Small Wars Journal

Global Terrorism May be Down but is Still a Threat In 2019 - Are We Ready?

Thu, 07/04/2019 - 7:15am

Global Terrorism May be Down but is Still a Threat In 2019 - Are We Ready?

Robert Muggah

Top-Level Headlines

The absolute number, prevalence and lethality of terrorist incidents has decreased significantly around the world since its peak in 2014. According to the Global Terrorism Index, the trends occurred in four waves: terrorist incidents increased dramatically from 2002-2007, temporarily declined from 2008-2011, and then shot upward between 2011-2014. The ‘fourth wave’ (2015-2019) involved significant declines in incidents and deaths virtually everywhere. While terrorism is still widely distributed geographically, most events are concentrated in a small number of countries, committed by a modest array of groups and disproportionately affect Muslim populations.

Even so, terrorist threats are changing. Over the past decade Jihadist groups have moved away from monolithic ‘mafia-like’ operations and franchised their activities. As was evident in attacks from Mumbai (2008) to Nairobi (2019), they are extremely adept at deploying digital platforms to encourage recruitment, radicalization, and manage operations in real-time. It is not just Jihadist networks such as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, or al-Shabaab that have expanded their digital skill-sets. There are also signals that white supremacist/ultra-right individuals and groups are expanding their transnational operations, enabled by digital tools and deepening polarization. These digital drivers are complex and enabling more self-radicalization.

In addition to the Jihadi and white supremacist challenges, there are additional near-term and potential threats on the horizon that are generating concern. These include foreign fighters and militants changing focus from the Middle East and Eurasia in the wake of ISIS’s recent physical losses in Syria and Iraq. Many foreign fighters and terrorist propagandists imprisoned over the past 10-20 years are also set to be released soon (especially in Europe), raising new worries. There also appears to be renewed and increasing reports of terrorist activity in South and Southeast Asia, notably India, Myanmar, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

There are several factors influencing changes in global terrorism. The winding down of the Iraq and Syrian conflicts reduced deaths associated with terrorism by over 40% in the Middle East and Africa in 2017 alone. Massive investments in counter-terrorism, policing and intelligence may have contributed to disrupting networks and plots in North America and Western Europe. The United Nations (UN) and several governments have ramped-up their activities, including the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GITFCT) and counterterrorism initiatives involving over 100 tech companies. While large social media platforms are starting to engage more proactively, terrorist groups and sympathizers are resorting to ‘out-linking’ and migrating to alternative platforms and the Darknet.

Global Trends in Terrorism

There are at least five key trends in terrorism to watch:

First, there was a significant drop in terrorist incidents and deaths since peak the peak in 2014.

As explained above, groups like the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), using START’s Global Terrorism Database (GTD) have identified several waves of terrorist violence since September 11 2001. The first increase occurred after the Iraq intervention (2002-2007) and the explosion of violence that followed. The second wave involved a slight decrease in terrorism after the US troop surge in Iraq (2007-2011). The third entailed a massive increase in violence from 2012-2014, not just due to Iraq, but also resulting from tensions in Nigeria, Syria and the outbreak of the Arab Spring.

The world is currently in the midst of a fourth wave—marked by a sharp fall in incidents and casualties—that extends from 2015 to the middle of 2019. The falls since 2014 were significant: in 2015 (12% fewer deaths), 2016 (10% less), 2017 (24% less deaths), and similar declines in 2018 and 2019. So far in 2019 there have been 780 attacks and 3,488 violent deaths. Compare this to the 10,900 attacks and 26,445 violent deaths in 2017 or the 17,00 attacks and 45,000 victims in 2014.

Second, there continues to be hyper-concentration of terrorist incidents and casualties in a small number of countries and perpetrated by a modest number of groups.

The vast majority of events and deaths occur in a small number of countries in the Middle East, North and West Africa, and South Asia. Over the past decade, the top contenders include Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Pakistan, Ukraine, Nigeria and to a lesser extent Egypt, Yemen, India, the Philippines and Myanmar. In Iraq, there were 4,271 incidents in 2017. By comparison, in Canada, there were just two. Just five groups ISIS, the Taliban, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and the Donetsk People’s Republic (a Russia-backed proto-state challenging the Ukraine) account for almost 60 percent of casualties in 2017 (up from 32 percent in 2012). The risk is very small in the west, and most victims are Muslim.

That said, there are still a relatively large number of countries and cities in which terrorist incidents have occurred. In 2004, just 39 countries registered an event as compared to 60 in 2012 and 79 in 2016. As of 2018, roughly 67 countries had at least one terrorist-relate death. These incidents can amplify the sense of insecurity and anxiety even if the risk is vanishingly small—as well as contribute to grievances and potentially radicalization of ever-larger groups of individuals. This may also reflect the growing incidence of ‘lone actor’ and ‘self-radicalized’ individuals involved.

Third, the risk of white nationalist terrorism is not just domestic—it is going global.

