Terrorism: A Review of the Current Threat Landscape

The featured conference picture. Photo credit: Georgetown University.

In late January, 2020, scholars and practitioners gathered at Georgetown University for a conference on terrorism that boasted keynotes from former US and UK intelligence service directors, expert panels, and groundbreaking research. Entitled “Terrorism: A Review of the Current Threat Landscape,” the conference spanned January 23-24 and marked the fourth joint event between the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at Georgetown and the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV) at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. This transatlantic collaboration, made possible by the Kalaris Intelligence Studies Fund, traversed the threat environment, assessed counterterrorism (CT) responses, and explored leadership and technology. The conference benefited greatly from the collective expertise of former MI5 and NCTC directors, Jonathan Evans and Nick Rasmussen, Lords Carlile and Campbell, and leading scholars. By illuminating new threats alongside existing challenges and showcasing cutting-edge research, the conference advanced understanding and the ability of those upholding order and security. 

–Chris Morris, Associate Editor for Terrorism and CT

Day One of the Georgetown-St Andrews Terrorism Conference, January 23, 2020

Opening the conference, Professor Bruce Hoffman, former CSS Director, and Dr. Tim Wilson, CSTPV Director, emphasized the close relationship between Georgetown and St Andrews. Having co-founded the CSTPV with the late Paul Wilkinson in 1994, Professor Hoffman celebrated the CSTPV’s 25 years of research and teaching. Similarly, Dr. Wilson affirmed the spirit of transatlantic collaboration and the unique strengths of each institution. Following these remarks, the day’s first panel convened. 

Thursday’s first panel, “Technology and Terrorism,” featured presentations by Dr. Peter Lehr (St Andrews) and Dr. Ben Buchanan (Georgetown), moderated by Lord Menzies Campbell. Buchanan explored the implications of artificial intelligence (AI) for counterterrorism. For social media and extremist content, Buchanan argued AI is overhyped given context recognition limits. However, for intelligence, he argued AI is most promising for structured data exploitation, e.g. certain types of signals intelligence (SIGINT). Given this expansion of AI, ethical and bureaucratic decisions will need to be made. Accordingly, Dr. Lehr emphasized that technology shapes society and warned that AI can generate predictive policing and involuntary disclosure, e.g. facial recognition. Under such creeping securitization, Lehr cautioned that AI may erode liberal democratic rights and benefit autocracies more. With these opportunities and pitfalls of AI illuminated, the next panel transitioned to the threat environment.

The second panel, “Salafi-Jihadi Threats,” featured two CSS faculty and examined the Islamist threat, definitional challenges, and strategy implications, moderated by Dr. Richard English (Queen’s and former CSTPV Director). Affirming an overall deterioration, Dr. Mary Habeck warned of growing Salafist threats driven by governance and Global Coalition challenges. Preventing an effective response, argued Habeck, is an imprecise definition of the problem that conflates groups and terrorists with insurgents. Similarly, Ms. Amy Sturm argued that a precise definition of the threat requires disaggregation and measurement of terrorist capability and intent. Even when measuring terrorist capability based on organizational and operational capacity, Sturm echoed an increasing Salafi-Jihadist threat. Following the panel, these trends were explored from an intelligence perspective by the keynote speaker, Lord Jonathan Evans.

Keynote Address: Lord Jonathan Evans, former Director General of MI5 

Delivering Thursday’s keynote address, Lord Jonathan Evans, Director General of the UK Security Service (2007-2013), surveyed terrorist threats and warned of the growing trend of public figure intimidation. Lord Evans reiterated that Islamist terrorism has threatened the UK for over 20 years and remains a significant challenge, while the growing far-right’s violence generally does not cross the threshold into terrorism and presents more of a public order problem. In response to these and other threats, Lord Evans observed a blurring of national security and law enforcement with increasing crossover between the two. He also emphasized the growing trend of threats to public officials as a new form of political violence that erodes democracies. For example, he cited the murder of MP Jo Cox in 2016 by a far-right extremist and the 2017 National Action plot against MP Rosie Cooper. Lord Evans traced the motivation for these attacks beyond Brexit to “an identity-based politics” and diffuse extremism enabled by social media. In closing, Lord Evans called on scholars to increase their research on public figure threats since it chills political participation and subverts democracy. 

