Five Trends Driving the Future of Terrorism – Foreign Policy Research Institute

In mid-May 2022, eighteen-year-old Payton Gendron approached a grocery store in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Buffalo, NY. He opened fire with a Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic rifle , killing ten people. The attack was one of the deadliest racist massacres in recent American history.

The attack made headlines worldwide, the latest inside a series of racially and ethnically motivated violent extremist attacks. As in the particular Christchurch mosque attack within New Zealand, Gendron live-streamed his armed assault and left behind the manifesto outlining a range of conspiratorial views plus documenting extreme racial animus.

Beyond the tragedy itself, the assault was noteworthy for another reason—it was the quintessential example of how terrorist ideologies have become more diverse in recent decades, attacks have grown to be more decentralized, terrorism by itself has been democratized by new technologies, disinformation has been used to fuel hate, and terrorists have acquired the means to make attacks much deadlier. These trends in terrorism (diversity, decentralization, democratization, disinformation, and deadly) are shaping the future of chaotic extremism.  

For counterterrorism analysts, government officials, and policymakers, it is crucial to understand how terrorism is changing to know exactly how to prioritize threats plus allocate resources. Given China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, counterterrorism is no longer the principal national security focus associated with Western governments. As a result, those charged with preventing terrorist attacks need be smarter about how terrorists and terrorist groups are evolving. Moreover, it is essential to realize the grievances motivating political violence plus terrorism in order to craft the comprehensive response.

First, the particular attack within Buffalo reflected the diverse ideologies that are motivating terrorism and violent extremism. Whereas the past two decades have mostly already been about dedicating resources in order to combat Salafi-jihadism and groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, the current terrorism landscape is far a lot more varied. In Buffalo, Gendron’s motivation was a deep hatred of African-Americans, but even within the broader category of far-right extremism, there exists an intersectionality among prejudices that also include Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, or threats against the LGBTQ+ community.

The ideologies motivating terrorists is the particular most significant change inside counterterrorism. What was mostly a monochromatic threat from Salafi-jihadist groups and those individuals they sought to inspire, has now become the kaleidoscope along with new threats from white supremacists and neo-Nazis, shadowy anarchist elements, neo-Luddites, plus the intense fringe associated with violent incels (i. e., politicized involuntary celibates fueled by a hatred of women). Once-formidable ethno-nationalist terrorist groups, including the Provisional Irish Republican Army as well as the Basque group ETA, have all decommissioned their arms and faded into history—the same is true of radical left-wing militants like the Baader Meinhoff group in Germany plus the Red Brigades in Italy. Inside South Asia, secessionist organizations like the particular Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam possess also been pacified.

Second, the shooting was decentralized . The particular attacker has been a so-called lone wolf, who acted on his own without any external assistance or instigation. Lone wolves are difficult for law enforcement and intelligence agencies in order to detect, although the term “lone wolf” itself is something of the misnomer. Even in cases where a single attacker may be responsible, the individual almost always emerges from the broader ecosystem where these people have radicalized, often after being exposed to extremist propaganda online.

Decentralization describes the concept of “leaderless resistance” pioneered by chaotic far-right extremists, but furthermore the phenomenon wherein the leadership and upper echelon of large, bureaucratized terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda plus the Islamic State are winnowed through relentless counterterrorism campaigns. In both cases, the result has already been a shift to an affiliate or even franchise model, where regional branches pursue a blend of local and global objectives.

Third, the strike was an example of the democratization of terrorism. In other words, the particular barriers to entry to engage in terrorism have been significantly lowered over the past decade. Today, a good individual with an internet connection, a smartphone, and access to weapons, including do-it-yourself weapons like “ghost guns” and 3-D printed explosives , can now wreak havoc in society. In the case associated with Gendron, he used a Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic gun, taking advantage of America’s gun culture and ease of access to lethal weaponry.

The means of terrorism, perhaps once restricted to a hard core of guerrilla fighters, is now widely available in order to billions associated with people around the globe. Innovations within encrypted communications and entry to sophisticated weaponry have facilitated the particular rise of what the United States military has called “ super-empowered individuals , ” who have accessibility to powerful, low-cost commercial technology and are highly connected, able to reach far beyond their own geographic location.

Fourth, Gendron was motivated in many ways simply by disinformation . A review of the particular Buffalo attacker’s social media history shows an obsession with the so-called “Great Replacement Theory, ” a conspiracy that posits that the shadowy cabal of elites is deliberately replacing native-born white individuals with immigrants in a good act associated with what they label “white genocide. ” Gendron spent considerable time on 4chan , where this individual consumed substantial amounts of disinformation about the supposed contribution associated with Black people to the crime rate, IQ differences, and posts directly related in order to Holocaust denialism.

