandemic, nearly two years in the making, few know what to expect terrorism trends to look like heading into 2022. However, certain trends from previous years seem likely to continue and may grow more severe. The terrorist threat is arguably more diverse than at any point in recent memory, with the threat posed by far-right extremists and jihadists joined by a growing roster of political and socio-cultural motivations, including ‘technophobia’ or neo-Luddite terrorism, violent anarchists, and extreme misogynists, especially those following the so-called ‘Incel’ ideology. ‘Salad bar’ ideologies, those that combine a sampling of different ideologies, sometimes diametrically opposed to one another, are also on the rise and are best exemplified by neo-Nazis growing fetishization of jihadist ideology. And while the most lethal terrorist threats are likely to remain jihadism and far-right extremism, it is important to think about how recent developments could shape patterns of terrorism over the coming year.
The recently discovered Omicron variant of the coronavirus is already forcing vaccine mandates and new waves of lockdowns in countries worldwide, fueling violent protests from anti-vaxxers and anti-government extremists, respectively. In Italy, anti-vaxxers have linked up with far-right extremists, a combustible mix likely playing out in many other countries, not just in Europe but also in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Even good news related to the pandemic is likely to be a double-edged sword. If significant progress can be made against the virus in 2022, lifting restrictions could provide extremists with a range of new potential targets, especially soft targets where crowds may begin to congregate, including sporting events, concert venues, and farmers’ markets.
Several geopolitical hotspots will inform forecasts about terrorism trends in 2022. Iran nuclear deal is on the verge of collapse, and if Tehran continues to move ahead with enriching uranium, moving to create bomb-grade nuclear fuel in a matter of weeks. That development alone could lead to a broader conflagration, with Israel unlikely to sit by idly as Iran moves closer to developing the ingredients for a nuclear weapon. Israeli strikes against Iran have the potential for an Iranian response through its global network of terrorist proxies, like Lebanese Hezbollah, a group that has attacked Israeli targets on multiple continents over the years.
Tensions between Ukraine and Russia continue to escalate, with Moscow deploying as many as 175,000 troops to the border. Renewed conflict between Ukraine and Russia could drive an influx of far-right extremists to the region. In the past, foreign fighters motivated by white supremacy and neo-Nazi ideology have flocked to Ukraine, fighting on both sides of the conflict. Extremists can gain valuable battlefield experience before returning to their countries of origin or third-party countries, destabilizing states by recruiting new members, developing terrorist networks, and gaining critical tacit knowledge of guerrilla warfare tactics.
Parts of the Middle East and Africa could experience a fresh round of terrorist attacks from insurgent groups that use terrorism as a primary tactic. In Ethiopia, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has conducted acts of terrorism, while in Turkey and Syria, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Forces (YPG) remain active, motivated by leftist ideology and ethno-nationalist motivations. Hundreds of foreign fighters have traveled to the Middle East to fight alongside the Kurds. However, these individuals receive far less media attention and scrutiny than their jihadist-inspired counterparts.
Although it consumes less bandwidth amongst the international community than it did during the peak of the Islamic State several years ago, the global jihadist movement will continue to present a significant threat. However, jihadist organizations will further decentralize over the next year, the byproduct of a successful counterterrorism campaign by the U.S. and its allies against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Islamic State fighters and their families still housed in detention camps and prisons throughout Syria are a lingering security challenge. In early November, Kurdish forces foiled an Islamic State prison break attempt in Deir Ezzor. This method has helped the Islamic State reinforce its ranks at various points and become a more central pillar of its operational focus in the coming year. Moreover, Islamic State and jihadist propaganda more broadly resonates with Westerners, making the threat of inspired attacks in the West by homegrown violent extremists an enduring challenge for police and intelligence agencies.
The Islamic State has shifted resources and attention to its affiliates and branches elsewhere to remain relevant. In the coming year, Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP) and Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) will be among the most lethal Islamic State affiliates, continuing a trend from 2021. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, jihadist groups with links to the Islamic State have steadily gained momentum. ISCAP’s branch in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has claimed responsibility for attacks in Uganda. At the same time, the Islamic State franchise in Mozambique (also known as ISCAP) conducted cross-border attacks into Tanzania. African security forces have been unable to prevent spillover violence, and there is little indication to suggest that international assistance in combating these groups is forthcoming.
In the Sahel, French forces have struggled to help African militaries contain the growth of both al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates. Terrorist attacks have plagued Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Niger, and other countries in the region. In the Horn of Africa, al-Shabaab is gaining strength and has evolved into a regional threat, with the possibility of more global ambitions, including setting its sights on attacking the West. Terrorist capabilities and intent are not static, so the international community should not simply assume that African jihadist groups will remain focused on parochial issues.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan facilitated a Taliban takeover of the country, leading to an upsurge in attacks from ISK. The Taliban’s heavy-handed approach to counterinsurgency has exacerbated the security crisis and may lead Afghanistan to civil war. If that happens, foreign fighters will flock from the surrounding region to join terrorist groups like ISK and al-Qaeda, reinforcing the latter’s ranks as its cadres rebuild under the protective umbrella of the Taliban de facto government and its Haqqani network leadership. One central question is whether the Taliban will convince al-Qaeda to abandon its transnational ambitions and eschew plotting attacks against the West, a prospect many are pessimistic about. Even still, Afghanistan under the Taliban could devolve into a hornet’s nest for terrorists and insurgents of all stripes, leading to a rise in terror attacks throughout South Asia, including the possibility of spectacular attacks that drag Pakistan and India closer to the precipice. Kashmir remains a geopolitical tinderbox, and the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan has emboldened a range of jihadist groups.
Depending on what happens in Afghanistan, it seems likely that external states will take a more hands-on approach, cultivating proxies and working with various non-state actors to secure their interests. To protect Afghanistan’s Shia Hazara minority from the sectarian campaign waged by ISK, Iran could choose to deploy the Liwa Fatemiyoun brigade, a network of Afghan Shia Hazara fighters trained and equipped by Tehran for combat in Syria. State sponsorship of terrorism more broadly could be a trend to watch in the coming year, especially with mercenaries and foreign fighters. Specifically, in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, sponsors could encourage other states to begin emulating the “Turkish model,” training and deploying foreign fighter brigades to tip the balance of power in civil wars and insurgencies.
In terms of tactics, we should expect terrorists to continue seeking out emerging technologies to enhance the lethality of their attacks. Explosive-laden drones nearly assassinated Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi in early November. The attack was reminiscent of a similar attempt in April 2018 to kill Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, also with drones. 2022 could be the year the world witnesses the first assassination of a head of state by terrorists using drones, emboldened by the previous attacks and enabled by the continued lowering of entry barriers in mastering commercial off-the-shelf technologies purposed toward nefarious ends.
Following more than two decades of fighting the global war on terrorism, the United States and its allies are shifting attention and resources to great power competition, drawing down forces from dangerous hotspots, and leaving local and host nation forces responsible for countering terrorists and non-state armed groups.
Washington is looking to move on from the Global War on Terrorism and put an end to the “9/11 era,” as the pendulum swings from a focus on non-state actors back to nation states. But, the enemy always gets a vote, and the psychological impact of terrorism will keep it as a front-burner issue for the foreseeable future, no matter which ideologies ebb and flow next year.