By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student and Associate Editor of the Pandora Report
The US State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism releases an annual report on terrorism across the globe. The 2019 report was just released, highlighting successes and persistent threats associated with international and domestic terrorism in nearly 100 countries. The report begins with a discussion of notable successes in the counterterrorism landscape, including the destruction of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria; the military operation that killed the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; the military operation that killed rising leader al Qaeda leader Hamza bin Laden; the “maximum pressure” campaign against the Iranian regime; a multi-country effort to designate the entirety of Hizballah as a terrorist group; and the repatriation, prosecution, and rehabilitation of ISIS fighters and family members.
The report then identifies the persistent terrorist threats that will dominate counterterrorism policy in 2020. These threats can be divided into four categories: (1) the Islamic State’s ability to build global networks, (2) continued terrorism sponsored by Iran and carried out by its proxies, (3) al Qaeda’s ability to adapt, and (4) the rising threat from what the United States calls “racially or ethnically motivated terrorism” (REMT). These four themes are expanded upon in the country reports, summarized below.
The majority of terrorist activity in Africa occurs in East Africa, the Sahel, and the Lake Chad region. Major groups active in this region include al-Shabaab (East Africa, especially Somalia), ISIS-West Africa (Lake Chad), Boko Haram (Lake Chad), Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) (Sahel), ISIS-Greater Sahara (Sahel), and Allied Democratic Forces (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Many of these groups are aligned with ISIS, though al-Shabaab and JNIM are al Qaeda affiliates. A big challenge in Africa is that terrorist groups exploit local conflicts between ethnic groups. In Nigeria, for example, terrorist groups manipulated existing tensions between Fulani and Peuhl ethnic groups as a means of recruiting supporters and giving themselves an operational advantage.
Eleven African countries experienced terrorist attacks in 2019: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, and Tanzania. Common terrorist tactics include the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), ambushes, abductions/kidnappings, targeted killings, and suicide bombings. Securing porous borders is a common struggle for these countries in their counterterrorism efforts. The report also points out that some countries have used counterterrorism legislation to suppress anti-government criticism and other political speech. Seven African countries experienced no terrorism in 2019: Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Senegal, South Africa, and Uganda.
Middle East and North Africa
With territorial losses in 2019, ISIS undertook more clandestine actions and continued expanding its transnational reach. ISIS and its affiliates were particularly active in Libya, the Arabian Peninsula, the Sinai Peninsula, Tunisia, and Yemen; Egypt saw a significant rise in the number of attacks. The US focused specific attention on airstrikes against ISIS targets in Libya. Al Qaeda was also active in this region, where they maintain safe havens in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Many actors see the turmoil in Yemen as an opportunity to exploit existing conflict for their own gain, much like in Africa. The devastating conditions in Yemen have created a pool of impoverished citizens susceptible to radicalization.
East Asia and the Pacific
The report commends governments in East Asia and the Pacific for their regional cooperation on counterterrorism, which has resulted in a high number of terrorism-related arrests and prosecutions and improved cooperation on border and aviation security gaps. However, the region was not without its share of deadly attacks, perhaps most notably the Christchurch, New Zealand white supremacist attack against Muslims that killed 51. Australia also assessed the threat from REMT (which the Australian government calls “extreme right-wing terrorism”) to be increasing, though Islamist extremism currently poses a higher threat. Islamist extremists conducted a number of attacks elsewhere throughout this region, particularly the Philippines and Indonesia. Common tactics used include IEDs, small arms, and suicide bombings – new phenomenon this year in the Philippines. While other countries, such as Malaysia, experienced no attacks, there is still a danger of these countries being used as transit hubs for extremists. Additionally, Thailand experienced several attacks from domestic ethno-nationalist terrorists in its southern region. Finally, the report calls out China for using counterterrorism as a pretext to target political opponents and religious minorities, a trend also seen in Africa.
South and Central Asia
Terrorist violence in South and Central Asia is characterized by insurgent attacks in Jammu and Kashmir, al Qaeda continuing operations from remote safe havens in the region, and “aggressive and coordinated” attacks by ISIS affiliates. Interestingly, in 2019, attacks by ISIS (particularly in Afghanistan) did not follow their typical seasonal pattern of reaching peak levels during the summer fighting season, then declining. Instead, levels rose during the summer months and remained high. Common terrorist tactics used during this period consist of IEDs (including vehicle-borne) and suicide bombings. In addition to these acts of international terrorism, Nepal also experienced several incidents of domestic terrorist attacks on infrastructure and government/political locations surrounding the 2019 elections. These attacks have been attributed to a political faction known as Biplav.
Europe saw two trends in terrorism in 2019: (1) Islamist terrorists conducted operationally simple attacks against symbolic targets and (2) REMT recruiting, plotting, and operational activities increased significantly. I believe global efforts against REMTs are currently too disjointed to be effective, and policymakers fundamentally misunderstand the REMT threat. Although many European countries have acknowledged and begun trying to counter this threat, much more work needs to be done to coordinate these efforts. Multiple countries identified a heightened terrorist threat to migrants, refugees, Muslims, and Jews in particular.
Notable Islamist attacks in Europe in 2019 include the May shrapnel bomb detonated by an ISIS supporter in Lyon, France, as well as a number of thwarted plots. Notable REMT attacks in Europe in 2019 include an October shooting targeting Muslims in Bayonne, France; the murder of German politician Walter Lübcke by a neo-Nazi; the Halle synagogue shooting during Yom Kippur; and the attempted mass shooting at a mosque in Oslo, as well as a number of thwarted plots.
Islamist extremists continue to be active in South America, particularly the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. Regional groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Shining Path, and the National Liberation Army (ELN) are also active, taking advantage of porous borders and partnering with transnational criminal organizations. While most countries in the Western hemisphere experienced no terrorist attacks during 2019, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela experienced attacked from regional terrorist groups. A final trend to watch is ISIS recruiting in the Caribbean, particularly Trinidad and Tobago, which has seen a greater than average number of its citizens move to Iraq and Syria to fight for ISIS.