Global Threat Assessment in 2011

In the spectrum of national security threats, transnational terrorism by Muslim groups is likely to remain the most profound threat in 2011. These politically motivated groups seeking to legitimize their thinking and actions by using, misusing and abusing Islam, will continue to dominate the global threat landscape.

Recent actions demonstrate that while homegrown and group terrorism are likely to threaten the West and the rest of the world, homegrown terrorism particularly will continue to present security forces with a formidable challenge. Domestic political considerations and the erosion of public support for conflicts following Western battle deaths and injuries in conflict zones will mount pressure on Western military forces both in combat and support roles to return home.

Global terrorism will be driven and sustained largely by the geopolitical disputes and developments in the Middle East and Asia. In the coming year, four regions of concern can be expected to generate the principal threats to the world: Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Levant-Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa, and the Maghreb-Sahel. Even with unrest in Xingjiang in China and in Southeast Asian hotspots such as southern Thailand, southern Philippines, and Indonesia; East Asia is projected to remain one of the most stable and secure regions of the world. Nonetheless, organized and low level crime will present a significant threat in this region of rapid economic growth. Transnational terrorists and criminals will continue to operate both in the real and the cyber worlds.

The Context

altWith the continuing deterioration of security in the existing conflict zones of Afghanistan and Iraq and the emerging conflict zones of Yemen and Somalia, violent groups will challenge the United States, allies, and friends to rethink plans for disengagement and total withdrawal. Insurgent battlefield and terrorist off-the-battlefield successes may politicize and radicalize segments of migrant and diaspora communities. Spillover of threats from conflict zones should prompt additional Western investment of resources to stabilize old and new conflict zones and spur greater law enforcement and intelligence coverage of radicalized pockets of migrant and diaspora communities.

Violent groups from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa are expected to continue to conduct most of their attacks in the global south; nonetheless, the West will continue to face a rising threat from organized groups and homegrown terrorism. While left-wing and ethnonationalist insurgents remain a consideration, international terrorism by politico-religious groups, especially by Muslim threat groups operating both in conflict zones and beyond, are predicted to continue to attract the majority of worldwide attention. Of the politico-religious groups, Asian groups are likely to pose a higher order threat compared to Middle Eastern groups. With Western governments declaring Pakistani, Saudi, Somali, and Yemeni populations with their borders as communities of interest, those diaspora and migrant communities living in the West will come under greater scrutiny.

Threat Characterization

In the coming year, the world will witness resurgence in the insurgent, terrorist, and extremist threat. Al-Qaeda, associated groups, and homegrown cells are expected to continue to present a substantial threat to global security. 10 years after their iconic September 11, 2001 attacks on America, sympathetic groups may try to carry out a spike in attacks and support future attacks. In addition to planning its own operations, al-Qaeda may try to mark the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks by instigating associated groups and inspire homegrown individuals and cells to plan, prepare, and execute attacks. In keeping with observed trends in 2010, homegrown attacks can be expected to surpass threats from organized groups based in conflict zones and seeking conducting attacks on Western soil, especially in the US and in Europe. With the threat of homegrown terrorism to the West eclipsing terrorism from structured groups, governmental review of homeland security polities strategies, and procedures will be particularly important for American, Australian, and European governments.

With over 10,000 active Pakistani and foreign fighters in tribal Pakistan, especially in North Waziristan, Pakistan is projected to remain the ground-zero of terrorism. Both South Asia and the Middle East will continue to remain an enduring battlefield. Furthermore, many of the conflict zones in these countries may be staging pads for international terrorist operations targeting the West. The developments on the ground in these conflict zones will set the tempo for attacks in the West. In addition to conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraqi, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen the traditional conflict zones of Algeria, Chechnya, Kashmir, Palestine, southern Philippines, and southern Thailand may suffer from significant incidents of violence.

To ensure continuity of support, terrorist support cells will continue to utilize propaganda disseminated using real and virtual communications platforms to indoctrinate their actual and potential followers. Muslim communities in Asia, Africa and the Middle East as well as migrant and diaspora Muslim communities in North America, Europe and Australia have been susceptible to such propaganda. Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Maldives and countries with large to significant Muslim populations such as India, Nigeria, and parts of Central Asia will witness a rise in extremist threat.

Regional Trends

altAsia, the Middle East and Africa will remain vulnerable to ideological extremism and its vicious by-product: terrorism. In Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan will particularly suffer from from the cycle of extremism and violence. In the Middle East, both the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant are likely to experience violence. With the shift in the center of gravity of operations of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) from Saudi Arabia to Yemen, the threat to the region and beyond will remain robust. The threat in the Maghreb, notably from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), may begin to radiate from North Africa to the Sahel to the south and Europe to the north. In Africa, developments in Somalia will continue affect the security of the horn of Africa and regional territorial and international waters. Without Western support, the security of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen will deteriorate. Building local intelligence and law enforcement capacity as well as support for good governance will help reduce future threat.

