Terrorism: A Continuing Threat

None of the modern terrorist groups conform fully to the traditional model of terrorism. Accordingly, they challenge counterterrorism polices and strategies which have long been oriented towards targeting terrorist organizations and their leaders. Because of the power of the Internet, social media and other 21st century communications platforms, the threat is changing and evolving rapidly and the relevant authorities both in the United States and elsewhere need to be fully knowledgeable about these dangerous advances in radicalization and recruitment, the ease of exchanging operational and attack information, and the likely indicators whose recognition will facilitate intervention, prevention and the thwarting of future terrorist incidents.

The famed British Foreign Office mandarin and opponent of his country’s pre-war appeasement policy towards Germany, Sir Robert Vansittart, could have been referring to 2019 when he observed of the 1930s that, “Left or Right, everybody was for the quiet life.”[1] How else can one explain President Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in Northern Syria by withdrawing the few remaining American military forces along the border with Turkey in order to finally cease “stupid endless wars”?[2] Or account for the Trump Administration’s now abandoned, but meretricious courtship of the Taliban? The credulous, one-sided negotiations that unfolded despite escalating terrorist attacks? And, the unseemly invitation to the leaders of a movement that was complicit in precisely the tragic events commemorated on September 11th for talks at the presidential Camp David retreat just days before that anniversary?

The Democratic presidential candidates who debated later that same week as the Taliban talks collapsed had little to offer themselves in terms of clarity or new policy options either for Afghanistan or the war on terrorism. From thoroughly discredited nostrums linking terrorism to poverty (Senator Bernie Sanders) to glib declamations about the “need to bring the troops home” (Senator Elizabeth Warren) alongside a “pledge to end the forever wars” (Andrew Yang),[3] the debate on these issues, the Washington Post opined, “served up evasions and fantasies not much different from the cut-and-run impulse that at times seems to be animating Mr. Trump’s outreach to the Taliban.”[4]

But prophecy is not policy, and as the commander of the U.S. Central Command presciently reminded us back in 2013: “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over. We may think it [is] over, we may declare it over,” General James N. Mattis explained, “but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.”[5] And, despite U.S. military expenditures now totaling some $2 trillion and ongoing counterterrorism missions being conducted in 80 countries on six continents,[6] our enemies have incontrovertibly voted to continue this war.

Indeed, according to The Global Extremist Monitor, a total of 121 violent Islamist groups are active throughout the world. In 2017 (the last year for which data has been published) they carried out an average of 21 attacks per day that affected 66 countries.[7] Although a report released by the CSIS Transnational Threats Project cites a lower figure of 67 such organizations, this more modest number still represents a 180 percent increase in the number of Salafi-Jihadi groups that existed on September 11th 2001. Regardless of which calculation is more accurate, neither points to the timeous conclusion of this war.[8]

It is thus hard to deny that, if Osama bin Laden were alive today, he’d likely be a happy man. The enterprise he begat over three decades ago has survived the sustained onslaught of the most technologically advanced military in the history of mankind. Despite serial setbacks – including the killing of its founder and leader – the narrative that he crafted continues to resonate and inspire a new generation to take up arms in a war that bin Laden first proclaimed 23 years ago – before many of these latest recruits were even born.

ISIS’s stubborn resiliency was recently highlighted in the 2018 U.S. National Strategy for Counterterrorism. Despite ISIS’s catastrophic military setbacks in Syria and Iraq, the document nonetheless cautioned that, “The group’s global reach remains robust, with eight official branches and more than two dozen networks regularly conducting terrorist and insurgent operations across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.”[9]

Unfortunately, this was not the only bad news that the new strategy imparted. In addition to ISIS, and the continuing threat posed by al-Qaeda – which had monopolized the three previous iterations released respectively in 2003, 2006, and 2011 – the 2018 edition also listed Iran and Iranian-backed Shi’a militias, domestic violent far-right and far-left extremists, and militant single issue organizations as significant security concerns.[10]



ISIS rebounded quickly from the killing of its founder and leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Only a few days had passed before it had announced a successor – Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi – and issued a renewed call to battle.