Disinformation is now ubiquitous, with foreign countries crafting disinformation campaigns that feed domestic terrorism elsewhere. Russia and China regularly amplify divisive narratives on social networking in an effort to sow further dissent within the Usa. Many of these narratives are related to racial issues and promote posts associated with civil war and domestic uprisings. Conspiracies abound on the internet, and the advent of alleged “deep fakes” and artificial intelligence have got only served to further complicate the information environment. Disinformation also lives forever on the internet, enshrined in terrorist manifestos, plus passed close to by followers and supporters of violent extremist ideologies.

Fifth, the particular Buffalo attack was deadly . In the United States, between 1994 and 2013 , there were only three years in which more than eight individuals were killed in terrorist attacks during the entire year. This was due in order to the Oklahoma City bombing (1995), 9/11 (2001), and the Fort Hood attack (2009). The Zoysia grass attack resulted in ten dead, reflective of the particular increasing trend in lethality—between 2014 plus 2021, the average number of fatalities per year was thirty-one, demonstrating the increasing lethality associated with terrorism. Gendron illegally modified his rifle so that high-capacity magazines could be loaded into it, increasing the particular lethality of his attack.

Terrorists and terrorist groups to seek large body counts, with mass casualty events fueling the propaganda value of an attack or series of attacks. The advent associated with technologies like drones, 3-D printing, plus autonomous weaponry has exacerbated the danger of large-scale attacks, while terrorists’ pursuit of weapons of bulk destruction, which includes chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weaponry, remains a nightmare scenario. Terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins once wrote, “terrorists want a lot of people watching, not the lot of people dead. ” The particular quote reflected the zeitgeist in terrorism studies at the time, especially along with the skyjackings perpetrated by Palestinian terror groups in the 1970s, that the overarching purpose of terrorism was psychological and as a mode of communication to express a grievance to a large audience. After the al-Qaeda attacks associated with September 11, 2001, Jenkins revised their axiom, now commenting , “Many of today’s terrorists want a large amount of people viewing and a lot of people dead. ”

Witnessing the particular devastation and destruction wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic likely increased terrorists’ interest in acquiring the materials and know-how to conduct a bioterror attack. Such an attack could be conducted surreptitiously by a small team with catastrophic effects. There would be considerable challenges in managing the aftermath, which could include the contagion of humans or animals or contamination of food and water sources or medicines. There will also be major challenges posed by physical-to-digital conversion technologies—including gene sequencing technology plus the ability to send genome sequences simply by e-mail. Being able to send these sequences by e-mail means that terrorists in far-reaching corners of the particular globe can potentially cooperate to harness the disruptive power associated with technologies want CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). In some circumstances, CRISPR could become utilized to create viruses, crop-destroying plagues, or even “killer mosquitoes” that spread disease. This is another area where barriers to entry are being lowered, offering more opportunities for nefarious individuals and small groupings to do harm.

Following 2 decades of prosecuting the Global War on Terrorism, many Western countries are now pivoting toward great power competition as the pendulum swings away from a focus on chaotic non-state actors back towards state-based risks. Accordingly, what were as soon as vast troves of money and sources allocated to counterterrorism have diminished, and states and governments will be largely unprepared in order to deal with what comes next. France recently withdrew its troops from Mali. Germany has also suspended its mission to the particular country , even as the Russian private military contractor Wagner Group has moved to fill the power vacuum. The United States and many of its Western allies are attempting to move beyond counterterrorism as a good organizing principle, preparing to meet the difficulties posed simply by near-peer competitors. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could additional accelerate this trend.

But counterterrorism plus great-power competition are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, inside many instances, a convergence between the two will more complicate the particular response  and  may also lead to an increase in state-sponsored terrorism,   a throwback to the proxy conflicts waged throughout the Cold War. An increase in state-sponsored terrorism could spur the spike within terrorist groups motivated by ethnonationalism or separatism. Counterterrorism strategies must adapt to the range associated with traditional and emerging dangers from a multiplicity of international and household adversaries.

Some attacks, such as the 1 in Buffalo, NY, will certainly comprise all of the aforementioned styles. Others will represent one or two of the particular trends. When these developments converge, counterterrorism practitioners may face significant challenges. Thinking through the implications of a more diverse, decentralized, democratized, plus deadly terrorist threat atmosphere fueled simply by disinformation could help respond in order to a short-list of long term possible scenarios. Moreover, this could furthermore frame plan responses for how police force, governments, and policymakers can begin preparing with regard to the continued evolution of terrorism, violent extremism, plus political violence.


The views expressed in this article are those associated with the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the International Policy Study Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.  

Correction: The particular article has been updated to reflect that this Baader Meinhoff group in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy were left-wing terrorist organizations, not ethno-nationalists.