The final panel on Thursday, “Iran & Hezbollah,” included Dr. Ariane Tabatabai (RAND) and Ms. Hanin Ghaddar (Washington Institute), moderated by Professor Daniel Byman (Georgetown). On Hezbollah’s challenges, Ms. Ghaddar affirmed that its fighting forces have declined, and it faces increased financial strain. Combined with Qasem Soleimani’s targeted killing and the loss of elite commanders, Hezbollah’s efficacy has decreased despite some regional gains. Addressing Iran’s terrorist support, Dr. Tabatabai outlined that Iran sponsors proxies to increase regional influence, generate strategic depth, and compensate for conventional asymmetries. If the regime were to collapse, Dr. Tabatabai noted that democracy is possible, but other outcomes, like civil war or regime replacement, are also possibilities.

Day Two of the Georgetown-St Andrews Terrorism Conference, January 24, 2020

The conference reconvened on Friday, January 24, with a panel on far-right extremism that explored its history, characteristics, and associated “Incel” (Involuntary Celibate) threat. Dr. Tim Wilson (St Andrews) began by comparing the far-right’s expansion and mainstreaming to its pre-World War II peak. However, he outlined today’s far-right is distinct and defined by narcissism, anarchism, and performative violence rather than Nazism and state-building. Elaborating the far-right’s attributes, Dr. Donald Holbrook (Home Office OSCT consultant) argued it is not a cohesive movement. Rather, “far-right” is an umbrella term that subsumes diverse groups, from neo-Nazis to Identitarians, which complicates response resourcing. Lastly, Professor Bruce Hoffman presented his research, conducted with Jacob Ware, on the threat from “Incels” who share far-right grievances and seek to subjugate women. While Incel violence is infrequent, Hoffman argued they are highly lethal and resilient; thus, they are a serious domestic terrorism threat.

Shifting from threats to responses, the second panel on “Legal and Policy issues” featured Lord Alex Carlile, Independent Reviewer of UK terrorism legislation, and Dr. Laura Donohue, Georgetown Law, moderated by Lord Campbell. Based on a wealth of experience, Lord Carlile asserted that terrorism legislation needs to be proactive and broad enough to anticipate problems without infringing on rights. Scholars can help shape such legislation, but they should speak truth to power in the development of laws that are “practicable, proportional, and applicable.” Taking up the challenge of terrorists’ use of social media, Dr. Donohue asserted that social media allows for terrorism’s warped theater to play out in real-time. In responding to this challenge, Dr. Donohue warned that the First Amendment has not kept pace with technology and presents dilemmas for practitioners in the battle over truth online.

Keynote Address: Nick Rasmussen, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center

Nick Rasmussen, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (2014-2017), provided powerful insight into the terrorist landscape, emerging threats, and the CT enterprise in his keynote address. Rasmussen warned that domestic terrorism is his top concern given the proliferation of violent identity-based and anti-government extremist groups. Alongside domestic terrorism, the Salafi-Jihadist threat remains, cautioned Rasmussen, with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda proving resilient and supported by regional conflict. Turning to the CT enterprise, Rasmussen warned that competing threats force resource decisions that require hard choices and balancing risk. Amidst this context, Rasmussen praised NCTC’s integration and human capital but expressed concern with long-term talent retention. Going forward, Rasmussen proposed greater public-private career flexibility and clearer, more realistic CT strategies.     

Addressing counterterrorism strategy and efficacy, Friday’s third panel featured presentations by Dr. Daniel Byman (Georgetown) and Dr. Richard English (Queen’s), moderated by Dr. Tim Wilson (St Andrews). Highlighting counterterrorism successes, Dr. Byman argued that drone operations have degraded terrorist leadership and deterred meetings. Moreover, while social media aids terrorist communication, it is a counterintelligence weakness that allows for link analysis. Contextualizing these successes, Dr. English emphasized the duality of terrorism and CT as a “bloodstained game of chess.” Such interplay of terrorists and security services can occur at multiple levels, from the tactical to the strategic, as English elaborates in Does Terrorism Work? A History. Ultimately, Dr. English stressed the importance of context where terrorism reflects wider socio-political tensions that require understanding for effective response.

Concluding the conference, the final panel presented innovative research from the growing field of terrorist leadership. The panel featured Dr. Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault (Georgetown) and Dr. Tricia Bacon (American) with discussion by Ms. Gina Bennett (CIA Senior Analytic Service). Moving beyond personality-driven explanations, Dr. Arsenault and Dr. Bacon presented a model of terrorist leadership inspired by personal-situational leadership theory. Based on the interaction of management style and group institutionalization, four ideal types of leaders are possible: Administrator, Advisor, Figurehead, and Dictator. Contextualizing the model, Ms. Bennett recounted her pursuit of Osama bin Laden and affirmed leadership’s importance and the power of influence. In particular, Ms. Bennett stressed the centrality of identity factors in driving a new wave of terrorism amidst globalization. By understanding such identity and leadership dynamics, the panel asserted more effective interventions can be designed to counter the threat and uphold security.

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