Trends in Terrorism: What’s on the Horizon in 2024?

With its brutal terrorist attack on October 7, the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas has made the war in Gaza a central component of the terrorist threat landscape heading into 2024. Not only did the devastating terrorist attack demonstrate a capability and intent that few believed Hamas to possess, but it also led counterterrorism analysts worldwide to re-interrogate their prior assumptions about the conventional wisdom in terms of the most potent threats.

The Sahel region of Africa is likely to remain the center of gravity for jihadist groups affiliated with the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. Terrorists there will take advantage of failed states and ungoverned spaces characterized by porous borders, weak security forces, and illegitimate military juntas.

The terrorism threat is far from static—when a group suffers setbacks, including leadership decapitation, it rarely signals extinction. Time and time again, these groups are resuscitated or go through several iterations before surging back.

On the morning of October 7, Hamas terrorists breached the border fence between Gaza and Israel under the cover of a withering rocket barrage. Within hours, the Palestinian militant group had killed 1,200 innocent people in Israel, kidnapped over 240, and plunged the region into its most dangerous crisis in decades.

The brutal attack on October 7, and Israel’s military response, has made the war in Gaza a central component of the terrorist threat landscape heading into 2024. In the United States, FBI director Christopher Wray has warned on numerous occasions ever since about the elevated terrorism threat level, stating before Congress that “We assess that the actions of Hamas and its allies will serve as an inspiration the likes of which we haven’t seen since ISIS launched its so-called caliphate years ago.” Europeans are also worried. EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson recently stated: “With the war between Israel and Hamas, and the polarization it causes in our society, with the upcoming holiday season, there is a huge risk of terrorist attacks in the European Union.” The conflict between Israel and Hamas looms large and will, in all likelihood, serve as a catalyst for terrorist plots and attacks outside of the conflict zone itself, spurring radicalized individuals, small cells, and decentralized networks to strike at targets associated with one side or the other. Indeed, this has already occurred, with seven individuals arrested across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands for planning terrorist attacks against Jewish institutions in Europe. Some of the men were believed to be Hamas members.

While the conflict in Gaza will occupy a substantial amount of global counterterrorism bandwidth, the center of gravity for terrorism in the near future is likely to remain the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa. The Sahel has been plagued by porous borders, weak security forces and illegitimate military juntas. Throughout this region, jihadist groups, including Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), Islamic State Sahel Province (ISSP), and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), will continue to operate with near impunity, taking advantage of failed states and ungoverned spaces. The Sahel has seen a string of successive military coups in recent years, leaving Kremlin-friendly regimes in power in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Accordingly, this has opened the door to further Russian influence through the deployment of mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private military company in the midst of a transition following the death of its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in a plane crash that most believe was orchestrated at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Wagner has exacerbated the terrorism issue throughout the Sahel, since its coup-proofing operations are conducted with a heavy hand, leading to significant civilian casualties and collateral damage, pushing civilians into the arms of JNIM and ISSP, growing their ranks.

Along with al-Shabaab in Somalia, JNIM remains among the most potent al-Qaeda-linked affiliates and is looking to expand its operations from the Sahel into coastal West Africa. Yet globally, some counterterrorism analysts are sanguine about the group’s impending demise. Writing in Foreign Policy in July, terrorism scholar Daniel Byman remarked upon “the organization’s decline in both capabilities and ideological influence.” Others, including this author, are not quite ready to write al-Qaeda’s obituary, given the organization’s historic resilience and propensity to regenerate when offered sanctuary in failed states, as it has now with the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and the Tehrik-i-Taliban’s (TTP) longstanding relationship with al-Qaeda make South Asia a natural fit for al-Qaeda’s rebirth. Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, Pakistan has suffered from a spike in terrorist attacks planned and executed by jihadist militant groups, some of whom use Afghanistan as a safe haven. As Asfandyar Mir has noted, “Pakistan faces an increasingly formidable threat from the insurgency of the TTP.” An attack in mid-December featuring gunmen and suicide bombers targeted a Pakistani army post, killing twenty-three soldiers. If the Pakistani security forces are unable to quell the insurgency, 2024 could see widespread instability sweep the country, plunging Pakistan back into chaos as jihadist groups threaten the state.

Much like al-Qaeda, the overall picture with the Islamic State is mixed. Core Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been attenuated, with several successive leaders successfully eliminated on the battlefield. Yet it has stubbornly persisted as its fighters wage a low-level insurgency in the Badia, a swath of desert territory in central Syria. There are also unresolved issues of detention facilities and prisoner camps throughout northeastern Syria, including al-Hol, which has been described as an incubator for radicalization. These camps are also potential targets for ISIS prison breaks, a lingering obsession dating back to the group’s “Breaking the Walls” campaign. ISIS attacks have declined substantially, but its leaders are working to implement shadow governance throughout eastern Syria, positioning the group for a future comeback if conditions become more favorable. The United States retains approximately 900 special operations forces troops in Syria, holding the line against both the Islamic State and Iran’s expanding influence.

The threat posed by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Afghanistan has largely been contained to South Asia. However, that could change if the group is able to reconstitute its external attack operations network. Europe would be particularly vulnerable to attacks launched from Afghanistan, based on geographical proximity and Central Asian diaspora networks that could play a role, as they did in a disrupted plot targeting US and NATO military bases in Germany. Even ISIS in Southeast Asia, which has been relatively quiet over the past two years, is now beginning to increase its operational tempo, launching a bombing attack at a Roman Catholic mass in the embattled city of Marawi in the southern Philippines. ISIS affiliates in Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula continue to struggle to regain momentum, although conflict dynamics in each of those countries could increase risk and associated threat level.