The 2019 Easter Sunday suicide bombings underscore ISIS’s undiminished allure to extremists even in places where ISIS hitherto had little to no presence. A key dimension of the attacks may have been the terrorist cell’s ability to harness the experiences of at least one member, named Jameel Mohammed Abdul Latheef, who had left Sri Lanka in 2014 to join ISIS.[11]

Latheef’s survival and escape from Syria is by no means atypical. Only about 10,000 the 40,000 foreign fighters who came to fight with ISIS in the Levant and Iraq in fact were killed. At least 15,000 were reportedly able to flee the caliphate before its collapse. Of this number, approximately 7,500 returned home – of whom only about half are imprisoned or being actively monitored by local authorities; 5,000 others were deported by Turkey without notification given either to the recipient governments or those countries of whom they are citizens; 2,500 more found sanctuary in the Sudan; and, about 2,700 others migrated to ISIS branches elsewhere. Approximately 8,000 are believed to be fighting in the remaining pockets of Syria where ISIS has a presence or in western Iraq where the group has launched a new insurgency.[12]

In sum, ISIS today appears unbowed by its battlefield defeats, the loss of its caliphate, and death of its founder leader.[13] We should therefore be very circumspect that we have any better understanding of ISIS’s post-caliphate capabilities and intentions today than we did when the group first emerged. It is perhaps worth recalling that the 2015 Paris attacks was the biggest terrorist attack on a Western city in over a decade. They occurred with no advance warning and in defiance of the prevailing analytical assumption that ISIS wasn’t interested in mounting external attacks and moreover lacked the capability to do so. Moreover, just two weeks earlier, ISIS was able to perpetrate the single most significant attack against commercial aviation in more than a decade.

These incidents, like the recent Easter Sunday attack in Sri Lanka that similarly surprised everyone suggest caution in precipitously declaring ISIS “100% defeated” – as President Trump himself recently noted.[14]



While ISIS has dominated the headlines and preoccupied our attention for the past five years, al-Qaeda has been quietly rebuilding. Al-Qaeda today is numerically larger and present in more countries than at any other time in its history. From north west Africa to southeast Asia, al-Qaeda has maintained a global movement of some two dozen local networks.

The big question now is will the killing of al-Baghdadi prove a boon to al-Qaeda? The prospect that the rump of ISIS in Syria and Iraq might ally itself again with al-Qaeda is a distinct possibility, despite their public, hostile divorce in 2014. Should ISIS’s branches in Africa and South Asia follow suit, the West would face a renewed and perhaps even greater global terrorist threat. Several factors would seem to support this outcome, including that the two organizations share similar ideologies; that their estrangement was more a product of a clash of their leaders’ egos than differences in core beliefs; and that ISIS’s once compelling attraction to foreign fighters and homegrown recruits is now likely to atrophy if not reverse.

A merger would result in a terrorist force of chilling dimensions and influence. Their combined power could prove compelling enough to persuade competing Islamist insurgent groups in the region, like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), al-Qaeda’s former Syrian franchise, to merge into an umbrella movement led by al-Zawahiri. Indeed, relations between HTS, al-Qaeda, and other militant factions, including Hurras al-Din (HAD), al-Qaeda’s stalking horse in Syria, have warmed in recent months.



For the past couple of decades we have rightly been focused on the threat from Salafi-Jihadi/Islamist organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIS. American law enforcement, however, has long warned of the threat from the violent, far-right.[15] A 2004 FBI strategic planning document, for instance, firmly placed the lone wolf threat in the United States within the context of the threat from the indigenous far-right at a time when everyone was completely preoccupied with al-Qaeda.[16]

This assessment accurately presaged the series of mass shootings that have occurred in the United States over the past twelve months. This spate of attacks challenge some of our most fundamental conceptualizations about terrorists and terrorism.