Transnational support for insurgency and terrorism will continue to grow. With the globalization of communications and increased interconnectivity, the global conflict diaspora will remain active. Affected migrant and diaspora networks will advocate, support, and participate in their homeland campaigns. In keeping with current trends, radicalized Somalis from North America, North Africans from Continental Europe and Pakistanis in Australia and the United Kingdom will travel to conflict zones for training and combat. A few are likely to try and return to their host communities to support or participate in attacks there.

Functional Trends

Ideologically and operationally, al-Qaeda is predicated to remain a key player. As terrorists are copycats, emerging and established groups can be expected to embrace al-Qaeda’s philosophy of global jihad through conducting spectacular attacks. The knowledge for mounting attacks in the aviation domain has now been shared by al-Qaeda not only with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but also with other associated groups. Although aviation is the most protected domain, the terrorists will continue to target both aircraft and airports.

Al-Qaeda will not only seek to shape the operational agenda of Muslim threat groups but influence the thinking of the Muslim masses. Exposed to the Qaeda brand of propaganda, indoctrinated groups and individuals will attempt to mount more kill-and-die attacks. With the cult of martyrdom gaining attention, suicide attacks can be expected to be favored by increasing numbers of groups. This may also drive an increase in fedayeen or “no surrender” attacks. As terrorists frequently attempt to copy from the template of successful attacks, a repetition of the Mumbai-style attack is likely.

As al-Qaeda has become one of the world's the most hunted terrorist groups, al-Qaeda can be expected to morph in form and agenda. Rather than conduct the bulk of jiahdist attacks, al-Qaeda will continue their transition into an ideological vanguard and training organization for likeminded groups. Having suffered gravely from combat and drone attacks, al-Qaeda is likely continue to outsource operations to groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Tareek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) and al-Shabab al-Mujahideen. With mounting pressure on, and attrition of al-Qaeda rank and file, other players infected with its ideology and methodology may step into its position and seek to present a comparable threat. Over time, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Tareek-e-Taliban Pakistan may emerge as a greater threat to international security, especially to that of the West.

Threat Assessment


Ten years following the tragic attacks of 9/11, the global insurgent, terrorist, and extremist threat has escalated. The investment in predominantly lethal and kinetic operations by the West - especially American invasion of Iraq - has led to a loss of Muslim public participation and reluctance of Muslim governments to counter the threat posted by insurgent groups to the West. The Western-led United States-centric global agenda has not been successful in decapitating the cadre of insurgent and terrorist leadership, dismantling their infrastructure, disabling support and recruitment networks, and disrupting their operations. In the coming decade, the West, especially the United States, will need to rethink and re-strategize its approach to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency.

While operational counterterrorism should remain an important pillar of government counter-terrorism policy, governments should seek to build partnerships with community leaders and organizations to prevent terrorism through community engagement, detect attacks through community and sources, and rehabilitate those arrested through community participation.

Control Strategies

Ten years after al-Qaeda attacked America’s most iconic landmark, the limitations of using military force to end extremism and terrorism is evident. While lethal and kinetic operations are essential to fight insurgency and other forms of political violence, the excessive reliance on firepower, extraordinarily high collateral damage to property and people, and the failure to provide basic needs have protracted insurgencies and terrorist campaigns.

The strategies to control, contain, and end insurgencies should not only consist of implementing military and security measures. The counterterrorism and counterinsurgency toolkit box should be comprehensive, strategic in orientation and centered on both the population and the enemy. While high-grade, high-quality intelligence determines operational success on the ground, political will is the most essential ingredient to ending a fight. To win over the marginalized and the disaffected, political establishment and militaries should work with a range of local and international actors such as military, law enforcement, the religious establishment, education ministries, governmental and NGO organizations entrusted with socio-economic development, the banking and financial industry, and the mass media. As insurgent and terrorists seek to exploit new media technologies to disseminate propaganda, governments today need an effective media strategy to guide vulnerable territorial, migrant, and diaspora populations away from extremism as well as to retain and generate the support of NGOs and the international community.


A profound understanding of the political dimensions of the conflict, bases of support, leadership persona, and ideologies are necessary. At the heart of many insurgencies are geopolitical and strategic disputes. In the same way that the Palestinian cause has an indelible imprint on the psyche of Muslim groups worldwide, protracted disputes over Kashmir, Chechnya and others have a strong regional impact. Without trying to resolve the fundamental geopolitical dispute between India and Pakistan, President Hamid Karzai’s attempts to build peace with the Taliban operating out of Pakistan may fail. Considering the historical friendship and ideological affinity between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the Taliban is unlikely to dispense with al-Qaeda, its ally over the years.

