The Future of the Violent Extremist Threat

By: CSIS Commission on Countering Violent Extremism as part of the Turning Point — A New Comprehensive Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism report.

In developing its recommendations, the Commission considered how extremist ideologies are manifesting today and what the landscape may look like for the next 10 years. This forecasting is based on interviews with former extremists, researchers, youth, policymakers, and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) practitioners across the United States, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, and expertise drawn from commissioners themselves.


The Commission posits that the future of terrorism is likely to be marked by growing competition among terrorist networks; more frequent but less complex attacks; and a wider array of recruits. The terrorist threat is likely to morph in ways yet unimagined. CVE efforts must therefore anticipate a future that features new technologies, infrastructure, and innovation used by us as well as by violent extremists.


The majority of those interviewed expect a resurgence of al Qaeda and its affiliates. Experts point out that once ISIS is defeated militarily, those drawn to its ideology will seek a new home, which will likely be al Qaeda. As one interviewee stated, “al Qaeda is playing the long game. ISIS has only released seven videos during this past Ramadan, where al Qaeda has released 300 videos.” Several people noted that al Nusra Front (which recently changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) stands to gain significantly as ISIS is degraded. According to interviewees, al Nusra Front has been steadily planting roots and gaining support throughout Syria, offering a more moderate form of governance than ISIS.


Interviewees predicted that the military campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq and improved law enforcement and intelligence efforts aimed at foreign fighters will cause them to increasingly focus on domestic attacks. As such, homegrown extremists will become a bigger threat. Terrorist groups are also likely to continue the evolution toward attacks plotted and executed by small groups or individuals, against soft targets, using less sophisticated and easy-to-acquire weapons. Such attacks do not require extensive training, planning, or coordination, making them harder to detect, but no less lethal.


Violent extremists’ use of social media is also predicted to evolve. According to interviewees, to escape surveillance and account suspensions, terrorists are moving onto private, encrypted platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram and have experimented with smaller social media platforms including Friendica, Diaspora, KIK, WICKR, and the Russian version of Facebook, VKontakte. However, industry experts expect that Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube will remain important because they offer unrivaled outreach opportunities.


Experts suggest that violent extremist groups will likely diversify their recruitment pool, reaching out increasingly to women and older and younger generations. According to a Nigerian CVE practitioner, “they will try to recruit women and older men, because security agencies are currently focusing much more attention on young people.” Terrorists have already started recruiting children in their preteens — a trend that is likely to accelerate. Experts also predict that the presence of women in high-profile roles as supporters, mobilizers, and members of terrorist groups will continue to be a key feature of the future landscape. Finally, interviewees emphasized that converts are highly susceptible to radicalization, as the conversion process dramatically chang — es one’s life and dismantles existing social networks and relationships, allowing violent extremists to manipulate them into believing warped interpretations of Islam.

Read the full report here.