In the past, a terrorist was mostly recognizable as someone committing violence at the deliberate behest of, or on behalf of, some existent organizational entity or movement that had an identifiable chain of command. Each of these tragic attacks, however, was perpetrated by a lone gunman without any demonstrable affiliation to, or membership in, an identifiable terrorist organization. Each involved a lone, male gunman acting entirely on his own; who was neither directly commanded nor specifically encouraged by an established terrorist group leader, propagandist, or spokesperson. Nor, sadly, is this a phenomenon confined to the U.S. Last March, another lone, male gunman attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 persons.

This leaderless strategy in fact has its origins not in the Middle East or with a foreign Muslim terrorist organization but in America and with its own peculiar variant of extreme far-right terrorism. It dates to the early 1980s when, frustrated by the FBI’s success in penetrating the racist, white supremacist movement then-active in the western United States, a Vietnam War veteran and former Grand Dragon of the Texas Ku Klux Klan named Louis Beam conceived his leaderless resistance strategy.

ISIS’s remarkable success in speaking to a global audience via social media and digital means is yet another inheritance from Beam and America’s own domestic terrorists. In the early 1980s, he also pioneered the use of primitive computer bulletin boards as a means for like-minded hatemongers in the U.S., Canada, and West Germany to communicate with and inspire one another. Beam had therefore positioned the 21st Century far-right to exploit the advanced capabilities afforded by the Internet, the Worldwide Web, and the variety of social media and messaging apps available today.

The Christ Church, New Zealand gunmen, for instance, took full advantage of modern communications technologies both before and during his attack. He hinted at it on Twitter; publicized it on the anonymous message board, 8chan; and, posted links to his 74-page manifesto titled, “The Great Replacement,” explaining himself and his actions, on both media. He also strapped a camera to his forehead in order to livestream the shootings and posted more links on the Internet with instructions on how to access them.

Nearly half a century ago, terrorism expert Brian Jenkins famously described terrorism as “theatre.” The power of social media turned the terrorist attack in New Zealand into a heinous act of performance art – designed to inspire imitation and emulation elsewhere. For example, the attacks were live-streamed for 17 minutes and viewed at least 4,000 times before Facebook took down the link. Over the next 24 hours Facebook removed another 1.5 million copies of the live streamed attack from its pages. YouTube recorded one upload per second of the assault from its website during the 24 hours following the incident.[17]

Increased attention has also been increasingly focused in the United States and elsewhere on the threat posed by violent far-left as well as far-right extremists as well on newly emergent single-issue movements such as the Incels – or Involuntary Celibates. Like their extremist far-right counterparts, the violent, extremist far-left in the United States and other countries belong to no actual, existing organization with leadership or a chain of a command, but rather are united by a common imperative. A warning sign of the potential escalation of violent far-left extremism into terrorism occurred last July when a long-time activist attempted to firebomb a Tacoma, Washington Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility.

The term involuntary celibate, or “Incel,” was first linked to violence by Elliot Rodger,[18] this movement’s putative “patron saint,”[19] who is credited with the first Incel attack. On May 23, 2014 Rodger killed six persons and wounded 14 in Isla Vista, California before committing suicide. As has become de rigueur for today’s white supremacist shooters, Rodger also left behind a 133-page manifesto. It was titled, “My Twisted Life” and he also posted numerous misogynistic videos on YouTube.

Dozens of online forums, from Reddit subreddits to Incels.co to 4chan and 8chan, now exist where self-identified members of the Incel community bemoan their collective fate. The Incels fundamental complaint is that they have been systematically deprived of their “right” to sexual relations. Rodger’s manifesto and YouTube videos exulted in the use of violence in retaliation for his serial rejection by women. Through his attack, Rodger deliberately sought to terrorize women and inspire a broader uprising of men to follow in his footsteps. At least 30 persons have been killed and 42 wounded in definitively proven Incel-linked or inspired attacks since 2014.

In sum, none of the above terrorists, whether left, right or Incels conforms to the traditional model of terrorism. Accordingly, they challenge counterterrorism polices and strategies which have long been oriented towards targeting terrorist organizations and their leaders. Because of the power of the Internet, social media and other 21st century communications platforms, the threat is changing and evolving rapidly and the relevant authorities both in the United States and elsewhere need to be fully knowledgeable about these dangerous advances in radicalization and recruitment, the ease of exchanging operational and attack information, and the likely indicators whose recognition will facilitate intervention, prevention and the thwarting of future terrorist incidents.