The incidence of white supremacist violence—specifically focused on attacking non-white, non-Christian and principally Muslim immigrant targets differs by region and demographics: Muslims are more frequently targeted in Europe and North America, while minority groups and LGBTQ communities are more frequently attacked in Latin America. Between 2010-2017 there were 263 domestic terrorism incidents in the US: 92 were committed by far-right extremists and 38 by Jihadists or Jihadist sympathizers. Between 2009-2018, white supremacist groups were responsible for 75 percent of the 313 deaths attributed to “extremist” organizations. In 2018, there were 120 “national” (citizens) suspects arrested for domestic terrorism compared to 100 “international” suspects (e.g. non-resident).

The rise of right-wing terror, including white supremacist and right-wing extremist violence has increased at different speeds in the US and countries across Western Europe. There appears to be a sharp increase in the US since 2016: there were more anti-Muslim attacks reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) (127 attacks) in 2016 than in any year since 2001 (93 attacks). Meanwhile, in Europe, white supremacist attacks started rising since 2010, and especially since the ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015-2016. Some plots sought to target high-level officials seen to be sympathetic with liberal and progressive causes (i.e., the president of France, the Prime Minister of Spain and the Foreign Minister of Germany). There are signs of transnational ties between US and European extremist groups, and concerns that current/veteran military are increasingly susceptible (of the 119 lone actor events in US/Europe since 2010—26% involved actors with prior military service).

Fourth, social media is playing a role in lowering the barrier of entry and amplifying terrorist recruitment/action.

There is a vast and complex ecosystem of terrorist-related activity on social media. Most organized terrorist groups and individual lone-actor terrorist perpetrators are digitally literate. Some groups and individuals have put manifestos online others are using social media to broadcast their acts (in real-time or after the fact). The goal is to magnify the sense of grievance/victimhood, divide and separate communities, reinforce mistrust and of course inspire copy-cats and trigger over-zealous response from governments.

Social media is helping mainstream extreme and revisionist narratives, some of which is inflaming violent extremism. In the case of white supremacists, the idea that Jews and non-whites—principally Muslims—are invaders and imported by cosmopolitan elite to replace ethnic Europeans. In the case of Jihadist groups, that Christians are crusaders and Muslims are victimized. Many of these narratives are shared on common social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, 8Chan, Reddit and others. Determining what is radical content is complex (one person’s ‘trigger’ is another person’s ‘satire’). Increasingly, chatter is moving to encrypted platforms and Darknet sites in the wake of police and intelligence monitoring.  Proposed initiatives by states to block terrorist content (as seen in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union (EU) are controversial, with some analysts fearing that content removal will empower rather than weaken terrorist groups.

Fifth, there are emerging threats of terrorism that require closer attention from policy-makers.

In addition to traditional Jihadist networks such as ISIS or al-Qaeda and white nationalist threats, there are other violent extremist actors warranting greater attention. For example, Russian-speaking foreign fighters (or ‘extreme travelers’) previously active in the Middle East are diversifying their focus. An estimated 8,500 of them were involved in Syria and Iraq alone. Some of them are moving back to former Soviet countries, as well as appearing in theaters as wide ranging as Bangladesh and Myanmar. Risk assessment firms such as Janes have singled out these threats, noting increased involvement of Uzbeks, for example, in terrorist incidents in Istanbul, New York City (NYC), and Stockholm.

There are also signs of intensification of terrorist events outside Africa and the Middle East, notably South and Southeast Asia. For example, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines, Jemaah Islamiya (JI) in Indonesia, and ISIS affiliates in Myanmar and Thailand have surged. Likewise, attacks in Bangladesh (2016) and Sri Lanka (2019) highlight the franchising potential of ISIS and others. There are also growing concerns about the potential surge in former incarcerated terrorist actors—notably in Europe—who are likely to be released between 2019 and 2023.

Finally, there are reports from some counter-terrorism experts that terrorist methods are adapting and changing.

Many attacks are characterized by having lower sophistication in terms of their organization, but higher impact in terms of casualties. While firearms, knives and other weapons remain common (and Improvised Explosive Devices; IEDs in the Middle East and increasingly North and West Africa), cars, vans and even drones are more common. What is more, many terrorist groups are targeting transportation infrastructure—including airports and train stations where there may be lower security and larger crowds.

There are also growing concerns about new technologies being used in terrorism. Chief among them are chemical and biological weapons, especially (but not exclusively) by state-supported terrorist groups. Al-Qaeda reportedly experimented with chemical weapons in the late 1990s and reportedly deployed them in the mid-2000s in Iraq. ISIS repeatedly sourced chlorine and sulfur mustard from left-over Ba-athist stocks in Iraq and undeclared inventories in Syria. The group reportedly used chemical weapons against Iraqi and Syrian military and civilians between 2015-2017. The lowered costs/barriers to entry for bio-engineered weapons—including Anthrax, Smallpox, and other pathogens—are a real worry. Digital and cyber capabilities are also widespread, including tailored ‘micro-messaging’ for would-be recruits, encrypted messaging platforms, active social media campaigning and Darknet communications.

