The global terrorist threat is diversifying. Ten years after its iconic attacks on U.S. landmarks, al-Qaeda no longer occupies the center stage in global security. Relentless U.S. targeting led to the massive degradation of al-Qaeda, the core of the global terrorist movement. This included the killing of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s founder and leader, in Abbotabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011. The epicenter of the network suffered another blow when Attiyah Abd-al-Rahman (alias Attiyah Allah), the deputy to Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, was killed in a CIA drone strike in North Waziristan, Pakistan on August 22, 2011. Nonetheless, al-Qaeda’s ideology and its clones in Asia, the Caucuses, Africa and the Middle East still present a real threat to societies and governments worldwide.
America’s unfinished war in Iraq and its intent to withdraw forces from Afghanistan emboldened the transnational terrorists and extremists. They believe that the U.S. suffered a defeat in Iraq and is at the threshold of another defeat in Afghanistan. Although citizen protests replaced dictators, the Arab Spring created opportunities for the Islamists and their regimes. Western intervention in Libya created an unfavorable environment in Sahel and West Africa. The resulting proliferation of weapons (particularly portable air-defense systems), availability of trained fighters and massive human-rights violations present a new scale of threat. Unless stability is restored, this environment is likely to deteriorate, culminating in an insurgency.
Failed states, ungoverned spaces and geopolitical rivalry all present a threat to global security. Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area remains the primary hub for international terrorism, and persistent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen have created the environment for the migration of foreign terrorists and rooting of new extremist groups. But increases in border-security measures mean terrorist groups face difficulties mounting transborder operations. To compensate, terrorist groups increasingly exploit the Internet to reach out to their diaspora and migrant communities.
With both radicalization and training online, the threat of homegrown terrorism is on the rise, especially in the West. Although the attacks mounted by well structured groups located in the global south present a lethal threat, the frequency of attacks by self-radicalized cells and individuals is on the uptick. As governments fail to counter terrorist ideology, the world is witnessing a steady increase in incidents of self-radicalized terrorism.
The tempo of attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan is also influencing the global threat landscape. Despite the U.S. military leaving Iraq, terrorism presents the preeminent challenge to the security and stability of Iraq and the Middle East. The United States intervened in March 2003 based on flawed intelligence and finally withdrew in December 2011, leaving an insecure and unstable region. Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) conducted a wave of bombings against government and Shia targets in Baghdad just last month. With Iraqi forces incapable of maintaining security, the country may see several hundred fatalities and casualties every month. Like Afghan veterans, Iraqi veterans seek targets outside the Middle East. Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, an Iraqi-Swede, killed only himself in Stockholm on December 11, 2010, but other Iraqi veterans may also seek targets in the West.
Inspired and instigated by the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, emboldened insurgent groups may attack the seat of power in Kabul. Rather than assure support to partners in Afghanistan, the public announcement of the withdrawal of created conditions favorable to the Taliban insurgents and al-Qaeda terrorists. The international community’s effort to negotiate with the Taliban is likely to fail. Pakistan, India, Iran and China watch and influence developments in Afghanistan. Keen to avoid direct confrontation, Iran continues to advance its foreign-policy goals by providing support both for Sunni and Shia threat groups.
The global economic downturn has led the United States, backbone of global counterterrorism, to scale down counterinsurgency and counterterrorism budgets. With the U.S.-led coalition preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, the situation both in Afghanistan and Pakistan is likely to deteriorate. To stabilize Af-Pak and the region, including Central Asia, Western forces will need to build capacity in Pakistan and a robust law enforcement, military and intelligence capability in Afghanistan. The United States should attempt to dismantle the al-Qaeda and Taliban infrastructure on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. But this isn’t enough: Iraqi and Afghan forces will need long-term international support to face continued challenges of insurgency, terrorism and extremism.
International assistance is needed to stabilize areas where the Arab Spring brought about regime change. In the fragile area of Sahel, experiencing an inflow of weapons and fighters from Libya, a dangerous environment has been created. Unless the fallout from Libya is addressed in the coming months, it is likely to impact on the security of the Maghreb, Sahel and West Africa. Determined to establish an Islamic State, Boko Haram attacked churches on Christmas day, 2011. In Nigeria, over five hundred civilians were killed in terrorist attacks in 2011. Poor leadership, bad governance and lack of economic development make Africa ripe for conflict.
Governments will need to build nonmilitary capacities to respond to threat groups that are gaining mastery in infiltrating political parties, religious organizations, educational institutions and mass media. With better-educated leaders joining such entities, threat groups influence their potential supporters and sympathizers. By investing in carefully crafted propaganda, the many faces of terrorist groups appeal to diverse audiences. Terrorist ideologues lack religious credentials, but by ridiculing established authorities and appealing to the masses, they build constituencies sufficient to advance their goals and aims. For example, although less than 1 percent of the Muslims worldwide subscribe to Salafi jihadism, the ideology is spreading from the Middle East to Africa and Asia.
Due to international neglect and tolerance of threat groups on the web, propaganda is now the primary activity of insurgent, terrorist and extremist groups. Almost all threat groups worldwide have established a presence on the web, and over 90 percent of them use U.S. servers. They are expanding their web presence at a rate where governments find it hard to keep up, both to counter disinformation and to monitor operational activity. Although dissent must be permitted, maintaining websites and blogs aimed at radicalizing youth under the pretext of freedom of expression should not be tolerated. Cyberspace has emerged as the principal propaganda platform for threat groups to recruit, raise funds and to coordinate operations.
In 2012, terrorism will remain the tier-one threat to the United States and its European allies and friends. Although the threat is manageable, all the major powers, including China, Russia and India, will continue to suffer from acts of terrorism for the foreseeable future. To end terrorism and insurgency, the international community must resolve regional rivalries and prevent politicization and radicalization of vulnerable populations. Al-Qaeda’s capabilities may be diminished, but the potential for continued transnational terrorism remains strong.
Professor Rohan Gunaratna is head of the International center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore