The means for states, nonstate, and substate actors to impose harm are diversifying, as are the motivations for doing so.  These trends will further blur the lines between different forms of violence; governments will continue to debate which actions constitute “terrorism” versus “war,” “insurgency” or “criminal acts.”  These developments suggest that how we fight terrorism will probably continue
to evolve.

The trends shaping the future of terrorism during the next five years and beyond will depend heavily on how two ongoing developments are resolved.  First, the resolution or continuation of the many intra- and inter-state conflicts currently under way—most important, the Syrian civil war, but also conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and the Sahel, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere—will determine the intensity and geography of future violence.  The spread of ungoverned space, particularly during the past five years, created an environment conducive to extremism and encouraged the enlistment of thousands of volunteers eager to fight.  Until some semblance of security is established, militancy will continue
to breed.

Second, today’s foreign fighters unless identified, deradicalized, and reintegrated back into society are likely to become the recruiting pool for tomorrow’s violent nonstate actors.  Similarly, disaffected migrants, without better integration, education, and economic opportunity, could become an ideal recruiting pool for violent extremist groups.

  • States or regions where governments lack the capacity or will to maintain security or provide political and economic stability, correspond with areas that experience high degrees of violence and where extremism flourishes.  A lack of stability and responsive governance—especially in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia—will continue to create conditions conducive
    to terrorism.

Extreme minority interpretations of religion will probably remain the most frequently cited justification for terrorism—certainly five years from now and, likely, also 20 years into the future.  Three drivers are notable: 1) the likely continuing breakdown of state structures in much of the Middle East and the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia fueling Shia-Sunni sectarianism; 2) tension between and within various forms of militants citing religion, and a continued perception of Western hegemony; and 3) retention of the “far enemy” ideology among extremist movements.

Although the location of religiously driven terrorism will fluctuate, the schism between Shia and Sunni, and between extremist Sunnis and who they regard as “nonbelievers” seem likely to worsen in the short term and are unlikely to abate by 2035.  Violence becomes more likely when a powerful ideology like Salafi-jihadism, whether ISIL’s or al-Qa’ida’s, in a region undergoing vast and rapid political change combines with generations of autocratic government, gender inequality, and economic disparities.

A combination of psychological and situational factors will drive participation in terrorism and help terrorist groups attract resources and maintain cohesion.  The relative weight of motivating factors for recruits and supporters is highly individualistic and situational, making it difficult to generalize.  Nevertheless, some of the most important drivers of individual participation will be:

  • Disenfranchisement, repression, and humiliation can drive people to seek power and control through violence.  Some level of alienation, arising from disconnection from the sociocultural mainstream, inability to participate in the political process, coping with diminished opportunity for marriage, or inability to attain one’s perceived “deserved” economic benefits and status from society will remain consistent sources of grievance-driven violence.  Such frustrations can affect any walk of life; the pool of potential terrorists is not limited by social class, economic status, or educational background.  Additionally, perceived grievances against a common group, or ethnic and kinship bonds—to include peer, social or familial networks—will motivate retaliation or violence against alleged perpetrators. Individual desire for adventure, fame, and belonging will contribute to individual terrorist participation.
  • The "denationalizing"—the loss of connection with their community of origin of young people in European cities, combined with the lack of effective incentives to assume a European national identity, will continue to generate potential recruits for extremist organizations.
  • Ethnic and religious tension beyond today’s hotspots will cause eruptions of nationalist and communal violence and terrorism, such as between Chechens and Russians, the Malay and Thais in Thailand, Muslims and Buddhists in Burma, and Christians and Muslims in Central Africa.  Such developments create conflict zones for transnational terror movements to exploit.
  • Environmental change related to degraded soils, water resources, biodiversity and increased frequency of extreme and unusual weather, particularly the impact of climate change, is likely to amplify pressure on fragile and failing states to provide sufficient food and water to stressed populations.  The interactions between chronic and acute stresses in local and regional food, water, and energy systems has led to failure of some governments—especially in the Middle East and Central and South Asia—to meet popular demands or address perceptions of unequal distribution of  scarce resources, which might prompt future violent behavior by populations seeking redress.

Technology will introduce a new set of tradeoffs, facilitating terrorist communications, recruitment, logistics, and lethality, but also giving authorities more sophisticated techniques to identify and characterize threats.  Technology will enable nonstate actors to mask and obfuscate their activities and identities and will be key to their ability to talk to one another, recruit new members, and disseminate messages.  Advancements in technology also raise the stakes for a high-impact, low-likelihood terrorist WMD scenario and enable the proliferation of more lethal, conventional weaponry to terrorist groups

  • Technology will enable further decentralization of threats to devolve from the relatively organized and directed al-Qa’ida to an atomized jihadist militancy.  This trend will pose challenges to counterterrorism efforts and change the nature of future terrorist plots and strategies.

Previous waves of terrorism have peaked and declined over the course of multiple generations.  The current religiously motivated wave of terrorism—which, arguably has dominated global terrorism since the mid-1990s—is different from previous waves in terms of motivation, reach, mobilization, and justification and will probably last considerably longer.  Current religious conflicts are intensifying rather than abating, as the Sunni–Shia schism and ISIL’s rise are increasing extremism and polarization worldwide.  Just as Usama bin Ladin’s contemporaries who went to Afghanistan became the core of
al-Qa’ida a decade or more later, the current generation of youth now being radicalized by ISIL (and other various extremist groups) are likely to dominate the Sunni extremist scene for the next 20 years.

  • Despite the current intensification of terrorism, it is possible that significant reductions in the Middle East and North Africa could occur if states are able to address terrorism’s underlying drivers.  The ability of governments to institute political and economic reforms that address many grievances and perceptions of disenfranchisement also would contribute to discrediting extremist ideologies as the only means for achieving reform.
  • In the future, gender will probably play an increasing role in counterterrorism, especially related to countering narratives promoting violence as a prerequisite to political reform.  Several international nongovernmental organizations are working on the issue.  The McKinsey Institute’s study on mothers and wives, for example, concluded that women—and mothers in particular—possess the unique ability to recognize early warning signs of radicalization in their children enabling them to play a key role in curtailing violent extremism.  Empowering women to express their perspectives within their households and their societies is a key counterterrorism investment.  However, framing women exclusively as peaceful will cause policymakers to miss important opportunities for information gathering and prevention tools.  Women also play an active role in promoting, recruiting, and committing violence.  On 4 September 2016 French police discovered an abandoned car full of explosives parked near Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  Discovery of the car led to the disruption of a female terrorist cell with ties to ISIL.
  • Ideas about gender roles and masculinity are also likely to influence counterterrorism as information technology and the sharing of ideas broaden perceptions of acceptable ‘masculine’ behaviors.  Studies show that violence is sometimes linked to feelings of injured masculinity; when men cannot fulfill traditional roles of husbands, fathers, or providers, they may turn to violence to demonstrate their masculine power or ability to defend their people and values.  Encouraging modification of concepts of gender norms, which has been undertaken by several NGOs, may also help ameliorate the link between masculinity and violence at all levels.