What Explains the Decline in Global Terrorism

The measurement and mapping of terrorism is an imperfect science. While the trend lines drawing on the GTD and other sources suggest that the total number and rate of terrorism incidents and casualties has declined, there are other factors that indicate how risk-levels remain high. It is important to draw on a wide range of metrics to measure real and relative threat (and not just reported incidents and body counts). These considerations notwithstanding, there are several factors that might help explain the fourth wave described above.

First, the winding down of the war in Syria has reduced ISIS´s footprint in Iraq and Syria.

There was more than a 50 percent drop in ISIS-related terrorist incidents in 2017 and a continued decline in 2018 and 2019. The weakening of ISIS’s physical presence and capabilities has had a global impact. The overall number of victims attributed to ISIS has declined. That said, ISIS is not defeated—and we can expect its decentralized/franchising approach will generate new threats in the future.

Second, increased cooperation and investment in disrupting and dismantling terrorist groups may have some short-term effects.

The US dramatically expanded military and counter-terrorism operations over the past two decades. Western European countries have also expanded policing and intelligence operations—including in the Sahel and Middle East. In the UK, at least 13 ‘Islamic plots’ and 4 ‘far-right’ plots were foiled since mid-2017 alone. These effects are likely short-term since they emphasize eliminating and disrupting networks and not necessarily defeating Jihadist and far-right ideology.

Third, governments, the UN and tech companies are getting smarter about collaborating.

Governments are supporting research, working with tech companies to reduce terrorist (and extremist) content, and supporting digital literacy guidelines/alternative narratives. The G7 and tech companies like Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Youtube set up the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) together with Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and 8 think tanks in 2017. The UN’s counter-terrorism directorate and the UN-initiated Tech Against Terrorism program involves over 100 tech companies on four continents.

Fourth, tech companies are taking some action, but also face challenges related to regulation, out-linking, and migration to alternative platforms.

Large tech companies are being pressured to take more proactive action to address terrorist online content/actors. Facebook is using artificial intelligence (AI) to identify/remove photos/videos linked to terrorist content and Youtube claims that 98 percent of the thousands of videos it has removed were identified using machine learning algorithms. Twitter has suspended at least a million accounts for promoting terrorism since 2015. Meanwhile, 9 major tech companies are sharing/tracking hashes through the collective effort known as GIFCT (100,000 by end 2018).

A challenge facing many governments and companies is ‘out-linking’. When shut out, terrorist groups naturally re-post content to other platforms like, and Other challenges included encrypted platforms like Telegram and WhatsApp and more difficult to monitor digital ecosystems such as Darknet. Given the disproportionate focus on ISIS and al-Qaeda, there are also concerns that many violent extremist movements are not being as closely monitored/disrupted. 

Some Final Takeaways

The global decline in overall rates and lethality of terrorist incidents is good news. The emergence of various threats—not least franchising Jihadist terrorism, transnational white supremacist terrorism and lone-actor actions is cause for concern. What is clear is that the focus on incidents and casualty counts is necessary but insufficient to fully appreciate the spread and changing nature of terrorism. This can create dangerous ‘stove-pipes’ and narrow or obscure our appreciation of the full range of actual and emerging threats. 

There continues to be a bias on particular kinds of terrorist threats in specific regions. This focus is very much shaped by dominant government counter-terrorism priorities and policies and popular concerns. A recent meta-study of over 3,400 peer-review articles (2007-2016) found an overwhelming focus on al-Qaeda, Jihadi groups and the Middle East and North Africa. It also noted the emphasis on ‘event-driven’ analysis and the lack of focus on state-terrorism and non-Jihadist terrorism. These blind spots are dangerous.

About the Author(s)

Robert Muggah is a Principal at SecDev, a digital risk group that works with governments, companies and international organizations. He also co-founded the Igarapé Institute, a think and do tank working at the interface of public, digital and climate security. He is a non-resident fellow or faculty at Princeton University, Singularity University, the Graduate Institute in Geneva, the University of British Columbia and the University of San Diego. In the past, he directed research at the Small Arms Survey (2000-2011). Robert has consulted with McKinsey´s, Google and Uber as well as the United Nations, Inter-American Development Bank, and World Bank, among others, in over 30 countries. He is a regular contributor to the Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Guardian, Globe and Mail, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and other media outlets. Robert is the author of eight books, including most recently (with Ian Goldin), Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years (Penguin/Random House, 2020). He delivered talks at TED in 2021, 2017, and 2015, the Web Summit, and the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Dubai, Medellín, and Geneva. He is the founder and executive editor of Stability Journal and serves on the editorial board of several academic journals. Robert is also affiliated with the WEF Global Risk Report, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Bosch Academy, and other international networks. He earned his Dphil from the University of Oxford. He can be contacted at