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Terror threats in 2021: No time for complacency | Analyst Picks| RiskMap 2021

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Terror threats in 2021: No time for complacency 

Joseph Smith | Senior Analyst

Terrorism is an evolving threat and will warrant close monitoring in 2021. It has fallen down the list of priority risks for companies in recent years. Since Islamic State (IS) was at its height, total terrorist attacks numbers globally have been on the slide. Extremist groups no longer hold and administer the amount of territory they once controlled across the Middle East.  

However, the increasing permanence of state fragmentation in some countries is fuelling aggressive competition for power. Extremist groups of various stripes are ascendant in the Sahel and parts of sub-Saharan Africa such as Mozambique. Across some conflict zones, pressure from counter-terrorism operations have widened the range of targets that militants perceive as legitimate. In others, foreign troop drawdowns will degrade the capabilities of local security forces to effectively respond to the threat. Insurgencies remain entrenched in pockets of the Americas and Asia Pacific.  

Islamist extremist ideologies continue to circulate in Europe and North America. Locking up adherents has not eliminated the threat, as illustrated by attacks in Europe in recent months, some of which have involved released inmates.  

Meanwhile, right-wing extremism is now the fastest growing terrorist threat in Europe and North America, putting governments, left-leaning activists and racial or religious minorities in the crosshairs. Although most attackers act alone, they are typically plugged into an online community with international links. Polarised politics in countries including the US have raised the prospects of targeted political violence on the right and left. 

COVID-19 has exacerbated many of the existing political, religious and socioeconomic drivers of terrorist violence across regions. Radicalisation is likely to have increased: people are spending more time online in relative isolation. The pandemic and the economic downturn have also created fertile terrain for extremist narratives to thrive. Islamist extremists have portrayed it as a punishment from god against non-believers. For right-wing extremists, the crisis continues to exacerbate xenophobia and turbocharge anti-government sentiment. The potential for single-issue radicalisation has also increased with the flood of mis- and disinformation about the virus fuelling new and existing conspiracy theories. Some of these debunked theories have dovetailed with extremist narratives; others cut across ideological lines. Their interpretation by individual radicalised followers will add a layer of unpredictability to future attacks that further complicates risk management. 

All the while, deteriorating fiscal outlooks will place pressure on states’ counter-terrorism and law enforcement capabilities in 2021 and beyond. Now is not the time to forget about the terrorist threat. 

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