The future of terrorism in the Middle East could see something of a shift, at least temporarily, from a paradigm largely dominated by Salafi-jihadist groups (Sunni) to Shia groups sponsored by Iran. While Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) are both Sunni groups, there are other members of Iran’s axis of resistance, including Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, and various Iraqi Shia militia groups, especially Kata’ib Hezbollah, that will continue to pose a major challenge to the region and beyond. Iran has been able to play the role of spoiler through its sponsorship of a vast network of terrorist proxies and will only be emboldened by the perceived success of Hamas’s October 7 attack into southern Israel. There are also political and security dynamics in the Middle East that could impact the trajectory of terrorism in the region.

The longer the conflict in Gaza drags on, the greater potential radicalizing effect it could have among domestic populations of Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia. Suppose Riyadh is perceived by its own population of abandoning the Palestinians to continue normalization talks with Jerusalem. In that case, it is not difficult to imagine a backlash within Saudi society, sparking a return to a situation similar to the post-9/11 period, when al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) posed a domestic terrorism threat before being degraded and pushed over the border into Yemen. There is a growing chasm between how the so-called “Arab Street” views the conflict in Gaza and how the leadership in the Gulf does, the latter viewing it as a nuisance impeding broader economic and technological progress.

Racially and ethnically motivated violent extremist (REMVE) actors remain largely decentralized, with small cells communicating online, as groups like the Atomwaffen Division, The Base, and the Nordic Resistance Movement have largely faded from the headlines. Still, the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) has been revitalized by Russia’s war in Ukraine, ramping up recruitment, propaganda, and paramilitary training efforts. As the war in Ukraine approaches its third year, and with questions surrounding continued Western financial and military support for Kyiv, this conflict could produce violent extremists motivated by REMVE ideology committed to launching attacks in the West. Far-right extremists and lone actors motivated by violent white supremacy and/or neo-Nazi ideology are also a threat, with individuals inspired by terrorists, including Anders Breivik and Brenton Tarrant, remaining a constant threat to authorities who seek to prevent large-scale terrorist attacks. Online propaganda networks often single out migrants as a target, and with far-right populist groups once again enjoying electoral success in Europe, xenophobic attacks motivated by racism remain a constant concern of law enforcement and intelligence services.

“Salad bar” terrorism, where extremists pick and choose different components of ideology across the spectrum, will also likely endure, facilitated by Internet culture, memetics, and the connective sinew of misogyny, anti-Semitism, QAnon-like conspiracy theories, and anti-LGBTQ propaganda that often accompanies the online diets of today’s violent extremists. Neo-Luddites and technophobes, individuals concerned about the ubiquity of technology in modern society, could also resort to terrorism, with growing attacks against 5G cell towers and targets associated with artificial intelligence. There is also the threat of what the Federal Bureau of Investigation has called “special interest” terrorism (sometimes referred to as “single-issue” terrorism), which includes a range of mostly, though not exclusively, left-wing causes such as animal rights and “ecological resistance.” Individuals and groups motivated by pro-life and pro-choice issues—abortion-related violent extremists—are also a concern in the terrorism threat landscape.

At the core of terrorism is the threat of politically motivated violence, so it will be important to monitor elections in 2024, when eight of the ten most populous countries in the world will hold elections, including Brazil, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and the United States, among others. Each of these countries has experienced varying levels of political violence related to elections in recent years, and in the United States, the potential for domestic terrorism and anti-government extremism is palpable. There are also high-profile events next year that will garner much attention from those seeking to do harm, including the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, France, a highly visible and symbolic target for terrorists, including those who seek to master emerging technologies such as drones and 3-D printed weapons, to conduct attacks.

The terrorism threat is far from static. When a group suffers setbacks, including leadership decapitation, it rarely signals extinction. Time and time again, these groups are resuscitated or go through several iterations before surging back. And with advancements in technology, communications, and transportation, the organizational structure of a group itself is a less salient variable than it has been historically. But organizational structure should not be an afterthought, as it can be a true force multiplier, elevating a terrorist group’s ability to launch complex attacks. With the United States pivoting away from counterterrorism and toward “near-peer” competition, there are fewer resources to deal with transnational jihadist groups and a paucity of intelligence assets available to evaluate metastasizing threats. The bench is thin across the US counterterrorism community, as resources and expertise are reallocated to China, Russia, and other great power-related portfolios. The shift has resulted in damaged morale within parts of the intelligence community and made it more difficult to recruit top-tier talent to focus on counterterrorism in government and academia. In a worst-case scenario, an overreliance on technology and over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities could make the United States and its allies vulnerable to another spectacular attack, especially against embassies and military bases abroad.

Projecting where new threats will emerge is rarely linear, as the Hamas attack itself proves. For a significant swath of the counterterrorism community, Hamas has mostly been an afterthought for much of the past decade, relegated down toward the bottom of the list of priorities, after affiliates and franchise groups belonging to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, far-right extremists such as white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and Shia groups including Lebanese Hezbollah. Not only did the devastating terrorist attack of October 7 demonstrate a capability and intent that few believed Hamas to possess, but it also led counterterrorism analysts worldwide to re-interrogate their prior assumptions about the conventional wisdom in terms of the most potent threats. This should be a continuous process, as analysts seek to measure and assess a wide range of factors and variables that contribute to the ever-evolving nature of transnational terrorism.

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