Considering the seriousness of the threat from terrorism to the West, especially the brand of terrorists spearheaded by al-Qaeda, it is paramount for the United States to be cautious in its relations with Iran. Bordering Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iran has detained key al-Qaeda leaders and their families. In retaliation to Western pressure on Iran, Tehran released both important leaders and family members of al-Qaeda. Similarly, Iran supports not only Shia threat groups in Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen but also the Taliban and other likeminded Sunni groups. Iran has continued their support for opposition groups, including groups that resort to terrorism. To stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan, the West may have no option but to work with Iran.

altThe world is ideologically and politically divided into two camps when it comes to fighting insurgency and terrorism. Increasingly, non-Western nations see terrorism and extremism as a Western problem and a creation of the West. Reporting by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and International Crisis Group has helped to consolidate this point of view. As Western-funded NGOs, their reporting of violations in conflict zones where Western forces participate, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, versus conflicts in Xingjiang, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka and Southeastern Turkey carries the tinge of bias. Furthermore, the non-Western world increasingly sees Western countries, especially the United States and Britain, as using human rights as a political tool.

Every conflict zone has produced civilian deaths and injuries. Insurgent and terrorist groups use civilian deaths and injuries – including those killed deliberately and accidentally-- for propaganda. While government forces should minimize civilian losses, the stark reality is that no counterinsurgency and counterterrorist campaign can be successfully fought without civilian fatalities and casualties. First, insurgents and terrorists operate amidst civilian settlements and second, they use human shields. A review of the laws of war is essential both to safeguard government and foreign forces to accomplish their missions as well as to protect the ordinary civilian populations from unnecessary losses and suffering.

The Future

As the centre of global economic power shifts from the West to the East, the geography of terrorism may shift, too. Terrorism today is not only a threat to the West but also to the East. In addition to the United States, all the other major powers face a threat from terrorism. Although India, Russia, and China are more resilient in the face of political violence than the West, these major powers still continue to suffer from terrorism. Terrorism presents a global threat, but there is no true global strategy and response to terrorism. The US is unwilling to cooperate with China, Russia, and, until recently, with India.  The need for a comprehensive strategy to fight the contemporary wave of global terrorism and extremism unleashed by the al-Qaeda and its family is paramount.

Conflict zones are the crucibles where threat groups emerge, develop and sustain. Both for peacekeeping and war fighting, conflict zones need more civil and military personnel on the ground. As the memory of 9-11 recedes, western public opinion is shifting against the deployment of its forces in conflict zones. As the political and public will for western forces to remain in conflict zones diminish, the United Nations will need to build wider support to end the suffering in conflict zones. With the recession, budget cuts and decline of military power in Europe and the growing Western reluctance to contribute troops, the world body may be compelled to canvass wider participation of nations to stabilize intractable armed conflicts.


With the rise of China and India, the United Nations should rely on these countries to provide manpower to stabilize conflict zones. That will also give a greater voice and participation to non-Western nations to find solutions to manage, reduce, and end violence. Furthermore, international organizations and governments should carefully study the implications of intervention and invasion. For instance, following the US invasion of Iraq, disbanding both the military and the civil service did not help reduce the threat but contributed appreciably to an increased threat of global terrorism. Likewise, deploying a force drawn from the Muslim World to stabilize Somalia would have been prudent. Rather than deploying a largely Christian Ethiopian army, utilizing a Muslim force would have given the Muslim public and their governments a role in the operation and reconstruction.

Today, a civilian corps that can deliver services to the ordinary people is as important as military forces to keep the threats in check. In parallel with building military and law enforcement capabilities and capacities to stabilize conflict zones, building local, regional, and international institutions to prevent the formation of threat groups is essential. By engaging the marginalized and addressing legitimate grievances and genuine aspirations of ethnic and religious communities, the potential for conflict can be reduced. As most international assistance is still geared towards ending conflict by the application of force, there should be more thinking on educating and training leaders worldwide in political negotiations and conflict management.


altWith the globalization of communications, insurgent, terrorist, and extremist groups will compete with governments to influence their territorial as well diaspora and migrant communities. By politicizing, radicalizing and mobilizing their communities both in the real and cyber worlds, these threat groups will seek those communities’ advocacy, support, and participation in the threat groups’ political, diplomatic and militant campaigns. Furthermore, through front, cover, and sympathetic groups, these cunning and deceptive threat groups will engage with human rights, humanitarian, and other charitable organizations to assist their causes and agendas. Although insurgents and terrorists are the biggest human rights violators, at the UN Commission on Human Rights, insurgent and terrorist groups masquerading as human rights groups have appeared as representatives. The UN should review its penetration by insurgent and terrorist fronts and the use of UN platforms for propaganda by these groups.

As the threat spreads to population centers, governments working with their partners in civil society and in the community will need to educate the general population. Although intelligence-led counterinsurgency and counterterrorist operations are essential, and greater investment is needed in community engagement. The challenge is to preventively immunize and reactively de-radicalize communities vulnerable to the extremist narrative. This will mean a transformation of the ground forces focusing on force protection and kicking doors to winning the hearts and the minds of affected communities. Currently, law enforcement agencies are considered a tactically trained blue collar force. It must become a strategically trained partner capable of reaching out, engaging, and befriending the potential opponent and future adversary.

[Rohan Gunaratna is Head, International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research and Political Violence and Professor of Security Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.]