[1] Quoted in William Manchester, The Last Lion, Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940 (Boston: Little Brown, 1983), p. 85.

[2] Michael Crowley, et al., “Trump Calls Turkey’s Syrian Offensive a ‘Bad Idea,’ But Opposes ‘Senseless Wars’,” New York Times, October 9, 2019.

[3] Read the full transcript of ABC News’ 3rd Democratic debate,” ABC News, September 13, 2019 at: https://abcnews.go.com/US/read-fulltranscript-abc-news-3rd-democratic-debate/story?id=65587810

[4] “Editorials: Platitudes, not plans,” Washington Post, September 14, 2019.

[5] Quoted in Jonah Goldberg, “Our Enemies Get a Vote,” National Review, May 29, 2013 at: https://www.nationalreview.com/2013/05/ourenemies-get-vote-jonah-goldberg/.

[6] Stephanie Savell and 5W Infographics, “America at War: This Map Shows Where in the World the U.S. Military Is Combatting Terrorism,” Smithsonian Magazine, January 2019, at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/map-shows-places-worldwhere-us-military-operates-180970997/.

[7] Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, Violent Islamist Extremism: A Global Problem, September 13, 2018, pp. 9 & 13-14 at: https://institute.global/insight/co-existence/violent-islamistextremism-global-problem

[8] Seth G. Jones, et al., The Evolution of the Salafi-Jihadist Threat: Current and Future Challenges from the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and Other Groups (Washington, DC: CSIS Transnational Threats Project, November 2018). p. iv at https://www.csis.org/analysis/evolutionsalafi-jihadist-threat.

[9] National Strategy for Counterterrorism of the United States of America (Washington, DC: The White House, October 2018), p. 8 at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/NSCT.pdf

[10] Ibid., p. 1.

[11] See Niharika Mandhana, Rob Taylor and Saeed Shah, “Sri Lanka Bomber Trained in Syria With Islamic State,” Wall Street Journal, 29, 2019, at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/sri-lanka-attacks-show-isissreach-even-after-defeat-11556561912.

[12] Data made available courtesy of Dr. R. Kim Cragin, National Defense University, Washington, DC. The most recent United Nations monitoring team report also cites the number of surviving foreign fighters as 30,000. See Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, Twenty-fourth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entitities (New York: United Nations Security Council, July 15, 2019, p. 6 at: https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3813209?ln=zh_CN

[13] “Translated Text: IS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Orders Fighters Redouble Efforts at All Levels, Promotes Religious Activism,” September 16, 2019.

[14] John T. Bennett, “Trump walks back claim of defeating ‘100% of the ISIS caliphate,” Roll Call, October 28, 2019 at: https://www.rollcall.com/news/whitehouse/in-another-reversal-trumpwalks-back-claim-of-defeating-100-of-the-isis-caliphate

[15] Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer, Law Enforcement Assessment of the Violent Extremism Threat (Durham, NC: Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, June 25, 2015), pp. 3-4, accessed at: http://sites.duke.edu/tcths/files/2013/06/Kurzman_Schanzer_Law_Enforcement_Assessment_of_the_Violent_Extremist_Threat_final.pdf.

[16] FBI, Office for Victim Assistance, Federal Bureau of Investigation Strategic Plan 2004-2009 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 2004), pp. 15-16 at https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=466149.

[17] Jacinda Ardern, How to Stop the Next Christchurch Massacre,” New York Times, May 11, 2019.

[18] Peter Baker, “The Woman Who Accidentally Started The Incel Movement, Elle, March 1, 2016 at https://www.elle.com/culture/news/a34512/woman-who-started-incelmovement/

[19] HolyAx, “Elliot Rogers [sic] has become a Saint among Incels (byhtre, Aza etc.), system wars, August 13, 2018 at https://systemwars.net/bb/topic/203126-elliot-rogers-has-become-asaint-among-incels-byhtre-aza-etc/.