In 2014, we saw the threat of al Qaeda continue to spread via affiliate groups in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. We also witnessed the unexpected resurgence of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. According to global risk firm Verisk Maplecroft, terrorism-related deaths worldwide increased by almost 25% between Nov 1, 2013, and Oct 31, 2014. What's in store for 2015? Here's what we can expect of Islamist terrorism in the coming year:
1) A Major Attack By An Islamist Terrorist Group Is Unlikely On Western Soil. The core organization of al Qaeda may still be a threat, but has been weakened such that it won't be a significant danger to the West. But what about ISIS? It's perhaps too soon to say if ISIS' global aspirations can be realized. Yes, it has publicized its ambitious five-year plan to expand beyond the Middle East into Europe (as well as deeper into South Asia and Africa). But this plan won't have an opportunity to materialize until ISIS' role in Syria and Iraq is resolved, which won't happen in the coming year. So, a major attack by al Qaeda or ISIS in 2015 on Western soil seems unlikely.
2) Lone Wolf Terrorist Attacks on Western Soil Will Increase. There will be more individuals who are inspired in some way by al Qaeda or ISIS to carry out small-scale attacks with maximum publicity. We just saw this happen on Dec. 15 with the gunman taking hostages in a Lindt café in Sydney, Australia, and on Oct. 22 with the Parliament shootings in Ottawa, Canada. This will necessitate closer monitoring of terrorist-linked social media and websites that may inspire such attacks. But it also reminds us that it is impossible to monitor everyone who might have access to such information, or to determine if such exposure might trigger some kind terrorist act. This will be the most significant terrorist threat for countries in the EU and North America to deal with - and the most difficult to prevent.
3) Al Qaeda Affiliates Will Continue to Thrive in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, expanding their power base, targeting Western interests and recruiting more members. Recent examples include the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria that has taken control of the northern province of Idlib, and in Yemen where it killed an American hostage after a failed US rescue operation. These al Qaeda affiliates will also continue to recruit more members among the disenfranchised. As expected, ISIS' members will multiply too, recruiting more men, women and teenagers from places like Turkey, Indonesia, the US and beyond, just as its network of affiliates in 11 countries will continue to grow.
4) Battle Between Islamist Extremists: ISIS vs Al Qaeda? They are not formerly aligned. In fact, al Qaeda has publicly said ISIS is too extreme; and al Qaeda affiliates like the Nusra Front have clashed with ISIS on the Syria-Lebanon border. Expect more tensions to flare up between the two groups. Also, ISIS is becoming the new brand of global terrorism, in some ways making al Qaeda look out-dated. With its distinct strategies (e.g. widely distributed videos of beheadings, aggressive social media, a five year expansion plan, its own currency), we all know what to expect of ISIS and its vision. This could lead to the following:
a) We may see al Qaeda step up its game, perhaps even emulating ISIS' approach with more strategic use of social media, funding strategies (e.g. ISIS generates $1 million a day through oil sales in the black market, according to one estimate), etc. Or...
b) If al Qaeda doesn't change its ways, perhaps more recruits will defect to ISIS as has already begun. Or...
c) al Qaeda may experience its own internal power struggle, with a new leader emerging to counter Ayman al-Zawahiri's vision and better compete with ISIS' brand.
5) Battle Between Religious Extremists: Islamists vs Buddhists? Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka and Myanmar have publicly formed a global anti-Islamist pact. It's still unclear how this global pact will play out, but Islamist extremists like the Pakistani Taliban have publicly vowed jihad against Buddhist monks in Myanmar. Also, let's not forget ISIS' five year plan to form an Islamic Caliphate does include Sri Lanka, but not Myanmar. It may not happen in 2015, but the arrival of the Pakistani Taliban in Myanmar and ISIS in Sri Lanka to battle Buddhist extremists is not inconceivable at some point in the future.